Sara MacCulloch: Beach Rocks with Sand
The summer of 2020 has been unique in living memory. Never have so many Nova Scotians spent their summers so close to home. The traffic on the roads tells us there are few visitors from away. Although many would like to travel, there is little hardship in staying put in Nova Scotia. Our license plates proclaim it “Canada’s Ocean Playground” and we are putting that into practice this year. Our renewed appreciation of our province should also extend to our artists. Sara MacCulloch is one of our foremost landscape painters. She perennially returns to the subject of our beaches and coasts, creating beautiful evocations of these places. Her spare depictions of vacant Nova Scotia beaches have resonance with the current moment.
MacCulloch is working in a landscape tradition that stretches back to the Impressionists. We can also see a touchstone for her work in the coastal Maine landscapes of Fairfield Porter in mid-century America. Like her predecessors she prioritizes light over detail. With our mercurial climate, the light at the shore is an ever-changing resource for her.
Beach Rocks with Sand (2013) is from a series of oil paintings she made after visiting Kejimkujik Seaside National Park on the South Shore. The park is a day access preserve of wild coastline with un-manicured white crescent beaches. MacCulloch painted plein air watercolour sketches on site at the park that were later reimagined in oil on canvas in the studio.
Beach Rocks with Sand is 122.2 cm squared or 4 by 4 feet. The top half of the painting is a low grey sky with thin clouds that hint at the sun just above them. The middle of the painting is tan patches of sand and ribbons of emerald and seafoam green describing the treeless barrens receding into the far distance where sporadic green triangles indicate fog swept conifers. The bottom of the painting is the grey sand with staccato horizontal brush strokes of white and olive drab denoting rocks and seaweed. A wedge of paint reaching in from the right is the water lapping the shore. This beach painting is disinterested in the ocean. The viewer looks down the crescent shoreline into a verdant pastel landscape. It is an arrangement of tans, taupes, greys and greens that create the feeling of the oceanside with low thin clouds and rolling mist that could evaporate at any moment. One can easily imagine smelling the salt air and hearing the surf and seagull cries.
This ability to make us feel we are seeing or remembering the scene the painting depicts is MacCulloch’s forte. Of course, most representational art aims to do this to some degree, but she captures not just the look of a place but the ineffable feel as well. Her ability to render natural light is remarkable and key to conjuring this effect. Everything unnecessary to that goal has been pared away. Her paintings appear loose and brushy, but the effect is precise and the result of a deep, muscle-memory level of skill manipulating paint.
Imagine a crisp digital photograph and then turning the resolution way down. Areas of detail become rationalized into blocks of a single colour. MacCulloch does something akin to this in her painting. The sense of light expressed through colour feels as true to life as a photograph but with brushstrokes instead of pixels. The scene of the landscape is abstracted and radically simplified but still maintains fidelity to the experience of seeing, in this case, rocks on a sandy beach in the fog.
When describing her process at the time Beach Rocks with Sand was made, MacCulloch described it as almost as a performance. Preparatory watercolours from the site provided a starting reference point in the studio. The oil painting would come together in a single session and if it failed to resolve itself that day, the paint would be scraped off and the entire process would begin again the next day. This explains the uniform level of quality in her work. Editing her work is daily and part of the process. Her skill in handling paint belies the amount of time it takes to learn how to make the difficult look effortless.
MacCulloch’s aim for each painting to resolve itself brings up the question of when a work of art is finished and how does an artist know when they are near that frustratingly inexact point. In MacCulloch’s case it appears to be creating that palpable sense of place and experience as simply and efficiently as possible. Extraneous descriptive detail or lack thereof could be the fulcrum upon which the painting’s successful resolution balances. While creating this real sense of place, her work is insistently still a painting. All the brush strokes are visible but there are only as many as there needs to be. Were they turned sideways or upside-down, some of her works could conceivably pass as painterly abstractions.
This is the tension in her work which is otherwise notable for its calm and beauty. Matisse once wrote of a desire for an art that is “something like a good armchair”. He wasn’t calling for art that is “easy”, but serene and calming. There is something of that in MacCulloch’s art. These are paintings we would like to live with. She doesn’t present us with shipwrecks on storm battered rocks. Why would she want to record an unpleasant scene? She paints places we would like to be. Her paintings are normally devoid of figures. If they were figurative our brains would start constructing narratives around these people. We project ourselves into these inviting scenes.
MacCulloch’s empty beaches are liminal spaces. The beach is the meeting place of earth, sky and water. She often furthers this liminality by painting a scene as it transitions between day and night or in the case of Beach Rocks with Sand, between sun and cloud at the meeting place of sea, sky, sand and grass. Perhaps this painting’s true power is strongest in late January when it is impossible to imagine that warm beach (foggy or sunny) days could ever exist here in Nova Scotia. Looking at MacCulloch’s work is a reminder of the six months of temperate beauty we enjoy and art’s ability to transport us.
Sara MacCulloch, Beach Rocks and Sand, 2013. Oil on canvas, 122.2 x 122.2 cm. Purchased with funds provided by Fred Fountain, 2014. 2014.1