Peter Van Dyck and Carolyn Pyfrom
Peter Van Dyck and Carolyn Pyfrom are two artists whose work I have admired and been intrigued by since first coming across their paintings in 2012 through the Perceptual Painters’ website. I later realized they were both Florence Academy of Art graduates as well, and have remained curious about their style of painting and way of seeing that seem to synthesize several schools of thought and practice. I was eager to see some of their recent work in person and to talk to them about how they evolved into the painters they are today, so in October I travelled to Philadelphia and spent a beautiful autumn afternoon with them in their home and studios.
Van Dyck and Pyfrom are the kind of affable, down-to-earth people who immediately remind you of someone you are already familiar and comfortable with. They are both also “artists’ artists” in the sense that they seem to have a natural dedication and focus when it comes to their work and lead a private life driven by their own decision-making. Although they came from different worlds—Van Dyck is a straight-shooting, quick-witted product of the Northeast, born and raised in Philadelphia, while Pyfrom is a demure, mild-mannered lady of Southern upbringing—their paths serendipitously crossed in Italy when they were both studying drawing and painting at The Florence Academy of Art (FAA) in 1998. Their friendship turned into a long-term relationship that eventually led to marriage a few years after graduation. They decided to return to the States and eventually settled in Philadelphia, moving from center city to their current location of Manayunk in 2006.
The artists’ decision to move to Philadelphia would have significant impact on the way in which their artistic courses would change and unfold. For Van Dyck, Philadelphia’s urban geometry and gritty textures would be exactly the kind of subject matter he would begin to crave as he started expanding his perspective and perceptions on painting. As he also made a decided break from the expectations of the art market or any controlled way of working, Philadelphia provided a familiar environment of non-pressure—he felt anonymous in some ways, and free to explore the changes that were happening to him as an artist. For both Van Dyck and Pyfrom, the influence of specific artists from the Philadelphia art scene would also have profound influence. They began teaching at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art (PAFA), and it was here that they were introduced to the work of several PAFA students and faculty members, especially Scott Noel. Noel—whom both Van Dyck and Pyfrom mention as one of the most important catalysts in their work and lives—and other artists in that sphere were making art in a way they had never seen before, and they realized there was a whole world they had yet to discover.
“When I returned to the States after Florence, I started seeing artists creating work that I thought was a lot better and more interesting than what I was doing, but I had no idea how they did it,” Van Dyck admits. “When you first leave school as a student, you are very protective of what you have learned, because at that point it’s all you have. I was fortunate to fall in with people who had respect for what I had already learned but who also challenged me. I think the education I received in Florence was absolutely instrumental and fundamental to what I’m doing now. In fact, I highly recommend that artists involve themselves in any kind of rigorous training when they are first starting out to get themselves accustomed to discipline and practice. Eventually, through my own searching and questioning, as well through observing and teaching at PAFA, I found a way of working that is more in tune with my inner voice.”
Upon arriving, I was greeted in the backyard by Van Dyck, who took me upstairs to their house and introduced me to Carolyn and their two-year old son Sam. While Sam played with his trains and trucks and their dog Sasha followed us from the house to the studio, I learned about the labor of love that went into transforming their house into a home and creative work space. The property was a fixer-upper when they first purchased it in 2006, or as Van Dyck calls it “an epic construction project.” Over the last nine years they worked together tearing down and remodeling the infrastructure and exterior of the house, and invested much time and effort on the design of their studios as well. Located just behind the house, the large two-story garage they converted into first- and second-floor studios required ripping down walls, raising the roof, and most important adding plenty of large windows and skylights to flood the studios with light from every direction.
PETER VAN DYCK
I spent the first half of the day with Van Dyck, whose studio is located on the first floor. Almost everywhere I looked, dramatic light and shadow were dancing across the walls, window sills, and surfaces, an apropos side show to Van Dyck’s larger-than-life paintings that were taking center stage. As Van Dyck showed me around, he began talking about the amount of time he is able to spend in the studio each week. “My studio life has become somewhat predictable I’m afraid,” he said with a laugh. “I used to paint impulsively, at all times of the day and night, and there was an excitement and energy to that process, but I have to stay on a schedule now because I teach three days a week and have family responsibilities. I never wanted my art production to be organized, but I also never wanted painting to rule my life, so it’s a matter of finding a balance. I look at my work now and see that it is not as crazy and spontaneous as it once was, and in some ways that is disappointing, but I also see that my life is fuller in many ways, so the sacrifice is worth it.”
