Raised in Falmouth (with three out of her four grandparents born and raised in Portland), Meg Brown Payson has spent most of her life in Maine, with a few exceptions: four years at the Boston University School of Fine Arts, three years in Santa Cruz (while her husband was in school), and shorter sojourns in western Massachusetts, Vermont, Paris, Oakland, and San Francisco. Where she used to spend time in the high desert of the southwest, now, with family in Southern England and coastal Oregon, she finds herself in “very green landscapes” that replace “the dry, red ones, at least for the time being.”
Payson returned to Maine after her stints in Boston and California for a variety of reasons, including a love of the landscape; family matters; affordability; and because the “politics/community/population” was the right size: “big enough to be interesting, not so big that voices get drowned out.” It also was a place to build a house and studio, plant a garden, and raise two children.
The Freeport-based painter began teaching summers and evenings at the Portland School of Art in 1978, then in the Continuing Studies program during the 1980s. She received her MFA from Vermont College in 1993. She taught several sabbatical replacement gigs in the Maine College of Art’s BFA program in the early 1990s and then signed on more or less full-time from the mid-1990s as associate professor of drawing and foundation. She retired from MECA in 2011.
Payson’s evolution as an artist has been marked by a number of what might be called course corrections. An early one related to her Maine landscapes. In order to lend a personal resonance to her sense of place, she “embedded” members of her family in her paintings. When a client complained about the figure in a landscape, Payson realized that what the woman wanted was “the fantasy of owning her own piece of Maine (no trespassing allowed).”
Not wishing to be in the business of hawking Maine real estate, Payson spent time in graduate school rethinking her approach to the world around her. She subsequently explored experience of place as “an extension of, and in relation to, the body.” She studied a variety of cultural descriptions of landscape, including aboriginal, Persian/Mughal and Japanese.
Making paintings scaled to the body led to her kimono paintings. Here, Payson was thinking about landscape as measured by the vertical/horizontal axis of the body, “and by the notion that there was no distance between me and the surrounding natural space; it was touching my skin like a robe.” The kimono shape provoked a “well meaning” friend to send her a catalogue of artists who worked with crucifix imagery. “Not what I wanted to say about my relation to landscape,” Payson states.
Over time, Payson explains, “two big things” changed. First, she switched from oil-based paints to liquid acrylics, which allowed her “to both lay down and scrape off layers and layers of paint, which became analogous to landscape formation. The new medium also allowed her to cut up the paintings, “to experiment easily with size and shape,” ultimately resulting in her very long, horizontal, wall-filling paintings.
At the same time, as she continued to study and read about landscape, Payson became more and more interested in how different art forms reflect a culture’s very different ways of thinking about land and nature “and specifically how Europeans (my ethnic roots) shifted from seeing nature as a shared commons imbued with the divine, to seeing it as a commodity to be exploited for individual wealth.”
Subsequently, the artist moved from the descriptive to the evocative, wishing to keep the experience of her work on the level of sensation while avoiding any “easily labeled” categories. In the process she came up with what has become her signature work, “radiant, abstract compositions,” as writer, curator and CMCA director Suzette McAvoy has called them, flowing and layered and absorbing.
According to McAvoy, Payson begins each piece by “pouring, dripping, scraping, and blotting paint onto panels laid flat on a tabletop”—not unlike the approach of certain abstract expressionists. “From this seemingly arbitrary and random application process,” McAvoy recounts, “the artist manipulates her materials to create a coherent and balanced image.” She likens Payson’s floating forms and “fluid ribbons” of paint to “the harmonic moments of our ever-changing world.”
Payson’s process is, in her own words, “a metaphor for both the emergence principles of creation” and the “human mind/painter’s compulsion to order as a mirroring of self-organization in physics and biology”—the other end of the spectrum, if you will, from her earlier images of Maine although, as McAvoy observes, her primary palette of “watery blues, deep greens, soft pinks, warm yellows, and ocher reinforce a sense of connection” to the natural landscape.
Payson’s 15-foot-long Silkwall, featured in Prints: Breaking Boundaries (curated by Bruce Brown in 2013 at the Portland Public Library), drew the eye and praise of critic Daniel Kany. This “lithograph/drawing hybrid mobilizes the texture aesthetics of a biologically microscopic world to challenge abstract painting,” he wrote in the Maine Sunday Telegram. Kany admired the way the transparent silk floated several inches above the wall on which Payson had drawn similar images “so that—with feints and wit—they echo each other.”
“That each new painting emerges from the same chaotic conditions,” Payson has stated, “speaks to me of the unpredictable complexity and instability of meaningful order in the world, but also of the inevitable, if temporary, moment of finding it.” Pushing this concept further, she has used scans of her non-patterned paintings to make mirrored and multiplied images, “where the ‘wild’ mark starts to disappear into the patterns we love, most explicitly into seeing figures.”
The work in her 2014 exhibition Chiasm: New Work by Meg Brown Payson at Merrimack College, underscores an ambitious vision—uninhibited and fearless. Chiasm gave Payson the opportunity to make work for a specific space, generously offered by David Raymond, director of the college’s McCoy Gallery, at the recommendation of gallerist Mary Harding. “It was a chance to challenge the tradition of landscape painting as seen from a fixed point of view,” she explains.
