Emily Leonard Trenholm is a telemark and alpine skier, mountain biker, and stand-up paddleboard surfer, so it makes sense that she would come into her own as an artist working in the outdoors.
During the month of January 2021, Trenholm’s bold, new abstracted landscapes were featured at Bromfield Gallery in Boston, a show she won in a competition for artists who have not previously had a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery.
“Emily’s paintings convey a sense of awe and spontaneity relating to the landscape she directly observes,” says Meg White, director of Gallery NAGA, who selected Trenholm to receive the one-person exhibition. “Not weighed down by expectations of what a landscape should be, they tread a beautiful balance between representation and abstraction.”
Entitled Painting in the Woods, the show consisted of ink, graphite, gouache, and acrylic works on paper that were painted in the woods around Trenholm’s home in Brunswick. With titles such as Fall Pools, Spring Flood, and Ripple, they strike a creative balance between observation and gesture, description and abstraction, emotional response to nature, and deft application of materials.
I have known Emily Leonard Trenholm since she was a girl growing up in Yarmouth. As a teen, she was a downhill racer, softball, and soccer player. I have been following her progress as an artist at a distance since she graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2005. Her maturation as an artist has followed a well-traveled path by which painters find themselves.
Trenholm earned her MFA at Boston University in 2011. There, she studied with John Walker, one of America’s and Maine’s finest painters. Walker’s muddy salt flat abstractions inform Trenholm’s more colorful abstract forest landscapes.
Since graduate school, Trenholm has developed her own style, in part. by spending time at residencies on Monhegan and Great Spruce Head Island, becoming a mother, and teaching drawing at Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick since 2013.
In 2019, Emily Trenholm studied at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with painter Meghan Brady, whose influence can be seen in the mixed media and collaged nature of Trenholm’s new paintings and in the high keyed palette.
“Emily,” Brady remembers, “came to the workshop at Haystack with a quiet intensity that seems to go along with working from observation in nature, which is an inherently chaotic and overwhelming experience (kind of like raising a family) and turned that intensity towards the prompts in the workshop. I remember the drawings being open and experimental and full of life — in keeping with the feeling of the work in the Bromfield show.”
The forces that formed Trenholm’s mature new work are those of motherhood and the social turbulence of the times.
“Becoming a mother had a huge effect on me,” she says. “I have two boys, 21 months apart in age. I continued making work after my first was born, but once I had two, I stopped painting regularly and my creative practice became them.”
Katherine Bradford is one of the painters Trenholm admires most and looks to for how a woman can balance mothering and artmaking. Bradford has become one of the art stars of New York, but there was a time when she, like Trenholm, was a young mother in Brunswick.
“When Emily moved back to Maine I was very happy because I knew we’d get to stay in touch,” says Bradford. “I’d seen her work when I was a visiting artist and she was a getting her MFA at BU. There was something about her paintings that made me ask her if she’d lived in Maine – something about the architecture and placement of the houses in her landscapes. It also made me happy to hear she’d gotten married and had children because that could only make her work and her life even fuller. I tell young women artists today to go ahead and have children and to hang in there because God willing they will reach their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and have plenty of time to be an artist plus they will have the deep joy that comes from raising a family.”
The provocation for getting serious about her art again was the mayhem we have all had to deal with over the past year.
“I hit a breaking point this spring while I was personally confronting the pandemic, racial injustice and the global climate crisis,” Trenholm says. “I started spending days in the woods working from this surging stream behind our house. I had to deal with the emotions I had through paint. The stream offered a steady noise and visual chaos which seemed in line with how I was feeling and the work just came out.”
Trenholm found her visual language evolving in response to what was going on in the world, especially the pandemic.
“Drawing and painting have been the best way for me to process what has occurred in the world this past year,” she writes. “When I began working in response to my emotion this spring, I was trying to make plein air oil paintings. In the past, this way of painting has been my focus. I couldn’t do it. I was frustrated because I wasn’t able to say what I needed to express in my former manner of working. So I returned to drawing. My drawings began to grow in size and soon I was using ink and then watercolor and gouache and eventually introduced acrylic paint. I decided to simplify my subject while working, focusing mostly on the movement of the flowing water tangled with the static aspects of the landscape, rocks, the bank, etc. I noticed my visual language becoming more abstract as I enlarged my mark making. My instinctive shapes, movements and marks remained similar to before but grew in size and changed the aesthetic of my work dramatically.”
Art is way of responding to the phenomenal world and, in troubled times, a way of coping. That’s what I see in Emily Leonard Trenholm’s new work, an artist coping with chaos and doing a splendid job of it.
The coronavirus pandemic made Trenholm “grateful that we have access to the outdoors.” She lives on land that has been in her family for more than 100 years.
“In the fall we spent a lot of time outside building mountain biking trails around our house with our kids,” she says. “This winter, our remote learning days are spent in the mountains of Western Maine. We work when it’s time to work and ski when it’s time to ski. In the early morning or evening, I’ll go ski touring on my own and have started making small paintings during my hikes.”
“For me, the pandemic has highlighted that my work and my family are not separate things,” Trenholm adds. “I agree with Joan Brown’s perspective in that all of the experiences I can gather, whether challenging, joyful, strenuous, loving, etc., will benefit my work. I feel like I’ve always had this notion, but it became more clear to me this past year.”
The integration of art and life is the goal of all serious artists. It is the sign of a mature artist, which is also what I see in Emily Leonard Trenholm.
“Making and witnessing art is part of our human experience and triggers some emotional feeling in every person,” she says. “The more exposure we have to the stories and art of all people, the more we can learn to care for each other.”
[Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. A version of this story appeared in the Portland Phoenix on 10 February 2021.]
Image at top: Emily Leonard Trenholm, Spring Flood, ink, graphite, gouache, and acrylic on paper, 2020.