Jamie Townsend: A bold ‘farmer artist’ outside and in

ON THE COVER: The front of R.B. Erskine’s has become an outdoor art gallery with the addition of artist Jamie Townsend’s work. “My customers really like them a lot,” says shop owner Mike Erskine. All photos by Karen Zuppinger unless otherwise noted. A photo gallery is set within the article.

By Karen Zuppinger

It’s a sunny Friday morning in January but feels like a heat wave for this time a year. The temperature is in the low 40s but it may as well be 70, as people bustle about the streets of Springfield dressed as if it were spring.

Jamie Townsend, wearing a sleek pair of silver sunglasses, a tattered green turtleneck and Carhartt pants covered in specks of wood and paint, takes off his sunglasses exposing his light blue eyes and reaches out his hand by way of introduction.

Besides some guy sitting in a dark corner in the back of the room and a group of four ladies gathered at a table near the front of the Apron Strings Café, it’s just the two of us – perfect for a conversation.

Anyone familiar with Townsend’s art knows that he paints everything from illustrations to portraits. But most familiar to Chester residents will be his monumental and colorful outdoor artwork that graces the front of R.B. Erskine in the Depot and the WAAWWE market in Gassetts.

His mural on the side of the Hadley Building on Main Street in Springfield also comes to mind.

“Yeah, yeah, that happened through Nina Jamison, director of the Gallery at the Vault. We’d known each other for a while and she knew that the town was looking at ways to spruce up the building. She approached the town and raised the money.” He twists the handle on the small blue cup then takes a sip of his espresso.

And the theme?

“The stage coach? History is very important to me,” he says. “I like to honor the past … it’s interesting how it used to take two days to go from here (Springfield) to Claremont (N.H.). Then the steam engine came along and cut that time in half, and then the car. So yeah I think that people can learn from the past about how we got from there to here. And color, color is important to me. I like to paint in bright colors. … it draws people in and works as a nice backdrop against the New England snow.”

Although the 12-by 24-foot mural is made up of nine 4- by 8-foot plywood panels, it’s a seamless portrait of an 1800s stagecoach so packed full of people that a sliver of sunlight would have a hard time making its way through. The woman in her dress hat and men in suits are splattered in reds, yellows greens and blues as if someone had been handed a box of crayons and asked to go at it.

Townsend, who studied art at Ringling College of Art and Design, say his influences are far and wide. He mentions a trip he took to Brazil, and what an impact all of its “chaotic harmony” — the vibrant colors, the saucy culture and the sizzling music — had on his work. He adds that he also was heavily influenced by war-battered, early 20th century Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Their expressive figures, he says, display “the history of strict order and cultural norms colliding.”

Few cultures could appear more different than those of turn of the 20th century Austria and Brazil, which Townsend acknowledges with a laugh.

The stark contrasting colors are a through-line in much of Townsend’s work, a signature of sort, easily recognizable, such as the horse and goat that hang at either end of the Erskine’s sign.

Townsend had approached owner Mike Erskine about putting the paintings up. “He’d never considered art as a possibility for the store before. But when I explained what I wanted to do, he was on board,” says Townsend.

Erskine wasn’t hesitant to hang the works. “Not at all,” Erskine says. “I thought it was an honor that he approached me.”

The effect is noticeable, Erskine adds. “I don’t know if I’ve seen any increase in traffic because of them. But my customers really like them a lot.”

His patrons confirm his words. “I think it’s nice,” says Rashid Joyce of Jamaica. “… buildings should have more on them than just paint. It’s pleasant to look at.”

“Lovely. Art improves anything. And it’s appropriate for the store,” Dolores Kuhn of Springfield says. “Just like at WAAWWE.”

“Lovely. Art improves anything. And it’s appropriate for the (Erskine’s) store … Just like at WAAWWE.”

Dolores Kuhn

And it is there at the WAAWWE food market at the intersection of Routes 103 and 10 in Gassetts, where it all seems to somehow come together, as if Carnival went to Vienna.

The large red and yellow looming goat, the green and red rabbit perched next to a rusty hay loader, the wooden poles binding everything together all buried deep in fresh New England snow.

One’s first instinct when pulling into the parking lot is to look for dancers or a Ferris wheel. But what you find instead is a playground of Townsend’s work.

The white clapboard building is covered in pink pigs, 6-foot chickens, a man holding a large shovel (or is it a big spoon?) and there are a few picnic tables where you can sit and take it all in.

WAAWWE owner Lisa Kaimen describes Townsend as a “farmer artist,” someone interested in local foods, which is what her market promotes. “His artwork is eye-catching, modern and thought provoking,” she says.

One Chester resident out for a walk pauses for a moment and takes it all in. “Hmmm … I think it’s nice. Is that a goat?” she asks, staring up at the wooden sculpture. “I’m not sure that I get it. But I think it’s nice.”

Townsend doesn’t yet make his living strictly through his art. He has four boys ages 3 to 9, who his wife home-schools. “So I supplement my income with farming, sugaring and forestry work, a little bit of this and that.”

His art studio on Pearl Street in Springfield smells like a Vermont winter, with fresh cut lumber scattered over the floor, the black woodstove in the center and pieces of artwork in the back corner.

“I take the leftover wood from my lumber business and use it to carve my sculptures,” says Townsend, a self-taught sculpture, pointing to several stumps that are already beginning to take shape.

Townsend’s art studio on Pearl Street in Springfield smells like a Vermont winter, with fresh cut lumber scattered over the floor, the black woodstove in the center and pieces of artwork in the back corner.

Outside his studio window, overlooking the back entrance of the newly opened Springfield Health Center, he points to a mural atop an entrance. The blue, silver and green band is signature Townsend, chaotic yet controlled.

To the right, and only visible from outside, is a mammoth wooden head that looks like it could be straight out of a Brazilian voodoo ritual. Townsend says it’s called “Face I.” The building owners commissioned the sculpture for the art space, the Great Hall. It’s a striking piece.

Townsend believes that people are beginning to open up to art. “I’d like to hear how my work affects minds and spirits. It would be great to have a public conversation about what art is doing.”

It appears that the dialogue is well on its way.

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About the Author: Karen Zuppinger in a freelance writer and Chester resident. Her work has appeared in Vermont Magazine and Assisi's Online Journal of Arts and Letters. She is a winner of America's Best Short Fiction Award.

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  1. Cynthia Prairie says:

    The first reference to his name is a link to his website. All links are in brown. FYI.

  2. anonymous says:

    My kids love Jamie and his art. You should include his website/contact info!