In ‘Painting the Town,’ Julie Davis Pays Tribute to Johnson Landmarks | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In ‘Painting the Town,’ Julie Davis Pays Tribute to Johnson Landmarks


Published May 1, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

"Red Mill II" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Red Mill II"

A classic prompt for aspiring wordsmiths is "write what you know." For Burlington-based artist Julie Davis, it's "paint what you see." That's why she captured on canvas the village of Johnson, its notable architecture and scenic rivers during a 2013 residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Those images, and others she created more recently, comprise the aptly named exhibit "Painting the Town: Iconic Landmarks of Johnson, Vermont" at Minemå Gallery.

The venue itself is apropos. Minemå is a petite, one-room gallery inside the Vermont Studio Store, which for decades has served resident artists at VSC and student artists at Vermont State University up the hill. Minemå's broad storefront window looks out at the white church, VSC's Red Mill Building and the bridge over the Gihon River depicted in Davis' paintings. The building housing the art supply store itself is the subject of another work.

One painting depicts a structure that no longer exists: Power House was a dilapidated hulk next to a covered bridge on Route 100C. "They had to take it down," Davis said in a phone interview. "They were afraid it was going to fall into the river. That was devastating to me."

"White Church, Johnson" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "White Church, Johnson"

A lot of structures that she's painted over the years are now gone, Davis lamented. The artwork endures as a testament to the state's rural infrastructure and identity.

Studio store owners Kyle Nuse and Michael Mahnke "helped form the idea of the icons of Johnson and painting the town," Davis said. "I didn't really think 'icon' when I painted them. I was painting buildings. It was part of my growth."

Davis, a Vermont native, is a self-taught plein air painter whose devotion to her craft has taught her how to look, how to manipulate paint in all kinds of weather and, along the way, how to distill her subject to an evocative essence. "Naturalistic expressionist" is what she calls her style. Emotion rides in on her active brushstrokes — swooshes of paint that convey a feeling as much as a visual record.

In "White Church," the New England staple and an adjacent bridge are ostensible subjects, but Davis painted the scene like a memory, as if history itself were present as a lush, enveloping haze.

"Red and Purple Barns" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Red and Purple Barns"

The artist's palette is bolder in a small, square painting titled "Red and Purple Barns." The deep red and grape hues of the barns collide with a shouty green field and a sky in multiple expressions of blue. Executed with a palette knife, the strokes are broad and urgent.

"I remember looking at the landscape and saying, What's interesting here is the bright colors," Davis said. It was a sunny but cold spring day, she recalled, so she worked quickly. "I stopped and said, There's my first abstract painting."

Over the past decade, Davis has returned numerous times to Johnson — including to rent a studio space at VSC after the July 2023 flood. Though she's back in Chittenden County, her love for the town's built and natural environments endures. So does its vibe: "The most important thing about Johnson is the kind of people it attracts," Davis said. "Sophisticated artists, young students dreaming of art careers, artists from all over the world seeking a retreat from their daily lives. It truly is magical."

"Painting the Town: Iconic Landmarks of Johnson, Vermont" by Julie Davis is on view through June 8 at Minemå Gallery in Johnson. A talk with the artist and Johnson Historical Society vice president Mary Jean Smith is Sunday, June 2, 2 p.m.

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