Artist Hal Boyd makes ‘art that is mine’
Baltimore artist Hal Boyd’s paintings give observers the feeling that they’re in a dream: People dressed to the nines are waltzing in the moonlight while a gazelle looks on nearby (“Gazelle,” 2012); a bride and groom pose for a traditional wedding portrait, while candles dance behind the bride and two ghostly figures kiss in the background (“Bride & Groom,” 1989); a reclining woman admires her manicure, while a miniature pig beside her shows off its painted hoof (“Drying our Nails,” 2017).
Boyd was born in 1934 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a small city in the Mississippi River Delta. His earliest memory of making art is as a first-grader at Columbus School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He had been drawing with pencils and crayons for some time but discovered poster paints at school.
“Each month, first-graders voted on which of their anonymous entries would be easel-painted to illustrate the next month’s calendar,” Boyd wrote in an email to the Beacon. His drawing of Santa with a Christmas tree and gifts won for December 1939.
“In fact, I’m pretty sure my images won every month of first grade,” he added.
Boyd later studied drawing, painting and sculpture at the University of Nebraska and the University of Mississippi, where his teachers included abstract expressionist painter Jack Tworkov and sculptor David Smith. Nevertheless, Boyd thinks of himself as largely self-taught.
Painting ‘to keep my sanity’
As with many artists whose careers span decades, Boyd’s need to create is visceral and ever-present.
He says he is at his best, mentally, physically and emotionally, when he paints every day. “[While] Painting, I lose any sense of time — I lose myself. I have to paint.”
Boyd, now in his late 80s, has been hospitalized several times but still paints every day in his home studio. “When hospitalized, I sketch — to scare up painting ideas and to keep my sanity,” he said.
Where does the endless inspiration come from? In one word: everywhere.
“I am inspired by ideas, by memories and experiences, by individual human beings, by the human figure, by animals, by poems and plays, by newspaper reports, by photographs, by other people’s paintings, by my dreams and the dreams of others, by philosophical and psychological concepts, by stories both oral and in print,” Boyd said.
Boyd’s paintings are lively, with bold colors and rich, layered textures. The physical spaces he depicts often appear wavy or off-kilter, resembling the surreal landscape of dreams.
As a child, he had pet cats, and his daughter keeps several, so cats (as well as other animals and imaginary creatures) feature prominently in his work.
So do women, musicians and people kissing. Large, colorful flowers, the sun, the moon and other natural elements often appear in the background.
Boyd is an avid reader of fiction and a lifelong philosophy and psychology student. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that his fascination with psychoanalysts Freud, Jung and Lacan shows up in his work.
“Viewers ask where my ideas come from. If by ‘ideas,’ they mean ‘images,’ they come from somewhere I can go only through painting — from the unconscious,” Boyd said. “The unconscious encodes aspects of itself on the canvas. In that sense, every painting is a discovery.”
Boyd feels it’s not easy to pin down his influences. “I’ve been affected by the work of so many artists,” he said. “Earliest influences were the Sunday funnies and comic books, including Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates.”
Later influences include Balthus, Max Beckmann, Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.
Happy to be in Baltimore
Family members — wife Clif and children Jenifer, Patrick and Betsy — have always supported his efforts and often contributed valuable suggestions regarding individual works-in-progress, Boyd said.
“They have posed for me occasionally, and I often base characters on one or another family memory, painting him or her basically from memory — more or less faithful to his or her lineaments.”
After spending 32 years in San Antonio, Texas, and 20 years in Brevard, North Carolina, Boyd and his wife moved to Baltimore County in 2018 to be near their younger daughter and her twin boys.
“I like big cities, and love Baltimore,” he commented, “especially the galleries and the Baltimore Museum of Art.”
Boyd quickly gained local recognition and has exhibited in several Baltimore galleries, most recently with a solo exhibit titled “Active Imagination” at Gallery Blue Door in Mount Vernon.
“Baltimore is definitely an artist’s city. The art community is warm and welcoming, generous and fun,” Boyd said. He has also exhibited at the Forum Gallery in New York City, the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee and the Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin, Texas.
What’s next for Boyd? “The next painting is always very much what’s next for me,” he said. And, hopefully, another show or two.
“Clif says I’m happiest when I paint,” Boyd said, “and she’s right.”