In This State: Artist Charlie Hunter’s ‘murky paintings of decaying American infrastructure’

Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell of Middlesex is a freelance writer and photographer. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.

Charlie Hunter finds poignant subject matter in the neighborhood around his studio, which is located in Bellows Falls' former industrial center. His T-shirt, which he designed, reads: “Bellows Falls, Vermont: Not Nearly As Bad As You Thought." Photo by Mark Bushnell

Charlie Hunter finds poignant subject matter in the neighborhood around his studio, which is located in Bellows Falls’ former industrial center. His T-shirt, which he designed, reads: “Bellows Falls, Vermont: Not Nearly As Bad As You Thought.” Photo by Mark Bushnell

Charlie Hunter’s paintings of Vermont don’t match the state’s typical image. While other artists create pictures of red barns and ribbons of lush hills receding into the distance, Hunter starkly depicts the husk left behind when industrialization fails.

Drawing a darker vision of the world hasn’t hurt Hunter’s career. He has been receiving national recognition as a painter with a unique viewpoint.

“The reality of the Vermont in which I grew up is more interesting, diverse and challenging than the romanticized image,” says Hunter, who lives in Bellows Falls. “If you are painting what people want to see, if you are painting to comfort, that is a lovely thing to do, but I think of what I do as more journalistic than that.”

A recent painting by Charlie Hunter of a building in Bellows Falls sits on an easel in his studio. Photo by Mark Bushnell

A recent painting by Charlie Hunter of a building in Bellows Falls sits on an easel in his studio. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Hunter comes by his journalistic streak honestly. His father, Armstrong, was an ordained minister, but he left the church because of his love of printing. Armstrong and his wife, Edith, moved their family from New Hampshire to Weathersfield, Vermont, during the 1960s and started a newspaper, the Weathersfield Weekly. His brother Will, a lawyer, founded and operated the Black River Tribune for a dozen years. His sister, Elizabeth, also worked as a journalist and is now a nature writer.

Hunter’s stark renderings follow this family tradition of observing and reporting. As with most things, Hunter has a sense of humor about his work. He calls his industrial images “murky paintings of decaying American infrastructure,” and describes his style as “panic born out of ineptitude.”

Hunter’s paintings show no hint of ineptitude. In fact, they look remarkably like old sepia-tinted photographs. Hunter likes the look because he finds old photos evocative.

Though photographic in appearance, his paintings are done entirely by hand and eye, often outdoors in front of his subject, what the art world calls plein air painting.

He’s been profiled in Plein Air Magazine, a national publication, in an article titled: “Taking 30 Years to Become an Overnight Success.” He’s been a main stage presenter at the annual convention the magazine hosts in Monterey, California. And he is a member of the Putney Painters, an invitational group founded by nationally recognized artists Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.

Charlie Hunter uses a squeegee to work on a painting of train cars. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Charlie Hunter uses a squeegee to work on a painting of train cars. Photo by Mark Bushnell

To watch Hunter work is like watching a small miracle unfold. He paints like few others. Using water-mixable oil paints, he makes a large puddle of a color he calls “murk.” Depending on his mood and the scene before him, the murk can be anywhere from roughly raw sienna to burnt umber — hardly a broad color palette.

“I am not a strong colorist,” Hunter explains, so he decided to paint monochromatically. “If I can tell the story I want to tell using a limited palette, I’d be kind of an idiot to try to tell it any other way.” An unintended benefit, he says, is that it has given him a distinctive, recognizable style.

He’ll start painting by grabbing a ratty old brush — an inch or two wide and sold at your local hardware store for a couple bucks – dipping it into the murk, and slathering it across his painting panel. Then he’ll dab at the panel with a paper towel to get the right shades of murk for the different sections of his painting. Where he wants a hard line, he’ll use a household squeegee either to lift paint and get back to the panel’s white surface or to set down a dark edge. Hunter says these perfectly straight lines are key to making his paintings appear photographic.

And then there are the Q-Tips. He’ll moisten the cottony end of one in his mouth and use it to lift paint from the panel to make a highlight. Or if he wants fine detail, he’ll use Stim-U-Dents, a kind of toothpick, to scratch off slender bits of paint. And he’ll use regular artist’s paintbrushes to carefully render the focal point of his painting, which might be of an abandoned factory, derelict train car, or gracefully aging barn. He’ll move back and forth through his implements — paper towel, Q-Tip, toothpick, brush, squeegee — until he’s happy.

The results of these labors are enthralling images. That’s because Hunter doesn’t do all the work for the viewer. He leaves sections of his paintings as shadowy passages, something mysterious for the viewer to decipher.

Hunter started as a graphic artist. He studied graphic design at Yale, with the dream of designing rock album covers. He created concert posters for bands in the 1980s, then in the 1990s transitioned into music management.

He began painting in the 1980s in Holyoke, Massachusetts (“a nice industrial town”), and continued into the ’90s. “It was more than a hobby, but it wasn’t anything I could have lived on,” he says.

But then in 1994, the career of one of his clients, singer-songwriter Dar Williams, took off, and Hunter no longer had time to paint. “We had tour buses and full bands and that is herding a lot of cats,” he explains.

Charlie Hunter based this painting, titled "Marble Works, Danby, VT, 1963,” on a photo in the Vermont Historical Society's collection. The 36-inch-by-36-inch painting depicts marble workers in Danby quarrying slabs of marble to be used in building the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Charlie Hunter based this painting, titled “Marble Works, Danby, VT, 1963,” on a photo in the Vermont Historical Society’s collection. The 36-inch-by-36-inch painting depicts marble workers in Danby quarrying slabs of marble to be used in building the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Around 2000, he quit the business. To continue to be an effective manager, he said, “I would have to start working with people for whom music wasn’t a love but purely a business.” (Hunter maintains a connection with the music industry, running Roots on the Rails, which organizes railroad tours for music lovers.)

He returned to Vermont to be near his aging parents. He moved to Bellows Falls because Robert McBride, a local artist, was working to build an interesting arts-oriented community there. He also appreciated Bellows Falls’ “attractive grittiness.”

Hunter remembers being fascinated by the village when he saw it as a child. “I think that little kids are really aware of how things feel,” he says. “I loved being in a place where things happened.”

Bellows Falls was once an industrial hub. In the mid-1800s, railroads ran tracks across the Connecticut River and into town, making it one of northern New England’s most important junctions. The town was the birthplace of International Paper. It hosted a major paper mill and a couple of smaller ones, as well as a farm-equipment manufacturer and a creamery that supplied milk to the Boston market. The town’s prosperity can be seen in the stately buildings in the village’s core, most dating from 1870-1920.

Painter Charlie Hunter examines the ruins of the massive Moore and Thompson Paper Mill Complex in Bellows Falls, which has been shuttered for nearly a century. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Painter Charlie Hunter examines the ruins of the massive Moore and Thompson Paper Mill Complex in Bellows Falls, which has been shuttered for nearly a century. Photo by Mark Bushnell

The economic good times didn’t last. Hunter, whose studio is in a former paper mill, says Bellows Falls fascinates him the same way that fall does.

“Autumn interests me a lot more than summer,” he says. “It raises the question: What are you going to do with this inevitable period of retrenchment? What do we do when the easy times are gone?”

Hunter says his work as an artist is trying to figure out how to capture what is “almost a simultaneous sense of possibility and regret. I guess if I had an answer to it, I would be done.”

Mark Bushnell of Middlesex is a freelance writer and photographer.

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