The Storyteller Story by Laurel Kornhiser & Candace Hammond Reproduced from La Vie Claire, Claire Murray's Art of Living www.clairemurray.com Fall 2005
He conjures women in moments of graceful concentration, whether drawing a bow across a cello, stitching a quilted blanket, or contemplating a wrinkle in the sea. His still life paintings may stop time in its tracks, but they continue to suggest something beyond themselves, something past, something anticipated. Peter Quidley tells stories visually. Through his work, he invites us to eavesdrop on private thoughts and intimate conversations. He asks us to wonder what a young girl holding pigments is thinking; he invites us to walk alongside two women in flowing white dresses as they head toward a lighthouse. His works possess an elusive quality that transcends the pedestrian as well as time. We are intrigued not only by glowing light emitted by his paintings but by the mysteries and the narrative inquiries that arise. Quidley prefers not to name his paintings, though his son, Chris, also his business manager, insists that he does. “Naming,” he says, “limits a painting to what I am thinking rather than what the person looking at it is thinking,” the soft-spoken Quidley says. He would rather call upon us to participate in the making of meaning with him. He is not interested in mimesis. He does not record what he sees; he creates what he wants to see. His studio and storage space is filled with costumes and props—antique dresses and instruments, marine artifacts and flea market finds—which, like a stage director, he arranges and situates in a scene. Many are family heirlooms with their own stories, and it is this personal connection with both props and with many of his models—at one point his wife, at another point his daughter, Heather, and her friend, Katie—that adds emotional depth and subconscious undercurrents to his work.
Painting ethereal women in long flowing dresses and plump peonies spilling out of antique containers belies some of the extreme experiences that have shaped Quidley and the trajectory of his career, including a year as the chief photographer for the 101st airborne in Vietnam . “It changed my life drastically,” he says. It is no coincidence, he continues, that having witnessed horrendous war scenes, he would choose to inhabit an imaginative world that is peaceful and serene. But the war did more than offer him a counterpoint to the material he would one day paint. It gave him training in photography, which would serve him as he moved on to motion picture photography, including filming news stories for Channel 6 in Providence. It would also act as a tool to help him capture images that he would one day transfer onto canvas. Though he majored in engineering in college, he always knew he wanted to paint. It was in his genes. “My grandmother was a painter; she was the one who really got me started, and all her brothers and sisters were artists,” he says. Quidley has even used pigments, both for the paint itself and as subject matter, that belonged to one of his grandmother's brothers.
As he moved from television news photographer to producer and news director, Quidley found his life becoming more stressful and his desire to paint more compelling. In the late 1970s, he answered a blind ad for jobs in Saudi Arabia. His goal was to go there for a couple of years, make enough money to return to Cape Cod, home of many ancestors and relatives, build a house on land his grandparents had given him, and finally paint full time. He did get a job and, with his young family, moved to the Middle East in 1978, working as a filmmaker and painting portraits of kings and other royals. His closest neighbor was Idi Amin. Quidley found himself, ironically, in a place where both painting and photography were frowned upon. Islam objects to the representation of the human image. Working in public spaces was inherently dangerous: “I was almost deliberately run over a couple of times because I was painting or had a camera,” Quidley recalls. During one desert stop, he was actually arrested and taken to Mecca. To avoid exposure, he started working with a spy camera, which took only slides. To work from those required looking at the slide through a jeweler's loop and hustling back to his canvas to paint an element before his mental picture of it dissipated.
Quidley still uses a camera and has a file cabinet filled with slides depicting images he may need for a work. If he requires a certain cloud formation or slant of light, he simply pulls a slide. Today he works with a digital camera, never leaving home without it, even when he takes his daily walk around the block with his constant companion, Moxie, his bichon frise.
An award-winning artist, Quidley paints every day; he says he has to, working from nine to five to produce about a half dozen pieces a year, some commissioned. Chris says his father is very discipline: “He's very particular, and he's incredibly patient, so if it takes him two weeks to do something like a hand, he will do it.” While Chris handles marketing and Peter's wife, Pam, creates the water gilded frames for his art, freeing Peter to focus on painting, this wasn't the case when Quidley returned from the Middle East. Making the transition to full-time artist was challenging. Quidley spent many weekends selling his paintings at the Wellfleet Flea Market in those early days. He knew he had to change his marketing strategy after listening to a potential customer hem and haw for forty-five minutes about purchasing an $800 painting that she mistakenly thought cost $8.00. Quidley cast his net for patrons across the water on Nantucket, where his work was sold successfully for many years.
Other aspects of his approach have changed over the years as well. Mostly self-taught, Quidley at first worked largely in the abstract realm, but a visit to a museum, where he studied paintings by the Dutch masters and Americans John Singer Sargent and William Paxton, not only convinced him that there were stories to be told through portraiture but that viewers responded emotionally and viscerally to these works. He also credits the movie Reds with inspiring him to create his signature scenes of women in long white dresses walking the beach. These images sold immediately, and Quidley quickly realized he had found a new direction for his talent. For years, Quidley primarily painted women in white dresses. “About twenty years ago, I bought a lot of white dresses at flea markets and stayed with neutrals because of the way they worked with skin color. I tried to stay away from bold color.” That is now changing. When his daughter's friend gave him cast-off costumes from the University of Massachusetts' Shakespeare productions, he reconsidered his stance. “Now I have a lot more directions in which I can go. Strong color will reflect off a face and influence the light.” In an effort to better control and foreground the luminosity for which his paintings are known, Quidley switched from canvas to panels a number of years ago. “With canvas,” he explains, “you have bumps, little tiny shadows. With panels, it's almost a glass-like finish.” He coats the panels with gesso and marble dust, the final layer being marble dust. “It has a bite, a tooth that the paint can adhere to, but it also wears down the brushes, so I have thousands of brushes that I have used.” When a painting is finished, Quidley often takes a few of those brushes and attaches them to the back of the painting, giving its purchaser a special memento. Between layers of paint, Quidley buffs and sands, and without varnish achieves a high gloss finish. “There's a lot more luminosity that way. The light can penetrate the pigments and reflect off the ground and the white gesso.”
Technique accounts for the surface light seen on Quidley's panels, but his paintings also seem to glow from an internal light source, whose origins are in the man himself. Quidley is engaged with his world, historically, emotionally, visually. He draws on his family's rich maritime heritage for some of his subjects. His father was a fisherman, one grandfather was a lighthouse keeper, and other ancestors were whaling captains. Through this lineage, he connects to the mysteries of the sea. But his focus easily moves from the sublime that is the sea to the wonder that is the hand as it plays an instrument or links a stitch. Most engaging of all is the mind or mood of the subject and ultimately the creator that is its source. Quidley seduces us into imaginary worlds where asking questions is as important as finding answers.