A lack of anything—spontaneity or otherwise—is likely the last thing going through someone’s mind when looking at Van Dyck’s paintings. From the display of works in the studio, there was so much to observe and appreciate. Each painting offered a unique vantage point and perspective, dynamic applications and arrangements of paint, and elements of mystery and surprise. Above all, the artist’s work viewed collectively shows the consistently unique way in which he sees the world and the fact that he has clearly found subject matter that suits his vision. “I paint big, stupid paintings,” Van Dyck said self-deprecatingly. “Strip malls, fast-food joints, gas stations—things that most people find unattractive, but that I find so interesting. I think the light under the canopy of a gas station is so unbelievably beautiful, and when I say this to people they look at me like I’m crazy.” In addition to this type of subject matter, Van Dyck is also known for his interiors, still lifes, and outdoor scenes. Or for just unapologetically painting whatever he is instinctually drawn to, and doing so in awesome ways, such as his side-view painting of the nose of a plane. “When we were in Alabama this summer, I drove by the army base and saw all these planes in a row and I thought, There is no way I’m not paintings these planes. They are going to have to physically stop me from setting up right in front of them.”
Whenever Van Dyck shared a story of finding something of interest to paint he became animated and alive, like someone who has just discovered art for the first time. Knowing it can be difficult to maintain that enthusiasm over time, I asked him about the process that led to this point. “When I came back to the States I had what looked like a fairly successful start, painting the kind of work I thought I was supposed to paint and selling through galleries,” he explained. “But then the interest just dropped out, and everything started to go south for me. Finally I thought if no one is going to buy the work, I’m just going to paint what I want. It was discouraging, but it also happened to coincide with a time when I had something else to put my energy into. We had just bought the house, and I was excited to tear it apart and put it back together with my own hands. It was sort of this metaphoric moment in two areas of my life when I said, @#$% it, I’m going to do my own thing and be my own person. I’m going to rewire my kitchen and install my own plumbing, and I’m going to paint the things I really want to paint. I’m done asking, I’m done expecting, I’m done worrying what so and so thinks. It’s not going to get me where I want to go.
“I rarely sell paintings anymore,” the artist continued. “I have no ‘career,’ no official community, no consistent representation — and yet, I’m probably happier as a painter than I’ve ever been. I am finally painting in a way that is closer to how I really see life and painting the things that I care about and find optimistic and wonderful. That is a much better feeling than selling paintings. I remember that feeling, it wasn’t that great. Especially because those paintings weren’t really me.” Van Dyck can confidently say that he answers to no one when he paints primarily because he has had a steady teaching position for more than 12 years. He starting teaching classes for PAFA’s Continuing Education program in 2003 and was then offered a position as Assistant Professor in their Certificate/B.F.A. program in 2011. “I am very grateful that PAFA took me onto their faculty when I first got back from Florence,” the artist said. “If it weren’t for Daniel Graves trusting me to teach at the FAA and training me as an instructor, I don’t think I would have been prepared for that opportunity.”
Even though Van Dyck is closer to making the kind of art he has always wanted to, like many artists, he has his moments of self-doubt and frustration. In fact, just the other day he said he came into his studio, looked around at all his work, and wanted to throw it all out the window. He explained that even though it may not seem like it, he is admittedly “addicted to validation” and of course wants to feel like someone is seeing and genuinely connecting with his art. The difference is, he no longer looks for validation in art sales, and he is also learning how to separate other people’s opinions about his art from his own. “I remember when I was a student, the critiques I received would absolutely crush me,” he admitted. “I just wasn’t able to separate critique from criticism — the thought that I wasn’t good enough or cut out for this was something I couldn’t handle. Once you leave school, though, you realize no one is going to stand over your shoulder and give you that feedback, good or bad. You learn to be confident before you deserve it, and to believe you can do something you have no reason to believe you can do. This became my approach, it was the only way I could move forward.”
