Artist At Work: Dahlov Ipcar at 90
By Steve Cartwright
In the vivid world of Dahlov Ipcar’s art, there are few people — but lots of other life, wild and domestic. Prancing zebras, long-beaked birds and curvaceous cats cavort in a colorful jungle, while docile cows graze or chickens strut — a mix of the real and imagined.
The artist turned 90 on Nov. 12, 2007. And on that day, a solo show of 25 recent paintings, all but a couple from the past two years, opened at Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport. One screen print, Maine in Winter, when she was 17. The show runs through December 28.
Artist Tom Crotty, long-time Ipcar admirer, operates Frost Gully. He has handled Ipcar’s works for 35 years, and said he is honored to do so: “Dahlov Ipcar anchors one of the outer boundaries of Maine's rich and varied world of the visual arts. She nourishes the notion that Maine art is not provincial, narrow or predictable. Rather it is, like her work, about our planet and the life that exists and thrives on it. Great Maine art is not so much about Maine as it is about those fundamental but sublime aspects of life which artists seem to glean out of this often harsh, and sometimes warm, region.”
Ipcar, who has lived on a Georgetown Island farm for much of her life, continues to rise early and paint daily, creating ordered yet uninhibited works that speak of her passion for all living things, animals and plants in particular. She frequently uses geometric patterns to define areas of her paintings. Light plays across her paintings in orange and yellow, offset by blacks and greens. These primary colors seem to represent primary things: our environment and the interaction of living things within it.
|"To me, each painting I start is a challenge and a mystery to be solved,” Ipcar said. “Some artists say they want to simplify their work as much as possible: they want "to avoid problems." I feel that problems are what make it all interesting. Sometimes it is an exhausting struggle, but it is always exciting. As I work on a painting it is like a continually changing kaleidoscope of composition, color, meanings.”
Dahlov Ipcar helped run a dairy with her late husband Adolph, and the two of them were strong conservationists, anti-nuclear activists. They grew and canned their own vegetables, living off the land and later helping to preserve waterfront property for townspeople.
Born in Windsor, Vermont in 1917, Dahlov Ipcar is the daughter of two artists, sculptor William Zorach and painter Marguerite Zorach. The family, including her brother Tessim, lived in Greenwich Village where Dahlov first began painting while attending City & Country School, a place that emphasized individual and cooperative learning, not grades.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art gave her a solo show when she was just 21. She attended progressive high schools and then Oberlin College, leaving it to marry Adolph Ipcar. She met him at the Zorach summer homestead in Georgetown, where he worked as a farmhand and where they rode horses together.
Dahlov by Tom Jones
They lived modestly and purposefully, raising two sons, garden vegetables, hay and assorted animals. They struggled financially in the early years, starting out together in the Great Depression. Son Bob, father of four, lives with his wife in Brooklyn. Son Charlie, a folksinger and environmental activist, lives with his wife in Richmond, Maine.
Dahlov Ipcar won two commissions for murals at post offices in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Later she began illustrating children’s books, then writing a series of her own, plus some stories for older readers, too.
One Horse Farm, based on their farm experience, was published in 1950 and stayed in print for the next 30 years. Other books followed, including Brown Cow Farm, Hard Scrabble Harvest, and Losterman. She has written and illustrated more than two-dozen books.
She turned stuffed animals she made for her sons into a soft-sculpture art form, reflected in her book, Calico Jungle.
Dahlov Ipcar has received accolades critical acclaim, honorary degrees and a “living legacy award” that turned out to be a Maine coon cat.
For the artist, success builds financial comfort, but true gratification comes from doing what you enjoy doing, what’s important to you.
Whether zebra, cat, chicken or favorite horse, Ipcar’s style is imbued with a gentle, joyful simplicity that tugs at the child within us — as if to say, come ride away with me, come explore an entrancing world that is only as far away as Ipcar’s vibrant art.
Dahlov said she has never literally been in a jungle, or even traveled far from home. But that, like her lack of formal training, hasn't held her back. Her work embodies freedom and creativity. Her imagination is free to roam — like the horses she rode as a girl. You can see the young artist’s vision in the painted walls of a childhood bedroom in Georgetown, a mural that is still there. Her style has evolved and as a mature artist she is poised, wryly intellectual, socially and politically liberal, and endearingly funny.
She tells the story of when one of her paintings was stolen from a group show, and a fellow Maine artist complained, “Why didn’t they steal one of mine?”
In 2001, Dahlov was the subject of a retrospective show at the Portland Museum of Art called “Seven Decades of Creativity.” It featured her art with a companion museum show of works by her parents.
In Dahlov’s art, nothing seems out of place. Tigers stalk sedately through the rooms of a house; elephants trot with deer. She has somehow managed to keep in touch with the child within. So many of us lose the ability to run, laugh and shout — figuratively and literally.
We age and we often cease to explore, to see things in different light — to step off the path. Dahlov isn’t as limber as she once was, but her wild animals leap and cavort across the canvas, a dance of joy.
Dahlov paints with distinct vision. She fills her art with angles, planes, juxtaposed images, achieving a playful symmetry, a sense of balance and harmony.
A circle of two cats could be the circle of life, a yin and yang; the patterns of leaves could be the design of our lives. There is a balance of make-believe and real, but who knows where one stops and the other starts?
Dahlov gently makes us believers, drawing us into her imagined jungle. Follow me, she seems to say. Come play in a paradise. Taste the fruit, ride the horse, let yourself feel fully alive and let your spirit soar.
Dahlov takes you by the hand, leads you deep into her love of nature, the zany exuberance of childhood, the pure sensuality of art uninhibited by formal training, or rigid artistic convention.
The animals that inhabit Dahlov’s world are charming but also independent. They appear as purposeful and self-assured as the artist herself.
There’s a wild imagination at work here. It shows in these recent paintings from an artist who continues to create work with passion and a distinct vision.
A reception for the artist is planned Sunday, Nov. 11, 4-6 p.m., at Frost Gully Gallery. It’s located northeast of Freeport at 1159 Route One. Hours are 12-5, Monday through Friday. Phone 865-4505. Web: www.frostgullygallery.com
Steve Cartwright, like Dahlov Ipcar, grew up in Greenwich Village and graduated from City & Country School. He welcomes all comment. Email: email@example.com