Arts & Literature

The Art of William Sillin

Whether painting landscapes or designing giant mazes in cornfields, this Sunderland artist embraces both art and science in mastering his craft.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009
Painting by William Sillin
Detail from William Sillin's painting, "Waves"

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Sunderland painter William Sillin's work and interests thrive where art and science meet.

His vibrant oil landscapes are both impressionistic and realistic. Though he has devoted himself to the pursuit of excellence in art with brushes, paint and a canvas, he works fluidly with computer applications such as Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, and 3D modeling programs, using them to solve composition challenges before he begins mixing colors.

His work hangs on the walls of art galleries and in private collections, but it can also be found illustrating science textbooks and as giant dioramas in natural history museums. In the 1970s, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Wesleyan and continued his art education at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, but 20 years later, he earned his Master's of Science at UMass, studying geology and other natural sciences.

In a recent Advocate interview he explained how these sometimes disparate worlds connected for him.

After graduating college, he said, "I knew I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint landscapes, and I was in love with the Impressionists.

"When my wife was at Cornell, attending graduate school, I worked as a security guard at the art museum there, and while guarding the art, I went through their entire library. I came across a book on Matisse, and I was fascinated by how he spent a lot of his life making colorful paintings with bright outlines, but toward the end of his life he ultimately got down to doing these paper cutouts. Like paper dolls.

"In the book, there was the foundation for these cutouts, which were the figure drawings he did as a student. And they were incredible. He could actually name the muscles and bones; he was an anatomist. That was his foundation, and I started to think: 'He really knows what he's doing. I bet those cutout dolls are pretty dang informed.' It was amazing to me to see how he took all his sense of anatomy and perspective and reduced it all down to a simple paper cutout, and it made me think I ought to take the same approach. I realized if I really wanted to paint landscapes, I should inform myself about the structure of the landscape and how it was formed. That's how I got interested in geology."

When looking for subject matter, Sillin has tried to find scenes that convey motion—"Clouds. Water. Rocks that erode or fold or fault. Rocks that have fallen. Trees that explode with growth, twist, fall and decay"—but sometimes finding dynamic subject matter isn't sufficient to ignite his passions.

"I'm always trying to come up with reasons to paint," he said. "Just painting pretty landscapes can get old fast. So you need to come up with a reason to paint them. Historically, there was a time when [artists painted to express how they felt about] religion. There was a time when it was ideology, and a time when it was about social realism. I started wondering, 'What am I doing? What's motivating me to do this stuff?' I always enjoyed painting landscapes, but at a certain point I got tired and I lost my mojo.

"Around that time," he said, "my son gave me a book for Christmas by Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe. The basic idea was understanding the conflict and physics of reality and combining two views that don't really mix together: the Einstein, elegant, grand universe, and then the quantum one that's crazy and chaotic.

"I'd already done a number of paintings where I tried to combine my obsession with the detail to the grandeur and glory of the view. [Reading Greene's book] I realized that this was an interesting way to look at landscape painting: as a window into those two worlds and to try and bring them together. So I started trying to find ways to compose my work to reflect that idea, and that's what's motivating me now."

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This new perspective is most clearly represented in his recent paintings of ocean surf. Sillin captures both the light and color of the water, along with the complex, fleeting structures of the water as it meets the land. At first glance, the images look photo-realistic, but when you look more closely, the brushwork is apparent, as is his complete mastery over his palette.

"I've had this thing where, you know, you're not a great landscape artist unless you can paint a wave painting," he said. "My painting, 'Waves,' was really my first ambitious wave painting and I sold it before I could exhibit it. So I decided I'd try another one, and I took a slightly different approach. The first one was dramatic; it's about the interference of the waves coming together. The second one [called "Rehoboth Waves"] was far more contemplative; it's sort of about the different stages of the wave. I was able to get the wave curling, coming down, running out, and then the foam washing back. I was trying to capture this idea of natural phenomena at different times and scales all at once."

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Despite his clear talents and long career as a landscape painter, Sillin is probably best known for his works of art that are actually composed out of the fertile soil and flora of the Pioneer Valley's landscape. Collaborating with Sunderland farmer Mike Wissemann, a friend and neighbor, Sillin has designed and helped construct giant mazes in Wissemann's cornfields that have attracted crowds for the last 10 harvest seasons.

