NORTH ADAMS -- Slipping into the mood of a Thor Wickstrom painting is as easy as slipping into an old shoe. The buildings in his streetscapes, painted with playful liberty, are so loosely formed they look as though they sprang from nature rather than an architect's pen. And in Wickstrom's hands, the cars parked on the hilly streets of North Adams evoke an endearing toy-like quality.
The freshness and originality of Wickstrom's work matches four other artists in the current "Four Seasons" exhibition of fine art at Studio21South, a gallery that opened just last June on Eagle Street.
Wickstrom and his partner, Jaye Fox, established their studio on historic Eagle Street with the belief that people will find good art whether it's in the Clark Art Institute, at Mass MoCA or on a side street in an old section of downtown North Adams.
Fox is not only part-owner of the gallery but an exceptional artist herself. Her works in the exhibition include a dramatic cityscape showing the underside of the Kosciuszko Bridge in Brooklyn. Seen from below, the iron criss-cross structure of the bridge looks massively heavy yet seems to float as it soars over the space where weeds and debris accumulate beneath the bridge.
Fox's rustic landscapes, some painted on the Chenail Farm in Williamstsown, avoid the picture-postcard clichés of the typical Berkshire scene.
"I like to explore those places where the natural environment butts up against -- but lives in harmony with -- the man-made environment," she said.
Fox is a native of New York City, while Wickstrom came to the Berkshires by way of Florida and New York. They both studied at the Art Students League in New York, but not at the same time. Wickstrom started studying there after graduating from high school, and Fox came along 10 years later.
They didn't team up until they met in North Adams in 2008 while both were working on art projects.
Together they work in a studio in the Beaver Mill and live in a North Adams house with their 16-month-old daughter, Irene. Fox also makes time to teach art at a public school in Florida, Mass., hold art classes at the Clark Art Institute and give private lessons.
The studio on Eagle Street carries the works of up to 10 of the area's most promising and accomplished artists, all of whom paint from observation (plein air) and create what is broadly described as "representational realism." This isn't the realism of the photographically accurate image but the realism that allows the artist to interpret what he paints.
"If each of our artists painted the same subject" said Fox, "the finished works would be vastly different."
Bob Lafond, a painter who splits his time between Williamstown and New Jersey, has a series of paintings of what some may call the only ugly season in the Berkshires -- the "mud season." He depicts this sloppy time of year with paintings that walk the line between the abstract and the representational. His ruts on a country lane glisten with slippery clay and the puddles reflect the early spring sky.
Lafond creates a visceral feeling that is strong enough, as one viewer said, "to suck the boots right off your feet."
An Eric March painting, set in a long horizontal frame, shows a majestic sand dune in Cape Cod with clumps of grass and brush trying to keep their roots in the shifting and windblown sand. The dune is massive, elegantly rendered and full of fresh air, sea salt and the sound of waves crashing against the shore.
Frank Curran found his subject in a field of rocks by the edge of the sea. His interpretation of the scene -- a multi-colored, nearly abstract image of jagged rocks -- is bold in concept and powerful in impact. His rugged landscape gives life and animation to rocks that seem to dance across the canvas. It's a vigorous painting ... never dull.
Jonathan Secor, director of the MCLA Cultural Resource Center, says that Studio21South is doubly important to the growing North Adams art scene because it will be open year-round.
"The high-quality, traditional art that Jaye and Thor exhibit in their gallery will undoubtedly help lure Mass MoCA visitors and other art lovers into downtown North Adams ... which is always a good thing," he said.