A Piece of Mind
Walking inside her studio, the thick aroma of gas floods the air. The hard wooden floor is covered in more than half an inch of dry oil paint. Gusts of cool air pour through the windows. Half-finished paintings cover the walls and floor space; creating a labyrinth of art.
Cynthia Packard is frantically going to war with her easel. As her worn sand color skin tenses, her sea blue eyes stare intensely at her easel. Picking up a flame-thrower, she scorches the painting causing the entire board to go up in flames; she then furiously throws the board to the ground, putting out the dripping conflagration. This constant conflict is essential in Packard’s painting. As the board’s wounds begin to heal, she quickly picks up a pilot knife and begins attacking it, carving marks across the melting oil paint. Although oil paint is her base, Packard also uses tar, wax, and plaster. Different combinations of these mediums allow a diverse range of textural works.
She paints still lives and children, but her work with nude women is most renowned. When asked in 2003 by the Boston Globe why she doesn’t paint men, Packard replied, "There’s the emotional content. Why don’t I paint men? I don’t know men; I know myself. There’s strength but sadness, anger but beauty. I love women." (McQuaid, 1) And her paintings show just that; in her painting titled Susan—which is displayed at Newbury Street’s Chase Gallery—the emotion hits you like a punch in the face. As a nude woman lies on a sofa, blotches of reds and oranges are splattered around her. Though the figure appears to be in agony, she simultaneously seems comfortable. But it is true, sometimes pain feels good. The contrast in Susan is evident in many of Packard’s works.
Wanting to be accessible, but not conventional, Packard tries to find a median in between. Although Packard’s work is distinctively original, T.S Eliot reveals in her essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, “You cannot value [an artist] alone for you must set [them] in contrast and comparison, among the dead.” (Eliot, 506) Packard contributes much of her success to past artists; a corner of her studio is full of art books stacked over six feet high. Her work has been influenced by several modern masters: Bonnard, Matisse, Modigliani, Balthus, and Diebenkorn, to name a few. Looking at her work, one can see her figure influence of Balthus, the abstract nature of Modigliani, and the sculpture-like paintings of Diebenkorn. She also gives much credit to the wave of California Impressionist painters, saying, “I love their work, it has helped me so much throughout my career… I would have died to be able to paint with them.” (Packard, 1) The impressionist painters allowed Packard to open up and be more free with her work. Packard’s most prominent influence was fellow Provincetown painter Fritz Bultman. After Packard graduated from Massachusetts College of Art, Bultman took her under his wing and mentored her. She graduated from Mass Art with a BA in sculpture, and before meeting Bultman, she never took a single painting class in her life. Bultman studied under the renowned German abstract expressionist, Hans Hoffman. Bultman taught Packard the basic form of contemporary art. Her five-year relationship with Bultman influenced her work greatly and he remained Packard’s mentor until his death. Though mentored by Bultman, and influenced by many modern painters, Packard was able to maintain her original style. T.S Eliot illustrates the student artist as an alchemical transformation, she states, “When two gases are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.” (Eliot, 508) Eliot’s allusion is an honest depiction of Packard’s mind, for she gains knowledge from past artists’ but she is able to remain herself in her paintings. As Bultman painted abstract artwork, Packard was able to learn from his teachings, and relate them to her impressionist paintings of nude women.
Her paintings of nudes have weight and simplicity, for there is stillness in her paintings that makes the figures seem isolated in a dream. The lonely figure in her painting titled Dusk, gives the impression that the woman is waiting for something or for someone. Packard concentrates on the background space as much as she concentrates on the figure, for the emptiness of the room, builds on the feeling of longing. Though Packard’s complex work seems obliged to a planned system, she titles her work “process painting.” Instead of her controlling the painting, the painting controls her. As she strokes the paintbrush one way, the result of that stroke determines the next stroke; sometimes she paints layers on top of layers, traveling over roads she has already passed. Sometimes she will spend the entire night in her studio painting one painting, and then, the next morning she will paint over it in five minutes. Her mind allows her to relinquish ideas and paint over work she has already done. Packard stated, “Sometimes there is a one small piece in the painting, that you spend hours painting around, trying to save it. But sometimes, that small piece is what doesn’t work in the painting, and you have to be able to give that piece up for the better of the painting.” (Packard, 1) Packard ability to sacrifice successes reveals her strong self-confidence.
