The Artist’s Way

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

“Green is the hardest color to paint. My mother and I were talking about that the other day, ‘Why is green so hard?’ Because green is in nature everywhere,” says Cynthia Packard. “There’s certain things you can’t paint because like a sunset will never be a sunset. It’s beautiful, but…,” she adds with a shrug.

And yet she uses a lot of green in the paintings that surround her as she prepares for her upcoming show at Berta Walker Gallery. The easy way is not Packard’s usual route. Her move from her family’s Packard Gallery to Berta Walker was a surprise. Packard’s mother Ann is well known for her stunning landscapes, and the Packard family has deep roots in Provincetown, going back to Cynthia’s great-grandfather Max Bohm, who was an important painter who taught and spent time in Provincetown, where he eventually died. To stay with the Packard Gallery might have been like painting without green for Packard.

In Repose (2022 oil on panel, 30×40″) by Cynthia Packard

“I can’t stay in the same place. I have to grow. I mean, to me, that’s the reason to be alive is to grow and learn and change,” she explains. “I was ready for some bold changes.”

Although she grew up in New Jersey, Packard has been here in Provincetown since 1981, consistently. She’d shown at several other excellent galleries prior to her mother opening the Packard Gallery. In her time here the town has certainly gone through drastic shifts and it’s no longer the bohemian art colony of the past, but she says it’s her family and the natural environment that keep her here.

“I walk for hours,” she says. “I tell my students, too, if you want to learn how to paint, paint this walk called Clapps Pond walk. There’s all these levels of horizontals, of pond and then trees and then grasses. And then there’s all these verticals, the trees, right? And then there’s all this light and dark. Everything you need to know is on that walk.”

Packard is a process painter. She allows the painting to be created through her, avoiding guiding the process too much. But there is a strong discipline to it, as well. She begins with three lines. Straight lines. From one end of the canvas to the other. The first is horizontal. The second is vertical. The third might be diagonal, or else it can be another horizontal or vertical. She does it to create the shapes she’ll be working with. (Organic lines come later because she says they, “tend to get romantic and there’s an attachment,” so they’re harder to change.)

These original lines may be altered or erased during the process, but in the end they are usually visible and give her work a certain kinetic quality. But also, they very much reveal the importance of drawing as the foundation of painting for her. Packard studied drawing with Fritz Bultman after modeling for him for three years as a student at Massachusetts College of Art. Even just posing for him gave her an opportunity to learn that she eagerly grasped.

“I always talk about him. Because he’s always in my mind,” she says smiling. “While I was modeling, I could see the reflection from his ceiling, because it was mirrored… I watched his gesture as I was in the pose. So I learned so much already. And then we just talked about art. People like him—and, well, Hans Hoffman—changed the idea of what a drawing is. It’s not describing some figure, or flower, or whatever; it’s dealing with space… He just loved me and gave me a gift. And believed in me. I mean, he did tell me, he said, ‘Cynthia, you’re so good. You will be great. Don’t have any kids’”

Never one to be told what to do, she went ahead and had four children (and now enjoys four grandchildren, in fact), never ceasing to do the work, despite Bultman’s warning. Family is important to Packard, even though it can be challenging when intense people are in a family together, working alongside each other, and sometimes butting heads. But even when she was a child, Packard was always aware of the artistic legacy of her family.
She says, growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, she used to take the train to New York City to visit the storage unit that held all of her great-grandfather’s paintings. She would just pull out a painting in the hallway, sit, and look at it with her 13-year-old eyes.

And there are outside influences as well. Packard is very physical in how she paints, almost attacking the canvas. For Packard, the connection between her body and painting is profound. She’s been athletic her whole life, as well as artistic. This physicality reflects her restlessness, something all artists understand. “Sometimes I paint because I don’t know what else to do,” she says. But she’s also studied karate, played basketball, and practices Iyengar yoga regularly with Greg Anton, whom she calls “the best teacher in this country.”

“The things he says about yoga, it’s like we’re talking about painting. It’s the same thing! About truth and honesty and the obstacles, and the solutions” she explains. “He says, you eventually don’t do the pose, the pose is done unto you. Okay, so that’s my feeling with the paintings. The paintings are done unto me. I’m not managing them. As soon as I start managing paintings and having agendas, I just f—ck it up!”

Her process is not thoughtless, though. It is one of searching, always searching. “If you’re really painting, there’s no way to know when to stop because there’s always something that could be better. It’s a curse. Painting is a curse,” she says. “As soon as I find my way, it’s over. So you have to be in that lost [state]. But sometimes I’ll make a mark and say, ‘Wow! Oh!’ There’s nothing better than making a good painting—maybe giving birth—but it feels like life and death.”

Cynthia Packard’s show of recent paintings, The Space Between the Breath, runs July 1 – 23 at Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown. There is an opening reception Friday, July 1, 6 – 8 p.m. Packard’s studio will also be open to visitors throughout the summer, as well. For more information call 508.487.6411 or visit bertawalkergallery.com.