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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the May 23, 2001

edition of U.S.

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Of Men and Fish and a Feehan Fest

I have tried, in vain, to avoid saying anything like,

"There’s something fishy about James Feehan’s art." But, well,

there is. And with or without fish in the picture, it’s all worth


Same with the look of the people he populates his images with: they

all seem to be related, maybe to the artist himself. Many of them

have blue eyes, earnest, even visionary looks, and unusual hats. Their

clothes, too, and their world in general frequently involve patterns,

typically checkered.

Looking back a few decades to his first two years in college, the

Pipersville, Pennsylvania, painter was "a fish out of water,"

he says. He then laughs at the connection: His art is characterized

by images of fish out of water. Certainly not exclusively, and never

monotonously, but they’re there — often held by one of Feehan’s

"little guys," as his figures have been described by Susan


Roseman, also an artist, is co-owner of Riverbank Arts ("fish

and fine art"), Stockton, where Feehan’s work will be featured

through June (U.S. 1, December 6, 2000). And she also happens to be

married to Feehan. It isn’t nepotism, but a long-time love for his

work, she says, that prompts the "Feehan Fest" at Riverbank,

where his art is always represented. He will be at the gallery during

the weekend of June 2 and 3 to meet visitors and talk about the


It looks like twilight, and four men stand in dark blue water, with

what seems like a tree-lined shore behind them, possibly across a

lake. Two of the four men holds a large fish: one long, slender and

gold-hued; the other — looking our way, with open mouth —

in blues. The three figures in front wear hats: two are pointed and

fez-like; the third, a checkered pillbox. Though the title is literal,

"Men and Fish," the image is enigmatic: what’s the story?

For Feehan, fish are more than the subtitle of Riverbank Arts; more

than the panel painting he and Roseman produced together early in

their relationship. He admits to "symbology," though "not

in a conventional sense," noting that some people may consciously

bring more to his work than he does.

Feehan readily describes his background as "blue collar,"

but he’s almost professorial in discussing his life and influences

and work. In his barn-studio on a winding, blossoming country road

that climbs up from the Delaware at Point Pleasant, he may be


by yips from one of the family’s rat terriers, who has mounted the

steps to a loft area and hesitates to descend the open staircase.

"Prof" to the rescue — with a gurgling laugh that


a giggle: infectious.

The 1950s were formative years for Feehan, who was born in 1946, the

first of three children, with a brother, Dan, and a sister, Patty.

He remembers an art program at the nearby Everson Museum in Syracuse,

New York, where, at age seven or eight, he was introduced to the field

that he would — after angst, college, Vietnam, and other


— enter. The museum’s simultaneous shows of Andrew Wyeth and


Pollock were "confusing and stimulating," he recalls now with

a laugh. While not artistic themselves, his father, a bus driver,

and mother, a housewife, allowed his inclination in that direction.

At best, art was rare and rudimentary during Feehan’s parochial school

education, though he was "drawn to the arts, painting in


and cites a helpful study relationship with a public school art


A child of "The Fifties," that conservative and conventional

era, Feehan recalls the "struggle to figure out how that world

[of art] worked. One really had to want something because of all the

obstacles society would throw up. There was a lot of insecurity, and

others seemed to have a more clear-cut picture."

He recalls the population at Boston University’s School of Fine Arts

as "extremely sophisticated." Most of his classmates,


graduates of performing arts schools, came from large urban areas,

especially New York. They "were steeped in art history and had

a tremendous familiarity with the arts." Feeling like that fish

out of water, he says, "I left after two years. I felt I just

didn’t belong. They didn’t have the same kind of blue collar


and angst that I came to the situation with, and at that point, I

was devaluing my role in the arts."

With a sense of "academic alienation," Feehan transferred

to the School of Liberal Arts and a dual major in psychology and


By now it was the late ’60s, and when he was drafted, he volunteered

for special forces. As a Green Beret, he went to "jump and jungle

school" for the intensive guerilla warfare training that was to

keep him out of Vietnam because he became, in turn, a trainer. "It

was a very dangerous and disorganized time. None of us knew what to

make of it," he says, except for one certainty: "This wasn’t

my element either. It massaged my fears about what’s my place in all

this, and how am I going to make a living?"

