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Eyewitness: Dusty Boynton

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Dusty Boynton declares that when she first began painting, at age 52, what emerged on the paper “looked like it was done by a 5-year-old.” Just a year later, in 1988, a New York Times review said she had “a childlike style that isn’t childish.” (It’s noteworthy that Boynton so quickly had an exhibit to be reviewed, and favorably.) What’s the difference between childlike and childish? A discerning viewer can pick up on the intelligence, wit and wisdom in Boynton’s loosely drawn yet emotive human and animal forms. But you also could say she has, over her late-blooming career, totally nailed painting like a 5-year-old.

And you could imagine Picasso nodding with approval. “Every child is an artist,” he famously said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Boynton, it seems, has blithely ignored that problem — along with the expectation that adults must make “mature” art. She is fully capable of doing so, as her realistic paintings in a recent catalog reveal. Instead, Boynton chooses to go at a blank surface with curiosity, openness and a great deal of energy. She likes the expression “abandoned but set free.” This from a woman whose previous (and lucrative) creative pursuit was making sophisticated miniature tableaux from wood in exacting 1:12 proportions.

Over brunch at the Bee’s Knees in Morrisville, Boynton announces that she doesn’t like to talk about her work. In fact, she confesses, she hadn’t really wanted to meet with a reporter; her dealer talked her into it. But Boynton’s warm and gregarious nature wins out and, little by little, she reveals how she came to painting. She attributes three other words to Picasso that impressed her: “trust, trust, trust.” Along with the Spanish master, a community-workshop art teacher Boynton encountered years ago inspired her to have faith in what she produced. “I follow my heart and my subconscious and let the painting go where it’s going,” she says.

Boynton is not the only artist to make this claim about her process. To be sure, the unfettered nature of her work is part of its appeal. But something else is at play here. Her paintings at first glance are joyous; at second glance, a sly seduction unfolds. From the scribbled portraits, personalities and attitudes emerge.

The Hyde Park, Vt.-based artist, who will be 77 in December, exhibits and sells her work at Denise Bibro Fine Art in Manhattan, and for handsome sums. But the longtime former board member of the Vermont Studio Center recently had her first-ever exhibit in her adopted state, at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. That show presented about a dozen of Boynton’s works — a selection curated by Rachel Moore — including large-scale paintings, special-edition prints and what Boynton calls “structured reliefs.”

These last are reminiscent of children’s books in which the pages are divided horizontally in thirds, and the figures on them can be arranged in preposterous, giggle-inducing combinations. Boynton does just that with her reliefs: Having drawn heads, torsos and legs separately on paper and cut them out, she affixes random trios together in a process one imagines is just plain fun — for example, in “Scoop,” the head of a brown dog with cocked ears and rosy cheeks; the torso of a female with a cropped yellow shirt, holding an ice cream cone; and the crossed legs of an elephant wearing a mini-skirt.

Fun, yes, but gaze on these mongrel figures for a while, and you can’t help but ponder Boynton’s intentions. Is there a statement here? Does it mean anything that a “lady” with a flower-bedecked hat, pearls and a neat ponytail has a huge, avian beak, chicken legs and, most audaciously, bare breasts with bright-pink nipples? Boynton has banked her memories — from a childhood growing up on a farm in Amherst, Mass.; a stint with her first husband in a “community of tennis and beach houses”; and raising four children with her second husband, Sam Boynton, in New Jersey — and unleashed them in her characters.

Boynton’s gleefully expressive work does not stand out because it makes you look, wonder and look some more. Rather, it stands out precisely because it is so gleefully expressive. Untrained in the academic sense — that community workshop was her only art class — Boynton packs a lot into scrawled lines and slashy brushwork.

Many of her paintings are raw and crudely executed, à la art brut. Others are more carefully rendered, including a remarkable family-portrait-style composition titled “Photoshoot.” In the 58-by-72-inch oil on linen, a white cat in a dress with yellow polka-dots stares wild-eyed at the viewer, while an impassive brown, doglike critter with dreadlocks grips her possessively. On their respective laps are a smaller brown dog and a black rooster. At the back, a large blue bird with a spatulate beak faces away; poking in from the right is a stout pink pig. You recognize traits in this “family.”

With their own brood grown and raising grandkids, Dusty and Sam Boynton preside over a small menagerie in Hyde Park: an affectionate black cockapoo, a queenly cat and two adorable donkeys. Their home is exquisite and comfortable, filled with art and antiques; out back are lovely gardens and a sumptuous mountain view. But it’s in her high-ceilinged studio, facing a blank canvas, where Boynton is most inspired. “I can’t wait to get up in the morning,” she says. “I’m forever grateful that you find a passion at 52 years old.”

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