The mazes, which can be viewed from the top of Mt. Sugarloaf, less than a mile away, have grown from four acres to eight in size, and each depicts a different celebrity or cultural icon. Their second maze had visitors wandering through an image of the Mona Lisa, and it struck a chord. That maze catapulted the enterprise from local curiosity to internationally known attraction, earning effusive media coverage from San Francisco to Mumbai.

Mostly the mazes have been designed not to confuse visitors or get them lost, but to offer a chance to explore the lanes cut into the tightly packed corn. Sillin provides maps, and each year he tries to incorporate some kind of game into the experience. This year the maze depicted Charles Darwin, and throughout the maze he placed rubber stamps of different creatures. Visitors were invited to try and find all the animals and mark their maps accordingly.

"Another year," he said, "for Louis Armstrong, my son made these chimes from different lengths of metal tubing, and when you ran a stick along them, walking down a path, they played different tunes and you had to identify them. That was fantastic. It blew everyone's mind."

Sillin creates the mazes from pictures he finds in books and magazines. "Then in Adobe Illustrator," he explains, "I'm able to trace the lines over the portrait that will become the paths through the maze. I try to think of them as being trails, but at first, I'm really just trying to get the likeness." He then connects the features of the portrait so that visitors can travel between them. "That's hard, because you're basically adding lines that don't exist to a person's face, and they can get disfigured pretty easily. So I try to find a way to hook up the eyes, through the nose, to the mouth, through the cheeks—somehow to connect the whole thing. That's really the hardest part."

In late May, Wissemann plants the corn for the maze, packing the future corn stalks tightly so there are no rows between them. Using small white flags, Sillin translates his image from the page to the corn grid. When the corn has grown about a foot high, he pulls out the stalks, creating the paths.

During the year the maze was a portrait of Einstein, bad weather nearly closed the operation down. As Wissemann and Sillin found themselves pumping water from paths during Columbus Day weekend—their busiest—they weren't sure they'd last another year. But the next year, they returned with Julia Child as their image, and the weather was perfect. This winter, they're contemplating whom they will feature in their 10th anniversary maze.

*

During his time at UMass, Sillin made friends with several science professors in the area. Geology professor emeritus at Amherst College Ed Belt, who had collected several of Sillin's landscapes, commissioned him to paint a Jurassic landscape featuring several dinosaurs standing on a lava flow. The experience led Sillin to consider natural history museums as a possible venue for his work, and with several samples under his arm, he approached Richard Krueger of the Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Conn., to see if Krueger had a need for his services.

The park features a museum with hundreds of dinosaur footprints housed under a giant dome. After reviewing his paintings, Krueger showed Sillin a huge stretch of curved wall (29 feet by 14 feet) and asked him to compose an historically accurate Triassic landscape complete with flora and creatures native to the area. Sillin considers the resulting work the artistic accomplishment of which he is the most proud. Several years later, he painted a companion piece for the opening of the remodeled Amherst College Natural Museum to bring to life fossils from its collection.

Though few of his paintings include people, Sillin said that he relishes collaboration, and he particularly enjoyed working closely with the paleontologists, paleobotanists and geologists to realize their visions for the two museums.

He's hoping to win a third diorama commission from the Trustees of Reservations to illustrate a background to their collection of dinosaur tracks near Holyoke. The footprints were unearthed during the construction of Route 5 along the Connecticut River, and while the quantity and vividness of the tracks is impressive, the cement retaining wall, pocked with culverts and drainage pipes, that looms above the tracks is not. Provided they can find the funding, the Trustees have expressed interest in getting Sillin to create a period landscape to cover the wall. It would need to be about 80 feet long and 15 feet high. While Sillin will design the mural, the hope is to have local students paint it under his guidance.

Sillin has given a lot of thought to how to execute such a huge job with so many people and still create a consistent, cohesive piece. Again, he's turning to computer technology to help him realize his painterly vision. "I'm going to create a 3D model of the environment," he said. "The animals, the plants, water, clouds, light, the whole deal. After I render the image, I'll take it into Photoshop and reduce the color palette, and then into Illustrator to create outlines around the patches of color, and create a paint-by-numbers system. I'm ready to go, and now I've just got my fingers crossed the Trustees have success with their fundraising efforts."

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