Van Dyck continued the conversation about his artwork by discussing the various pieces on the wall, both recent paintings created over the last several months and those that have been worked and reworked over many years. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll scrap a painting or paint over it because I don’t know what else to do with it,” he said.“ Or I’ll just let it sit for several years and subtract and add things as I study it over time.” He also shared how he gets ideas for paintings and how his general process works. “For my outdoor scenes, I just go outside and find something that I really want to paint, and I’ll go back to that same spot for maybe eight or nine days in a row.” The artist talked about how when he first came back to Philadelphia he had a hard time setting up in public and didn’t feel comfortable with people watching him, but that now he will literally set up in the middle of Broad Street — the busiest street/section in Philadelphia — and just dive in without thinking of anything other than what he is painting.
When Van Dyck is inside, he almost always finds some interesting object or effect happening in his studio that inspires him. And if he doesn’t, he’ll create it. After observing for a period of time, he begins painting, letting the space develop on the canvas in a way that fits how he wants to see the scene. It’s all about the feeling and the space — he just needs an initial spark to get started, and then once he is fully immersed in the process the scene begins to unfold. Standing directly in front of his easel staring at one of his current paintings — a striking scene of still life objects set up in front of his window, with a view of his backyard in the background — I wondered where he could have been standing in the studio to see the view in this way. When I asked him, he said was standing exactly where I was. Van Dyck went on to explain that he paints the world the way he wants to see it, rather than exactly how it is. He works like a designer in this way, moving or embellishing objects, adjusting lighting, and exaggerating angles and perspective. “The painting is always an invention,” he said. “I need things to be exciting and meaningful, so I create a world where this exists and that I would actually want to inhabit.”
One of my favorite aspects of visiting with artists in their studios is seeing all the tools and unexpected tricks of the trade involved in their creative process. One such discovery was Van Dyck’s “Wall of Characters,” a large bulletin board and table full of hundreds of cut-out figures, drawn from life in various sizes, positions, and shapes. The artist outlines the figures on tracing paper, cuts them out, and uses them to scale figures into his paintings. Picking up several from the pile, he walked over to one of his outdoor scenes and held a large figure in the foreground and a smaller one in the background. “Once the positions are established, it’s actually pretty easy to add the figures,” he said. “With a few correct shapes of color, I can probably get a figure down in about 10 minutes.” The artist then talked about one of his favorite tools that he uses to create texture and to blend: an old window-washing squeegee, which he almost always uses in the sky area of his paintings. Van Dyck also shared the tool he uses to help him achieve accurate perspective: He places a pin with a string attached at the vanishing point of the painting and then holds the string out at various angles to check that the lines are correct. He explained that this is a common tool that has been used by artists since the Renaissance.
Speaking of both the traditional and modern aspects of art, Van Dyck discussed the two worlds of training that defined him as an artist, and how both intersect in his work. “I often have people tell me that my work looks modern because of the large shapes and blocks of color,” he said. “But I actually learned those ‘modern’ concepts in Florence. So, at that time it was the figure and now it’s a parking lot, but the underlying principle is the same. The Florence Academy taught me value organization and shape structure. And what I learned in Philadelphia is all about space and volume. The work I’m doing now brings those two worlds together.” Van Dyck went on to talk about the importance of those distinct stages of his life and the people who left a lasting impression. “Looking back, I sort of now divide my life into two phases: The Florence phase and the Philadelphia phase,” he said. “The two people who taught me everything about art are Ramiro and Scott Noel. I don’t think Ramiro realizes the influence he had on people back then, he was the one we all looked up to. And Scott is another artist who has had a tremendous impact on so many and who is such an incredibly insightful and inspiring painter.”
As we concluded our conversation, Van Dyck mentioned that he feels he’s finally ready to share his work more and connect with others in the art community. He recently joined social media and has been enjoying posting his work on Facebook and Instagram and also seeing the work of artists he respects and admires. “You can only create art in a vacuum for so long, and I was starting to feel like I wanted to see if even one person had any interest in what I was doing,” Van Dyck admitted. “I think that’s a pretty common desire that artists have, we create to connect. I know there’s a lot of great art out there that I still know nothing about, so I find it interesting to see what other artists are up to. I also know there’s a dialogue happening, and I finally feel like I’m strong enough in my own beliefs and way of working to join the conversation."