With no set goal, everyday Cynthia Packard walks into her studio, never knowing what to expect. She tells Iam Provincetown, “I start out trying to paint the subject matter, and all hell breaks loose…and the paintings become what they are going to be.” (Frisco, 1) Packard rarely starts one painting and finishes it straight through to end, instead she constantly alternates between paintings. The Heaven Spa Magazine writes, “[With] a type A personality, she prevails on a daily basis by doing several things at once. Packard does ‘get in the zone’ comparing the feeling to a Michael Jordan shooting spree, ‘Sometimes I just get in the zone, and I’m like Jordan, I can’t miss. Everything I do is right, and I’m just on fire.’” (Packard, 1) Though Packard is commemorated in the five percentile of successful artists in the United States, she gives all credit to hard work. “I have always believed that the actual physical talent makes up only 5 percent of my success, and the other 95 percent is hard work, years and years of hard work.” (Packard, 1) Her assertion is honest, for her studio is equipped with a bed, fridge, and toothpaste.
Cynthia Packard’s time in the studio equals to the dozens of paintings that saturate her studio. Cynthia’s mother Anne Packard is also a renowned artist in Provincetown. Anne is Cynthia’s worst critic, and vise versa. Anne tells the Boston Globe, “I paint for Cynthia’s approval…I’ve grown tremendously, and she’s given me a lot of courage. She taught me to let go. She taught me to believe in myself. Isn’t that strange for a daughter to do for a mother?” (McQuaid, 2) Cynthia’s self-confidence allows her to take the command, even if it is with her own mother. Though best friends, Cynthia and Anne are very competitive, “its good…it pushes us. We both have hard work ethic. Most people don’t put in the hours that we do.” (McQuaid, 3) The intense competition between Anne and Cynthia makes both of them work harder, fueling their success.
Growing up, Cynthia’s father left the family when Cynthia was only sixteen years old. Growing up in a matriarchy, the household was run by women. Cynthia remembers when she was a child; her mother would bring her and her two sisters to Gloria Steinem demonstrations. During the time, Steinem was a leading activist in the feminist movement, and her speeches advocated women’s rights. Cynthia recounts the demonstrations, “I remember, my mom would pack me, Leslie and Susan in the car and she would force us to go to these women’s rights protests.” (Packard, 2) The female power that Steinem discusses in her speeches is displayed in Anne and Cynthia’s growing success as painters. Packard admits, “Although at the time, what [Steinem] was saying didn’t mean much, today, I can see her words in my actions.” (Packard, 2) As two successful women, with no reliance on men, Anne and Cynthia are strong female icons.
As Packard spends days, sometimes weeks on paintings, she admits the hardest part is knowing when to stop. Unlike filming a movie or writing a story, where there is a climax and then a resolution, painting can be continual. Christine Frisco from Iam Provincetown magazine recounts a story that Packard told her, “A day last fall her sister, Leslie, hid some of her paintings so she would leave them alone. When Leslie left, Cynthia rooted them out and worked on them furtively.” (Frisco, 1) Many times Anne has to come in the studio and beg her to stop. A perfectionist, Packard has a difficult time knowing when to stop, and accept the painting.
The critiques of Packard’s artwork are very similar with each other. The art critics repeat each other’s words when examining Packard’s work. Ken Shulman art critic of Arts & Antiques, writes, “Her works, at first glance seem calm. But all illusions of tranquility dissolve when examining Packard’s surfaces. Here, troubled zones of color form a rolling patchwork that conceals, like a heavy autumn sea, the shape, and weight of unseen mysteries and anguish. The artist’s tensions, her fury and her uncertainties, are palpable.” (Shulman, 1) Mela Lyman, from News of Visual Art wrote, “Using brush, palette knife, and blow torch, Cynthia’s work emerges from the wall in an eruption of color and feeling. Dramatic and dense, Cynthia imbues each piece with a beautiful sensitivity and passion. Dripping with emotion—and literally dripping with varnish and oil.” (Lyman, 3) The critiques continue to examine Packard’s work, but they are forced to do so from a distance.
