Terry Crimmen’s Memory

 

The painter’s recollections of bygone summers appeal to a culture yearning for nostalgia.

 

More often than not, Terry Crimmen’s paintings start with a memory. Like most episodic memories, they exist as an evanescent fog, indexed deep in the hippocampus, until a particular scent, sound, or sight draws them forth. For Crimmen, it’s usually an object. 

“Safety First II” oil on canvas 72 x 60 inches

In his latest series, paintings of oversize life preservers ranging between four and seven feet tall, the inspiration hit Crimmen swifty. “I had this old boat to get rid of, and I was digging through the hull when I pulled out this old, wet life preserver,” Crimmen said. Suddenly, he flashed back to his youth on the banks of Lake Erie. “It triggered a childhood memory of going out on a boat to go fishing, and someone handing me this life preserver that you wouldn’t touch your dog with.”

The first painting in the series “Safety First” was born from that memory. In it, a vintage orange vest, with a ragged bow-tie neck and waist clasp, casts a shadow on a pale background. It looks alternately sun-bleached and waterlogged — and Crimmen is right, you may not want to touch your dog with it, but it’s tough to peel your eyes away. 

The memory of the first life preserver unleashed a flood of others. “By the first day, I already had about ten ideas,” Crimmen said. “Every life preserver I paint is a little bit different, because they’re all different memories.” There’s Summer Crush, still alluring in its bold creamsicle color scheme, and the red pinstriped Summer Cottage, rust-stained yet well-loved.

“Canoe Club” oil on canvas 72 x 60 inches

With each painting, we can almost smell the mildew entrenched in the seams, almost touch the time-tested fabric, its familiar scratchiness worn soft with age. It’s as if in our own mind’s eye, we can recall the sun glinting off a crush’s hair, or hear the creak of a beach cottage’s weathered door. 

For those of us lucky enough to have our own summer memories by the water, it’s a happy reminiscence. For those who don’t, Crimmen generously lays the experience on the canvas. 

Part of the effect comes from the sheer size of the works. “I tried a couple of them small, and they just didn’t work, so I blew them up,” Crimmen said. “They convey the feeling better, they have more of a presence.”

The preservers were not the first objects to spark Crimmen’s memory and a subsequent creative burst. The same thing happened with a boat propeller he dug out of his garden. At another point it was buoys. But Crimmen emphasizes that not all his object obsessions begin quite the same way. Of his “cow period,” Crimmen said, “I read in an article once that one of the hardest paintings to sell was cows. And I thought, Well, let’s just see about that.” 

Crimmen’s work hangs at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, one of the most prestigious venues on the Island. It’s not a bad gig for a guy who only began painting seriously eight years ago. “I’m primarily a self-taught artist,” Crimmen said. “I was always drawing and painting as a kid, and as an adult I always worked in a creative field.” When Crimmen first arrived on the Vineyard 25 years ago, he made his living as a decorative painter. Fine art started as something of a hobby, but by the time Crimmen had produced 30 or 40 paintings, people were buying his work straight from the back of his truck. 

“Crew” in progress

Island gallerist Mikel Hunter knew Crimmen for several years before he unveiled his art to a circle of creative friends. “We were all just a tad blown away,” Hunter remembered. “He sort of just hatched as a full-fledged artist with a unique point of view.”

Crimmen’s first shows were at the Seaworthy Gallery in Vineyard Haven. He went on to show his work at Hunter’s Edgartown location. In 2013, Crimmen opened the Workshop studio and gallery alongside fellow painters Dan VanLandingham and Lauren Coggins-Tuttle, and graphic designer Tara Kenney. “The Workshop was kind of an education,” Crimmen said. “One of the nicest things was the proximity to the other artists, and the ability for us all to bounce our ideas off of one another.” 

Like many gallery-owning artists, Crimmen found the pressure to sell his own work ate into valuable studio time. Proprietorship of the Workshop evolved, and Crimmen moved operations to an outbuilding in his backyard. Still, his connection to a close-knit group of Island artists has proved invaluable. “Pretty much everybody I hang around with is another painter, and they’ve all really helped me, not only with technical stuff, but with the whole process,” Crimmen said. “It’s nice — you can send one of them a text asking what they think about a painting, and if they’re nice, they say, ‘I really like the one you did yesterday.’”

