Hannah Sessions’ farm paintings are a local favorite

MIDDLEBURY — Hannah Sessions’ Blue Ledge Farm cheese is a staple of the local, artisanal food of Addison County. As an artist, she is a keystone of Edgewater Gallery. Since Edgewater opened in 2009 her intimate, animated portrayals of the goats, chickens, cows and pigs she works with every day, as well as the fresh, illumined landscapes of the fields they roam, have made her a favorite for visitors, and staff as well.
As part of Edgewater’s “7 Artists for Our 7th Birthday” show (on view now at Edgewater Gallery at the Falls), Sessions has submitted six new works, ranging from 8- by 10-inches to 12- by 16-inches, and priced from $400 to $720. “For this small works show,” Sessions said, “I went back to chickens primarily. Chickens alone, and in groups, always with that rich late-afternoon light casting shadows.”
These delightful new works are not all that she has been up to recently, and in a recent email interview Sessions reflected on the interconnectedness of her different roles in life, what first drew her to painting, and what brings her back to the canvas every time. 
What do you still find that is new in painting? How do you find your style has changed?
The challenge for me as a painter is this: how to convey an idea with the least number of paint strokes so that the viewer fills in the rest. This leads to a conversation between artist and viewer, and allows the piece to change and have a life of its own. As an artist, I am not particularly interested recording something exactly as I see it- although I totally respect and admire the craftsmanship and skill of those who do paint this way. I like surprises, spontaneity, in my work. I go into a painting with an idea of what I would like to say, but often times things happen in the process that I go with. There are certain rules to painting that work, but within that framework I try to be loose, confident and have fun. With time comes confidence, so I see my technique getting looser and me becoming more confident with each brushstroke as more time goes by.
In the past you’ve described how farming has influenced your painting. Do you ever find that the opposite is true?
These two parts of my life are so intrinsically linked it is hard to separate the two. Certainly, my connection with my animals and this landscape comes through in my paintings. I find that my artistic eye also influences my farm decisions. For example, I choose my breed of laying hens based on color more than production, and color is a factor every time I select a new breeding buck on the farm because chances are good that they will produce offspring of their color. White and black goats are my favorite to paint, and it’s no coincidence that those have been the colors of our most recent bucks.
Can you describe what balancing family, farming and cheesemaking, and working in the studio is like for you?
It is fairly relentless and there is very little “down” time, but some of us operate the best this way. David Mallet says in his song “The Artist in Me”:
“Why am I amazed at the wonder of it all
Guess it’s just the artist in me..
Why am I my best when I’m right down to a crawl
I guess it’s just the artist in me”
Certain times of the year I don’t paint at all (February through September) because the needs of the farm are too great and I am unable to create the physical or mental space for it. This can be frustrating, but when I do get in the studio in the fall I am very productive and it feels very fresh after a long break. I literally and figuratively brush out the cobwebs and get to work, putting down on canvas the things that I have been inspired by during the past few months. Everything on a farm has a season.The important thing, like the quote above says, is to carry a sense of wonder throughout. Whether watching your family grow, making cheese, working with animals, time with friends, wonder is the continuous thread. And, as someone who juggles many passions, I try to forgive myself for the many ways I fall short of perfection!
The new pieces you are showing are smaller pieces. What do you think of painting on this scale?
Small works fit really well into my current lifestyle. I am lucky to get six hours per week in the studio and I find it challenging to go back to a painting more than a few times. I approach a painting with an image in my mind of what i want to say and how I want to say it and that gets diluted and stale over time. My favorite way to work is to complete a painting in one sitting. I love the texture of wet oil paint and I love the intensity and purity of vision that comes from small works completed in one or two sittings. Clearly, small works are not the pathway to a financially sustainable career as an artist, but on the other hand it is nice knowing that I am creating art that is affordable to most folks. In future years when I have more time and patience I look forward to painting big!
A lot of people are drawn to your work because of your ability to portray animals in a way that seems almost joyful and that they feel present. What do you hope to convey?
I have always found solace in animal companionship. I did not grow up on a farm, but I went to summer camp at age nine and spent the entire month there in the barn in an attempt to soothe my homesickness. Low and behold, I came home from camp with two sheep (kudos to my parents for being willing), and the rest is history. I still feel grounded and calm in the presence of animals. I think animals make us feel connected with a part of ourselves which is non-verbal, timeless, unrestrained. We bring school groups to our farm and even the most insecure, distant teenagers break down in the presence of baby goats and revert to being an excitable kid again! It is a wonderful thing to witness. That is what I hope to convey with my paintings, that animals are beings of value, they are reminders of joyful, simple relationships, and as such that they can bring out the best in ourselves.
Who are some of your influences?
I have many artists right in my family! My husband, Greg Bernhardt, and my sister-in-law Cameron Schmitz, are big influences on my work. Locally, there are so many artists whom I respect and get inspiration from. When I need inspiration I might look to the work of John Singer Sargent for his technique, Georgia O’Keefe and Mark Rothko for the resonating feeling and emotion in work, Vermont artist Wolf Kahn for bold use of color, and others.
How did you begin painting? Why did you want to become an artist?
I was a drawer before a painter. I became a prolific drawer around age ten, mostly horses and human portraits, and was fortunate to have two wonderful and talented teachers in Joe Bolger and Marshall Eddy while a student and Middlebury Union High School. At Bates College I learned about simplifying one’s pallet, studied in Florence, Italy, and took the next step incorporating art into my life’s plans.
I don’t know that one really chooses to be an artist, it just happens that a day feels fully lived only when one is able to paint, draw, write, or somehow record that they were witness to it. To me, being an artist is simply having a desire to say “I was here and this is my experience” and to actually commit to the hard work of saying it.
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