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Bird’s Eye View

Winslow priest’s art captures spiritual side of simple subjects

By Kristen Andresen, BDN staff • June 10, 2000.

Look at the person sitting next to you. Closer. Look into his eyes. What do you see? A pupil, probably dilated from the light. An iris, flecked with infinite bits of color. If you look deep enough, you may even see his soul. But if you change focus, you’ll see a reflection — a tiny version of yourself in his eyes.

Window and mirror. Iris and pupil. Other and self. What you see in someone’s eyes depends on your focus. The same could be said for Paul Plante’s oil pastels — thousands of individual birds’ eyes, close-up, in brilliant color.

What looks like the eye of an Eastern bluebird to an ornithologist could be a full moon hovering in a night sky and surrounded by a dreamlike whorl of color. It could be an abstract design study or a reflection of the viewer’s own focus and connection to the natural world.

“It’s always interesting because I think he appeals to so many different people on so many different levels,” said Cynthia Hyde of Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, where Plante has shown his work since 1998. “For the most part, people really respond to the color and the otherworldness of them.”

Plante, a Roman Catholic priest in Winslow, infuses the works with a complex spirituality. The paintings aren’t outwardly religious, but for eight years he has continued to find deep meaning in a single aspect of a single creature.

“To me that focus also has a spiritual side to it — always seeing more and more and more in one thing,” Plante said. “That is part of that intuitive side to art that’s intangible. It’s linked to human mystery.”

Eight years of eyes seems like a lot, but before that he painted only plums. From one fruit, he extracted luscious curves and sparkling colors — bruiselike blues and shiny pinks emerged from plain purple plums. By focusing on a tiny part of the fruit, he drew out supple contours and nuances of shading — a nick in the skin or the dark, hard indent of the stem. All from a humble plum.

“The strange thing is that with the development of my work as an artist I have stayed a very long time with a subject,” Plante said. “Even in a very limited focus, there is unlimited possibility. … It gives you some depth to put a contemplative gaze on something time and again.”

For Plante, art is contemplative and meditative. He works silently in his studio, upstairs in the parish house at St. John the Baptist Church. Every day, without fail, he sets aside time alone to paint — often in between appointments or after the last service of the day.

“Art is something that is part of my daily routine. Along with prayer and ministry, it is part of my life,” Plante said. “I kind of like to have these different aspects of life. If you don’t waste time, you have time for these things.”

He squeezes in painting whenever he can — a half-hour here, 45 minutes there, but he’s prolific. Every day he completes several pieces — each 4 1/2 inches square, each of a bird’s eye, though the bird may vary. When they are finished, they join hundreds of other bird paintings in stacks of black and gray museum boxes that line one wall of the studio. On the other side of the room, a stack of birding magazines and books offers him hundreds of photographs to work from. But he doesn’t copy the pictures — he takes the basic idea and zooms in on the eye area, its shading and patterns and the depth within.

“No matter what he works from, the piece just becomes so much more,” Hyde said.

The paintings capture something your eyes can’t — a living bird, perfectly still, up close. Plante takes bird-watching to a different level, personal and intimate. In nature, you can’t just sit down next to a bird and look into its eyes. Through Plante’s paintings, you can.

“I have always been fascinated by the fleeting beauty of birds because it seems they’re always perched on bushes, ready to fly away,” Plante said.

Alone, the birds’ eyes are intense. Framed together in a series, they’re almost unnerving. Hyde said a few people who come into her gallery can’t look at the multiples — too many eyes looking back at them. But Plante says the groups of eyes are closer to what we really see.

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