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Fourth Generation Painter Balances Work with 5th Generation Twins in Provincetown

PROVINCETOWN - Hannah Bureau brings an illustrious family background, a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and impressive exhibit credentials to her story as an artist. Now in the high bloom of her career, preparing for a one-person exhibition, opening with a reception at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, at Julie Heller East Gallery, Bureau can also add twin girls, born last September, to her résumé.

How does she pull it all together?

Quite beautifully it would seem. Judging by her latest oil paintings, balanced side-by-side with photographs of toddlers Isla and Elsi, Bureau is successfully navigating the whirlwind of motherhood while also managing to pursue her art. Naturally, of necessity, there are some scheduling tweaks here and there.

Born in Paris, Bureau moved to the U.S. when she was eight years old. Describing herself as the “fourth generation of women painters in her family,” she says, “My grandmother and mother are huge influences on me. We all paint abstract interpretations of landscapes, but in different styles. My grandmother’s paintings were heavily influenced by cubism and abstract paintings of the 1950s. Some remnants of this style can be found in my work. In addition, my father and grandfather were architects, and I think I am influenced by them in terms of my interest in composition and design.”

Despite or perhaps due to these early influences on her work, Bureau has emerged as a totally modern abstractionist with a distinct flair. Through her paintings she conveys a strong sense of place and a reverence for landscape without being conventionally site-specific or in any way pictorial.

“I’ve always favored the abstract. I reduce the landscape to impressions and simplify what I see into elements of design. I want the viewer to identify with recognizable subject matter in my paintings without becoming alienated by specificity or overt figuration,” she says. “I’ve edited my artist’s statement so many times that it has finally been pared down to one sentence. ‘I am interested in creating abstract paintings that feel like familiar space, that have a sense of distance and horizon while maintaining ambiguity.’”

Bureau’s canvases grab attention via her vibrant palette and assertive, unambiguous brush strokes. Her lines are crisp and clean, her colors boldly paired. Her familial influences notwithstanding, there is no mistaking a Hannah Bureau painting with anyone else’s.

Bureau’s affinity for the Outer Cape is palpable. The titles of her paintings — “Race Point,” “Tidal Pool” — speak of a seaside influence.

“I entered the MFA Fine Arts Work Center program in 2006 and spent two years painting while attending fall and spring residencies,” she says. “During my first residency I met Julie Heller and made an instant connection with the gallery. I absorbed the local colors and shapes as I walked along the beach and the fishing wharf. Everything reminded me of my childhood summers spent barefoot in the fishing village of Menemsha. I used to watch the swordfish coming off the boats and remember the smell of fish and gasoline. I find Provincetown has maintained a crusty, salt of the earth, working village feeling. An intense longing for the summertime place in my heart and memory are the sources of my work.” She adds wistfully, “I dream of a dune shack residency one day.”

Quite understandably, Bureau is jubilant about her twin girls, even as she admits they have complicated her life as an artist. “I had a show based on diptychs last summer when I was hugely pregnant with the twins, and I thought of each pair as twin paintings. Now that Isla and Elsi are here, finding time is the main issue,” she says. “The first time I made it back to the studio after their birth I was ecstatic. I felt I was back in touch with a part of me that had been dormant. When they were little they slept a lot, and I was able to get a few hours of painting in. I tried setting up a playpen in the studio, but I was concerned about fumes, so that didn’t last more than a day. My painting time is so precious now that I feel intensely focused in the studio in a way I’ve never been before. My awareness of time flying by has prompted me to try to capture the light and feeling of mid-summer in my paintings.” As the show [at Julie Heller East] gets closer we have a sitter a few days a week.”

Bureau and her husband, sculptor and animator Jeff Sias, live in an old Waltham textile mill that has been converted into artists’ spaces. Their building is part of a community of some 70 artists, and they lived and worked in one 200-square-foot space before the twins were born. Bureau has since switched to a separate working studio in the same complex, finding it “much more focused and conducive to getting work done.”

Yet, even with this new arrangement Bureau admits to concerns not uncommon to new parents. “There is a new reality in our lives,” she says. “The sense of responsibility includes financial security. I hope beyond hope I can continue to paint. Painting is now a luxury that we might not be able to afford. I need to look into new ways of making sales and marketing myself.”

Just the facts

What: Recent paintings by Hannah Bureau

Where: Julie Heller East Gallery, 465 Commercial St., Provincetown

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9 (opening reception), through Aug. 22

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