Into the Woods with Painter Lynn Uhlmann


By F. Josephine Arrowood
Sun contributor

Some people might say that artist Lynn Uhlmann can’t see the forest for the trees — and the painter, whose affiliation with Leelanau County’s beautiful wooded places spans nearly three decades, would happily agree with that notion. Each of her landscapes, inspired by a deep familiarity with places such as Good Harbor, Shalda Creek, the Crystal River, and Port Oneida, depicts “the trees, light, and colors of small, intimate settings,” within the forest wilderness now enveloping the former farm fields, coastline settlements, and lumber operations of an earlier era.

At her upcoming show at the Glen Arbor Art Association on July 22-24, viewers will have the chance to step into these luminous, intriguing works, painted since last September.

“About 15 of these paintings are from the old home sites within the National Park. Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about (the Park’s acquisition of private homes in 1970 to form Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore). I go to the same places every year … see them with ‘new eyes.’ The trees are gorgeous, tall, proud — you’re under their shelter, then down the path, tah-DAH! The lake!”

She continues, “I feel like the trees are … a canopy of comfort. It would be neat if my paintings were to take you somewhere, for someone to want to go into that space.” She describes her earlier works as “very serene,” with dappled sunlight creating comforting patterns that could remind viewers of another time or place, apart from the hurly-burly of modern life.

“I wanted to bring back my experience with [the use of] art, tapping into it. Some of the forms showing up in my paintings, especially this past year — my trees are starting to get more expressive. To me, they look like they’re pouting, or flaunting, or in a dance-like pose — sometimes the branches look like hands on hips! I see rear ends and breasts, a torso often. They could have faces. I don’t consciously try … Sometimes I think they’re talking to each other through colors, shapes, light.”

François-René de Chateaubriand once said, “Forests were the first temples of the Divinity, and it is in the forests that men have grasped the first idea of architecture.” There is a subtle irony — or perhaps the appropriate completion of a circle — in the fact that Lynn’s father was an architect working for the government in highly urbanized Washington, D.C., a built environment dense with monuments to man-made achievements. Lynn’s paintings portray what she calls the “elegance and quiet grandeur” of the natural world, yet they too are fashioned from, or mediated through, manmade materials of pigment, brush and canvas. Human nature longs to mark the wild with the human touch, and Lynn’s communiqués from that other place are a tender whisper, a joyous celebration, an invitation into the mysterious borderlands where human head and hand may connect with its natural heart.

“I want it to be accessible work — let the art critics use the big words and project what they want into it,” the painter asserts.

Communicating through creating has been Lynn’s lifelong pursuit, from her childhood in Washington, D.C., and Allentown, Penn.

“Growing up, art was all I did; I drew and colored all day long. Because my dad was an architect, he had all this paper around. I guess it runs in the family. My brother is a graphic artist; he could make anything look like it’s supposed to, and I couldn’t!” She laughs, “What I do is valid and expressive — now my brother is in awe of what I do. He wants to get looser, more expressive in his work.”

She continues, “I never thought, ‘Gee, I want to be an artist — I just thought, ‘Well, what else would I be?’ I didn’t want to sit in an office. This feels like the natural thing … just like part of breathing.” Her parents recognized her talent and passion early on — as a child, she regularly attended weekend art classes, including the Corcoran Saturday School, part of D.C.’s illustrious Corcoran Gallery — but they wanted her to have a well-rounded education as well.

“They wouldn’t let me go to an art academy, they said, ‘You’ve got to go to a university.’ I got my academics out of the way at a junior college in Maryland,” before transferring to Alfred University in New York, where she earned a degree in ceramics and later, a MFA from the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In addition to many post-graduate studies in ceramics, painting and photography, and teaching at universities and private college preparatory schools for 23 years, Lynn (who lives in south-central Pennsylvania with her husband Phil Diller, a professor of educational leadership at Shippensburg University, and two adult sons) has maintained a solid presence as a studio artist. But after three spinal surgeries, she gave up the heavy lifting of ceramics several years ago to return her focus to painting.

Because of the toxins in most oil paints and turpentines, she uses an alternative paint (made by M. Graham and now available at Northwoods Hardware in Glen Arbor) that has a walnut-oil base instead of linseed oil, and cleans her tools with walnut oil as well, enhancing the “natural theme” of her subjects.

“I’ve always painted, it’s definitely the most rewarding,” she explains of her desire for more immediacy in expressing her ideas through her art. “Ceramics is more technical: the glazing, the firing, wondering, ‘Is it gonna crack?’ I think painting’s more conceptual,” at this time in her life. In mid-October, she will return to Leelanau for a two-week artist-in-residency through the Glen Arbor Art Association, a gift of time allowing total immersion in the creative process without the demands of everyday life.

With many of her works depicting the woods in summer (and a few more recent pieces exploring winter’s landscapes), she’s anxious to witness and capture the spirit of a different season, and try out other media as well.

“I want to paint fall colors, so I’ll take my chances with the weather. I’ll sit in my van, bundled up painting, if I have to!” the artist enthuses. “I might even try pastels, or gouache [an opaque, watercolor-like paint].”

“People will ask me, ‘When you gonna paint something besides trees?’ I’m not finished with these yet. The series still has me so immersed. I’ve been putting the lake in it, sometimes I’m taking a peek out of the woods. I do love the water, the beaches,” she reflects. “So many artists up here paint the water, but I don’t know if I can do that.”

Lynn says, “I love, love, love the trees, always looking at them everyplace I go: ‘Look at that form!’ The possibilities are just limitless, with these living, beautiful shapes. It’s a place I love to be — I might not ever get out of the woods!”

For more information on Lynn Uhlmann’s show, contact the Glen Arbor Art Association at (231) 334-6112.