Nature's Painter: the Art of Allen Blagden '57, P'90

by ROBERTA JENCKES

"Ever since I can remember, I have been the happiest out of doors... Maybe I was a feral child," muses Allen Blagden in his recently published book, Marking the Moment: The Art of Allen Blagden (David R. Godine, 2017).

"I grew up in rural Connecticut, and every summer, my family went to the Adirondacks, where my grandparents had originally built a log house," he writes. 

Since his childhood, Blagden has been immersed in nature. "I constantly need reassurance from mountains, forests, and waters that my senses will be recharged, and confirmation that the ultimate beauty belongs to nature alone," he writes. 

The meandering house and studio he designed in Salisbury, on a site surrounded by protected land, affirm that the natural world is very much the center of his life and art. The house sits near the same parcel of land where he was born and raised, the son of Thomas Blagden '29, who taught art at Hotchkiss from 1933 until 1956. Allen, as well as his two sisters, have continued to pursue art, as has Allen's brother, Tom Blagden '69, P'08, a professional photographer. 

The house where they grew up was an incubator for budding artists. In Marking the Moment, he writes: "There was a long bench in the living room of our house. And it was full of paper, crayons, watercolors — all the essentials for creating art." 

At Hotchkiss, his talent was recognized by Headmaster George Van Santvoord, Class of 1908, who, in a letter to Allen's mother, wrote: "I was deeply moved by Allen's paintings. He has great ability and power. My comment on his pictures was very homespun and pedestrian; but my admiration is profound." After graduating, Blagden earned his B.F.A. degree from Cornell and won a fellowship to study art at the Yale Summer School in Norfolk, CT.

In the summer program at Yale, he learned an important lesson about creating art, one he'd struggle to impart to his own students later on. 

"I'd say, 'One of you get up on the stand and pose, and everybody will draw you.' I'd stand in the corner, and after 20 minutes, I'd say, 'Now, rip it up and throw it away.' And they'd say, 'But it's art,' and get mad at me. I wanted them to get used to the fragility, the transparency of creating art," Blagden says. "I learned that as a student at Yale. And I was trying to pass that on to the students."

Blagden taught art from 1968-69 at Hotchkiss, traveled to the National Serengeti Park in Kenya to paint, worked in filmmaking, and then was an ornithology illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution. This last assignment led to a turning point in his career. "That work at the Smithsonian meant I was headed for scientific illustration," he says. "That's when I really said to myself, 'Okay, pretend painting is a job. Just get up, go to it, nine to five.'"

And that's what he's been doing ever since. Drawing inspiration from Winslow Homer, John James Audubon, and Andrew Wyeth, he focuses on creating portraits from nature that captivate, startle, and amuse.

In the big, bright studio in his house, he gestures at the window, with its views of green forests and hawks and eagles in flight, and says, with wonderment, "You know, I could sit up here all day."

This story appeared in the winter/spring 2018 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.