“There is someone who feels as I do.” This was supposedly what Degas uttered when he first saw Mary Cassatt’s work, and it summons as well as any description the flash of recognition we experience in the presence of certain artists. One imagines that Tom and Peggy Root experienced a similar recognition when they met as students at the Ringling School of Art in Florida, and it’s a sentiment that I’ve come to acknowledge when viewing their paintings.
This is not to suggest identical visions. Married since 1981, Tom and Peggy have maintained distinctive identities through subject matter alone: Tom painting portraits in the studio and Peggy working en plein air. Her canvases revel in the molding of landscape through light and color, while his work relies on the circumscription of the figure’s contours. Both make what they do look easy, and without the preening that attaches to a lot of technically accomplished work; even their flourishes are modest, and are imbedded in their painting more out of pictorial function than to flaunt sleight of hand.
Last week the Roots were in Connecticut for the opening of On Familiar Ground, an exhibition of their paintings at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. The school and the town have changed since Tom and Peggy studied and lived there in the 1980s—before it was a college, the Academy was an atelier school about as given to bohemianism as Old Lyme would allow. Most of the area’s natural charm is intact, though the center of the historic district and the college itself are in the bull’s eye for a newly proposed northeast corridor rail line. Peggy, Tom, and their son Charles joined me on a landscape painting venture; we settled on the town’s cemetery, and I watched them evoke sensitive atmospheric effects while I lay discourteous siege to a hapless panel. They feel as I do, only more subtly.
Much of the show was transported from the Roots’ home in Tennessee, near which Peggy finds her subjects. Her paintings of the southern landscape depict specific places, observed in solitude, yet the sites she chooses sometimes appear nearly indistinguishable from the Connecticut venues she painted thirty years ago. Maybe an artist subconsciously seeks out similar motifs wherever they are, or imposes an individual stamp; Inness’ Florida landscapes were but nominally different from those he painted in New Jersey, and indeed, all were cooked up in his studio. Clouds, North Alabama, could have been painted most anywhere, and strikes the same divergent notes of joy and melancholy as Isaac Levitan found in the Russian countryside. A particular setting, with it rich foliage and open space is a necessary spark, but once the match is struck, Peggy is free to give voice to thoughts both personal and universal.
The elation of paintings like Wildflowers, Bass Lake is unalloyed. The fuzzy contours of trees are less romantic convention than response to the optics of southern humidity, and are grounded by foreground plant shadows, denoted by brushwork that, in another context, would work nicely as urban graffiti—as if to drive the point home, the radiant mass of a cloud is broken by a blue “z.” But it’s the flecks of yellow and lavender—wildflowers—that grace the painting with its ultimate ebullience.
If color supplies the emotional resonance in Peggy’s work, drawing is the implicit armature. The elegant tracery of tree limbs against distant scenery in March Evening Sunlight strikes a balance between movement and serenity. In Winter Watauga River, such tensions are dissolved in dusky atmosphere, bare trees merged into a violet ground plane at their bases and dissipated in the clouds above. These are, in total, a sustained meditation and celebration of the Southern landscape that is rare in American painting. They are also among the best plein air work done in this country in the last few decades.
To my mind, Tom Root occupies the same standing as a painter of portraits. He is less likely to sample a chromatic spectrum, and this probably owes equally to the studio environment and personal disposition. He’s more apt to leave, if not accentuate, the contours of a figure, as in Charles with Guitar. Of the two artists, rather counterintuitively, it is Tom, the portraitist, who prefers canvas of rough weave; the paint in Charles, dragged over the linen surface, has a drier and more deliberate quality than Peggy’s fluid application.
Often Tom displays a most subtle appreciation for tone, as in Eli, a portrait sketch so sublime that further elaboration cannot be imagined. The planes of the head are beautifully modeled, as if seen through a slight gauze of atmosphere. Moreover, the implicit effect joins artist and subject in silent contemplation. The facility required to pull this off, and do so without appearance of effort, is as formidable as it is unobtrusive.
Sometimes Tom chooses a more direct angle, in which the subject assesses the artist in the process of painting. His Portrait of Christine Murdock is proof of my longstanding belief that an artist’s technique rises to match the sophistication of their perception; the flawless draftsmanship of the head and hand and modulation of black, gray and skin tones are exactly suited to the depth of characterization. Tom consistently paints without the affectations that are inherent to the business of portraiture. I prefer his paintings to those of his mentor, Aaron Shikler, precisely for this reason: they are done without the self-consciousness of one who is working in the public arena. His self-portrait brings to mind the image of a painterly Garrison Keillor—droll, disheveled and a sharp surveyor of himself and others—whose observations are tempered by humane discernment.
In their realism Tom and Peggy have each attained a personal economy of means. Tom’s portraits reveal a confidence in the paring of non-essential elements, to the extent that many of his subjects exist as vignettes, emanating from an abstracted or even blank ground, with few or no anecdotal elements. Success in developing personality is totally dependent on Tom’s connection to the sitter; his is a high-wire act performed without compositional crutches or distractions. By contrast, Peggy’s mode of shorthand relies upon an ability to quickly summon the illusion of depth in a landscape, rendering complex layers of terrain through changes in value and color. This also assists in the suggestion of movement, the fluid dashes of brushwork and calligraphic flights evoking not only the effect of wind on foliage and clouds, but the painter’s joyfulness in the presence of nature. It is true, if overly simplistic, to note that Tom’s career is based on a series of intense interchanges with individual models in a controlled environment, and Peggy’s engages a multitude of organic form and hue, seen in ever-changing conditions. What they share is an interest in working from life, their subjects seen with a parallel intimacy.
Both Tom and Peggy have constructed, in different ways, vocabularies that abstract and distill visual information. The modesty of their practice—artists of high ambitions don’t move to small towns in Tennessee—has kept them at arm’s length from commercial centers. Galleries here would be wise to take notice. Even in New York City, it’s a safe bet that many feel as they do.