Scott Prior lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has been a resident since 1971. Born in Exeter, New Hampshire, he received a BFA in printmaking from the University of Massachusetts in 1971. He has artwork in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the DeCordova Museum, the Danforth Museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Rose Art Museum and other major public and private collections. He has shown extensively in one-person and group shows in the United States and abroad. In 2001 he had a mid-career retrospective at the DeCordova Museum. Scott Prior is represented by the Alpha Gallery in Boston and William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, MA.
A Short Autobiography
I remember a particular bicycle ride I made during the summer of 1963, when I was 13 years old. A few times a week it was my habit to pedal two miles of back roads to the small town center where I would pick up a few more comic books and a cache of candy. During the slow summer months it was sometimes necessary to return more than a few times a week. My new bicycle was a multi-speed one, introducing new mobility for a boy of my restricted experience. Eventually, as the summer wore on, I discovered a new route in the opposite direction to another source of comics and candy. On my way, as I passed the road sign that announced that I was leaving my little town to enter the next little town, I would feel a slight loosening of the security that was almost always with me. A few miles up a steep hill and a look backward and down would reveal, through the summer haze, the few houses sprinkled in the fields of my neighborhood. Again, a slight fear would overtake me, tempered, however, by a new perspective and curiosity about my home. From this distance and height I could study it more dispassionately, as if it were lying flat in a picture, waiting to be appreciated. Onward to pick up comics and candy and then a glide downhill and homeward, again contemplating the little scene of my home, tiny parents inside and my nearly insignificant room with its small collection of model airplanes and cars.
One day at the end of the summer, about to enter high school and emboldened, I bicycled beyond the outpost of comics and candy to a small city on the ocean, a place not far but rarely visited by me even by automobile with my parents. On this afternoon of endless dimension I had confidence in my vehicle and would surely remember the way back. Still, I embarked slightly nauseous with fear.
What did I see? Of course there were more buildings, many of them new sources of comics and candy, possibly with exotic titles and brands, and books perhaps, more complicated and intriguing: science fiction books. The large buildings were of brick instead of wood, with large parking lots and brick smokestacks, often surrounded by chain link fences. The houses were smaller and closer together, their yards adorned with statues of religious figures and cartoon animals. I never entered the city, contenting myself with the outskirts.
On the return home I was more comfortable and noticed more detail. The water smelled of salt and sulfur, because these were tidal rivers flanked by factories, not like the frog ponds and mossy woods I was used to. There were broken things on the side of the road. I passed and then returned to claim a treasure, a flattened, desiccated girly magazine, traveling with it in my bicycle basket until, realizing the forbidden contraband would never make its way into my house, it was jettisoned. I stopped at a large concrete field to watch small airplanes land and take off. Finally, near the end of the day, I watched a sunset over the only large body of water near my house, a public reservoir. It had a far bank, and the sunset was spectacular, as if choreographed for me alone. I thought of the reading in my astronomy book that told me that the reds, yellows, and blues in the sky were caused by the sunlight passing through atmospheric particles at different angles. Although this information was interesting, it seemed incompatible with the emotions associated with my day and this colored display. Aware that the sunset would soon be over, I felt a strong desire to capture and contain the visual image, if not the emotions left by the day’s journey. Dare I reveal this? My first impulse to become a visual artist may have been inspired by a sunset!
I have always lived in small towns in New England, where I have been captivated by the narrative of roadways in the landscape, isolated houses and woodlands punctuated by paths and discarded artifacts. I have been moved by an abandoned children’s treehouse. In time, I watched as a building shaped like an ice cream cone became a purveyor of antiques and ammunition and then someone’s home. When I was a child there was a small store that sold peanuts and candy with an enormous Mr. Peanut in the front parking lot. Years later the store had evolved into a strip club, but the Mr Peanut statue remained. With new paint he had morphed into an elegant tuxedoed gentleman hoping to invite sophisticated clientele.
In New England we live in a world of changing seasons, which, I think, invites an almost sensual awareness of time and its effects. The New England landscape is small and intimate and directs our attention to things close at hand.
I learned about making art by studying these things and capturing their surfaces, but always with an awareness that there was something hidden underneath. Although I have never been much of a celebrant of the unconscious I am grateful for the Surrealists’ reminder of the disconnect between objects and their meaning. My early mentor and friend, the painter Gregory Gillespie, declared that he needed to “paint every molecule” to understand what he was looking at. He believed that if he worked hard enough as an artist, he would be redeemed in the eyes of God. He was raised a Catholic but became a Buddhist. He was very serious as an artist and a demanding mentor. He is dead now, but I still feel his judgement.
I have always been fairly comfortable with the isolation and solitude of being an artist. At times I have been described as being detached, but with a sense of humor, of the mordant sort. Like a scientist, I have been an observer, striving to understand things. For many years my paintings were of unpeopled landscapes, tourist places off-season, empty rooms, and still lifes of discordant subject matter.
It wasn’t until I saw a lot of Edward Hopper’s paintings in one place that I recognized the significance and emotional power of light. That was thirty years ago, and I am still fascinated by the varied and countless effects of light on the tangible world of my experience. In the same year as my discovery of light I changed from being an ironic observer into an emotional participant.
When Nanny asked me, “Do you want to have kids?” we had only been together romantically for a month or so, although we had known each other as friends for about ten years. We had first met, through her brother, my friend, when she was only sixteen and I twenty one. I have no recollection of the meeting. Nanny remembers that I was hunched over a drawing table.
I agreed readily to kids, surprising myself. I appreciated her open, forthright nature. She had wandered for years, lost but seeking, trying to come to terms with being the youngest in a large, loving, yet complicated family. I think I won her heart when I went to church with her and didn’t laugh. Although Nanny is an artist our connection was rarely through art. I think our mutual sense of humor was more important. It didn’t matter to me at all that she resembled a Botticelli angel.
We decided to get married soon afterward. The first person we told was Nanny’s father, after we bicycled to his house on Long Island. He seemed happy and told us to “shoot the works” for our wedding. We thought that a wedding would please Nanny’s mother, who was very sick at the time. Since my friends were Nanny’s friends and vice-versa our wedding was a stress-free celebration, lots of jokes and fun. Sometimes you don’t have to work hard at being serious. It comes easy. The children came easily, and we had bought a small house to put them in. I had a studio in the backyard. I gardened. Most of my paintings since then are about my marriage and children, a babysitter or two and the places we call home: our house, the backyard, Cape Cod, and western Massachusetts.