BENNINGTON -- Nestled in the heart of Southern Vermont College's sprawling Everett Mansion is a traditional old living room full of distinctly non-traditional paintings.
On display in SVC's Burgdorff Gallery through March 7, "Histories" is an exhibit of paintings that local artist Barbara Ackerman completed last summer as her thesis for Johnson State College's Master of Fine Arts program. Ackerman, who teaches graphic technology at Mount Anthony Union High School, painted this set of works after an inspiring trip to the American Southwest, using techniques that she has developed over her career as an artist and professional graphic designer.
At MAU, Ackerman has spent the past 16 years teaching what she calls "creative problem solving" and helping students develop skills in the industry-standard Adobe Creative Suite, which includes widely-used programs like Photoshop. When they leave her classes, Ackerman's students take with them a digital portfolio that they can use in applications to college-level design programs or jump straight into the workforce. Some of her former students are now working at New York design firms or high-profile companies like Facebook.
While Ackerman has been a design professional for over 30 years, she has also spent the past 20 working fervently on her painting. After completing her M.F.A. and several residencies, she says her passions for design and fine art have both influenced her style as an artist.
On one side, Ackerman says that design has taught her the value of planning and effort, while her artistic training has helped her embrace spontaneity and experimentation in her paintings.
"When I first started the [M.F.A.] program, I was doing representational work, mostly in pastel, landscapes and florals," Ackerman said. "I started working with acrylic paint, and things started getting more abstract, and now with paper, I feel like I have the freedom to really experiment even more. This combination of media has developed over the past couple of years."
Switching to paper as a medium also opened the door for another innovative technique that appears in several of the show's works: Cutting and tearing painted surfaces to create new, three-dimensional textures. Ackerman started experimenting with this technique when she was working on a piece for the show that now holds a cut-out leaf.
"I started looking at the negative space between the leaves and the veins, and then when I started painting it I thought ‘what if it cut it out?'" she said. "After I did that, I was much more comfortable cutting up these and pulling them apart. It was a nice leap for me."
With her fluid, continuous contours, many of Ackerman's paintings suggest the desert landscapes that inspired them.
"[The exhibit] was definitely inspired by the landscape out in New Mexico, where my son and I spent some time," she said. "I really made a connection between the geological formations and our own histories -- years and years of experiences, of good things and bad things layered on top of each other."
Ackerman has a sharp eye for observing both the natural and personal worlds around us. She uses her paintings to draw comparisons between the two, symbolically representing the fundamental truths of the way we behave and experience the world with layers of color, texture, and shapes both familiar and exotic.
"I've developed a technique where I put down information in acrylic on paper, and then layer more acrylic and ink on top so some of the information is covered up and some of it is revealed," she explained. "If the acrylic underneath acts as a resist, then the information is revealed. That's really what this whole ‘Histories' exhibit is about -- this idea of layers of experiences that are exposed or hidden below, and cracks that allow things long-buried to bubble to the surface."
One of the exhibit's most striking works is a painting tucked in the gallery's southwest corner called "Dark history." Like many of the others, its pastel blues and earthtones suggest the deserts of the Southwest, but those layers are partially covered by violent, splattered lines of black ink.
Ackerman called "Dark history" an emotional piece, inspired by the history of the Southwest's American Indian tribes.
"The history of the Native Americans certainly impacted me out there," she said. "You could feel the spirituality. Being aware of the bittersweet history impacted my work. That definitely had something to do with the darkness and the dark colors."
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by email at email@example.com
If you go ...
What: Barbara Ackerman ‘Histories'
Where: Southern Vermont College's Burgdorff Gallery
When: Through March 7
Gallery hours Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Information: Professor Greg Winterhalter at (802) 447-6316