Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Cornell Prints, Paintings Enjoy New Season — Naturally


Story posted September 13, 2006

The process of making art often starts with passionate observation. You become fascinated with an object or idea. It may be beautiful or not, but you are caught — immersed in your observations, you lose yourself, you fall a little in love.

If you are an artist like Thomas Cornell, Bowdoin's Richard E. Steele Professor of Studio Art, that odyssey will take you through nearly 40 years of drawing, sculpture, printmaking, and painting.

Painting detail
Birth of Nature and Death of Narcissus, 2005, oil sketch, 30 x 48.

Cornell's passion for seeing has led him into an unabashedly curious and critical look at humanity's relation to nature. From this absorption comes a vivid body of work that spans mediums and subjects — from his early, detailed prints of animals, to idyllic, allegoric paintings of man living harmoniously in the natural world.

Several of these works are enjoying a new season of fruition at five current and upcoming exhibitions, and in two new books that celebrate important Maine artists.

Turtle etching
Detail from Snapping Turtle no 2, 1968, etching, 15 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.

A print from one of Cornell's etchings of snapping turtles, "Snapping Turtle no 2," is included in the forthcoming book The Imprint of Place: Maine Printmaking 1800-2005 (Down East Books, 2006), by David Becker '70, a leading print expert and Bowdoin alumnus and trustee emeritus. The book includes many prints included in The Maine Print Project, a recent collaboration among 25 art museums and nonprofit arts institutions concurrently exhibiting works by Maine printmakers.

"The turtle is intriguing," says Cornell. "In its strangeness you find a kind of compassion. It is a primitive beast, it's what our inner nature is. Like anger, you face the turtle. But you also find beauty there."

Two of Cornell's other animal studies — an engraving of a pig and a lithograph of a goat — are on display at an exhibition titled "Maine Menagerie" at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockport, Maine, through September 30.

Cornell's empirical animal and nature studies eventually led him to a more allegorical, even moral, examination of man's intrinsic, inseparable place in the natural world. Recent paintings reveal a lush, living landscape in which human activity and goodness flourish.

"I want to seduce viewers to see environmental justice as a foundational goal of our culture," observes Cornell.

Cornell aquatint
Father And Children,1990, etching and aquatint 24 x 35 inches.

In his three-plate aquatint "Father and Children," which will be part of CMCA's printmaking exhibition Oct. 22 through Dec. 16, 2006, Cornell presents a flourishing vision of human love.

"I want to create a living image of the good," notes Cornell. "We need to accept that we're part of nature and acknowledge that there may not be a supernatural solution to our environmental problems. It is through this peregrination through nature that I've come to believe that this is our obvious moral responsibility: to augment the good in nature and minimize the evils."

Cornell's work is included in Portland Museum of Art's current exhibition, "A Century of Maine Prints: 1880s to 1980s," which runs through December 10, 2006. Also in Portland, his work can currently be seen at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery. Several of his paintings recently were shown at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, in anticipation of a show in the spring.

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