‘Narrative intuitive art’

  • Cara Finch has a show of her paintings up at National Spiritual Alliance Church in Lake Pleasant, Montague. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Cara Finch has a show of her paintings up at National Spiritual Alliance Church in Lake Pleasant, Montague. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • “Triple Godess” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Black Fox” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Saint Hildegard's Psaltery” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “The Cave” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Party of Two” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Resurrection” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Balance” by Cara Finch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2019 10:19:10 PM

If Cara Finch’s paintings feel familiar, there’s a clear reason for it. She takes images and draws inspiration from stories with roots in mythology, religion and history; and when asked where they come from, she doesn’t pretend not to know.

What’s less clear are the parts she doesn’t know the answer to: where these things come from in the first place, why we’re drawn to them, and why they become strange and new in her art. Rocks and trees resolve into faces; otherworldly beings intervene blatantly; the animals look back at us knowingly — all painted in swirling, Technicolor-bright acrylics.

Finch sees her art, basically, as a form of storytelling — she calls it “narrative intuitive art” — and as a way of exploring the puzzles of human nature: Why do people do what they do? Why do they keep doing the same things when they should know better by now?

“I’m often like, ‘Don’t people learn? Do we not read history?’ But there is something funny about it,” she said. “I feel like humans have been playing out this same struggle and doing the same exploration for generation after generation, for thousands of years. I find that fascinating, that humans are still so human. We haven’t really changed in all that time.”

Now, at 45 years old, Finch has been working full-time as an artist for four years. She grew up in Hadley, and now lives in Greenfield. Along the way she took weird detours — from Hadley to the West Coast and back in her 20s, through a half-hearted try at a “normal” job in her 30s — but she has always been making art.

She doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t have art. In grade school, she drew in class. In her neighborhood’s Dungeons and Dragons game club, she was the illustrator, unrolling a long scroll of paper that by the end would be filled with the creatures and places and battles of the game, the story playing itself out.

After high school in Hadley, Finch enrolled in college locally, but dropped out when her car broke down, and instead took a bus to California with a vague idea of going to art school. Art school didn’t happen, but her work ended up in galleries there. She started working as an auto mechanic for a regular paycheck and as a fallback.

At 23, she had her first child and came back to this area. Looking for a more stable source of income, she started working at a sleep lab, which led to an interest in psychology. For the next decade and a half, she chipped away at her bachelor’s degree at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, then earned a master’s degree at Westfield State University, while pursuing a career in mental health.

But it never clicked. The hours were not conducive to raising a family. The work was stressful. The pay was not great. She moved from job to job as agencies cut staff or went out of business. For a while, she thought that she would find her footing sooner or later. But at some point she realized that her more senior co-workers were in the same position.

“I think I grew up thinking that you had to go to college, you had to get a good-paying job that was a more traditional job. Not an artist,” Finch said. “I attempted to go in that direction for a while. And it just did not fit me.”

Meanwhile, she had still been doing some work as an artist — freelance illustrations, some sales of originals and prints, gallery shows. About four years ago, when she was laid off from another mental health job, the art jobs happened to pile up all at once. She decided to try to do it full-time for a year and see how it went.

Since then, she’s made her art into a full-time job. She has shows in galleries and sells originals, but she does especially well selling prints at festivals, where she can meet people and talk about the paintings.

Part of that success probably has to do with Finch’s distinct visual style, which she deliberately developed to be unique and recognizable. (“Why paint like somebody else?”)

It also probably has to do with her subject matter. Finch often uses her paintings to explore different cultures’ mythologies and religions, but ultimately it all filters through her knowledge of psychology, she said. Maybe unsurprisingly then, when she talks to people at galleries and festivals, they often have personal interpretations of the paintings.

For example, “Balance,” which she painted in 2009 and has always been popular in shows, shows a man in a dense forest with fantastic creatures and semi-human beings seeming to converge on him. The shape of the paintings and its bright colors suck your eyes in — and you begin to notice symmetries.

“You’ve got the real and unreal, you’ve got rigid concepts versus flowing concepts. It’s unlimited,” Finch said. “It’s about gender. About males being raised with the right to be who they are, and not be held to some sort of rigid standard. Sometimes we get stuck in what the masculine role is in our society.”

“Triple Goddess” is based on Celtic mythology, and deals with different aspects of femininity. The figures of the crone, the mother and the maiden seem to carry the sunlight, and a crowd looks on, slack-jawed. Under them, a fox and two deer, predator and prey, drink from the same water, all three with that oddly knowing glimmer in their eyes, illustrating a theme that Finch brings up often in her art.

“Strength and innocence are not in conflict. I think we, as a culture, are so ready to crush anything that’s not tough and strong. And we view the feminine energy sometimes as weak energy. But it’s not. It’s a balance.”

If most of Finch’s paintings are set in a timeless past that was only ever real in myth, then “Party of Two” hits a different nerve.

Finch’s knowing animals, here a donkey and an elephant, grimace at us sideways. A news anchor says “lies” in front of a camera. On the opposite side, two people huddle in a teepee under a dead tree. Lady Liberty cheers on a woman who’s getting out of there on the back of an eagle. At the bottom, a tiny capitol building happens to be on fire.

Compositionally, most of Finch’s paintings glide toward a center of balance. This one seems to pull your eyes in opposite directions.

“It’s sort of a commentary on current affairs,” Finch admits.

Does this one have any connection to that place in the other paintings? Or is it really something different?

“No culture has a pristine history,” Finch said. “Do we glorify ancient times? Probably. I don’t think there was a time for human when they were all benevolent. I wish. Maybe there was in the beginning. Who knows?”

■Cara Finch’s work is currently on display at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton through Dec. 31, and at Hope and Feathers Framing in Amherst through Jan. 12. See more of her art  at cfinchart.net.

Max Marcus covers the news in Montague, Gill   and Erving. He is at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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