KEENE - Sitting in the Keene Arts building, 70-year-old Pieter Vanderbeck's voice echoed off the walls of the empty former church. He was recalling the day he discovered art as a second-grader growing up in Rochester.
"There was an ice storm. The elm trees were coated with ice, drooping to the ground," he said. "The ground was covered with ice, and one could not walk on it without slipping. There was no reason to go out because all you would do was slip and slide, but the sun was sparkling through it all, and I was bored."
Looking out the window, the young Vanderbeck decided he needed a way to pass the time, so he began drawing cartoons. Now more than six decades later, Vanderbeck continues to spend much of his free time drawing. But instead of focusing on black-and-white cartoon characters, he has shifted his gaze to the colorful outdoors, specifically the Adirondack backcountry.
Artist Pieter Vanderbeck sits next to one of his drawings in the Keene Arts building. (Photo — Mike Lynch)
"It was not until I came up here and became enamored of nature on its own terms that I found something else other than the sardonic to draw," said Vanderbeck, who discovered the Adirondacks in the early 1990s. "When I realized how profound - how beautiful and profound, to use overused words - the mountains were, I went off on a completely different line of drawing: the truth of the earth, the truth of nature."
A former student and a retired janitor from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, Vanderbeck splits his time between Providence and the Adirondacks. When he's here, which in recent years has been from spring until fall, Vanderbeck mostly lives in the forests of the High Peaks, sleeping in lean-tos and tents, only coming out to resupply and get refreshed at the Keene Valley Hostel.
When he heads into the woods, Vanderbeck carries a heavy pack that is weighed down by his art supplies and two weeks' worth of food and gear. He now has the weight down to about 70 pounds and hopes to drop it even more, possibly to 60 pounds, with addition of some ultralight camping gear. Because of the heavy pack, the farthest he's ever camped from the trailhead is 6 miles. From there, he goes on day trips.
In addition to his love of art, Vanderbeck is passionate about writing poetry and classical music.
One of his methods for inspiration prior to heading into the woods is to listen to hours of classical music for weeks at a time leading up to a trip. One of his favorite composers is Johann Sebastian Bach.
"His music also seems to suggest the processes of nature. Some of his fugues sound like waterfalls or the wind through a forest," Vanderbeck said. "I fancy that if he was informed by muses, they were informing him also of the way the Earth was created and telling him of the processes by which this planet came into being, and his music to me echoes that. So before I come up on each trip, I go through a marathon of composers. Just before my trip, I almost always listen to a Bach marathon - the 'Well-Tempered Clavier,' the 'Art of the Fugue,' the 'St. Matthew Passion,' so that I have a lot of Bach in me."
Vanderbeck's preferred tools for creating his art are now colored pencils and a grayish paper.
Starting with oil painting when he was a young adult, he originally drew the landscapes in black and white. Then he saw a need to add tints in earth tones such as red, brown and ochre.
"Then I came to a point where I could no longer stand to draw pine trees in black," he said. "The green was so obvious a part of a it that I had to resort to colored pencils, which I did not regard as a serious artistic medium, but I had to have that green. ... Everything I learned about color and landscapes, I learned from the Adirondacks. And my color senses developed from that."
In the woods, Vanderbeck often finds himself high on mountains or besides streams or waterfalls in the High Peaks region. A look at his schedule for this camping season has him visiting Marcy Dam, Avalanche Camp, Indian Pass, Elk Pass, the Flowed Lands, Johns Brook Valley and Roaring Brook Falls, among other places. Those are all places he plans to visit from July through October this year, hitting numerous camping and lean-to sites in each area.
Once he finds a place that he wants to draw, he sits down and gets to work. This often means he's in the same spot for hours at a time. He thinks it's important to capture the essence of a place in one sitting and not have to rely on his imagination or returning to the landscape, which may have changed between drawing sessions.
"During these drawings, I will not allow myself to take a break," Vanderbeck said. "I can't stand to because if I take a break there's going to be a rift in my drawing, where I dropped off, came to another mind state and failed to make the two together. I may once in a while take a sip from a water bottle, but I am not at peace with myself until I finish the drawing, and I do the entire thing right on the scene.
"When I'm doing these drawings, I'm figuring out what I know about the history of the landscape, how the trees are growing, how everything is interacting as a complex. I'm drawing not only the separate objects, but their interrelationship, so I take into account the juxtapositions between them."
The interrelationship also includes Vanderbeck and eventually the view of the work of art.
"I deliberately draw my landscapes so the bottom portion comes right up to where the toes would be," he said. "So the viewer imaginatively can step right over the border to the drawing and move around it and in it."
WHEN YOU GO
Pieter Vanderbeck's colorful landscape drawings are available for public viewing through July 5 as part of his show, "A Walk in the Woods" at the Keene Arts building on state Route 73 in Keene.
The gallery is open to the public from 2 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 6 p.m. on weekends. Vanderbeck will be on hand during those hours as well. More than 20 years of drawings will be on display.