Connee French has been using art as a means of self-expression for almost her entire life, having originally started out doodling with crayons as a child, but now every line she draws and every stroke she makes with her brush across a canvas has more weight behind it than it once did.
Every painting French creates now, she cherishes, not knowing if it will be her last due to the fact that her vision has been compromised as a result of Multiple Sclerosis.
“I was raised in the tradition that children were seen, but not heard and definitely did not interfere with adults, so quiet activities were encouraged,” French said of how art developed as a means of expression for her as a child.
French’s work was on display at the Apple Gallery in Danbury from June 22 through July 26.
The collection, is a combination of works that French painted from 2014 through 2016, except for the painting “Saving the World” which was painted outside of the three years. All of the paintings are inspired by what French cites as her mentally revisiting all of the places that she’s lived throughout Central and South America, Alaska and the continental United States.
French explained that she’s an entirely self-taught artist, having studied other artists’ works, reading artist biographies and magazines, and visiting museums. When she was first gaining exposure to the art world, French said that she particularly fascinated with how artists made people’s eyes travel across a painting to what they did and didn’t want them to see, in addition to how the artist shaped the way that their work was to be interpreted.
In addition to Multiple Sclerosis, French suffered from Polio as a child and now has Post-Polio Syndrome and Osteoarthritis that has “frozen” her fingers to an extent, but French added that she’s had to alter the way that she paints, but that she’s still able to hold a brush, although she was forced to give up sculpting.
“I had to draw as instinctively as to breathe,” French said of her artistic instinct while growing up
During the early days of feeling her way through various techniques and styles, French said that she probably threw out five or six canvases for every one that she kept, adding that she would occasionally hang onto the canvases that she had intended to throw out as a reminder of why the specific painting didn’t work, in the hopes of learning from her mistakes.
“My mother was a very good artist and took me sketching with her, giving me my own pad and colored pencils or crayons so I’d not bother her while she was busy,” French said. “When I started making realistic things, she began showing me how to shade things to gain perspective, and more dimension, but otherwise her supervision of my work was mainly to know where I was and that I was not bothering anyone. “
Another source of early expression for French was through doodling, nothing that she would doodle on paper or the corners of books, whatever she could get her hands on. Even when she was in school, French developed a form of doodling and notetaking mix that allowed her to stay on topic while still satisfying her hunger for expression.
“I couldn’t and can’t stop doodling, but even now, I can look at doodles I did decades ago and remember what was going on in class, though I took formal notes, as well,” French said.
French said that now she only starts work on a new painting when she knows that she won’t be interrupted, adding that if she’s away from a project for too long, she might not be able to finish it.
French often mixes both oil and acrylic paints, noting that the combination provides a desired texture that she uses in certain parts of her paintings.
“Texture is as important to me as color,” French said.
After moving to Stokes County over 20 years ago, French said that the beauty of Sauratown Mountain gave her the inspiration she needed to paint again. French added that she can see the mountain out of nearly every window in her house.
“I have one unfinished large canvas of the mountain with autumn colors at its peak which I only work on each year for two to three days when the mountain is again at its best variety of tones, and probably will never finish,” French said, adding that a fire in the mountain in 2008 caused surface changes that she has had to account for in the painting.
During the 1970s, French said, she made the decision to go to college for teaching, having received a vocational rehab scholarship that only supported women who either planned to go into the teaching or nursing fields. French added that she originally wanted to be a professional writer, but decided against it in order to go to school for teaching.
Despite toying with both teaching and writing, French said that at the time she only thought of art as a hobby, an artistic escape.
After giving teaching her best shot, French said that she was miserable and felt as if she was “living a lie,” so she decided to enroll in liberal arts classes at a community college for two years, which she found solace in.
French said that in an attempt to “find herself” she started working in the business world, working her way up the ranks until she was told that she couldn’t progress any further unless she had a business degree, which she eventually obtained through over a decade’s worth of night courses. While working in business, French said that she was able to support herself in a way that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to if she would have pursued her art full-time, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing, adding that she faced adversity due to the fact that she was a woman in the business world.
French was eventually forced to step away from her career due to a second bout of cancer, which resulted in French and her husband reassessing their lives and deciding to move to Stokes County where they had already bought land and felt very welcomed.
As a result of having Multiple Sclerosis, French said that she sometimes has trouble with perception and that some of her paintings have elongated figures. French noted that she’s observed a similar effect in Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco’s work and isn’t sure if the effect was caused by a similar situation as hers or if it was an intentional decision in order to accommodate the large canvases that he was working on.
As for the artist signature that she leaves on her works, French said that she actually paints two signatures onto all of her works, one with her married name that is clearly visible and another set with her maiden name that is camouflaged into the detail of the paintings.
“She has an incredibly powerful story,” Sharon Williams, of the Stokes County Arts Council said.