Painter in Vergennes makes art in a meditative state

VERGENNES — Pacing the floor in paint-speckled slippers, Peter Fried leads a tour of his small gallery and studio. The narrow space, previously used as a shoe store, had high ceilings with a wide glass window facing Main Street in downtown Vergennes.
The scene in Fried’s space is that of creative activity just paused. Two pieces of crusty bread smeared with peanut butter sit next to partially completed drawings, a pair of easels stand idle at opposing ends of the room and all around him, the white walls are covered with samples of his work.
The son of Scottish and Czech parents, Fried speaks with a sleight brogue while he describes his artistic subjects. Sometimes he paints while observing a scene and sometimes he paints after photographing it.
“It’s almost like something’s looking for me,” he says. “I just go out and I’m struck by the fact that I seem to have an affinity for certain subject matter.”
Fried’s studies of the Vermont landscape are not typical bucolic landscapes of hills and farms. Working from photographs and painting on-site, a sampling of paintings from his earlier work in Chittenden County includes sights such as rail yards, twisted metal around Superfund sites, gas stations and exit signs on Interstate 89.
Fried, who is 55, says much of his work focuses on the relationship between the manmade and natural, exploring how the hard, sharp angles of bridges and signs interact with more flowing natural shapes of trees, rocks and streams.
“There’s also an interest in what we consider ugly and what we consider pleasing and beautiful,” he says. “In a way, the paintings, photographs and drawings are an act of inquiry in asking, ‘Is a Dumpster really ugly?’”
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and raised in Scotland, Fried spent five years studying art at Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London. Between the ages of 26 and 39, Fried took a break from art, and in 1995 he came to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to study Buddhism at the Karme Choling Meditation Center in Barnet. He met his wife, Liesje Smith, while at a Buddhist retreat in Colorado, and the two moved to Burlington.
After he returned to painting and drawing at the encouragement of a teacher, Fried says he noticed a change in his technique.
“What happens now is I’m able to identify different feelings that arise as I’m making art as a meditative state and relate to it as such,” he says. “There’s a sense of being mindful and present and that can come through formal meditation or the act of creativity.”
For his representational paintings of places and landscapes around Vermont, Fried says he draws his influence from Gustave Courbet, Joseph Turner, John Constable and painters from the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century American art movement embodied by landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Asher Durand whose artistic vision was influenced by Romanticism. Most of Fried’s paintings are oil on canvas, including a few that use encaustic techniques, which mix beeswax with oil paint to create a textured surface.
In his photography, he draws from the work of William Eggleston, an American photographer whose work is characterized by its ordinary subject matter, usually in the South.
Fried also produces more abstract works, using pen, ruler and paper to create dense grids that he accents with gouache. Fried says this allows him to explore the relationship between chaos and order, what he describes as “grid and non-grid.”
“If I’m curious about anything it becomes interesting,” Fried says. “One of the things I’ve learned is not to go out and find something interesting to paint. Paint something and it will become interesting.”
Fried and Smith moved to Vergennes in 2013. Fried moved into his Main Street location in Vergennes six weeks ago and plans to use the space as both a studio to work in and a gallery to display and sell his art. The gallery at 245 Main St., called Peter Fried Art, has its official opening this Friday, May 8, with an open house from 6-9 p.m.
While much of his earlier work includes subjects in Chittenden County, Fried is busy exploring Addison County for possible subjects for future pieces.
“I’m casing the joint,” he says.
The sweeping views and flanking mountains to the east and west of the Champlain Valley present him with a different environment that he says will alter his art. Painting the areas around Ferrisburgh, Addison and Panton will be much different than his time in the Northeast Kingdom.
“Addison County is one a few places in Vermont that has an epic kind of feeling to its landscape,” he says. “Whereas when I was living in the Northeast Kingdom it was like living inside a cabbage.”
In addition to selling enough art to be able to continue his craft, Fried also hopes that his space will become a place where people can come for inspiration.
“I see creativity as the opposite of war and I don’t think that creativity needs to be in the exclusive reserve of artists,” he says. “I think you can be creative in the way you relate to your spouse or your garden. The broader application for this space is for people to catch a wind of how they can enrich their lives in simple, practical ways.” 
PETER FRIED TALKS about some of his artwork hanging in the gallery and studio space he moved into in downtown Vergennes a few weeks ago. Fried creates both representational and abstract paintings.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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