Painting is the sole focus of artist Midge Battelle’s work these days. Known as a photographer and respected curator in the Provincetown art scene, she considers her current artwork the culmination of all else she has done.
“If you put my photographs next to my paintings,” she says, “there’s an aesthetic that was always there. While my photographs were black and white, they were about composition and light.”
Battelle’s paintings are similarly “about balance, about harmony and lightness,” she says. Part of a group show at AMP Gallery in Provincetown that runs through July 29, they draw inspiration from the sky and the ocean, philosophy, poetry, and the spirituality of medieval chants.
Thoroughly embedded in Provincetown’s art scene, Battelle’s connection to the town runs deep. She visited for the first time in 1966, when she was 20. “Worcester, where I come from, is an old, post-mill-town city,” she says. “I always knew that I was gay, and I never could fit in. I was anxious all the time. Then I came here, and I felt my whole body relax. It was that remarkable.”
Battelle returned the following spring, just before her 21st birthday. “Provincetown was dead,” she says, “but I ended up staying. This place has saved me so many times, there’s no place like it. I’ve lived in other places over the years, but I always came back here. Now,” she adds, “I’m not leaving until it’s my time to go.”
When it comes to art, Battelle says that she was “a late bloomer.” After working for many years as a cook and going through recovery — “I had done the whole ’60s thing, alcohol and drugs” — Battelle decided to enroll in art school. “I was 38 years old. After high school, I never wanted to go to school again, it was such a traumatic experience,” she says. “But I took to it and excelled.”
Battelle spent three years at Greenfield Community College in western Mass., where she took classes in color theory, design, photography, printmaking, and art history. She followed that with studies at MassArt in Boston, focusing mainly on photography. “Coming from a very working-class background,” she says, “I decided to study a practical subject so that I could go out in the world and get a job, which never happened.” She laughs. “Throughout this time,” she continues, painting was “all I wanted to do, all I wanted to learn.”
A year after she returned to Provincetown, she was working as a cook when the painter Hilda Neily, who had been Battelle’s friend since 1968, suggested a different path. “One day Hilda said to me: ‘I want to start a gallery. Will you do it with me?’ I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “I replied yes and never went back to cooking.”
Neily says she couldn’t have opened her gallery without Battelle: “Midge has been there for me all our lives. There’s a lot I couldn’t have done without her.”
Through her work with Neily and other gallery projects, including at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Battelle discovered her talent for curating while at the same time working as a photographer.
“I did a lot of things in the arts as well as being an artist,” she says. “Then, I finally decided I would give myself permission to paint. I moved all else out of my studio — printmaking, photography, everything that I was doing — and that was it. I have not looked back. I’m older. I just turned 75 in May, so I’ve got maybe 10 more good ones. I figured it’s time to really focus.”
Battelle’s first painting, now in a friend’s collection, happened almost by accident. “I started by drawing a grid on paper with a graphite pencil,” she says. “Then, I used thinned gesso over the lines to soften the hard black. I stared at the grid, and I liked it, but I didn’t know what it was about.”
Having seen this grid, Battelle’s friend, the artist Pasquale Natale, brought a 36-by-36-inch double-wide piece of plywood to her studio. “He could barely lift it,” she says, laughing. “He said, ‘Paint this.’ So, I did. I put Hildegard of Bingen’s chants on, and the energy was like poetry, like a state of high consciousness that gets through the muck.”
Painting has become for Battelle a meditative, spiritual practice. Drawing from Stoic philosophy, she defines her grids as Logos and the colors and movement within them as Eros. She will take a long time, often as long as a year, to complete each work. “I work with a teeny tiny palette knife,” she says. “So, if you look closely, you’ll see little feathery strokes in the squares.”
Battelle’s work as a curator has honed her eye in the art of placing pieces side by side, a skill that she now uses to consider each square as it relates to the others within each grid. As she mixes colors on pans and plates — her preferred palette — deciding carefully which hues to add, Battelle tries to “keep my ego out of the way and follow an intuitive feeling.
“The kind of painting I do is not everybody’s slice of pie,” she adds. “But there’s this group of people who really get it, and I’m so grateful.”
The event: Midge Battelle’s paintings, on view as part of a group show with Diane Ayott, Barbara E. Cohen, Ann Corrsin, Phyllis Ewen, Kathi Robinson Frank, Nancy Rubens, and Judith Trepp
The time: Through July 29
The place: AMP Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free