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In the Studios: John C. Traynor

by Allison Malafronte

John C. Traynor in his New Hampshire studio

Over the forty-four years that John C. Traynor has been painting, he has watched the art world transition in ways that few traditional painters could have anticipated. This native New Jerseyian was plein air painting well before it was a trend; traveled and trekked the world in search of simple beauty with nary a social-media post to prove it; and trained with such legendary teachers as Deane Keller, a former Yale University Art Department Dean and part of the famed World War II-era Monuments Men. Traynor's coming to art, like his artwork, was a natural and humble endeavor that he pursued for the pure love of it—and it took place in a time that seems as if it could have just as easily been a century ago. 

The artist's most recent exhibition—Past Meets Present, currently on view at J. Cacciola Gallery W (Bernardsville, New Jersey)—is a retrospective of sorts, with several nods to his formative years and a few full-circle returns to subject matter or stylistic influences that first inspired him. The week prior to the opening of the show, Traynor took some time to respond to the following questions, and shared anecdotes about his training, travels, and upcoming projects and trips. 

Winter River Valley, 2018, oil on linen, 20 x 24 in.

AM: You are getting ready for what looks like a wonderful solo exhibition at J. Cacciola Gallery W. Tell us a little bit about what we can expect to see in the show, how long you have been working on it, and where the theme originated. 

JT: I have been painting for this show for the last few months. The title of the show, Past Meets Present, has a dual meaning. The first part is the style. The landscapes have a stylistic connection to American Impressionists from the past. The exhibition also includes some figurative religious paintings. I am searching for a new style for this type of work and have been experimenting with bringing the old and new together. The second meaning comes from my connection to Bernardsville and Mendham, New Jersey. My grandfather was raised in Bernardsville, and I grew up in Mendham, which is a neighboring town.

AM: Which painting(s) from this exhibition are you most proud of/most eager to share with the public and why?

JT: I am excited to show my new snow scenes, which have some nice textural qualities in the paint. I have been using more lead white, and that allows me to get thicker brush stokers and brighter colors. Some of my patrons will be surprised to see the religious paintings, as it's been a long time since I've explored that subject. 

Sea of Galilee, 2017, oil on linen, 12 x 9 in.

AM: What was the inspiration for the religious paintings, and what scene/subjects did you explore?

JT: I have always tried to paint landscapes, still lifes, and portraits so that I don't get stale painting one subject repeatedly. I have found that the different subjects help one another as well. After doing some large religious murals for a church a few years ago, I found that I had to outline the figures to make them stand out from fifty feet away. I then started outlining my still life and landscape easel paintings as well. 

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time copying Old Master drawings, many of which were religious subjects. Over the years I have also been inspired by the paintings and murals in European churches and wanted to try my hand at it. About eighteen years ago, I did a show with all religious paintings and had some success. After a long layoff, I'm ready to do some more. I have been preparing for this over the last two years by doing life drawing once a week and life portraits every few weeks, as well as studying human anatomy.

In the Past Meets Present exhibition, I have several religious subjects. One is a painting of the Virgin Mary using some golf leaf. Another is an Annunciation scene. I also have two studies from the religious murals I painted a few years ago. One is of the prodigal son and the other is Christ forgiving a sinful woman. I also have some landscape studies from my trip to Israel last year. 

Spring Mix, 2017, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in.

AM: I remember when the main J. Cacciola Gallery was in Chelsea, and I always admired their diverse stable of artists, several of whom were rooted in realism but doing quite interesting and unusual things stylistically. How did the gallery first become interested in your work, which is primarily traditional?

JT: I have only been with J. Cacciola Gallery W for a few years now. They have been wonderful to work with. John Cacciola is a great lover of art, and he is an expert at showing artists' work and reaching out to patrons of art. John operated a gallery in New York City for more than thirty years, and he has had a gallery in Bernardsville on and off for the last fifteen years.

AM: Over the forty-four years that you have been painting, you have had important teachers such as Deane Keller and Frank Mason. Who was one of your most influential teachers in your life, and which teacher's or mentor's voice to you still hear whispering to you as you paint today?

JT: I started painting at the age of thirteen. I attended Delbarton school in Morristown, New Jersey, which was run by the Benedictine Order of Catholic monks. The school was on an 800-acre campus that included woods, orchards, and a turn-of-the-century mansion with an attached Italianate formal garden. My art teacher was Robert Starkey. Rob and I would paint outside together, and I would draw from the statues in the Italian formal garden, which include two original Bernini statues.

