In the dead of winter, Jill Madden will often wake at 4 a.m. to go to work. She’ll have carefully packed the tools of her trade, a warm thermos of tea, snowshoes or her skis and skins. She’ll then drive 45 minutes from her home in Weybridge, Vt., to the trailhead and start up, her headlamp lighting the way, her black lab Cali in tow.
It’s still dark when she reaches the summit of Camel’s Hump in Huntington or Romance Mountain, near the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area. The places she heads to usually don’t have ski lifts. Often, they don’t even have trails. She makes her way up through the snow, unpacks her gouache kit, her notebook, a small linen canvas and sets up her easel.
Then she watches as the mountains come to life, dark humps becoming faceted ridges and the early morning rays etching valleys in deep magenta hues. Madden’s brushstrokes capture the magic of the movement of light across the landscape.
“I like to paint from life,” says Madden, an artist whose work has been shown across the U.S. “Photographs don’t show the true variations of hues or how the light changes or plays across a landscape,” she says. “I really like to see something as I paint it.”
Madden returns to the same spots, over and over, fascinated by how the light shifts by the minute and by the season. An Instagram post from one of her plein air sessions last winter reads: “8 degrees, -13 wind chill but great light.” The resulting painting captures a light-dappled scene of a birch forest, the shadows of tree trunks crossing a swath of untouched snow. It’s done in shimmering, broad, brush strokes. To keep them from freezing, Madden mixes her oil paints with a homemade medium and her gouache paints with vodka. “That works until it’s 18 below zero,” she says.
An avid backcountry skier and hiker, Madden likes to explore Vermont’s wilderness areas and her most recent exhibit at the Vermont Natural Resources Council in Montpelier, “Mapping the Wilderness,” showcases a series of works done in some of Vermont’s wildest places. Other works are currently at the Caldbeck Gallery in Maine.
“I’m really intrigued by how much wilderness there is in Vermont,” says Madden, who has explored much of Central Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest on skis and by foot. Some of her works begin with a topo map as the canvas. “I like to find the point on the map where I am painting from and then I’ll incorporate some of the topo map features – like a lake or a ridgeline, into the landscape I’m painting.”
After graduating from Middlebury College with a degree in East Asian Studies, Madden headed to Taiwan for two years where she studied Chinese ink painting and then moved to Sitka, Alaska, to teach Mandarin and art. “In Sitka, I really started to paint and had a great mentor,” she says. In Taiwan, she met her husband, Eben Punderson, who had grown up near Middlebury, Vermont. They moved back east, first to Boston, where Madden pursued an MFA from Boston University, then to Weybridge where they rebuilt an old home and Madden raised her post-and-beam studio.
There in the studio, she’ll finish her paintings, sometimes using larger canvasses and often pulling from the scores of notebooks she’s filled while in the field.
Madden has had the opportunity to do a number of artists residencies. At the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson she worked with artist Lois Dodd, who became a friend and mentor. Other residencies and fellowships have taken her to Wyoming, Ireland and Iceland—all places where her work has been exhibited.
But most often, it’s the Green Mountains that call her to get up at 4 am on a cold winter day. “It’s my happy place,” she says with a grin.
Below: Two treatments of Worth Mountain, home to the Middlebury Snow Bowl. The bottom one was painted over a topo map. Opening photo by Caleb