In Conversation with the World: Alan Gussow’s Watercolors — Carl Little

The artist-activist Alan Gussow (1931-1997) carried on a conversation with his surroundings all his life, whether he was visiting Monhegan Island or running alongside the Hudson River. He managed to combine his environmentalism with his art. And he often turned to watercolor to convey his interactions with his surroundings.

Gussow discovered the medium as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in the early 1950s, training with Arthur K. D. Healy (1902-1978), professor of art and art history and an accomplished landscape painter and illustrator.

“As a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, I learned at least two things about art,” Gussow once recalled. “First, that art was magical. How I or any person could mix a little water with some paint and then make marks and shapes which look like parts of the world still remains a source of wonder.”

The other thing Gussow learned was that in order to make art, he had a wonderful excuse “to be out of doors and not at my desk.”

Alan Gussow, Monhegan Pine, 1962, Watercolor on paper, 11 ¼ x 16 ½, Collection of Mr. John M. Day, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

Able to draw from an early age, Gussow embraced the medium that requires great discipline yet, paradoxically, must not seem over controlled. Watercolor offered avenues of improvisation and lyric invention. The medium became an essential outlet for his artistic vision even as it served as the foundation for his work in oil and pastel, lending energy to each.

Watercolor’s portability would prove to be a plus for a painter who was constantly going out into nature. Gussow would employ it as a means to render place and elements of nature. His wife Joan Gussow noted: “The thing about watercolors that was different from anything else: Alan did not do any other work out of doors. He did not do pastels out of doors or oil out of doors…. The watercolors were really the only thing he did en plein air.”

To fully appreciate Gussow’s watercolors, one must know something about the artist’s life in art. His early exposure to the dynamics of Abstract Expressionism was especially significant. The sense of action that he encountered in the work of Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and company while a student in New York City in the 1950s never left him. “At Cooper Union where I studied for one year after Middlebury,” Gussow recalled, “I learned that art was a form of energy.” However nature-centered his art became, he consistently practiced a highly expressive approach to subjects, often entering realms of abstraction.

Alan Gussow, Late November, 1977, Watercolor on paper, 12.25 x 16.25, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

At the same time, the painter became an environmental activist, driven by intense personal passion for nature and by witnessing firsthand the degradation of the world around him. He fought against power plants and highways, and led people across the country and around the world in activities that highlighted the need for preservation, empathy and peace.

In many instances, such as his book A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, 1971, Gussow connected art to the environment, underscoring that special relationship that exists between the individual and his or her surroundings. Among his own treasured places was Monhegan, “a Maine island,” he once wrote, “that rides on the ocean like a hulking, hump-backed whale.” He first stayed there in 1949; he went on to spend part of nearly every summer on this remote and remarkable island surrounded by a host of fellow artists, among them, Reuben Tam, Hans Moller, Elena Jahn, Frances Kornbluth, Michael Loew and Lawrence Goldsmith, all of whom shared his passion for the place.

Alan Gussow, Untitled – 8/13/88 (Skate Egg Case), 1988, Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

The painter once noted that over time his interest in Monhegan subject matter evolved from the picturesque to more elemental things: “Now the place the tides own fascinates me,” he wrote in A Sense of Place. A number of watercolors offer close-ups of the natural world discovered in explorations of the island. He made studies of a crab shell and a skate egg. Joan Gussow recalls her husband returning from his annual sojourns to Monhegan with watercolor sketchbooks filled with island studies. “He felt very attached to [Monhegan] and it’s a visual place, a place people consume with their eyes.”

Alan Gussow, Crab Shell, 1978, Watercolor on paper, 8 x 12.125, Private Collection, New York, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

Gussow’s watercolors often have an experiential quality, as if he were channeling the energy of a phenomenon. A series titled “Sundrying” exemplifies this approach. Essentially abstract, these paintings nonetheless are responses to what is happening in front of the artist: sun appearing after rain, perhaps, turning the world into dazzling emanations of light, renewing the land, air, eye and spirit.

Alan Gussow, Sun Drying III, 1976, Watercolor on paper, 10 x 14.25, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

In this regard Gussow’s work has ties to Karl Schrag, Arthur Dove and other artists who were able to represent nature’s energy, re-creating air and sky, trees and sun, as currents and vortices. In Nature in Abstraction (1958), John I.H. Baur described how such artists sought “a distillation of the character, mood or spirit of nature’s aspects.” Bauer linked this mission to a desire to intensify experience, both for the artist and the viewer. These artists produced visual excitement, he wrote, thanks to “an exceptional sensitivity to nature’s colors, forms and shifting patterns of motion.”

September Sun, dated 9/3/76, captures the particular radiance of early autumn sunlight. With its lively patterning, this watercolor might be a piece of aboriginal textile, an impression one comes away with after viewing a number of Gussow’s pure pattern paintings.

