Abstract painter Hall to discuss ‘trying a little tenderness’ in VACI lecture


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Alison Hall will discuss “Try a Little Tenderness.” at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center.

There are many words to describe the process of painting, but tender is not often one of them.

The intimacy of painting is exactly what Alison Hall will be discussing at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center, in her lecture “Try a Little Tenderness.”

“[The title] is from an Otis Redding song,” Hall said. “In the song, he’s talking about this woman he’s in love with, and how one should treat her with tenderness and devotion.”

This song recently struck a chord with Hall in her reflections on her painting.

“They are very personal things that I make that have a lot of personal metaphor and people and places,” Hall said. “The people I love are definitely in them.”

Hall said the paintings may not appear very personal on the surface. She works mostly on boards prepared with a 13th century Italian plaster recipe, painting abstract designs with oil paint and then drawing regular geometric patterns over top with graphite. These patterns are drawn from medieval Italian artists, particularly the painter Giotto.

The titles of the paintings, though — often taken from Catholic saints or scraps of poetry — show a window into the more personal elements of the work.

“You can title them after saints, and then the saint’s name is maybe someone’s name in my life,” Hall said.  “Or, if the painting reminds me of a saint — I had one painting that was really difficult on my eyes, so I named it Saint Lucy, because she’s the saint that’s portrayed with her eyes in her hands. They’re like an inside joke, I guess.”

Every year, Hall becomes reacquainted with her source material, traveling to the small town of Todi in the Umbria region of Italy.

“I do a lot of research while I’m in Italy, looking at works of art, kind of making these pilgrimages, these annual pilgrimages to see this work,” Hall said. “It’s kind of like my holy land — not that I’m religious.”

Besides Italian medieval painting, Hall is also interested in the idea of repetitive labor, inspired by her blue-collar family background.

“I think a lot about my factory worker and farmer forbearers and how they stayed engaged with what they were doing, even though it was repetitive,” Hall said.

Despite how time intensive her work can be — with 14 layers of plaster to be applied and sanded before the painting even begins — she tries to keep in touch with the work, sometimes breaking a pattern in places or layering different elements in response to the project.

“I make very tender work that’s very much about touch, and kind of a tuned-in relationship to this thing,” Hall said. “[I am] really trying to let go of my ego and the things I know I can do as a painter and tap into what the paintings need.”

There is also a tenderness for Hall outside of the painting, in the community of artists she is a part of — a community that was heavily shaped by her time at the Chautauqua Summer School of the Arts when she was 19.

“[N]ow that I’m living in New York, I see a lot of people that I met when I was here, other painters that are `my age working in the art world,” Hall said. “Also my teachers that I had here, I see them. I just had an opening recently in New York of new paintings, and a lot of my old teachers came.”

This week, she has been able to continue that Chautauqua community, teaching this summer’s young artists, and perhaps sharing a little of her tenderness toward painting with them.

“I teach from observation, which is a little ridiculous because I make abstract paintings,” Hall said. “[But] I really think it allows a person to slow down and become very attentive, which I think is such an important quality, for an artist in particular.”