Sometimes interactions with other artists produce favorable bouts of happenstance. A few years ago, Crimmen was hanging out at the studio of painter Traeger di Pietro. Di Pietro had a pile of old National Geographics — some ranging back as far as the 1920s — to cut up for mixed-media work. Crimmen was flipping through a volume when he came across an aerial photo of a beach scene. The unique perspective, the muted colors, and the wonderfully dated bathing costumes would go on to inspire Crimmen’s next body of work. “I just started ripping pages out,” Crimmen said. “The series is probably 100something paintings now.”

Many of the paintings are familiar Vineyard beaches, swaths of sand as seen from a high dune, or perhaps an osprey’s aerial view. From here, the tide covers the shoreline in a glassy sheen, upon which watery reflections dance and afternoon shadows grow. In some works, the vantage point is close enough to make out the placid expression of a sunbather in repose, or the undeveloped motor skills of a toddler hastening toward play. In others, the figures remain distant, diminishing toward the horizon in a haze of heat and salt. 

Although the series was born from a photograph, Crimmen’s interpretations remain painterly in their brushwork. “I don’t like to overwork anything; I’d prefer if it was a little looser,” Crimmen said. “In the end, I don’t want to make a photorealistic painting.”

In some instances, Crimmen’s beach scenes are washy enough that the details constitute an Easter egg hunt. In his diptych Figures of the Past, Crimmen drew inspiration from the overlooked figures in Old Masters paintings. “There’s always one guy in the background so small you can’t figure out what he’s doing. I went through a bunch of paintings and pulled out that one guy,” Crimmen said. Figures of the Past thus poses almost indistinguishable Roman soldiers next to homely Dutch women. “No one even notices,” Crimmen said. “I just pulled characters out of 300 years’ worth of paintings and put them in the water.”

The result is not only a nod to the great painters, but a subtle instance of the artist interacting with the viewer, toying with our perception of and relationship to the subject matter. Perhaps it’s something Crimmen picked up from his favorite artists, Neo-Dadaists and pop art influencers Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In many ways, Crimmen’s work builds upon their tendency to paint commonplace objects estranged from their usual context and connotation. Crimmen’s approach is to place the object front and center, where we must confront it. At the same time, we must look past the object to understand that we are not looking at an object at all, but a painting. 

Crimmen also loves Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell, artists whose depictions are quintessentially, if saccharinely, American. Debatably Americana. And he’s big into street art, although he jokes he’s probably past the age limit for participation. It’s a weird juxtaposition of tastes, the memories and the modernity swirled together into what can only be termed nostalgia.

“So many artists paint the present,” Crimmen said. “I paint in a contemporary style, but I paint things of the past.”

He also paints around the fringes of an Americana subgenre: nautical kitsch. Crimmen steers clear of the Vineyard subjects that “everybody paints,” the lighthouses and sailboats and other postcard staples. His choice of subjects is offbeat, unpredictable, and yet familiar enough to appeal to our sentimentality, riding the coattails of Americana into our memories. 

As viewers, we’re presented with our own visual memories, and those from which Crimmen is working, not to mention the vast cultural imagery we’ve all accumulated by osmosis. Nostalgia is the byproduct, memory as filtered through the amygdala, where emotion and meaning are ascribed. It’s not strictly retrospective either, but nostalgia in the vein of Harvard scholar Svetlana Boym. Boym writes about “the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups and nations, between personal and collective memory.” Perhaps that’s the best way to understand Crimmen’s iconography — born from the most personal of recollections, and common to us all.

Of course, for those who know Crimmen, he’s more likely to crack a joke than to say anything quite so pretentious about his own work. He suspects the reason people are drawn to his subjects is the same reason he is: the attraction, however illusory, to “a simpler time.” But Crimmen also knows instinctively when to keep painting a series and when to move on. “Everything I paint goes in cycles,” Crimmen said. “Maybe it’s when the memories are exhausted, maybe it’s when I find something new.” And when that time comes, well, we’ll all know it when we see it. 

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