Alan Gussow, September Sun, 9/3/76, 1976, Watercolor on paper, 7.25 x 10.25, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

Gussow often turned to watercolor to record his responses to working in the gardens that he and his wife tended in their homes in Congers and later Piermont, both towns close by the Hudson River north of New York City. The organic shapes in many of these paintings reflect his passion for the bounty and beauty of the harvest, of fresh vegetables and flowers leaning into the light. He even painted mulch, mesmerized by the intricate patterns of the ground cover that enriched the soil.

Alan Gussow, Mulch, 1978, Watercolor on paper, 12.25 x 16.25, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

Many watercolors have a radiating structure, sometimes blossom-like, other times like a sunburst, waves and irregular rings of color divided by the white of the paper. One recalls Arthur Dove’s paintings of plant forms and phenomena of light. Dove always insisted he was extracting, not abstracting, from nature, a perspective Gussow embraced in his own celebratory way. What Gussow wrote about Dove in A Sense of Place might apply to his own work: “He painted intriguing and inventive works inspired by natural forms, works that revealed an authentic response to observed phenomena and a profound understanding of earth rhythms.”


Gussow was a serious runner, and a favorite route in Congers took him around nearby Rockland Lake, about a five-mile circuit. While running, he observed the life of the lake, including the mallard ducks paddling along the shores or sleeping with their heads turned around. From those impressions he started a series he called “The Mallard’s Dream,” which he produced in watercolor as well as in silkscreen prints and pastels.

Alan Gussow, The Mallard’s Dream, 12/29/76, Watercolor on paper, 9.5 x 12, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

These paintings are among Gussow’s most brilliant watercolors, each a richly colored composition featuring broadly abstract interlocking shapes. The first of the series The Mallard’s Dream, dated 12/29/76, conjures a flurry of wings and water. The paintings in a related series, “Mallards Splashing,” also from 1977, are equally luminous and spirited.

These paintings extended Gussow’s connection to nature into new realms. As he told art historian Martica Sawin during a studio visit in 1977, “Prior to 1972 I was looking at scenery. Now I am in the environment, part of it…. I have stepped through the scene to go inside it and that has made all the difference.” Painter Ibram Lassaw expressed a similar perspective in Baur’s Nature in Abstraction: “Man is part and parcel of the total ecology of the universe and fulfills his function…along with plants, animals, stars and galaxies. I am nature.”

One also thinks of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), whose watercolors of Horn Island, one of a group of barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi, represented a similar immersion in the natural world. As Gussow wrote in the introduction to A Sense of Place, “The artists who paint nature today are also moved, as were their predecessors, by the sheer physical delight of being outdoors.”

In all his watercolors Gussow allows the paper to show through the pigment, which lends an underlying luminosity to the colors. “[Alan] knew how to hold out the whites; I mean it was really fun to watch him,” Joan Gussow recounted. “He really knew what he was doing. And watercolor is such a spontaneous painting. You can’t rethink it.”

In some cases the white of the paper appears as pinpricks of light. In one of a handful of city-inspired pieces, Berkeley/Light and Rooftops, 1980, the watercolor paper that has been left unpainted serves to demark the geometric shapes of buildings.

Alan Gussow, Berkeley/Light and Rooftops, 1980, Watercolor on paper, 4.75 x 6.5, Private Collection, Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Gallery, New York City, and appears in Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (2009) by Martica Sawin

At the same time Gussow understood how colors could evoke moods and emotions even as they often served as a direct means to express his intimate vision of his surroundings. His most abstract compositions are like jazz, the notes of color in sync with one another yet tuned to the rhythms of the outer world.

Gussow’s watercolors also manifest his unfaltering environmental ethic borne of a deep respect for nature—the same abiding concern that led him to fight industrial blight and send personal letters on noticeably recycled paper. His watercolors are political in that respect: As he wrote in the introduction to his second book, The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism (1992),

“The only weapon artists possess to express rage against environmental destruction is their ability to make visible what they experience and what they value.”

Through his watercolors, Gussow identified himself with the natural world, from rocky outcroppings on Monhegan to the dreams of a wild creature with which he felt a special affinity. In many ways, these paintings represent his truest self, a fact Gussow underscored in A Sense of Place: “Any artist,…no matter how objectively he may try to delineate his subject, always paints himself as well.”

David Etnier, Alan Gussow on his Porch, Maine, black-and-white photograph, 1993
Courtesy Joan Gussow

Carl Little’s most recent books are Philip Frey: Here and Now, Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore and Paintings of Portland, co-written with David Little.


Sources: Martica Sawin, Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature, Hudson Hills Press, 2009; Joan Gussow; Alan Gussow, “Moving Toward the Center of Life,” In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, Spring 1984.

