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Art People: Nancy Howard of Holyoke |painter

  • Nancy Howard hangs her show at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton Sept. 3.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Painting by Nancy Howard at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Painting by Nancy Howard at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Painting by Nancy Howard at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Painting by Nancy Howard at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Painting by Nancy Howard at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Sometimes inspiration for art can come simply from a new experience or perspective. In Nancy Howard’s case, going back to school and getting a degree in landscape architecture gave her a fresh outlook on painting — and spurred her to new levels of creativity.

Howard, a former South Hadley resident now living in Holyoke, studied oil painting when she was getting her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, but she says she never felt completely comfortable in that medium. Eventually she took up watercolors for her varied landscapes — she paints both pastoral and urban scenes — and for still-life subjects such as flowers.

But after earning a master’s degree in landscape architecture several years ago at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Howard reassessed her views. She figured her new degree could be a means for better applying her artistic background to a proverbial “day job,” but studying at UMass made her realize her art had value in and of itself — and that she needed to reinvestigate working with oils.

“It gave me a new perspective,” she says. “It made me realize that art really does have a place in people’s lives.”

Howard took up plein air painting — she’d previously painted mostly “invented landscapes,” she says — though it took her a while to overcome a feeling of self-consciousness when she worked outdoors in a busy setting. But using oils again gave her more time to work on her paintings and to layer the paint in a way that can’t be done with watercolors.

In an exhibit she’s just opened at Northampton’s Oxbow Gallery, Howard has a variety of oils on display, from views of the Maine coast and the Connecticut River, to streets and buildings in Holyoke, to colorful bouquets of flowers. Much of her work has an impressionistic look, with rich but gentle colors that do a good job in particular in conveying the warm, hazy look of a northeastern summer.

“That’s one of the things I like best about painting outdoors — trying to capture the light, capture the moment,” she said. She’s also interested in showing how the built environment relates to the natural world of sky, land, water and people.

Howard also enjoys drawing — she used sketches as the basis for her new paintings of the Maine coast — and she sculpts as well. Her exhibit includes her handmade clay planters, which have designs and motifs inspired in part by the terracotta in many of Holyoke’s 19th-century buildings.

The planters are in part an outgrowth of a landscape and garden design business Howard has developed, one that she says is a natural combination of her love of art with her degree from UMass. “It’s all of a piece,” she said. “You can find, and you can also create, great beauty in the landscape.”

That’s true in Holyoke, too, Howard adds. For all its reputation as a rough-edged city, she says, Holyoke has a fascinating history, interesting architecture and a growing arts scene that she’s happy to be part of: “It’s a good place to be.”

Nancy Howard’s work will be on display at Northampton’s Oxbow Gallery, 275 Pleasant St., through Sept. 29. An opening reception takes place Friday from 5 to 8 p.m.

— Steve Pfarrer

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