Island Updates

An Interview with Fred Poisson

Header image from Fred Poisson's Maine Series - see full image below

Guest blog post contributed by Social Media Manager Rachel Kimpton

During the warm months of summer, when our programs are in full swing, the island is constantly buzzing with an incredible variety of visitors. Students, educators, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, activists, explorers, and so many others grace our shores and trails. Over the 2016 summer season, in addition to our 900+ program participants, the Hawai’i-based crew of the Hokule’a joined us for a few days after sailing across the Atlantic from Cape Town, South Africa; Celina Baines, a doctoral candidate from the University of Toronto, came to Hurricane in search of a particular type of water bug that survives in aquatic environments all over the continent; and John Connelly, who lives in Falmouth, ME and is the owner of Adventurous Joe coffee, stopped to rest on Hurricane during his 1,500 mile kayaking journey.

Among this swath of visitors was Fred Poisson, a painter whose home base is Block Island, no farther than 15 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. We shared a few brief but delightful conversations over meals during his short stay on Hurricane. Fred grew up in a brackish cove in Essex, Connecticut, maintaining a close relationship with nature throughout his life. He received his BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and has mastered the art of watercolor painting over the years. When I first saw Fred’s paintings, I couldn’t believe they were paintings at all - I was convinced they were photographs! In a magical configuration of pigment, water, and physics, Fred draws you into his work by jogging your memory and bringing you back to a place for which you long to return. His paintings capture the way light reflects, the moment when water pauses immediately before completing the motion of a wave, the brief instance at sunset when the sky and clouds are illuminated with pink shortly after the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon…

I’m not one to long for summer. After all, one of my favorite moments is the unparalleled quiet that blankets the world during a gentle snowfall. However, Fred’s paintings of Maine brought me back to those warm and busy days on the island, especially in our current times of biting cold. Thus, in the spirit of summer, I recently reached out to Fred to continue some of those conversations we had several months ago.

Maine Series - Hurricane Island - Fred Poisson

When did you first become interested in landscape paintings, both as a subject and for your own paintings?
Probably high school or college, but I didn't do much of it until I was in my thirties. I studied painting in college. After college onward for many years, I did design work, then I got back into painting full time starting at 40. I'm 47 now. There was a brief period in my 30's where I picked up watercolors and made small paintings. That period was what led me to go back to it full time.

Maine Series - Rockland Birch Branch State Park - Fred Poisson

In many of your paintings, you include water in some form, whether it is bodies of water or snow or ice. You also work with water to make your paintings. What is the relationship between working with the same medium that is your subject?
It makes me happy that you see that! Looking back it seems water has been in my work since college. Working in a water based medium I think lends to capturing that element. I've always lived near water. I've always enjoyed being on and getting into water. It's a part of me. It's so dynamic.

You’re working with something very fluid to capture a moment that exists for only a split second. With this in mind, what does your process look like for making a painting?
Well, it's starts with a feeling. I never start out, “Now I'm going to paint this or that.” I have to have a strong feeling for something and that usually comes from being outside. Swimming, hiking, whatever it is I'm doing. Something along the way catches my eye or hits me headlong. No telling really. I've swam for years around the same rock and just last year made a series of how the water moves around it. As I studied it, I realized its positioning, shape, the way the bottom comes up causes the water to swirl in ways it simply doesn't around other rocks. The way the swell lines compress around it. I've looked at hundreds of other rocks since and haven't seen the same dynamic.

Maine Series - Rockland - Fred Poisson

With landscape painting, one has a very real and physical relationship with that space, which is what you are describing. Does that relationship affect your painting or interpretation of that place?
Definitely. There's an intimacy. I really enjoyed painting Maine this fall but I don't have the same relationship as I do with Block Island. That said, the newness was interesting and energizing. Like meeting an interesting person for the first time.

We had a very brief conversation about the relationship between art and science. How do you view the two disciplines?
Related. Some would say Cezanne's approach to painting predates Einstein's theory of relativity. Quantified differently but going at the same principle. My first mentor in art was a Swiss artist who had studied all the sciences as well. Went to med school, even.

Do you think art and science assist or complement each other?
I think the element of observation is critical to both. They both attempt to bring understanding to the world around us through that action.

Maine Series - Fred Poisson

I also think about the use of art as a tool for critical inquiry, especially within scientific disciplines. There are many ways we can "see" something, as well as ways to go about asking questions and making discoveries.
Right, and learning to look and investigate critically from a variety of perspectives.

I think your paintings, for me, communicate the ways you see and engage with water to your viewer.
It's back to having a feeling first then the idea comes about.

Do you have any dream destinations or places that you would like to paint?
I do, but I don’t want to give the idea away!

This interview has been edited and condensed. The images included in this post are provided courtesy of the artist and are from his Maine series completed during his visit late last summer. I highly encourage you to view more of Fred’s work on his Instagram or his website.



Subscribe in a reader