Nature, folklore and fairytales inspire artists Emily Pettigrew and Ryan Steadman
Landscape continues to be a major theme for many artists, exploring the idea of "home" and its impact on their creative practice. We take a closer look at two artists heavily influenced by their own surroundings deep in the Catskill Mountains.
J.M.W. Turner is famous for his intense studies of landscapes. While Claude Monet, regarded as one of the most significant impressionist painters of all time, is probably best known for his seascape view from Le Havre, France. It was where Monet spent much of his time throughout his life.
Two contemporary artists who are also profoundly influenced by their surroundings include Emily Pettigrew and Ryan Steadman, who live in the rural setting of the Catskill Mountains, rich in folklore. Many artists before them were drawn to this location, including Marc Chagall, who painted over 100 artworks at his cottage.
Steadman's and Pettigrew's respective work has a puritan aesthetic, often featuring women in simple and strong colour palettes. Both have flourished since leaving the bustle of New York and reconnecting with the natural world.
Working in acrylic on wood, Pettigrew uses a minimal tonal palette in bold colours, as in her piece The Casting Out of Tehi Tegi, in shades of muted browns, beige, black and white. As Pettigrew says: "My love for the starkness of the landscape of my childhood is reflected in a spartanism in my work. My foundational principle of painting is the removal of excess parts – a paring down to an image's most beautiful elements."
Pettigrew is also passionate about folklore, which comes across strongly in her paintings. The legend of 'Tehi-Tegi' relates to a magical female, usually a pagan goddess, whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession and then on to a river or to the sea, where they are drowned. The tale has elements of Nordic traditions, where beautiful women can transform into horses and drown men in the sea.
The landscape of Maine has a particular aesthetic, says Pettigrew. "It's beautiful, but it's very harsh and not a verdant landscape. There are rocks, pine trees and the ocean. It's not a forgiving landscape which influenced the architecture of the white settlers who came here. The spare and spartan aesthetic is what I grew up with – puritanical, very clean and functional with no ostentation. It has influenced the way I see the world."
The artist's influences and early experiences include Danish artist Kay Nielsen. Born in 1886, he was known for his fairytale illustrations, such as for Hansel and Gretel and the Brothers Grim. Nielsen also collaborated with Disney, producing story sketches and illustrations for Fantasia.
Pettigrew also enjoys playing with different eras and chronologies. "I'm working in a confusion of time – there's an uncertainty and mystery about time – I don't like things to be dated to a specific point."
Her interest in the Amish community can be seen in her work Offered a Ride, which features a horse-drawn carriage. We are in the driving seat, looking at a landscape of greens and browns with clean, minimal lines. However, it could be from almost any era – from the present day to a century ago. As Pettigrew explains: "It's about mixing and finding an ambiguous space where you don't know what is happing and the idea of layers of time."
Ryan Steadman's upbringing was in the American south, notably Atlanta, South Carolina and Georgia. But it wasn't the lush, humid and sub-tropical climate we might associate it with. Instead, it was very similar to the landscape of Pettigrew's childhood. "All the foliage from Maine down – it's basically the same fauna and flora."
Steadman was also very influenced by his surroundings. "Where I lived bordered a forest, and I would spend most of my time there. I wasn't the most outgoing child. Most of my time playing outside in the trees or making art."
Growing up, Steadman says he wasn't really encouraged. He went to a school that didn't encourage the arts. This all changed when he went to art school in New York in 1997, and he's been painting ever since.
Steadman is also drawn to a minimal aesthetic. Added to this was an influence from outside of fine art and into graphic design and album covers. "The Rolling Stones lips and tongue logo – I thought that was the coolest art I'd seen at that point."
The stunning landscape of the Catskills is a well-trodden path. There's View from The Mountain House, 1836, by William Henry Bartlett; Scene in the Catskills, 1858, by Paul Weber and October in the Catskills, 1880, by Sanford Robinson Gifford.
When Steadman and Pettigrew moved out of New York and into the area, this gave rise to a new approach. The couple lives in an old house dating back to 1822. Although after researching the house and its history, the log cabin that was first built on the foundations actually dates back to the 1780s.
"I wanted to express something more intimate. To re-approach art from a very basic angle, what's most important to me – my two children from my previous marriage and Emily. To memorialise this moment."