Autumn Field by William Hays

"Autumn Field"
(38"x28"), oil on canvas

Mary Bourne by William Hays

"Mary Bourne"
(38"x28"), oil on canvas

Illumination by William Hays

(12"x9"), 7-color linoleum
block print

Brattleboro Moon by William Hays

"Brattleboro Moon"
(7"x5"), simple B&W linoleum block print

20 Years of Best-Laid Plans at The Artist's Loft

William Hays left college thirty years ago with a degree in planning. Since then, not a single thing has gone according to plan -- but everything has worked out perfectly.

"We did not move here to stay," said Hays, while discussing the 20th anniversary of his studio and gallery, The Artist's Loft. But after his wife had finished her degree, "we found ourselves here, having spent all the money that we had."

View from the Artist's Loft

"Brattleboro View"
(9"x12"), 8-color linoleum block print

Jobs being scarce, Hays's escape plan evolved: he started to sell paintings.

"Once we had our heads above water," he recalls, "we sat down with a pad of paper and wrote down the things we were looking for in the town we wanted to live in." It was then that the couple finally came to terms with the truth. "We were already living in the middle of it."

Literally: their Main Street loft is smack in the center of downtown, with a view of Wantastiquet and the Connecticut River out the picture window.

But what kept them here? Something even more important than the view.

"We are marking this anniversary to say thank you to the community and to fellow artists," Hays explained. He said the town is unusual in many ways. "You don't have a lot of clique-ishness or back-biting," he said. "People genuinely appreciate other's success. They are generous, and they love each other."

That means a lot -- especially when you are looking for more than kind words or even commissions. "There are a lot of people here who are serious artists," said Hays, who noted that he enjoys the "heartfelt compliments" from art lovers but also likes to balance them out with objective critiques from other artists.

Hays has been lucky enough to develop a market for his work, but he has learned the hard way that thinking too much about who is going to buy your paintings is "the wrong motivation to do artwork." Not ethically wrong, just ... not in harmony. Perhaps that is why major changes in medium and style punctuate his artistic history.

After he gave up being a planner, Hays took a second degree in sculpture, developing a personal symbology expressed through large-scale, three-dimensional abstraction. These works are "absolutely unrecognizable" to anyone familiar with the variety of oils and prints at The Artist's Loft.

Church's Sunset by William Hays

"Church's Sunset"
(39"x49"), oil on canvas

He next worked in watercolor, painting landscapes "as recreation." Around 1992, though, he realized "I had done everything I was going to do" in that medium, and switched to oils.

He has never looked back -- "Just about every painting is a learning experience," he says -- but he has made aesthetic discoveries along the way, such as his work in portraiture.

Painting with too much focus on buyers, said Hays, eventually caught up with him, causing "a creative crisis." The crisis came to a close during a trip to Amsterdam, where Hays describes seeing "room after room of Rembrandts," formal portraits complete with black cloaks and lace collars. But one of these rooms was different.

Hays walked in and saw an arresting painting of an elderly woman, "And I looked at her, and I thought, I know who that woman was," he said. "That was really special." Hays examined the portrait closely and thought to himself, "I can do that."

By practicing on his friends, Hays developed a style that brings out "the person's personality in the painting." But it's not always easy. "I have two ways of describing the experience of doing portraiture," he said. The first is, "It's magic, it flows from me, and I don't know where it comes from." The other? "Torture."

Sometimes both in one painting -- as with his portrait of a local businesswoman, which became "almost grotesque" before he put it away for a few days, along with all the preliminary photographs and sketches that went with it. He later salvaged it by re-painting her from memory, and considers it a major success. "It's not photographic," he said. "But it's her."

The Secret Place by William Hays

"The Secret Place" (11"x17"), 13-color linoleum block print

While Hays still works in oil, doing both landscapes and portraits, he continues to stretch in new directions. Experiments with mini-run prints began four years ago and have only gotten more elaborate.

Hays originally began the prints in order to offer "works of art affordable to the average person." They were very low-tech and time-intensive at first: he used cheap carving tools and linoleum plates, and "pressed" them by rubbing the paper for hours with the back of a spoon.

But after "the first 600 or 700 times," he said, "I could hardly lift my arms." It was time to invest in a small etching press. Hays opted for a book press, which allowed for more consistent results as well as slightly larger runs -- although he still prints a maximum of only 48 prints per edition. Hays reports a "degree of tedium" that is not part of painting, but "when they're done, I really like them." In fact, he said, "If I didn't have the rest of my life that I have to deal with, I'd be printing all the time."

Until moving on to the next discovery, of course.

In addition to pressing ever onward with his own work, and running the town's oldest art gallery as well as the world's smallest B&B (featured in Yankee Magazine's Best of New England this year), Hays has also helped develop the vibrant artistic community in the area. He worked with his wife, Patricia Long, and others in 1992 to create the first few Gallery Walks -- only to find that the time was not quite ripe. Later, in 1995, he helped start it up again.

"Gallery Walk became something way beyond what I envisioned," he said. The number of venues has exceeded anyone's wildest dreams -- but it's not just the stats. "I love the music, the theater. The restaurants are full, there are people out on the street; there is a really, really nice air to this place."

Best of all, he said, is that Gallery Walk is not some kind of show put on for tourists: "Gallery Walk features what is already here. This is a genuine place."

Even if you don't plan to stay.

Copyright 2010, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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