Interpretation of an Artist Mother — Lisa Jahn-Clough

Life is a composite of many things—people, friends and family, pets and homes, music and food, sea and sky, ideas and art. Elena Jahn, my mother, had an overflowing abundance of all of these. She made herself a good life; a life that was full of art to the core. She died November, 2014 from the autoimmune disease Scleroderma. She was 76. She should have gone on making more art, becoming more eccentric, driving her children crazy, for another twenty years. Still, there is no one who knew her who can deny that Elena Jahn lived life with a fierce passion that took her along intriguing paths (often the more complicated path, but always the more interesting). She managed to live as well as she possibly could despite her illness and her last difficult years in and out of hospitals, in and out of crisis, in constant pain and anxiety. Her disease had aged her—when I was a teenager she was so youthful everyone mistook us for sisters. She traveled back and forth between her two island homes—Monhegan in the summer and Culebra, PR in the winter.

An unexpected phenomenon of death is that you don’t only remember the last few years of a person—you begin to recall all the years and places and events in which you knew them—and you begin to uncover things you never knew and people whom that person affected. You string these things together and the person’s life takes the shape of an amazing narrative. In death, a life becomes whole, with meaning and connections. And an artist leaves so much more—she leaves her vision in which the rest of us can continue to engage in dialogue.

I hear and speak to my mother every time I see her work.

Elena was born in Moscow Idaho, moved to Syracuse, NY. She knew she wanted to be an artist as a child even before her first trip to Monhegan, which was the summer of 1948 when she was 10. Her parents, Edwin and Helen Jahn, bought a house the next year and her fate as an artist was sealed. During those early years summering on Monhegan she was immersed in an atmosphere of creative energy that had a profound and lasting effect on her. Elena carried this energy with her during the winters in upstate New York and on to getting her BFA in art at Syracuse University and MFA in painting at Univ of Wisconsin, Madison. Then a Fulbright Scholarship took her to Paris and Italy and developed another ongoing love of hers—traveling.

Elena knew Monhegan Island and its artists from the 50’s right through her last summer there in 2014. Some of the artists she knew in the early days I’ve heard about all of my life: Rockwell Kent, Bill Hekking, Jim Fitzgerald, Murray Hautman, Mike Lowe, Sarah MacPherson, Alice Stoddard. Some in the later years I got to know myself: Herby and Henry Kallem, Hans Moller, Glenn Krause, Ted Davis, Reuben and Gerry Tam, Bill and Jan McCartin, Charlie and Florence Martin, Allan Gussow, Zero Mostel, Larry Goldsmith, Lynne Drexler, Yolanda Fusco, Don Stone, Arline Simon, Sylvia Alberts, Frances Kornbluth. They all helped shape my mother throughout her life as neighbors, friends, artists and role models.

Elena Jahn, ”Red,” Oil, 40 x 22, 1964

Elena married my father, Garrett Clough a zoologist who studied animal behavior in 1963. They lived in Norway, then Nova Scotia, where she started teaching. Finally they moved to a farm in RI where they raised goats and chickens and two children. She painted in all these places. She was an active feminist in the 70s and co-founded Hera Gallery, a women’s cooperative in Wakefield RI, still going strong today. Then a move to Brunswick, Maine, a divorce, and teaching at USM. All this time she summered on Monhegan—in fact she stretched out her summers there longer and longer—from May into October. I think she missed maybe four years in the past sixty-five, even with all her traveling.

All the while she painted steadily, her work constantly evolving. Her art went from realism, to abstraction and back, to black and white and massive color, from large scale to tiny, in all media. She started going to Puerto Rico in the late 80’s after my father died and her kids were grown, because poor circulation made it hard to stand the Maine winters. Her work shifted again as she fell in love with a new culture—one about as different from Monhegan as you can get. If her palette for Monhegan was primarily steel gray and sap green, then for Puerto Rico it was fluorescent orange and turquoise. Eventually the two cultures began to merge together in her art. For the past twenty-five years she lived on these two islands, Monhegan and Culebra, surrounded by water, sky and light.

Not only did my mother have a creative and eclectic life but she gave my brother, Eric, and me one as well.  For example: We lived in Lapland when we were toddlers in a hut with no running water, while my dad studied lemmings and my mother sketched and painted. She had us make potato prints, vegetable prints, monoprints and etchings in her studio.  She played the guitar and sang the songs of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger and random ditties about people being turned into sausages in meat grinders.  After getting divorced she took us to Mexico for two weeks where we hitchhiked around the ruins of Palenque before they were uncovered–encountering rattlesnakes and cotomundis, and where we stayed in youth hostels, and snuck into resorts to swim in their luxury pools.  One time I came home from school to find a Buddhist monk staying with us. He walked on our backs. In junior high my sandwiches consisted of things like peanut butter and alfalfa sprouts on waffles left over from Sunday’s champagne brunch/wood-stacking party. Our door was always open. She rented out rooms to college students and odd people who became our close friends. She had wild parties and rolled back the rugs to dance. She taught me how to disco with the Bee-Gees blaring on the stereo.

There were times when I loved having such a wack-a-doo mom, and there were times I was thoroughly embarrassed and couldn’t wait to get away, but ultimately I am grateful for the life she gave me. I am who I am because of her. I am, by the way, a children’s book author and illustrator and professor of creative writing.

Elena probably developed her wretched illness much earlier than anyone knew, even her. I found some letters I wrote to her from college in the 80’s and almost all of them end with: “Sorry to hear you’re not feeling well,” or “I hope you get over that infection soon.” Interestingly the late 80’s – mid 90’s were very prolific years when her art became more wild and personal, deeper and darker than I’d ever seen before. Her work from the 70’s when I was young and she was a young mother and wife is much “happier” in color and subject.

Elena Jahn, “Night Visions Triptych” Oil and turpentine washes, oil pastel, graphite, 81 x 40, 1987-90

Along with constantly recording her life in sketchbooks, my mother also wrote lists and thoughts and doodles as part of her on-going search for meaning. In her Monhegan studio she wrote down random quotes she heard over the years on one of the walls. These quotes give a glimpse into Elena’s life and psyche so I thought I’d share a few (some were credited, others not):

Where there is no vision people perish.  – James Baldwin
The personal and the planetary are connected.

Art is the reason to get out of bed!

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. – Samuel  Johnson.

Fan the flame of attention!

You’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public. – H.L. Menken

One must attempt to do all things at all times.

Never count on your art to make your living. – Reuben Tam

There are only so many windows of opportunity.

It is fitting and delicious to lose everything. – Donald Hall, on aging.

Art is long and critics are the insects of the day.  – Randall Jarrell

Art is a wound turned to light. – George Braque

One of the last quotes written in her scratchy, barely legible handwriting that she developed last summer reads: “Is this all there is?”  signed E. Jahn.  This, along with a note to herself I found in her purse while in the hospital that read, “Peace of mind,” and “Now is time to let go,” makes me think she knew. She was done suffering.

People are one way on the surface, but they are often another way on the inside that no one else can ever tap into or truly know. But I think my mother managed to get some of that inside self out, onto her canvases, and in other ways. I think that’s why people were drawn to her and remember her. She made connections. The way she looked at things, the way she held a paintbrush and moved with her whole self expressing—stuff just poured out of her. I remember when she was painting her large paneled six foot tall screens, she stood on a stool with a fat oil stick in her hand and scribbled fast, long strokes, then blended it with turpentine, then scribbled more, and repeated until there were layers upon layers of color and marks that made something out of nothing. She managed to capture the essence of a figure in a quick 60 second pose, with such movement and expression. I think she was one of those rare people that managed to get some of that inside stuff out to the world. But not all of it, because she never stopped trying. She made art during her last summer on Monhegan when she could barely get out of the house. She was making collages using the inside of patterned envelopes, drawing into them a map of her life. She made her last piece, a portrait of her little dog, Cisco, in the hospital last fall.

Elena Jahn, “Moon Over the Sea” Oil paint on tin, 24 x 7, 2001

On the wall of her hospital room there was a Grandma Moses print that she looked at every day in her final week. She gave anyone who would listen a lecture on Grandma Moses. I looked at the print every day myself and began to appreciate it in a new way. Finally it was Elena’s time to let go and she died with Grandma Moses at the foot of her bed, while I was in a cot next to her. This was a profound experience—we’d been so close when I was little, we used to share so much, so it was a gift to be able to care for her at the end. And Eric cared for her these last years, making it possible for her to live in her two homes. I am grateful to him for that. We are a small family, and with that comes a unique closeness of love, annoyance, and acceptance. Both Eric and I admired her and the way in which she, and my father, lived.

Elena affected and influenced everyone who knew her. And all of her energy, her spirit, curiosity, restlessness, pain, endurance, strength, love, anger, fear, laughter, stubbornness, confusion, suffering, and joy is visible in her lifetime of art.

I miss her, but I see her in all of her work and all over her island homes. I see her in myself. I see her in my own work. I see her in my brother. I see her in her dog. I see her in my dogs, both of whom she found for me as strays in Puerto Rico.  I see her when I sit in her Monhegan studio, now mine (thanks to my wonderful grandfather who bought that home in a time when a college professor could afford such a thing!),  and her art along with my art and my husband’s art hangs on the walls open to visitors. Not only do I see this art of hers that I have been going through for the past four years, but sometimes when I am in there all alone looking and looking I begin to hear it—some of her art screams to me, some of it whispers softly, At times some of it comforts me and other times some of it angers me. My mother always had a lot to say and she said it all with great passion. It is said that a person never really dies if they leave behind something that the world can love—something that speaks to us…