Payson had been working with the idea of landscape painting as an inhabited space—as opposed to seen through a window—for many years, but the Merrimack installation allowed her to fulfill a dream of creating paintings “big enough to surround the viewer physically.” Inspiration came from diverse sources: the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Monet’s waterlily paintings at the Musée Marmottan in Paris, and Japanese gold-leaved screens she had seen as a child at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston.
Payson viewed Chiasm as a multimedia project that would address landscape as an “exchange between the encultured mind and the wild world.” She included painting, monoprints, digital prints and textiles, often presented at large scale “to fill specific architectural spaces and engage the changing perspectives of a walking human figure.”
Payson describes her process for producing the work in Chiasm:
The paintings and monoprints in the project evolve from the simple/complex interaction of water and pigment poured onto a horizontal ground; the layered shapes and colors are then edited and adjusted until I find a satisfactory composition. I use digital technology to rescale, mirror and multiply selections from the singular works to make additional works printed onto paper and a variety of textiles. In these second generation pieces, the initial “wild” moment becomes obscured by pattern, which in turn seems to reveal new figures and spaces.
The title “Chiasm” comes from the Greek word for cross. Payson chose it for its “varied references to an exchange of information: the crossing-over of genetic material in cell division (chiasmata); the crossing optic nerves in biocular vision (chiasma opticum); and to a repetitive, mirroring pattern used in rhetoric and oral poetry (chiasmus).” Payson notes that philosopher and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty used the term to name his understanding of the interactive dynamics of perception. “This is what interests me,” she says: “how what we know of the wild around us accumulates and evolves; and how perception of that wildness is both informed and blinded by familiarity with the patterns we delight in.”
The works in Payson’s Shift, installed in the Cube Gallery at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, in October 2019, continued her explorations of materials, including suede and organza silk. “The cool thing about digital print technologies,” she writes, “is that they allow the transfer of an image to any number of materials and scales.” As she pursued her painterly process “as an analog to emergence theory and landscape formation,” she made new works directly from that source material.
Payson has always loved textiles. In experimenting with different ways to print on them she learned about a company in New York that does high-end fabric printing for the fashion industry. The company’s owner, Raylene Marasco, recommended she try ultra-suede “for deep, rich color and lovely heft.” Payson was able to take a digital scan of a painting and, by scaling it up and mirroring it along a vertical axis, “make an entirely different image without actually altering any of the specific information in the painting.”
Last year, Payson installed her first piece of public art in the Warren Memorial Sculpture Garden in Westbrook. A project of Westbrook Arts & Culture under the leadership of Caren-Marie Michel, Andy Curran, and Jaime Grant, the garden, designed by landscape architect Peter Burke, features sculptures by Payson, Patrick Plourde, Hugh Lassen, Lise Becu, and Mark Herrington, all of whom reflect on their work in a special video produced for the opening in October.
According to Payson, the committee chose her work for the way it reflects the colors and movement of the Presumpscot River bordering the park. The three steles that comprise the piece were printed verbatim on aluminum from a different section of a single painting, a 15-foot-long multi-panel, horizontal piece titled threegreen/thicket/spruceberry/moss.
The resulting piece, Northwoods Water, writes Payson, “is both a presence and an absence: three figures gathered in one space and three different breaks into a totally different space.” Payson loves the fact that by using a dye-sublimation process of printing on aluminum, “painting can be taken outside,” adding, “The familiar break in a built space (a painting on a wall) becomes a constructed break (a door?) in a landscape space.” Once more, she has expanded our experience of place.
C.L. How does your work relate to the macro/micro theme?
M.B.P. I start my paintings with the potential of liquid paint to pool and puddle as it will depending on different pigment loads and drying conditions. These physical properties establish the given scale of the original paintings. The composition is then organized in both directions from that, establishing larger compositional ideas using broad shifts of value and hue, and developing tiny compositional complexity using smaller and smaller adjustments of shape and color. I know I have hit the compositional sweet spot when the piece works equally well from across the room or inches from my nose.
While my imagery is evocative of natural forms and dynamics, I am careful to keep the visual language descriptive rather than declarative. By offering adjectives rather than nouns, the viewer is able to shift from seeing the telescopic and the microscopic with ease, even while I welcome the ways digitally rescaling and repeating those same images can organize patterns in which it is easy to see nameable forms which are in fact generated totally by chance.
One of the ways that the Warren Park piece is successful lies in the way its scale radically changes the experience of size. The familiar measure of the body in landscape is suddenly much too big for the imagery it’s looking at. Can it really squeeze through that door?
What I have come to call the Alice in Wonderland phenomenon is in fact one of the foundational experiences of my life as an artist. As a child, when very tired and trying to fall asleep, images from the day would shift rapidly back and forth between impossibly tiny to overwhelmingly huge. It was an unsettling experience, like traveling in and out of hyperspace. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t help but try to ride the vision while it was happening and carry it around with me all the next day.
[Payson will be a featured artist along with Dan West at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens this summer. She shows outdoor pieces at June LaCombe’s gallery in Pownal is working with Erin Hutton Projects on a couple of new projects and with identifying additional venues for the Shift exhibition. See more of Payson’s work at www.megbrownpayson.com.]
[This article expands on a profile written for Edgar Allen Beem’s Maine Art New, a book project cancelled last year by the University of Maine Press.]