“Each painting begins with a vintage, black and white photograph that captures an incidental moment in time. The shadows, poses, and fragments, from an unknowable past, feel compelling to me; and while I paint from someone else’s gaze, the images pass through me and become mine. As each piece evolves from my own choice of color, stroke, perspective, and composition, I create a personal context and meaning, While I am interested in the nonverbal aspect of memory, in a personal way, I am intrigued by the collectiveness of it. I want my paintings to tap into a longing for familiarity as they tell stories that connect uniquely.”
Boston artist, Beth Dacey. In a nutshell.
Photographs help us to remember. When loved ones are no longer around, just a simple glance at a photograph of your grandmother holding your hand at the duck pond, is all it takes for you to feel transported back to that moment in time and overcome with dreamy nostalgia. We all have family photos, and they all contain subjects of some sort, but the most impactful ones are those imbued with an intangible essence of sentiment. Maybe it’s the way your hands connected, or the smile on your Nana’s face, or the way your pudgy baby legs are frozen in time plodding along next to your grandmother’s slender frame, but these quieter elements of a photograph are what fleshes out our memories, completing the image in our minds of a moment that has long since passed. Beth Dacey, a local painter who works out of her SoWa studio in the South End, possesses the remarkable ability to harness these subtleties and translate them onto canvas.
For many years, Beth’s primary focus was on raising her family, studying English, and teaching writing/literature at Boston College–all while managing to satiate her creative side through crafts, interior design, and painting lessons at the MFA and deCordova. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when the artist moved into her own dedicated creative space at 450 Harrison Avenue, that Beth was fully able to immerse herself in the Arts and further explore her passion for painting.
Many of Beth’s earlier works are acrylic based, using lots of glaze and painting on papers and canvases, but after taking a few classes at the MFA, the artist was drawn to her current medium of oils. The way the pigment moves lends itself well to her painterly style, a looseness which in her words evolved from many years of experimentation, “the more I paint, the less I worry.”
The use of vintage photographs as a basis for her pieces, was also a decision that evolved naturally over time.
“When I started out, I painted lots of still life and some landscapes..never abstract. I love to look at abstracts but can’t find my way there, myself. Landscapes are also not for me. I guess I need to connect to my “characters”. The funny thing about still life, for me, is that the objects are like people. They are characters and there can be a tension between them.”
In rendering only select parts of a photograph’s composition, she is almost creating a still life in itself; Adding elements that enhance a piece, while removing those that distract. In working primarily with black and white photographs, Beth explores with the use of color in her compositions, imbuing the scenes with hues that play out inside her head.
“I have always loved color. In a ridiculous way, working with black and white photos brings me back to the excitement of my 108 color tray of Crayola Crayons and coloring books. Complete freedom of color. But, of course, the colors help to convey the emotions of the figures, the juxtaposed colors create tensions and mood, so really, I am using them to say a lot. I should say, when painting a commissioned piece, I will occasionally incorporate a favorite color of the subject or client, but only if it works in the painting.”
(Men at Lake II)
One aspect of Beth’s work that has always intrigued me, is her unique ability to seamlessly incorporate a vibrant pigment into her piece. A bold under-painting blazing out beneath an otherwise neutral toned composition. The artist favors the color “red” when trying to achieve this look.
“It defines, contrasts, or just brings some heat to my often cool or drab colors. But, in relation to meaning..I think a moment can seem one thing (calm, boring, sad, sweet) when something else, a conflicting of contrasting feeling, is just under the surface..I use it to create or imply tension. I just saw the play, ‘Red’, and it illustrated so much about this…especially just how loaded the color “red” is. It brings life and energy, especially when it is next to, in Rothko’s case in the play, ‘black’.”
(On the Rocks)
In addition to Beth’s personal projects, the artist’s commissioned pieces account for a large part of her current portfolio. While learning the details and characteristics of a client’s loved one prior to painting is like “seeing the movie before she reads the book”, commission pieces invite her to be a part of someone else’s family in an intimate way. On Beth’s site, her commission page explains that her “ultimate goal is to find and recreate the emotional energy and quiet narrative that exists within your precious photograph.” On the few occasions I have been present in her studio, there is without fail one or two individuals approaching the artist, old weathered photo in hand, requesting that she breathe new life into their memories. It’s more than just a painting, it is a resurrection of sorts and a hefty task to undertake.
“Some of my commissions have been pretty emotional. But I should say that all of my paintings end up being emotional for me. I immerse myself into another life, usually one that has ended. To bring them back to life is powerful, for me.”
While Beth’s paintings render someone else’s memories, you can’t help but feel an unshakable connection with these painted characters. “Faux-nostalgia” seems too trite a phrase to explain the sentiment, as the pangs you feel are real. And the figures don’t feel like strangers either. They invite you to be a part of their birthday party, the family picnic, the walk around the duck pond, that special moment in time – right alongside them.