What Does it Mean to Live by a River?

Look Into the River, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x18
Look Into the River, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x18

Look Into the River, oil on canvas, 24×18


Here are the text and some images from my Brook Hollow Arts presentation, “What Does it Mean to Live by a River?,” at The Old Mill Inn, Hatfield, Massachusetts, January 3, 2018.

To see all more of my river paintings, visit Rivers and Water.


I begin with a simple, silent exercise. If you are comfortable, it may help to close your eyes.

Now think of an image of a river, and hold on to it as you mentally answer a series of questions:

What river is it?

Where is it?

What time of year is it?

What time of day is it?

What is the weather?

What is happening on the river?

Is it a pleasant image?

Do you associate it with a specific feeling or event?

Why do you think this was your first image of a river?

Now for the final question, think of another river image.

How easily did it appear, and how does it differ from the first image?


We can all agree on what a river is. But if we shared aloud our answers to these questions, we would discover that our experience of running water is unique, conjuring up different things, and leaving different impressions, on each of us.

Yet as residents of western Massachusetts, we have the Connecticut River and its tributaries, including the Mill River, in common. Our lives are impacted by living within the Connecticut River watershed in multiple ways.

How many of you imagined the Connecticut River?

How many imagined the Mill River, or another tributary of the Connecticut?


Riverbend II, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 8x10

Riverbend II, oil on canvas, 8×10

I do not generally think of myself as a “water” person. I am not a great swimmer, I haven’t fished in decades, and I rarely ride on boats these days. