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Pat Fairhead: A Painter Who Goes with the Flow

Surfacing #9, Paintings, 30 x 36
Despite the accomplishments of its great modern exponents such as John Marin and Charles Burchfield, watercolor has yet to be acknowledged as the major medium that it can be when employed for finished works on a grand scale, rather than merely for sketches and studies.
    One artist in point is the Canadian painter Pat Fairhead, who was born in England, a country with a history of great watercolorists (as well as accomplished amateurs such as Prince Charles), before her nationality was changed in childhood when her mother remarried to a Canadian man.  Indeed, along with being included in over 200 corporate, national, and provincial collections in Canada and the United States, one of her watercolors is in the Royal Collection of Prints & Drawings, in Windsor Castle, England.
    Fairhead defies the stereotype of watercolor as a finicky medium most suitable for traditional realism in her dynamic semiabstract compositions on large sheets of paper (some measuring more than fifty inches), with bold forms and colors that command the wall as powerfully as any work in oils on canvas.
    As a child, Fairhead fell in love with the untamed wilderness of her new country, adopting its national pastimes of hiking, camping, and canoeing. She remains to this day a dedicated outdoorswoman, taking inspiration from an active participation in nature, while sketching the scenic wonders of the wilderness to be developed as large scale watercolors in her studio.    
    Although she also works in oils, acrylics, and printmaking, the medium is especially well suited to  her latest series, “Water.” Saturating the surface of the paper with luminous washes of color, employing the very element that she is depicting as the vehicle for her pigments, she achieves a stunning synthesis of medium and subject matter, the translucence of the aquarelle reflecting that  of the water itself, even as she invents abstract equivalents for the forces of nature, rather than slavishly imitating them.
    The spirit of surf splashing off rugged rocks clustered on coastal shorelines cloaked in fog comes alive in her compositions through a sense of its vital,  surging energy, rather than through any attempt at the picturesque depiction of specific scenes.
    Indeed, Fairhead works within an abstract framework of bold, roughly rectangular color areas, usually saturated with a single green-blue aqueous hue, its luminous, shimmering surface further enlivened by subtle tonal variations suggesting the play of sunlight and shadow upon and within a body of water. Her broad areas of boldly blocked-in color are often separated by narrower bands of a contrasting hue indicating a horizon line between watery depths and endless sky, in compositions as stringently formal in their own way as the Color Field paintings of Mark Rothko.
    In Fairhead’s case, however, the serene stillness of the overall format is sensationally disrupted by vigorous bursts of splashy “action painting” which, unlike the calligraphic lines of Mark Tobey or the drips and spatters of Jackson Pollock, are all the more powerful for springing from a natural source rather than from a formal imperative.
    Indeed, like the British master of marine scenes J.M.W. Turner, who once had himself lashed to the mast of a schooner in order to experience the full force of his subject, one gets the feeling that Pat Fairhead literally paints from within the center of the storm.
–– Maurice Taplinger

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