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Joyce Endee

Willey Fromm's vibrant artwork

Seeing the world through an artist's eyes

Tamworth artist Willey Fromm Courtesy Cook Memorial Library. (click for larger version)

Courtesy Cook Memorial Library. (click for larger version)
June 18, 2009
Art is both of the moment and eternal…It is personal and public…It speaks of the soul of the artist, of the culture and time within which it was created…and it speaks to the beholder.

Some art is confusing and remote, a tangled statement that may remain forever indecipherable, but the art of Willey Fromm invites you into a world where you are welcome.

If art is truly a higher form of expression, then Fromm has found a way throughout her life to express herself in a way that words could not.

The way an artist sees the world can easily be interpreted by the use of color, form and texture. These components can move the viewer in a variety of ways, evoking joy, sadness or a host of other emotions. Whatever the response may be, the fact that there is a response means that the artist has been successful.

Willey Fromm is a successful artist. Until recently, while living at her Tamworth homestead, circa 1790, she seems an anachronism, creating images of the people and lands around her that have a timeless, traditional quality. She is a Yankee through and through, her ancestry in N.H. dating back to the 1600s.

Her inherent sincerity and straightforward manner can be seen in all her work — the palette knife paintings that are almost impressionistic in their simplicity; the wood block prints that fairly explode with color and feeling.

Fromm's work is that of a mature artist, well educated and well-exhibited.

In her more than half a century as a professional painter, Fromm has seen many changes in the art world, which she was inexorably drawn to.

"When I began painting, so many years ago, I was using my given name of Barbara Willey. Unfortunately, much of the art world was geared to men and I found myself being excluded from competitions and exhibitions for that reason. When I got married (to Louis Fromm) I used my maiden name as a first name. The same judges who had turned down my work as a woman, accepted it under a different name, a man's name. Thankfully, times have changed since then, but I kept Willey Fromm as my professional name," she explained.

While Fromm's early training was in oil and watercolor, her creative zest manifested itself in other ways, including sculpture. In 1940, at the age of 22, she gained notoriety by using press clippings of Wendall Wilkie and the ongoing campaign to create a sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But her real successes always came through her painting and more recently, through her printmaking.

Her list of awards, exhibitions and one-man shows is extensive and too long to list here. Suffice it to say that this woman had succeeded in the national and international art world. Her oil painting of veteran legislator, Hilda Brungot, is the only portrait of a woman, by a woman, to hang in the N.H. State House.

Her subjects come from a variety of sources. As any artist will attest, inspiration must be accepted when and where it presents itself.

"In all my traveling I record the images I've seen in my mind. If I have a certain technique I want to try, say a palette knife painting, I'll look for a simpler subject. For a woodcut I'll sketch my idea out first, but I'll never use a photograph," Fromm noted. The ultimate interpretation of a subject must be drawn from the vision within her, not as seen through the lens.

Her collected works have documented Tamworth and the surrounding area in a way that reflects a woman in harmony with her surroundings.

"I don't mind using landmarks in my work. Some artists won't paint recognizable landmarks because it's too easy to compare the finished product to reality," Fromm said.

"I remember one person who bought a woodcut of the Tamworth Library. When I told them they could go down the road and see the model, they weren't interested. They wanted a work of art, not a landmark," she added.

When evaluating Fromm's work it is the dramatic use of color that is most impressive. Shapes and colors blend and combine to create an aura that is reminiscent of Van Gogh's impressionistic work.

"Basically, I'm a colorist. For a painting using 100 colors in a foreground is not unusual. But, in printmaking and woodcuts you have to simplify – 12 or 13 colors at the most. I never use pure color, even a simple shade requires three or four colors mixed together," she explained.

Creating a woodcut print requires an extensive series of operations. After sketching out an idea roughly, a detailed drawing must be made. Following that, the same drawing must be made on the master block. Then comes the cutting of that block. After rolling out the ink on the block (always from the lightest to the darkest), the special paper is put in place. By rubbing the back of the paper with a spoon, the image is applied. Each color in a print is rubbed onto its own, specially carved block. In a print with 12 colors, that's a lot of carving.

Most of Fromm's woodcuts are produced in limited editions, and the blocks are then destroyed.

A visit to Fromm's gallery on Route 113 in Tamworth always offered even the most casual art aficionado an opportunity to glimpse this region through the rose-colored glasses of a true New Englander.

Willey Fromm is an American original, as is her work. Her idyllic scenes and tranquil landscapes bear the unmistakable mark of her style.

"Nobody can tell an artist what direction to take. I always do what feels right to me," she reflected. "I have learned over many years of painting that you can have criticism, but in the long run it has to be what you think is right that governs what you do."

And now let me draw one more picture for you: that of a young woman, an artist, surrounded by the tools of her trade, the canvases, easels, paints — working away earnestly on one creation, then another…as the years go by the woman grows older, her art becomes both more complex and more simply elemental at the same time…the decades pass and still she creates, always surrounded by her paints, her brushes, the light coming in through the window…her life itself has become her greatest creation, not just in form but in function.

Willey Fromm has always lived in the same world we do, she just saw it in the most beautiful light and shared what she saw with us all.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Varney Smith
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