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When painter Jan Beekman - whose house is nestled in the woods of Preston - contemplates a mere square meter of untamed land, he sees so much.
"It's unbelievable. It's the universe. So much happened there," he says.
Beekman takes artistic inspiration from that world - from the growing trees, the imposing boulders, the swooping birds. He doesn't turn them into traditional representational work but instead tends to recast them as fascinating, sometimes abstract images.
Beekman - whose 1996 "Portrait of Nelson Mandela" hangs in the United Nations headquarters in New York - is having his environment-inspired work showcased in a new exhibition. "Inside the Natural World of Jan Beekman," curated by Barbara Zabel, is on view through January at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
An exhibition wall text touches on Beekman's feelings about and fascination with nature:
"The Industrial Revolution reinforced our belief in the exploitation and domination of Nature with positive and negative results. Today Nature seems to be taking its revenge in a worldwide series of disturbing natural disasters. Through my work, I try to understand Nature and to live with it."
He says his art is about the natural world's relationship to the human condition as well - why are we here and what are we doing?
Beekman takes a creative cue from, say, the burrow he saw a rabbit emerging from or from two hummingbirds battling each other at a bird feeder. A wild turkey flapping his wings to ward off predators morphs into an epically sized piece whose whooshes and waves of color suggest fierce movement. One series of works reflects the intricate delicacy of lichen, and another deals with the rugged texture of boulders.
Curator Zabel says, "What is so special about Jan's paintings is that he reminds us of the beauty of nature - of being in and connected with nature. They also remind us of the interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world."
Beekman, who has lived in Preston with wife Gillian Lane-Plescia since 1997, was born in Belgium. He studied drawing and painting at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels, and he showed his work in Belgium, England, The Netherlands and Germany. He also designed sets for avant-garde theater. In fact, he first came to America in 1982 to design a production at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he went on to teach.
As for his early artwork, done back in his native country, Beekman says, "I was a kid in the war, so there was, in the beginning, darkness ... a kind of pessimism about the future. ... It was negative. It was very expressionistic. It's really through coming to America that it changed. My world became more positive."
And instead of dealing with conflict between humans and nature, he says, "For me, this is not confrontation any more. This is: live with it, accept it, try to protect it, try to keep it," he says.
That transformation of thought started bubbling up when Beekman travelled to the American Southwest. He was struck by the immense spaces and beautiful rocks there and by the contrast of its unspoiled nature to what he saw as "the manipulated nature of Europe." He says the Southwest landscape has always been an obsession for him.
Living now in Preston, of course, offers an entirely different landscape but one that is no less artistically exhilarating.
"I am struck by the transparency of light, the shapes of shadows and the tactility of the surrounding nature," Beekman says in wall text. "I want to be the center of everything - in front, behind, to the left and to the right. To express this, I have rejected traditional renderings of depth in favor of overlapping slices of nature."
And he uses water-based materials to create more transparent effects.
Beekman's art often bristles with a sense of motion - as with the comet-like zooms in the "Near Miss" series - and a three-dimensional quality.
As for Beekman's approach to the environment, Zabel sees a connection with the Hudson River School painters.
"Beekman identifies with American nature for the same reasons the HRS artists of the 19th century did - because of its purity," she says. "It is relatively untouched and unspoiled compared to European nature. HRS painters like Thomas Cole (also born in Europe) and F.E. Church sought to capture the beauty, romantic appeal and sublimity of nature to evoke a sense of awe and amazement. Beekman's aim is not so much to overwhelm us with dramatic vistas ... as it is to communicate a reverence for nature - an intimate connection."
What: "Inside the Natural World of Jan Beekman"
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
When: Through Jan. 5; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors and students over 18; $7 active military personnel with ID; $5 students under 18; free for kids under 12, for New London residents, and for institutional members with I.D.
Call: (860) 443-2545