After a short break for lunch with the Van Dyck family, I spent the rest of the afternoon with Pyfrom in her studio, which is located on the second floor. It is a cozy and comfortable space, with a refurbished-attic atmosphere that makes it feels as if you have just entered a room with much history. Full of light and filled with a sense of calm, the studio has three large south-facing windows and a skylight. Interestingly, Pyfrom now enjoys working by south or west light, even though when she first came back from Florence the thought of painting under anything but north light was inconceivable. A studio she had rented in Philadelphia in 2007 had only south- and west-facing windows, and for the first several weeks in her new space she just stared at a blank canvas wondering how she could paint under those circumstances. “I had an understanding of how a painting was supposed to be approached and what it was supposed to look like, and I could not come to terms with the fact that I could not paint with north light or a shadow box,” she explained. “But sometimes when you can no longer control things, life will push back on your expectations or assumptions of how something should be.” Finally one day she decided to open the windows, let the light in, and see if she could work with what she had. And she could. “That was a freeing experience, and the beginning of me starting to open up my mind to other possibilities,” she says.
Pyfrom next talked about her studio schedule and how she balances being the mother of an active two-year-old with her life as an artist. She enjoys spending time with her son and wants to be with him as much as possible, so she spends three days a week with Sam, teaches at PAFA one day — courses in the Certificate/B.F.A. program, as well as the Continuing Education program — and spends three days in the studio. “I’m sure it’s not the best level of commitment as an artist, but philosophically I am OK with it because this is what I have chosen for my life right now,” she said. “I of course fight to focus because there are other demands on my attention and time right now. I often have to remind myself of who I am, and I remember who I am when I come into the studio: I am painter. This is what I do. Although I’m not nearly as productive as I would like to be, I know there will be a time when I will be again, so I am grateful for what I have now.”
In this interim stage of raising her son and splitting her time between family and the studio, Pyfrom has been working on a project that seems to fit perfectly with this season of her life. About 15 years ago Pyfrom’s sister wrote a children’s book and asked her to illustrate it. At the time, she did not feel she could, but over the last year she has found herself naturally called to the idea and excited to work on it as much as possible. It’s the kind of project that sparks her imagination and creativity without creating unnecessary pressure or expectations. “Sometimes when you work in the studio with a model on a figure painting or portrait it can be slightly overwhelming,” she said. “Working on this children’s book is a nice counterbalance, it’s more laid back. A few years ago I took a class at PAFA with Renée Foulks on narrative and sequential drawing, and I used this book as my storyboard project. That was the jumpstart I needed, and I have since really enjoyed staging the story and putting it together without any limitations or rules. When I’m working on a portrait or figure, that insecure student can sometimes come back, and I start thinking, That line would never happen in real life, or I really need to rekey the light in that area, it’s not accurate. With the book, I’m free to invent and imagine — I find myself making up figures in the forest, looking at old vintage photographs to develop characters, drawing animals and then studying books on animal anatomy — I’m having so much fun.”
While working on the book, Pyfrom of course still paints figures and still lifes. I immediately noticed a large square canvas propped up against the wall in her studio, with a woman standing in the center holding a heavy object. Pyfrom said that she started the piece a while ago, and that it changes over time. She is still in the process of seeing what will be revealed, but she briefly explained that it is a painting about painting. The woman floating in the center of the canvas is her, and she is carrying a cast, which is a metaphor for the weight of the art tradition. Not wanting to reveal too much information, or perhaps not wanting to define the idea of the painting any specific way before it is finished, she suggested that the interpretation is paradoxical: on one hand, the weight of the tradition can be burdensome and difficult to carry. On the other hand, the weight of the tradition can give artists the gravity they need to stay stabilized and grounded.
When it comes to her work, Pyfrom is more comfortable talking about space, light, and how one experiences the world she creates on canvas. “I think about how viewers are going to actually enter the space and what happens once they are in it,” the artist shared. “The painting needs a certain organization and a graphic energy to hold someone’s attention. If you want to feel the light or create a space that one could imagine actually walking into, certain qualities have to be considered: Does the painting invite you in? How do you experience the entrance? Do you float in? Do you fly in? Even within the technical aspects of painting, there are conscious choices I’m making to create a certain kind of visual experience. In a still life for instance, I may have to find a slightly different way to turn a form in shadow so that I can keep the light somewhere else. Or if I’m looking at an object that interests me, I try to think about the way in which I am experiencing it and how I want to convey that. Is it through the closeness of the colors? Or through a certain aspect of the structure? Does the energy of the brushwork come at the expense of the drawing? For each painting I have to make certain decisions, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t choose something completely different for the next painting.”
