Island artist awarded grant to paint landscapes in Quebec
Alma Davenport grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and has lived in Jamestown since 1979. She began her artistic career as a photographer, but the advent of digital photography changed everything for her. Now the tenured professor is the recipient of a prestigious grant that finds her spending a lot of time engaged in landscape painting in northern Quebec.
Davenport studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. From there she begin working as a photo historian, and has written books and articles on the subject. But when digital imaging came to the forefront, she changed her focus to painting.
“I believe that photography in its invention was a medium used to report truth,” Davenport said. “It was regarded as evidence of truth. There have been photographers over the last 160 years who have manipulated photography, but never did they do it to the extent that Photoshop is able to do it. I found both in terms of teaching photography and the public perception of photography that Photoshop was confusing the issue of truth.”
Davenport said that when people look at a newspaper or a magazine they are no longer able to tell whether a photograph has been altered to reflect the bias of the photographer. As an example, she cited a TV Guide cover that featured a photograph where Oprah Winfrey’s head was placed on Ann Margaret’s body. She also referenced a National Geographic cover photo that relocated a pyramid because the photographer didn’t like its position.
Davenport sees the role of painting quite differently. She said that painting has always been considered one of the fine arts along with sculpture and printmaking. Painting has always relied on the artist’s perception, she says, as opposed to recording an absolute. Davenport offered John Singer Sargent as an example. When Sargent painted portraits of members of high society, he would never include any physical elements that might make them look less than regal.
“It was built into the psyche of two-dimensional fine art that it was interpretive,” Davenport.
Davenport, who is currently on sabbatical because of the grant she received, teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. The courses she teaches include nature drawing, history of photography, and other subjects that are assigned to her by the chairman of her department.
In the summer of 2011 Davenport applied for a Fulbright Scholar Grant, which is one of three scholarships that the Fulbright council offers. The grant is for people who are in the middle of their career or later, and are noted in a particular field of endeavor. The rigorous application process included an exhaustive bibliography, an extensive resume, and the grant proposal itself. In March, Davenport was informed that she was the recipient of the grant.
“To be paid to paint is a wonderful thing. I was thrilled, obviously.”
The grant normally goes to scholars at visiting institutions in other countries. Davenport is using her grant to allow her to go to Canada. There she is painting watercolors depicting the farmland of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. Davenport’s husband grew up in Canada and regular visits back to his homeland infused her with a love of the area.
“There is a particular area of the Gaspe Peninsula that is one of the few farming areas around because it has a little microclimate that allows it to be farmed,” she said.
During the 17th century, Quebec was known as New France. The king of France had an interest in populating the area, and provided some of his favored supporters with tracts of land in the lower St. Lawrence region. These people were known as seignors. The tracts were divided in an odd way that allowed each seignor access to the St. Lawrence River, and then might stretch as much as 15 miles inland.
Since each seignor planted different crops, the land began to take on a colorful striped appearance. Tenant farmers worked the land for the seignors. Over the course of time, these farmers would have children who would also work the land, resulting in the stripes becoming thinner and thinner as they were divided for future generations.
Eventually the riverfront footage ran out and roads were created so that access to the river could be maintained for everyone. The stripes began to look more like a patchwork and became known as the “Quebec Quilt.”
It is this area of farming landscapes that Davenport began to paint in June. She was there until Sept. 20 when she came home to see her family. Davenport returned to Canada last week, and she will remain there painting until the end of November when all farming activity ends for the season. After being home for the winter, she will return to Canada next June when the planting season begins. The grant ends in August.
Davenport will return to teaching at UMass in the fall of 2013, but her responsibilities related to the grant will continue. Since the basic thesis of the Fulbright scholarship involves international understanding and communication, Davenport is expected to hold exhibitions of her work in Canada and then in the United States.