Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the May 23, 2001
edition of U.S.
1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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,
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
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
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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