Rural observer: Allen Hale Johnson (1937-2022)

  • HALE JOHNSON

  • A painting of Goodell Farm by the late Colrain artist Allen Hale Johnson. CONTRIBUTED photo

Published: 5/28/2022 12:55:41 PM

Seldom do the seemingly disparate worlds of agriculture and painting suffer a common loss, but that is exactly what happened last month when Allen Hale Johnson “Hale” died at his beloved property — home and studio — here in Colrain. He was insistent about being left alone in his final days to commune among the mists and the solitude of his hillside overlooking the Green River basin, a source of inspiration and solace to he and Lorraine for more than 50 years.

Hale worshipped the natural world, especially the New England landscape, and he paid homage to its beauty and seasonal subtleties by capturing all manner of nuance via the minutiae — grand and microscopic — of its bounty all around him: in the collapse of a dairy or a hay barn, in the disintegration of a coastal dingy, in the compromised spindle of a Windsor side-chair, or in a ray of late afternoon November sunlight cutting across a section of porch on an 18th-century Cape. Even an abandoned leather workboot in the corner of a milk house, or an out-of-place brick in a chimney in need of repointing — little details caught his eye, plagued his sensibilities and informed his renditions. Thus forcing the viewer to see what he saw and in so doing to think about life and mortality and what being alive is really all about. He made his statements in the beginning on canvas then, during his prime, on board; always in oil.

And like an old farmer and the eccentric artist he sometimes was, he could be irascible and crotchety: ask a foolish question when he was “engaged” in a moment and dead silence and a blank stare might follow. Best to come back another day; nothing personal. He could hurl himself into prodigious fits of prolonged labor when the paint didn’t, or wouldn’t, flow on a given day. No stone wall was too far gone to be rebuilt, and no number of blow-downs was too large to be bucked-up, stacked or hauled away. For Hale, a bad day could be a broken limb hanging in a certain unsuggestive way! Or a clump of grass too far into the forest for his John Deere mower to reach. The sound of a dirt bike on a day when the oil was flowing could turn him into an absolute madman, stomping and stuttering around his property. Sometimes during one of these rants a long strand of silver hair would break free and cover a section of his face. At these moments he took on the appearance of a maniacal sea captain during a Nor’easter — or Melville’s embattled Ahab in pursuit of a great whale.

But perhaps deeper still was Hale’s love of the “idea” of being a New Englander — a rock and moss founder with tentacles deep in the agrarian life and fabric of colonial America. He could, and would, claim his connections via his mother’s family, the Hales, and he clung tightly to these antecedents and their rural traditions (Hale’s grandfather, for instance, made maple candy for the sweetheart). But he was as much a “city” boy if not more than his oral history could support; his mother’s stories and his occasional country summers only offset a small proportion of his urban sensibilities. I used to kid him about having gourmet pastrami sandwiches flown in to Turners Falls from the city for treats during Thursday night poker games. I’d point out that not many New England farmers indulged in that degree of decadence! But this was the kind of person Hale was: loyal, generous and kind to a flaw.

And it was probably this insurmountable tension between city and country that jockeyed for position within him that was responsible for creating his particular vision and what ultimately led to his success as a New England landscape painter in the Realist School of tradition. Ultimately, he was a good man with a kind heart, a readiness for laughter and of course an enviable talent to create on canvas what he saw around him. In this sense, he was a true farmer: he led us to his country trough and let us drink freely thereof.

Brad Brigham lives in Colrain.


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