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‘Better than photography’: The rich realities of painter Josephine Halvorson

Josephine Halvorson was photographed at her home studio in the Berkshires. The artist is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow as well as the first artist-in-residence at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
Josephine Halvorson was photographed at her home studio in the Berkshires. The artist is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow as well as the first artist-in-residence at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

After Josephine Halvorson’s father died of COVID-19 last year, she painted what he’d left behind in the Cape Cod house where she grew up. His bookshelf, with the paperbacks “Building the Mass Pike” and “A While Ago in Brewster.” The ephemera on his refrigerator door — an “Entering Brewster” magnet, a note reading “Chia planted on Jan. 30, 2013. 4-6 weeks.”

The painter, who now lives in a home and studio she designed at the edge of a field in the Berkshires, finds life brimming in the disused, the looked over, and the ignored. “Josephine Halvorson: Five Grounds,” at Gaa Gallery through Aug. 2, is her first show in Provincetown, where she took art classes as a teenager.

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“With still life, there’s this thing about the life of objects,” Halvorson said. “And with that is the death of them, as well. I’ve painted things on the brink of extinction or obsolescence. Painting is a way to memorialize them.”

Josephine Halvorson’s "Ground Register: Newspaper," from 2019.
Josephine Halvorson’s "Ground Register: Newspaper," from 2019.Stewart Clements/Courtesy Josephine Halvorson and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Memory, for Halvorson, has a double meaning when it comes to her father. John Halvorson, an artist and metalworker, had advanced Alzheimer’s when he died.

“I was at the age when he died that he was when I was born,” said Halvorson, now 40, a professor of art and the chair of graduate studies in painting at Boston University. “I sorted through a lot of his stuff and my stuff. I took a long, hard look at my life, and got a sense of what my ambition is.”

The hometown show has been a long time coming. Halvorson exhibits internationally. A 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, she is taking a sabbatical year to focus on painting. In September, she’ll have an exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, where she is the museum’s first artist in residence.

The walls of her studio are filled with paintings made in the local general store. Over the course of the pandemic, she painted periodically in a back room there.

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Josephine Halvorson's "General Store: Cash Register," from 2020.
Josephine Halvorson's "General Store: Cash Register," from 2020.Courtesy Josephine Halvorson and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Josephine Halvorson’s "General Store: Exit Sign," 2020.
Josephine Halvorson’s "General Store: Exit Sign," 2020.Courtesy Josephine Halvorson and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

“People would walk in the door with masks or not,” Halvorson said. “I craved being there. It was an antidote to what everything else felt like. People could see each other face to face and still deal with each other.”

The store’s then-owner David Herrick, she said, was masterfully diplomatic. His father once posed for another local artist, Norman Rockwell, who made a painting every week for years, chronicling his time, shipping it wet to New York to be photographed for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Halvorson, too, is a chronicler, albeit on a different scale. Paintings from the store depict an exit sign, a cash register. Across the studio there’s one of the local post office papered with notices of its closure. A large work depicts another battered sign, salvaged from the transfer station, with new greenery sprouting up beneath it.

“Her painting does more than the eye,” said Ruth Erickson, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where Halvorson was in the 2019 James and Audrey Foster Prize exhibition. “She uses brush strokes and pure pigment and abstraction to attain a verisimilitude better than photography.”

The works in “Five Grounds,” like those in the Foster Prize show, are views, quite literally, of the ground: grass and dead leaves, pebbled earth and weeds, spray-painted concrete. Halvorson grinds scraps from each site — plants, soil — and incorporates them into the area surrounding the image.

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Josephine Halvorson's "Ground Register: Maine," from 2018-19.
Josephine Halvorson's "Ground Register: Maine," from 2018-19.Stewart Clements/Courtesy Josephine Halvorson and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Lately, Halvorson has been painting quickly on a special ground that, like a fresco, won’t accommodate tinkering.

“When I paint in this way, I can’t take back the strokes,” Halvorson said. “It’s indelible. It soaks into the ground.”

She needs to be prepared for the swift work. Maybe she learned that from her father.

“My dad taught me to respect my tools, to keep them maintained and organized,” she said in an e-mail. “Through his work he showed me the importance of chance and spontaneity. Come to think of it, the two are related — have the tools ready for the moment you need them.”

In college at Cooper Union, Halvorson knew she wanted to be an artist, but she explored other mediums before realizing painting was the right fit.

“I understood it could do something that other things couldn’t,” she said. “Something experiential in real time.”

She painted what caught her eye out in the world. Her plein-air approach was not met with rousing approval from her professors in college or in grad school at Columbia.

“I was really discouraged,” Halvorson said. “The m.o. then was to challenge students, to prove them wrong. I was asked, ‘What could you possibly bring to the history of painting?’”

At BU, Halvorson follows her students’ leads. “It’s about facilitating connections toward the things that move them,” she said.

She came to the school from Yale five years ago, taking over the graduate painting department from John Walker, a lion of contemporary abstraction who led a program that produced many painters of brawny abstractions. Under Halvorson, it has grown more nimble, fresh, and multivalent. Last year US News & World Report rated it sixth in the nation. That is certainly in part due to Halvorson’s extraordinary organizational and networking skills, as well as her warmth as a teacher.

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“She is so present with the students. She gets to know them and their needs in depth, and does everything she can to help them,” said Dana Clancy, director of the School of Visual Arts at BU.

“My dad taught me to respect my tools, to keep them maintained and organized,” said Josephine Halvorson. The artist was photographed in her home studio last week with her dog, Jason.
“My dad taught me to respect my tools, to keep them maintained and organized,” said Josephine Halvorson. The artist was photographed in her home studio last week with her dog, Jason.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

Back in her studio, Halvorson is ruing the surfeit of images on the Internet as if they cheapen what it is to see.

“The more images I have in my life, the more I want to paint,” she said. She looked across the studio at her paintings from the general store.

“There’s something about being in proximity, looking at that cash register,” she said, “it’s full of wonder to me. The evidence of it being there in front of me. Translating it in painting, the reality becomes more real.”

She doesn’t memorialize objects — she memorializes living. Seeing. Working in the fresco style, she’s reminded of what excited her about painting in the first place — and maybe of what her ambition is as an artist.

“I’m going back to the way I used to paint,” she said. “Faster. What I would now call reportage.”

Rather like Rockwell — only when Halvorson sets up her easel, she’s wide open.

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“Rockwell knew the story he wanted to tell,” she said. “I want to find out what the story is through painting it.”

JOSEPHINE HALVORSON: FIVE GROUNDS

At Gaa Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown, through Aug. 2. 508-413-9621, www.gaa-gallery.com. Closing reception Friday, July 30, 6-8 p.m.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.