Harry Orlyk is a most unusual fellow, even for an artist. In the rarefied atmosphere inside his van, the windshield is his window on the world, allowing him to paint in all weather. “I used to take my backpack. I’d walk to my chosen vantage point, then I’d have to build an eagle’s nest of brush and branches to keep the cows out. That was before I drove my van onto the fields. Why should I make it difficult for myself?” Orlyk is 68, tall, thin and craggy, like Lincoln, but with kind, intense, deep-set blue-grey eyes like Robert Frost. He doesn’t use an easel—his steering wheel suffices.
Especially on days that are sunny, he itches to get going. “Orlyk men tend to self-destruct,” he remarks cryptically, “Hence my insistence to bring sunlight into the picture in my quest for the spiritual.”
Orlyk lives in an old farm house on the edge of the village of Salem, New York, a stone’s throw from the Vermont border, with wife Donna, three cats and two dogs. His free-standing studio by the rushing brook is a cozy sanctuary, with a wood stove and windows on three sides. He credits his wanting to become a landscape painter with a breakthrough moment at a Native American festival in Nebraska in the ’70’s, and his respect for nature, and those who revere it, is evidenced in the large display of arrowheads he’s collected from this area. Art books, shelves of religiously-kept journals, notebooks cataloguing his paintings, his old TV, stacks of paintings, a radio, a baseball glove, his coffee mug, his family photographs and memorabilia are arranged just as he wants them.
“See, spring is coming!” he said perversely, on a sub-zero evening as we sat down by the woodstove, facing a wall of fifteen paintings, pinned to the wall, in three rows of five. “I did this one today, and notice the difference in the light in this one that I did in December, when the sun sits low on the horizon all day long.” He can tell the time of the painting without consulting his notebook. “The last of the daylilies, the last of the wild iris that grows by the bank that’s around July 10th.” He loves painting apple trees, and rues that “they’re here and gone before I can make a decent one.”
Orlyk uses paint straight from the tube, foregoing turpentine and thinners. (The admixtures would spill in the van and make a mess.) “In the summer, paint is thinner. In winter, it’s much more viscous, and I use the texture to describe what I’m painting.” Indeed, the hard furrowed earth in the foreground of a new painting looks cold and icy and stony; the snow is icy and chunky. Summer scenes are much smoother.
“I know I’m not communicating to people of my time. I know I’m communicating to people in the future. But if you look at my paintings, you’ll see vestiges of people of the past old buildings, old farm machinery, the way the fields are cut I’m making these paintings for anyone who loves this place and honors it.” He titles most of his pieces, and numbers each one. He’s up to number 5117 as of this day in late February.
He’ll bring his day’s work into his studio to live with it for awhile, to pin it on the wall, to finish it. He’ll lay paintings on the floor and get down on his hands and knees to work on them–again, no easel. As we sit and talk, it’s as if fifteen pairs of eyes are each trying to get me to return their gaze; they are full of life and they are intimate and beautiful, and they’ve all got something different to say. We chat about the beauty of the area (Washington County) and the relative merits of living in Vermont. “This land gives me my sustenance. It’s how I make my living.” He finds himself sticking closer and closer to home. “Monet did that, stayed in his gardens. There’s no need to go far.”
He pauses. “I miss my painter-friend,” he says quietly, referring to Brian Sweetland, the Vermont plein-air artist who died in 2013. “I think of him so often, and wonder how he would paint a certain line on the horizon, or think about how he would use a particular color, or what he’s say about something .” He admits that with Sweetland’s absence he has had trouble integrating his life as an artist into regular human activity, and credits his wife Donna with getting him to be more social. He also works with the Salem ArtWorks, where he enjoys mentoring graduate students.
Orlyk absolutely hates framing his paintings, so he simply doesn’t do it. His work retains its raw, fresh, just-finished look and are often displayed just as they are, the fraying edges of the canvas pinned to the wall. “When I hand over a painting, it feels more intimate, it’s not blocked in by a standard wooden frame,” he explains.
Among his many exhibits, Harry Orlyk has handed over many a painting to Sue Clary, owner of McCartee’s Barn and Fine Arts Gallery. “I never get tired of looking at them,” she says. “They seem to change right in front of my eyes, depending on the time of day. It’s like looking out at a vista and getting to experience the sun—or should I say the earth–moving in real time.” The light in her gallery, which occupies the ground floor of the Clarys’ historic Salem house, contributes to this illusion. The paintings she displays do not occupy the usual spotlighted, framed, formal setting—artwork can be imagined as it might hang it in someone’s own home.
Clary talks about Harry Orlyk’s indomitable spirit, and his motivation (“obsession”) to paint in bright sun, on a stormy autumn day, even in gloom of night, no matter what. “Harry. Harry IS the weather,” she laughs.
A special exhibit of Harry Orlyk’s work is show will be up until March 28.
McCartee’s Barn Fine Art & Antiques, 23 East Broadway, Salem, NY. 518/854-3857.
McCartee’s Barn is on Facebook.