As Cynthia Packard’s son, I view her work with a different mindset. Knowing Packard’s character, and even possessing some of her temperament, I look through a different window while looking at her artwork. The arguments I have with my mother are evident in her painting. I see the same clashing in her artwork that she has with me. The struggles as a mother are parallel to the struggles in her painting. Growing up a child of Cynthia I have almost be a personification of her artwork. I have actual modeled for numerous paintings, watching her intense eyes converge at her easel. Her artwork and her personal life are not separate, but instead they are equivalent. She goes into her studio to paint with the same mentality that she goes into the kitchen to cook. Knowing my mother on a personal level alleviates my understanding of her artwork. Instead of talking in general terms about her painting, I am able to indulge deeper.
My mother lives her life, just as she paints. As a mother four (with two-step children and one foster child), a black belt in karate, a basketball coach, and a soccer coach she juggles her life just as she juggles her paintings; switching from one painting to the next, but always keeping busy. “She shows up at the school in the afternoon to coach basketball…covered in paint from head to sneaker, looking like a plumber covered in grease. Packard says, ‘I feel like a breathing paint rag!” (Frisco, 1) Paint on her clothes isn’t the only thing that follows her out the studio, for all of her behavior can all be related to her painting. Her passion in the studio carries over to her coaching, she coaches my sister’s sixth grade basketball team, shouting and arguing at the refs. She does everything with intensity—never holding back.
Her entire studio is walled with mirrors, for before it was a studio it was my mother’s dojo: where she learned karate, and received her black belt. She paints on the same floor that she stood on when she used to fight opponents in karate. The one-on-one combat is still prevalent. She jabs her canvas, and then intensely looks at the scar. The mirrors around her allow her to see the painting from a different perspective. “When you’re looking at the painting for so long one way the mistakes blend in with the painting, but when looking through the mirror, it flips the entire painting, changing the perception, and exposing the mistakes.” (Packard, 2) She sits for hours looking microscopically at the painting, and then jumping back and seeing its entirety. Sometimes she furiously paints, for she has to rush to meet deadlines for galleries. Big trucks pull up at her studio and load dozens of paintings.
The business side of her artwork affects the creative side. As she paints nude women, my mother admits, “Honestly, my dream would to be able to paint abstract art.” (Packard, 2) Although, she seems to be true to her self, she still seems to be holding back. Her success has forced her to continue painting the same way. “Nudes, still lifes, figures, that’s what they buy.” (Packard, 2) Painting is her career, and her consumers are her salary. The success she has received is a double-edged sword, for though it has allowed her to paint as a career, it has simultaneously held her back from painting abstract. Walking around my mother’s studio abstract paintings can be found tucked away in corners. Behind the large six-foot nudes that lean against the wall are small abstract paintings. Out of all of the dozens of paintings around the room, I ask my mother which is her favorite. She walks over to the corner of the room, picks up a square, one square foot painting, and says, “This one!” The painting is a board covered in black tar with a small splatter of plaster on the side. Although nude impressionist paintings surround the room, her favorite piece is abstract. Her love for abstract art shines through her paintings like the sun that pierces thorough the morning blinds. She gives her customers glimpses of the abstract art, but holds back from the extreme.
Anyone that has ever met my mother would agree she is very honest and outspoken. As she argues wit referees, and walks around town in her paint-covered clothes, it seems she doesn’t care about what people think of her. Although she holds back, not painting entirely abstract, she still paints her emotions—giving herself to the audience. She gives her all to each painting, giving every painting a soul. Her paintings breathe her pain and joy. Her internal feelings are the primary medium, as sorrow, loneliness, and longing are mixed with oil paints and tar. Although she is labeled a painter, my mother works as an author; each painting is a chapter from her life. As her paintings hang on walls around the world, each patron has a piece of my mother, a glimpse of her life.