Blue Ledge Farm's Hannah Sessions on Life as a Farmer and Painter | Talking Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Blue Ledge Farm's Hannah Sessions on Life as a Farmer and Painter

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"Transfiguration Farm II" - COURTESY OF HANNAH SESSIONS
  • Courtesy Of Hannah Sessions
  • "Transfiguration Farm II"

Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt, the founders and owners of Salisbury's Blue Ledge Farm, met as undergrads at Bates College in Maine. During a semester studying art and culture in Florence, Italy, the couple began dreaming of farming, as well as making and selling artisan cheese.

"Food is really one of our greatest expressions," Sessions said. "We don't have to create such delicious food, but we do. And what does that say about humanity? That it's not enough just to exist. We want to enjoy our time."

In 2000, Sessions and Bernhardt founded Blue Ledge Farm and began raising goats. Today, they care for some 200 animals and sell cheese across the Northeast. They also both still make art. Sessions recently showed a collection of oil paintings depicting barns and farmscapes washed in pale light at Northern Daughters gallery in Vergennes.

Sessions traces her journey as an artist back to her school days at Middlebury Union High School. Her work plays with shadows and displays an intimate relationship with animals and the land.

Pointing to a long history of farmer-artists, Sessions said she thinks the two professions complement each other well. Both share in active creation, but art offers the opportunity to freeze a single moment in time, while farming is always about the long haul.

Sessions spoke with Seven Days by phone about art, farming and balancing the two to create a fulfilling life.

"Line of Cows in Winter" - COURTESY OF HANNAH SESSIONS
  • Courtesy Of Hannah Sessions
  • "Line of Cows in Winter"

SEVEN DAYS: How do you think your experience as artists and your creative inclinations have influenced the way you and Greg go about farming?

HANNAH SESSIONS: Sometimes the two seem at odds with one another. But they're more connected than you might think, in terms of thinking outside the box and problem solving in creative ways. I think it has also helped us to craft a story — designing our labels and thinking about the aesthetics of how we market our product.

In the day to day, I think it also helps our view from 30,000 feet, in terms of what our mission is with our business. It's not just to milk animals and make a product. It's to create something special that brings meaning to people's lives.

SD: Your work showcases your intimate relationships with these animals. Has painting them changed the way you see them or your relationship with them?

HS: It definitely makes me appreciate their nuances. Generally, I think being a painter adds richness to life. When you see the world as a painter, it never seems mundane. I'm not saying I am living in that state all the time. But you really can get into that flow state as a painter. It does make you appreciate shapes and light. And it just brings a richness to all relationships.

SD: Farming is well-known as a 24-hour job. How do you make time and space for art?

HS: It's never easy. While the farming and the art kind of feed each other, it's also a constant struggle between the two.

I'm thinking about my paintings all the time. The number of hours I actually spend sitting at my easel or my desk is maybe six hours a week — on an amazing week, 10 hours. My actual time with a paintbrush in my hand is pretty small.

But I'm thinking about it all the time. And I'm seeing things. I'm thinking, How would I paint that? And so, generally, when I do sit down to paint, it's just almost immediately a flow state.

Hannah Sessions with a painting of her goats - COURTESY OF HANNAH SESSIONS
  • Courtesy Of Hannah Sessions
  • Hannah Sessions with a painting of her goats

Ever since I started this business, and then also became a parent, I have to be incredibly efficient with my time. I am able to train myself to instantly get absorbed in what I'm doing. It doesn't always work. You can't have too many things that are left undone. I have to address the practical needs of the farm first before I can really invest emotional energy into my art.

I came across a quote recently from Leslie Takahashi. She said, "The margins hold the center." I absolutely love that. What are you thinking about a lot of the time? What are you passionate about? That's really who you are.

I have found I have to commit to shows. I have to give myself deadlines. My art would always be put to the side if I didn't have a deadline that I'd committed to.

SD: Do we always wish that the art would just magically happen on its own? Of course, but that's not how it works.

HS: I'm not at a place in life yet where I can be completely self-indulgent. I'm in my forties. We're in the trenches, you know? Thankfully, I have people who will give me deadlines and who are asking for my work, and then it forces me to have to do it.

SD: Do you paint from photos or from life?

HS: Nowadays I paint from photos. Sometimes I will paint from life — I do acrylic gouache studies on paper. But all my oil painting is done in the studio. It's just too messy to work outside. I really love painting in my studio and feel like I can focus on more of the feeling in the painting when I'm in a controlled environment.

SD: There's also less opportunity for you to be called away to another task.

HS: Yes, that's true, too. I originally had my studio in the upstairs of one of our barns. And it was way too distracting. I heard the goats all the time. What's going on? Do they need me? Is somebody stuck? What's that? Now I can't even see the barn from my studio, and that's important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Find Sessions' work at the Northern Daughters Annex in Shelburne, the Woodstock Gallery in Woodstock and at hannahsessionsfineart.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Double Duty"

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