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July 28 - August 4, 2000

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Cliff hangers

Painter Tom Dee's Ireland journey captured in pastel

by Leon Nigrosh

At First Show Gallery at C.C. Lowell, 258 Park Avenue, Worcester, through August 2.

Whatever would possess someone to spend an entire week's vacation bicycling 170 miles throughout western Ireland? According to Worcester Court of Appeals prosecutor Tom Dee, it was the best way to see his ancestral homeland, instead of traveling by car or by motor coach. The leisurely pace, along with the physical activity of cycling, gave him the opportunity to clear his head of all things lawyerly and enjoy the wonders of County Galway's Connemara region.

Touring with a small group of like-minded folks, Dee recorded his experience by taking nearly 200 photographs of the ever-changing countryside, its tiny villages and its animal inhabitants. Back in Worcester, Dee chose a baker's dozen of these shots and transcribed them into the soft pastel drawings currently on display at the First Show Gallery.

Largely self-taught in this finicky medium, Dee has developed a style similar to that used by one of his favorite pastel artists, Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Instead of attempting the filmy, gossamer effects of delicate application usually associated with pastel, Dee, like Degas, uses a firm hand and multiple layers of different colors to build a sense of volume and depth. This is especially evident in his long, narrow view of the Cliffs of Mohen. Blue-black, these three sheer, geometric bluffs jut into a sea almost as dark as the stone, while gray, threatening clouds roll in. The only bright spot is a patch of green field at the far left.

Much of Ireland is often gray, damp, and rainy. Dee easily captures the climate in his drawing. But he also shows us the bright spots, too. His rendition of a West Coast Sunset splashes streaks of bright orange and yellow through the deepening night sky, silhouetting a small cottage that blends into the already black landscape. In A Rare Glen, Dee shows us just how rich the greenery can be when bathed in sunlight. Trees and grass are dappled with bright yellow patches, and one tree is so sunstruck he rendered it totally white.

His Two Bikers also turns what might have been a bleak landscape into a tour de force experiment in single-point perspective. A long, straight stretch of road cleaves the brownish pastureland in an ever-narrowing band. Almost at the vanishing point, we see two tiny dots: one red, the other yellow. These are two bicyclists dressed in their rain slickers as they pause to take in the sight of a grazing, long-wool sheep.

Sheep also take center stage in Dee's 13x30" Galway Sheep. At first glance, these blocky white animals appear to be a convoy of Conestoga wagons making its way through the brownish pasture. But, in fact, they are grazing away oblivious to the gray haze descending over the purple mountains in the distance. These animals appear in Pasture as well, but this time they are little more than white dots peppered throughout the green fields loosely defined by meandering low stone walls.

Stone plays an important role in ancient Irish constructions. In Dee's drawing The Dolmen, he uses a range of dark tones to portray the great weight of the granite stones, and leaves us to ponder how the anonymous ancients were able to raise such a large capstone. In an earlier pastel drawing, Blarney Castle, rendered all in black and white, Dee casts a pall of gloom over the stone ruins, the effect heightened by a single raven.

Dee's use of short, firm strokes with his pastel sticks can appear to be a jumble of inconsequential marks, but a few paces back and his gestures blend into a near-seamless field of colors and shapes. As if to show us his maturity as an artist, Dee has included an earlier work, Street in Seville, painstakingly smoothed and smudged to give a Photorealist appearance. Fortunately, his approach today is far more assured, creating light and shade through strength and simplicity, rather than timidity and overworking.

As to whether Dee will pursue art as a profession, he says, for now, pastels are "my relaxation, my alternate life -- I'm an artist stuck in a lawyer's body."

The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 508-757-7713.


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