Lady in White, 2014, oil on linen, 24 x 20 in.

I graduated early at sixteen and started Paier College of Art the next fall. At Paier my most notable instructor was Deane Keller, who had been the Dean of Yale University Art College in his younger years and was one of the famous Monument Men from World War II. During my last year at Paier, I had an independent study in mural painting with Deane, who was in his eightees at that point. A few months before starting Paier College, I took a month-long landscape workshop with Frank Mason in Stowe, Vermont. It was the first of five summers with Frank. While in Stowe, I lived with a family of a friend whom I met at Delbarton. An artist named Carroll N. Jones had his studio at their house. Carroll was also in World War II and had studied with Deane Keller at Yale prior to the war. I would paint outside with Frank Mason during the day and learn the methods of the Flemish Masters in the evenings from Carroll Jones. Both of these artists had a great influence on my work. After three school years at Paier, I spent a year studying sculpture in Florence, Italy and traveled through Europe visiting the major art museums. In addition, I spent two years studying figurative paintings at the Art Students League of New York with Frank Mason.

AM: Your landscape-painting style has been informed by several influences. In addition to inspiration from the past, what modern or contemporary influences inform your work?

JT: Most of my artistic influences during my career have come from the past.

This has changed recently, as there has been a major shift in what the public is looking for in art. If you walk through the galleries in Chelsea you will have a hard time finding a frame on a painting. The most elaborate frames are a strip of wood or floater frames. So I have been mostly observing the presentation of the art. I also am interested in the textures of paint that I see in recent conceptual or contemporary painting.

AM: As a New Jersey native who studied in New York City, New England, and Italy and who admires Impressionist traditions and landscapes of the West, which area of the country or world do you feel most at home at as a landscape painter?

JT: Since my landscape training in Stowe, Vermont, I have felt comfortable painting in New England, which is why I moved to New Hampshire when I was twenty-six. Through the years, I also have felt very comfortable painting in Ireland. I took my first painting trip to Ireland at the age of eighteen, and I have since made thirty-five trips there. I traveled through Ireland for two months on a bike pulling a large cart filled with camping and painting supplies. I biked eight hours a day, stopping to paint when something struck me.

Winesap Apples, 2017, oil on linen, 9 x 12 in.

AM: You have been painting landscapes for quite some time: what is your opinion of the recent proliferation of plein air painting and attendant festivals, paint-outs, and events that have come with it? Do you feel it is growing in quality as much as its growing in quantity?

Traynor on location in Vermont

JT: I had been painting outside for fifteen years before I heard the term plein air. I don't really like the term, as I associate it as a marketing tool used by a group of painters in the 1980s to sell paintings. I have always viewed painting outside as a learning experience that you can do alone or share with others. Unfortunately the term caught on, and we are stuck with it. That being said, I have benefited from the trend in being able to fill my own painting workshops. As far as the quality of the work, the great art schools of the past created a lot of great landscape painters. After World War II there was a shift to abstract art, and traditional paintings were considered a thing of the past and mostly discarded. There are many new academic art schools popping up that are doing a good job with figurative art, but there are no four-year schools that teach atmospheric landscape painting.

AM: What projects are in the works for the coming year? Any travel plans for landscape painting?

JT: There is a large group of artists meeting later this month in Jeffersonville, Vermont, and they will be joined by a group of painters from Russia. I will join them for part of the trip. It should be a lot of fun.

A project I am working on now is a painting for the 2018 U.S. Open Men's Golf Championship being held this June at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Eastern Long Island. I am the official fine artist of the tournament. I made four trips to Shinnecock Hills to paint studies. At the moment I am working on the official painting in my studio. I have looked at some of the paintings William Merritt Chase did there for inspiration.

AM: If you could put together an exhibition of landscape painters (from the past, present, or combination) who would you bring together and why?

JT: That would be difficult to do. I saw a show of Sargent and Sorolla in Paris. I love them both, but Sargent's paint looked stiff next to Sorolla's. I think I would just put painters from the past together and hope they were compatible. For a landscape show I would pick George Innes and Corot from the nineteenth century. Fredrick Mulhaupt, John F. Carlson, and Paul Henry from the twentieth century.


All photography this article courtesy the artist