In 'Living Color,' Bonnie Acker’s Paintings Offer Solace | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In 'Living Color,' Bonnie Acker’s Paintings Offer Solace

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Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


"A Distance Drawing Us" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "A Distance Drawing Us"

Standing in a gallery surrounded by paintings by Bonnie Acker is highly recommended. You may find you want nothing more than to lay on the floor and soak it all in. "It," in this case, is a roomful of natural beauty — floral and landscape paintings that gently invite you to breathe and calm the heck down. This is artwork as meditation. This is, at least momentarily, a reprieve from the unrelenting horrors of the world.

That is exactly Acker's aim. In her current solo exhibition at Shelburne's Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery, the Burlington artist and activist offers 17 large and small works — oils on paper or linen — that soothe the soul. Most are abstracted landscapes with beckoning mountains; a few depict soft-focus clusters of exuberant poppies or pointy purple lupines.

Yet these images are not merely decorative. Acker is a masterful colorist, and the layered hues that define ground and sky in her scenes fairly crackle with energy. You can spend long moments engaged with the playful textures in her clouds or diving into an expanse of luminous aquamarine. There's a reason her show is titled "Living Color."

Acker moved to Burlington with her husband, John Davis, in 1986. He's a cofounder of Burlington Associates in Community Development and a leader in the community land trust movement. She's the artist behind zillions of posters, donated paintings for auctions and book illustrations in support of her favorite nonprofits. In addition to Champlain Housing Trust, these include the Intervale Community Farm and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. If her paintings offer escape, her activist artworks promote engagement and problem-solving.

"Clear Beauty" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "Clear Beauty"

Acker has also lent her green thumb to flower gardens around Burlington, including at the downtown City Market, Onion River Co-op and Fletcher Free Library. On November 4, 2013, the City of Burlington acknowledged her community service in a declaration of Bonnie Acker Day.

Now approaching 74, Acker says that the gratitude she receives for her artworks helps to keep her own distress at bay. In a phone conversation, she shared her thoughts about color, holding steady and letting go.

In your artist statement, you note that after more than 50 years as an illustrator and 35 as a painter, you've been able to find your voice. What is that voice saying?

I think that artists play a pivotal role in connecting despair and hope. Many people can do this, but I think artists have a unique voice in addressing despair and saying we can do better than we're doing. I'm so grateful I've been one of the people who can be a bridge.

Why do you love the color turquoise so much?

Everyone has an innate tendency for favorite colors, music, foods and so on. When I see turquoise, it makes me content; it makes my heart happy.

I love that color, too. But it's not exactly native, so to speak, in Vermont.

Sometimes it's true in a distant mountain or a really clear stream. Or you can just use your imagination!

"Hillside Blooming" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "Hillside Blooming"

Really, you seem to have a way with all the colors.

I just use what makes me feel content — anything but a picnic-table green. And I don't use much black.

Are there other artists, other colorists that you particularly admire or have learned from?

Good question. I have an interesting perspective: When I have an opportunity to do art with kids, that's who I learn from. They are so fresh with their ideas about what colors to use. It's always magical with young people.

All of your paintings — or at least the ones on exhibit at Furchgott Sourdiffe — are of the natural world. I know that your collages and illustrations are generally figurative, but have you ever painted people or the built environment?

I've never painted people. I have painted rural scenes with barns, but I've enjoyed those because of the setting — places that help to give Vermont its character.

My illustration work over 50 years has mostly used people, and I've certainly gotten more diverse, [featuring] different cultures. I added a hijab to one of the figures on [a recent poster]. My work as an illustrator of people has become more expansive and descriptive.

In a conversation we had years ago, you said you painted scenes from memory. Do you ever paint en plein air?

Not really. Thirty years ago, I would do pastels outside because they're dusty and toxic. When I moved to oil paintings, they have to be done in a dust-free environment, so I paint at my kitchen table and from memory. I can walk or drive by and see a scene, and it's just in my mind.

You surely draw inspiration from flower gardens, and yet your images seem to be out in the wild, no?

There are paintings [in the exhibition] of lupines and poppies — I love them; they're so transitory. They encourage me to look at them for more than just a moment.

Is it fair to say you're more interested in color and composition than capturing a specific place?

I think that's true. And I have evolved the paintings over the last 10 years. I used to be more [focused] on a specific meadow and looking at specific mountains. I've evolved to making the scenes more universal.

"The Giving Land" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "The Giving Land"

Your landscape paintings seem to follow a kind of formula for conveying foreground, middle distance, horizon, sky. I don't mean "formula" in a pejorative way, but I'm wondering if that's a technique you learned or if you're just following what your eye sees.

In every scene, there is one line — the horizon — and above that there is the limitless sky. And then I try to draw in what I see in the middle distance and something closer. Your question is so interesting because that is how I see my life as an artist-activist. I'm always thinking about the goals and the future, thinking about what is successful for organizing.

You've already alluded to this, but how do you hope viewers will respond to your work?

Over 50 years with illustrations, I hoped that messages for grassroots groups would help them be successful.

With the paintings — I originally didn't intend for them to have any use, or even for people to see them. They were for me to experiment. But in the last few years, I hope people will see a landscape from me and feel steadied, because things in the world are just horrific. If a painting of mine makes people feel that way, that is such a gift for me.

How do you respond to your work? How does it make you feel when you've completed a piece?

Once I finish a landscape, I have started the process of letting it sail out into the world. When it's done and I scratch my name into it, I let a painting go, then I can go on to the next one. It's the same with the illustrations for organizations. I have to let go of them, too.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Steady Hand"