Charlie Hunter sees beauty in places where beauty may not normally be seen — like the long-abandoned industrial and agricultural sites so common throughout New England.
It’s where the painter has chosen to set up his studio: inside an old mill building in Bellows Falls, where he’s lived since 2000. He said those buildings have always left an impression on him, and he views them as part of the story of humanity.
“I draw my inspiration from the amazing gift of being alive,” Hunter said. “I see visual artists as being storytellers. And I think storytelling is endemic to human nature, both because humans like to be entertained and it’s a way that we feel less alone. The individual voice, whether it is that of a songwriter, or that of a painter, or that of a storyteller, is what gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to be somebody else.”
Hunter has always had a taste for fine art, but that’s not where he got his start as an artist. The Weathersfield Center, Vt., native spent time living in Milford, N.H., before attending Yale University in Connecticut, where he earned an art degree before moving to Massachusetts. While in college, Hunter worked at a rock-music night club painting signs and designing posters and tickets. After that, he went on to design album covers and tour posters for bands in western Massachusetts before later working as a music manager. He said he got to see a lot of popular acts before they were household names, including U2, R.E.M. and Elvis Costello.
Hunter had taken painting classes in college but had never really explored the medium. That changed when he returned to his home state two decades ago.
“It started about when I moved back up to Vermont in 2000,” he said. “I started painting a lot and was really trying to find my voice as an artist.”
Hunter added that he chose the Bellows Falls area in part because it was close to where his parents, Armstrong and Edith Hunter, lived.
One reason he gravitated toward painting old buildings came from his youth in Milford, when the state put a highway bypass right where an old barn once stood near his home. The loss of that barn affected him more than he would have expected, and it wasn’t until years later when he realized just what an impact it had.
“It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much I grieved that,” Hunter said. “But I feel like that sadness sort of provided me the raw material of the stories that I tell now.”
In normal times, Hunter does a lot of painting on the road, traveling to different communities to participate in en plein air painting events, and offering painting workshops. En plein air painting is a style that involves painting outdoors, with subjects that often include landscapes, buildings and people.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he’s been spending a lot more time in the studio. While his plein air paintings are meant to be created quickly, and are therefore a bit smaller, Hunter said the paintings he creates in his studio tend to be larger and more detailed. Right now, he’s working on a series of painted wooden doors.
“What I’ve been doing recently is painting on hollow core doors, so 30-inch by 80-inch, so much, much bigger,” he said, noting that a typical plein air painting might be as large as 12 inches by 24 inches. He’s hoping to display some of his larger, more “thought-through” pieces at a gallery show at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, which is set to take place next year.
Hunter said he shows in about a half-dozen galleries in the New England area; he’s also planning a two-person show at William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, Mass., next year.
Leigh Niland, another eastern Vermont-based artist, said she’d met Hunter back in the early 2010s when he was regularly hosting life-drawing sessions at his Bellows Falls studio. She had recently returned from London at the time, where she’d become accustomed to life-painting at the Royal Drawing School, and was looking for a local venue where she could continue that style of art. The Canal Street Art Gallery suggested she reach out to Hunter.
“Charlie turned out to be a fantastic person, fascinating all-around, and someone who really could draw,” she said. “Charlie made everyone feel welcome there and it was fascinating to see how he worked.”
That group of artists became known as the Bellows Falls Drawing Club, and it was well attended while it ran, according to Niland. She said Hunter’s space was well suited for the large groups that would attend these sessions. She noted that Hunter also organizes painting trips and exhibitions in Santa Fe, N.M., and commended his talent, saying he’s more gifted than he gives himself credit for.
“He is a truly great artist, even if he does describe himself as a ‘reasonably fine artist’,” she said. “What a laugh and an understatement.”
To learn more about Charlie Hunter, visit charliehunter.art.