The mysteries of light: ‘Scott Prior at 70’ offers new paintings by the renowned Valley artist

  • William Baczek, owner of William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, talks about the current exhibit of paintings by Scott Prior at the gallery. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • William Baczek, owner of William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, talks about the current exhibit of paintings by Scott Prior at the gallery. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • William Baczek, owner of William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, talks about the current exhibit of paintings by Scott Prior at the gallery. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Creamy Delights,” oil on panel by Scott Prior. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • William Baczek, owner of William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, talks about the current exhibit of paintings by Scott Prior at the gallery. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Laundry at Sunrise,” oilon panel by Scott Prior. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view of the current exhibit of work by Scott Prior at William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Abandoned Amusement Park,” oil on canvas, is loosely based on photographs Prior took of the former Mountain Park in Holyoke. Image courtesy of William Baczek

  • “Path to the Beach,” oil on panel, imparts both a sense of peace and just a hint of mystery — where have all the visitors gone? Image courtesy of William Baczek

  • Prior’s “Cabin with Towels,” oil on canvas, is inspired by a series of small cottages near the northern tip of Cape Cod. Image courtesy of William Baczek

Thursday, November 21, 2019

He’s been a big part of the Valley’s arts scene for years, known for his highly detailed and naturalistic paintings of ordinary scenes that upon closer examination can reveal subtle twists and textures — details that can provoke memories or pose questions about what’s really happening in the scene.

Indeed, William Baczek, the Northampton gallery owner and longtime exhibitor of Scott Prior’s work, describes looking at his friend’s paintings as something of a two-fold process. There’s the surface appeal, he says, “the obvious beauty of his colors, his tone, and the skill of his work, and you can look at that and appreciate it, and maybe that’s enough.

“But if you want to go beyond that,” Baczek notes, “you can find a whole lot more — a sense of familiarity, a sense of memory, and just an amazing treatment of light.”

At William Baczek Fine Arts on Main Street, an exhibit of new work by Prior (born in 1949), as well as some reworkings of a few of his past paintings, represents a significant anniversary for the artist. “Scott Prior at 70” includes 30 oil paintings in all and, as Baczek puts it, “is kind of a milestone in his life … we tend to think of life being marked by certain dates — birth, death, weddings, graduation — and by significant anniversaries, like turning 70.”

In a recent interview at his gallery, Baczek joked that Prior wasn’t all that crazy about the title of the show, as his new work isn’t built around a theme of aging or turning a specific age. But Baczek says the title does serve to remind people of how long Prior — a former Northampton resident who now lives in Heath — has been a key painter in the Valley, even as his work has been sold and exhibited more widely. (His paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, among other places.)

A 1971 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he majored in printmaking, Prior was first associated with what became known as the “Valley Realists,” a group of painters that formed in the region in the 1970s and early 1980s. His landscapes, often without people but still showing their presence — a clothesline hung with towels, a cabin at dusk with light behind a window — are, as one reviewer once wrote, “not simply reproductions of what he views, but rather each is a vision: a landscape of sentiment with intricate details that beckon contemplation.”

In “Path to the Beach,” for instance, one of the paintings in the new exhibit, a narrow path in the foreground ranging through a break in a low wall of sand dunes leads to a deserted beach peppered with footprints. One faint trail of footprints bends left, the other right, while straight ahead a mostly flat ocean is bathed in a line of gentle light from a setting sun; the filmy yellow orb is partly screened by clouds. It’s a peaceful, contemplative setting that also imparts just a hint of mystery.

And in “Abandoned Amusement Park,” Prior presents a clutch of small, boarded-up wooden buildings (one is labeled “Coin Toss,” another “Fun Spot”) by a patch of wet, puddled asphalt; weeds and vines are overtaking the setting, including a small “green” from appears to be a miniature golf course. Beyond a screen of trees you can see part of the latticework of a roller coaster.

But breaking up the gloomy tableau is the soft blue of an evening sky, which seems to be chasing away a few lingering storm clouds. There’s also a lushness to the scene, a rich mix of color — a single overhead light outside one building casts a hazy yellow glow — that hints at the lively past of the amusement park, when children, families and couples enjoyed rides and games.

Baczek says Prior often uses photographs as references for his paintings, and in this case he used photos of the long-vanished Mountain Park in Holyoke as inspiration, with his own changes to the original setting establishing the atmosphere of the painting.

As Prior writes on his website, “I have always lived in small towns in New England, where I have been captivated by the narrative of roadways in the landscape, isolated houses and woodlands punctuated by paths and discarded artifacts…. The New England landscape is small and intimate and directs our attention to things close at hand.”

For his part, Baczek says a strong part of Prior’s appeal is based in his incorporation of the everyday in his work. He points to the still life “Autumn Window,” which depicts a small collection of bottles, a couple of them holding flowers, and a small tomato nestled on a windowsill; a few trees, very loosely defined, are visible beyond the window. At the far right of the windowsill, in addition, is a plastic container of honey shaped like a bear.

“All of us can relate to that,” said Baczek, pointing to the bear-themed honey container. “We’ve all had one of those in our kitchen at some point.”

Overall, the Baczek Galley exhibit, which runs through Dec. 14, feels washed in light. “Laundry at Sunrise,” for example, offers a seemingly prosaic tableau of towels and small items of clothing hung on a line in a grassy yard. But behind those items, morning sun is skimming through a break in some trees, and the washing appears almost translucent, its colors made especially vivid by the light.

Among his influences, Prior notes on his website that Edward Hopper’s paintings gave him a better understanding of “the significance and emotional power of light. That was thirty years ago, and I am still fascinated by the varied and countless effects of light on the tangible world of my experience. In the same year as my discovery of light I changed from being an ironic observer into an emotional participant.”

Indeed, one senses in Prior’s paintings a celebration both of nature and the peace and beauty people can find within it, even in settings we might otherwise take for granted.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Scott Prior at 70” runs through Dec. 14 at William Baczek Fine Arts, 36 Main St. in Northampton. For more information, visit wbfinearts.com.