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Hamptons Life

Jun 16, 2016 3:50 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Light And Color Of Travel Inspire Southampton Artist James Fahnestock

Aug 25, 2016 10:26 AM

The first thing a visitor notices after stepping inside artist James Fahnestock’s Southampton home is the fact the walls are covered by his paintings and pastels. Much of the work is large scale and nearly all of it is dominated by bright, vibrant hues.

What’s also immediately clear is that this is a prolific artist who has no intention of boxing himself in. Impressionistic, figurative, landscape—Mr. Fahnestock’s artistic leanings run the gamut. Even when he explores abstract themes in his oils, there is often an element that speaks to the specific; a distinctly recognizable figure for example, or perhaps a botanical element.

“I’m really a colorist,” Mr. Fahnestock admitted when asked how he would describe his own artistic style.

It’s a style Mr. Fahnestock began developing early in life. A native of Pittsburgh, he grew up surrounded by artistic influences, mainly his mother, Hazel Fahnestock, a well known painter in the area who counted among her collectors some local heavy hitters—including members of the Mellon and Heinz families.

“We had the third floor of our house as a studio,” Mr. Fahnestock recalled. “It was the whole third floor and it was fun to work in as a child. I would go up and work there with my mother.”

Mr. Fahnestock, a graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, also studied at the School of Visual Arts, the Parsons School of Design and the National Academy of Design. In New York, Mr. Fahnestock pursued a career in the world of illustration and graphic design, starting at Vogue and working as an art director in print media and the fashion field.

His career path in print media was not unlike that of another Pittsburgh artist: Andy Warhol. But by the late 1960s, illustration was falling out of fashion in the magazine world and photography had moved in to take its place. That’s when Mr. Fahnestock moved on. He left the industry and instead devoted himself full time to painting and teaching, both here and abroad.

“For 11 years I took students to paint in North Africa, Spain, Portugal, France, Morocco, Italy and Turkey,” said Mr. Fahnestock, who has taught plein air painting for the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill and offers painting lessons in his home studio.

Currently, several of Mr. Fahnestock’s paintings and pastels are on display at Halstead Property in Southampton Village. He is also preparing work for an exhibition that is planned for a gallery in Verona, Italy, this fall. It’s somewhat fitting that he would have shows on both sides of the Atlantic given the major role travel plays in Mr. Fahnestock’s life, both creatively and personally. Many of his paintings offer views of places he has visited throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia.

“Traveling gives me a whole new way of looking at things,” he said. “In France you have the gray light and muted colors. But in India it’s all vibrant colors. One of my friends said my paintings are about the emotion I felt at the time I was there, not the description of the place.”

That is true on so many levels and even Mr. Fahnestock’s landscapes possess a dreamy, indistinct quality. His work offers an impression of a place, not a documentarian’s attempt to capture the reality of a location. While working on-site, Mr. Fahnestock makes sketches, takes notes and creates watercolors, but he waits until he’s back in the studio to do the real painting. He’ll also take photographs, but he relies on these more as a way to jog his memory than as actual source material.

“I do photograph sometimes if I’m traveling, to help me remember,” he said. “But I don’t want the painting to be too literal. I’m evoking a place, not trying to capture it directly.”

One place Mr. Fahnestock has come to know quite well is Southampton. He bought his first house there in 1979 and moved to Southampton permanently in 1995. While he considered relocating to France for a while, ultimately, he decided that this is where he wants to be. Though many a painter have come to the East End specifically to seek out the landscapes and the light, Mr. Fahnestock admits that isn’t the motivating factor for him.

“I love the light here, but I’m not trying to do that. I’m just here because I love the area,” he said.

And what’s not to love? Though he’s an East Ender now, New York’s still close enough that he can keep up with what’s going on in the art world. During his weekly jaunts to the city, Mr. Fahnestock makes the rounds at the galleries to see what’s current and what’s trending.

“It’s a stimulus to see the galleries and museums for myself,” he said. “The whole city has so much to offer in that way. But I still prefer it out here definitely. I kiss the ground when I get off the Jitney.”

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