After the Army, Feehan returned to Syracuse and worked for about six

years in a psychiatric institution, then quit his job and sold his

house to move to Mississippi with a religious group. "I needed

motivation to make some big changes, to find something to align myself

with," he says. In the late ’70s, he "bailed out of


and joined a college roommate in Lambertville, eventually getting

a job, a studio apartment, and — here it comes — materials

to start drawing and painting. Since then, through countless life

changes that included meeting and marrying Susan Roseman, Feehan has

made art "whenever I could."

Both before and after military service, he had


artists and art that resonated with him. The B.U. staff, he says,

was attracted to celebrity artists, and the place also profited from

its association with Harvard, becoming a kind of crossroads. Walter

Murch was an influence, as were "the Boston Expressionists":

David Aronson, Hyman Bloom, and Jack Levine, who taught at one or

the other institution. From them, Feehan learned that only


working from the model and drawing in the traditional way to develop

basic skills could he tap into his imagination.

Though Feehan’s imagery comes from his subconscious, he knows there’s

also some relationship with what’s going on in his life. For instance,

he assumes his "Landlord Series," showing man and bird in

various iterations, was suggested by his real-life efforts to learn

about purple martens and build marten houses. Proof of his remark

that "the title isn’t a terribly serious insight into the


there’s his "Origins of Veterinary Science," which sounds

ponderous and instead exudes bucolic whimsy. Feehan’s fanciful


Hotel" picture evolved from his experience of "a great little

place at this rural crossroads, and a story about a deer that wandered

in every afternoon for peanuts." By the time he was finished with

it, all but the name was changed to protect the innocent.

"Because the work is a byproduct of all this kind of creative

mental meandering, I’m sometimes forced to figure out what it’s about

or make some sort of connection afterwards," he says. "Other

people often can tell me a great deal about what’s going on in the

picture. It may not be quite as coherent for me." Coherent from

the get-go — maybe not, and who cares? But images of a verdant

world, one invariably populated with benign-looking people and


always so. To some viewers, Feehan’s imagery looks pre-Renaissance;

to others, Eastern European. "He creates his own


Roseman says.

For the last few years, Feehan has often used printmaking as a step

preliminary to painting. "I create work in print form that allows

me to introduce a couple variations on an image," he says. Then

he makes a painting. Or, with an image in mind, he may start with

a drawing for the figure, the character, the "little guy."

Though most are men, they’re not meant to be stereotypically masculine

or feminine," he says. "A lot are androgynous."

"The people are representations of my internal world, as is the

landscape," Feehan offers. "I often portray individuals that

are projections of my personality. They stand for something I’ve


and to differentiate them, I use artifice — articles of clothing,

design things, hats. Sometimes putting these other things around them,

with them, and on them, elaborates that and works to separate


Sounding like a modern-day alchemist, Feehan talks about the recipes

he has discovered for egg-tempera paints, a pre-Renaissance medium

offering far more permanence than oils. Egg, oil, resins . . . he

ticks off; thin with water or wine. He acknowledges a preoccupation

with techniques of the Old Masters — his "Cimabue," which

uses the organization of a recently authenticated painting by Cimabue

as a basis for his own drama — was originally a central work in

his October, 2000, solo show in Philadelphia, then a standout of the

Artsbridge juried show at Prallsville Mill. Not limited to tempera

or encaustic, Feehan also works with casein and oils, crediting the

latter for positive effects on his palette: he can "be more


with his colors," he says, and that’s apparent in recent pictures.

Feehan can come across as pretty serious about things. Then, in the

middle of a long, complicated explanation, he’ll suddenly ask himself

just what he’s trying to say. That’s refreshing, fun. Say, is there

any chance that anecdotal deer wandered into the Elephant Hotel for

peanuts — and a happy hour or two with Feehan?

— Pat Summers

James Feehan, Riverbank Arts, 19 Bridge Street,

Stockton, 609-397-9330. Gallery is open daily, Monday to Wednesday,

noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday & Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday &


11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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