Pyfrom reminds herself often, and makes a point of telling her students as well, that the process of painting is an opportunity for artists to explore what they care about. She tries not to think of anything else while she is painting, and once the art is done, she prefers not to discuss it too much or to classify it in any way. “I think we all try to categorize and label because it helps us make sense of and understand the world around us,” she said. “It can be so limiting. I think about the artist Fairfield Porter and his idea of just accepting a painting for what it is, not worrying about whether it fits certain criteria or represents a specific thing. I’m at my worst if I’m questioning myself or wondering where the art fits while I’m creating it. I admire a lot of different styles and types of artists, and I no longer feel that my art has to fit in any one category. I try to give it the room it needs to breathe and grow.”
One of my favorite aspects of Pyfrom’s work is the sense of mystery and poignancy she is able to continually maintain. Her figures and self-portraits are very powerful and carry messages and meaning beyond what is immediately seen. In talking with her, I see that the wisdom and depth of thinking she carries within her comes out in her work. I also learned that she is a musician and songwriter. She helped me to understand how these two art forms allow her to express feelings, emotions, and ideas she is unable to otherwise communicate. “I don’t write well or speak very fluently, so the way I transfer all of these thoughts and feelings is through painting and music,” Pyfrom shared. “There are things that I think about, that I’m sure we all think about, that deeply concern me — such as suffering and death — or things that I care very deeply about. I can’t sit down and tell you about these things directly, but in art they can be wrapped up and veiled in these beautiful packages that have the potential to reach and speak to others.”
Although Pyfrom is extremely modest about her musical talent, and reticent to share her accomplishments, I got the feeling after seeing several acoustic and electric guitars, including a bass, in her studio and knowing that she writes her own music that she is likely a gifted musician. “I love music, it was my first love even before art,” Pyfrom said with genuine joy in her voice. “I started playing the guitar when I was 10, and I played with my brothers in a band. I was never officially trained, but I always wanted to keeping learning and practicing so I could get better. I still play, mostly just for myself at home or in the studio. It helps me relax and to feel young again. Music really has such incredible power, it’s something that is so special and meaningful to me. I have this secret longing to be a singer — oh how I wish I could sing! — but I am grateful just to be able to play and create music.”
In terms of where Pyfrom’s ideas come from for her work or where she finds inspiration, she claims she is a “passive painter” and more of a reactor than a creator when it comes to subject matter. The artist does not like to set up still lifes or models because it feels contrived and awkward to her. If she has a model in her studio she will just have him or her act naturally or move around until she sees something that she wants to paint. And her best still lifes, she says, are the ones that she happens to stumble upon or that are already set up in real life. “I’m also the kind of painter that will change the subject in the middle of the process,” Pyfrom said. “I’ll move things around, redo the pose, add a panel, whatever is needed. I try to respond to what is happening in the moment rather than adhering to a preconceived plan.”
As Pyfrom and I finished with our visit, one of the last questions I asked her was if she could name a recent painting that she is particularly proud of or that she feels best represents her as an artist. “I did a self-portrait last fall, and I think a lot of things came together in a special way during the process,” she remembered. “I know that I grew as a painter while making that painting. I was freer in some way, especially with color. I tried things I hadn’t tried before. It’s now hanging at PAFA, and I haven’t looked at it since last year, but lately I feel the need to see it again. It tells me something about myself. I don’t know what it is, but I feel very connected to that painting.”
Like Van Dyck, Pyfrom talked about both wanting to share her work with others and some of the hesitations she still harbors. “You always want people to see your work, you just wish it were better,” she said. “It’s hard for me to look at my paintings objectively. Even though I try to celebrate what worked in a particular painting, there is always something that stands out that I feel I could have done better. I’m sure a lot of artists feel this way. But I think for all the apologies we make for our art, we still want it to mean something to someone. You want it to move someone in the way the art you love moves you. I think that’s the heart of an artist’s calling: to be the instrument through which that moment or feeling can be manifested. I work with the hope that there is something special that I am meant to create in my lifetime that will embody this quality. Sometimes when it comes to the logistics and facts of everyday life, I wonder if I will, but I live with the faith that it is possible.”
All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte