I am known as a landscape painter. Twenty-one months ago, when I was out plein air painting, a group of young male migrant farm workers came into view. I gestured them into my painting, appreciating their presence at first as merely compelling sunlit shapes in the landscape. As time went on these shapes became much more than figures. Their forms became individual people with sunburned faces, discrete personalities, and with distinct life stories. My paintings began to change and to grow. After almost two years painting in both gouache and with oil sticks and traditional oil paint and brush, my work now is more portraiture than landscape. In my paintings, my subjects sometimes look directly at the viewer. They are hard at work. They claim our attention. These workers are here among us but separated from us. My paintings ask the viewer to come closer to know these human beings.
These workers are our country’s invisible population, unseen despite planting, weeding, harvesting, and packing fruits and vegetables throughout our region. Hundreds work to earn enough money to feed themselves, to send to their families, return home and to purchase their own land, and a house. Yet each year from April to November, they work in our communities almost unnoticed. Many are undocumented/illegal workers. These are the people that do the jobs that most Americans won’t do, yet who might face deportation under the new Washington administration.
I now have painted them in both large and small formats. These workers are some of the “faceless” people that impact our lives. They often remain unseen and unknown despite their presence in our Valley for many months each year. Getting to know and then paint them changed my perspective on my work and forged my commitment to knowing them as people and not merely as faceless workers in the field.
My philosophy of art making has always been to paint what is in my heart. What speaks to me and forces me to pause. It is my aha moment.
My studio work transformed as a result of interacting with the workers. I returned to traditional oil paint and brush from oil sticks. And I began to paint on a much larger scale. My first piece was called: “What are you thinking?” It is 20x48”. I have painted the figure in that work four times, in gouache, en plein air and in my studio with traditional oil paint and brush.
This exhibit explores a theme that has appeared in many works of art throughout the world. Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar, Pissarro, Millet, Van Gogh, and others have painted rural laborers and peasant farmers at work. During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) championed the plight of migrant farm workers throughout the country. Yet few Hudson Valley artists have depicted migrant workers in our region.
Viewers can engage the paintings on several levels: sociological; economic; political; and of course, aesthetic. Most workers make less than about $16,000 a year. Who are these workers? What is life like for them? And how did it get that way? How can we learn to see them? What role do we all play in keeping them unseen? What roles do the visual arts have in a society? If one role of art is to make the unseen, visible, this exhibit can expand the frame of perception for the broader community. In the simplest terms, we all will at last confront the images of those who grow and harvest our food. And will knowing them, if only by their images in these paintings, transform our view of our place in this Valley?
In my future work, I want to broaden my perspective with paintings that focuses on more expansive aspects of the lives of these workers beyond their workday in the field. Who are their families? What role does religion play in their lives? And how do they maintain their health in the face of such hard work? I want my art to honor their full lives as human beings and not only their world as working humans.
All paintings on this site ©Barbara Masterson. All rights reserved.