When it comes to painting, Poultney artist Ruth Hamilton tends to create fantastical, richly colored landscapes. But lately, she's flirted with a sillier subject: the lovable characters from her favorite British comedies.
Hamilton donated a series of portraits — including ones of the king of awkward, Mr. Bean; misanthropic hotel manager Basil Fawlty; and "Keeping Up Appearances'" Hyacinth Bucket (it's pronounced Bouquet) — to Brandon's new Compass Music and Arts Center.
The paintings were auctioned off last month at several Vermont Public Television Britcom Tea events, during which Anglophiles select which British television shows VPT will air in the coming year.
Hamilton made note-card versions of the paintings, too, which you can buy here. Proceeds benefit the Compass Music and Arts Foundation.
Seven Days caught up with Hamilton over email to find out more about the project.
SEVEN DAYS: When (and why) did you decide to start painting Britcomcharacters?
RUTH HAMILTON: That was a lark on my part. Stephen and Edna Sutton's Brandon Music, where I haveshown art, became the hosts for a Britcom Tea. [The Suttons are the organizing force behind CMAF.] I thought it would be fun to do portraits of some of the actorsto auction at the event to raise a little money, both for the Compass Music and Arts Foundation and VPT. It grew into a larger auction travelingto each tea VPT offered. It was fun to do. Took up some of thoselong Vermont winter hours!
SD: What's your favorite awkward Mr. Bean moment? (Mine is whenhe goes out to a birthday dinner by himself, orders the steak tartare, and thenspends the rest of the episode trying to get rid of it by hiding it in various inappropriatelocations.)
RH: There is a scene in one episode where he wants to goswimming at a beach, which is down a steep dune. He gets down, still inhis trousers, hoping to change into his suit on the beach, which he thought would be deserted. Well, he gets down and there is a man in a lawn chair, so he manages to puthis suit on and take off his trousers without exposing himself. It was areal contortionist feat and, of course, embellished with his malleable face. Still makes me weep I laugh so hard.
SD: It's always nice to see art with a sense of humor. How isthe process of painting something like a Britcom portrait different than, say,painting a contemplative landscape?
RH: I’m not sure. It isn’t the same. Lighter, but ofcourse I wanted them to be nice and fun and recognizable, so I workedat that. The process is the same in respect to choosing color andfiguring a composition that works. But it is with a lighter spirit, I think. It was infected by those hilarious characters.
SD: Your bio is so intriguing. Before returning to your home state of Vermont in 2001, you worked inmaximum-security prisons. What kind of work did you do, and where?
RH: I worked at Great Meadow [Correctional Facility, in Comstock, N.Y.] as a registered nurse. Then moved to Wallkill [Correctional Facility in N.Y.] for a short time, andthen was nurse administrator at Downstate Correctional Facility. Istarted the prison work looking for a day job. I had four children and couldn’tbe away evenings, and it was impossible to get a day job as a recent grad. It was an eye opener.
SD: Has your work as a registered nurse, and your experiences intrauma centers and prisons, influenced your art in any way?
RH: I think the diversity of people that you get to care for isvery powerful. It is a very intimate and emotional level of connectionone would not make in our “usual” world. We meet people from all walks oflife, all ages, ethnicities, religions, etc.
It also makes one very awareof the capricious and arbitrary luck of the draw. So, I think it certainlyfeeds the creative life.
It certainly fostered mydevotion to art. It simplified values and made what I treasured as lifeforces, nurturing life forces, a focus of my art.
I didn’t think aboutit consciously, though. I was just working hard, raising a family andtrying to make art as I was driven to do. I wrote poetry, as well — it wascheaper than paint and canvas during those years.
SD: You're on the board of the Compass Music and Arts Foundation. What are some of your hopes/visions/goals for that neworganization?
RH: Success, No. 1. The Suttons are amazing peopleand have taken on a huge endeavor with the building on top of their ownbusinesses. They are incredibly able and generous people, with greatvision. I’d like to see the foundation be able to support the communityby bringing the resources and expertise to enable programs to happen.
I’mparticularly interested in the children’s and general educational programming. Children are getting short shift these days regarding art. People don’t think of how integral art is to life, creativity in general. So, I think the pleasure of having arts there is great, but the educationalaspects for the public at large, especially children, are huge. It is veryexciting.
SD: What are you working on now?
RH: Personally, I’m working on helping establishan exhibit space for the history of the Brandon Training School. CompassMusic and Arts Center is in the former building K of that school, which closedin 1993. We want to gather stories from former residents andworkers. Plus, we are looking for volunteers to help with this project.
Images: Rowan Atkinson, "Mr. Bean"/"The Thin Blue Line"; Martin Clunes, "Doc Martin"; Dawn French, "The Vicar of Dibley"; Onslow and Daisy, "Keeping up Appearances."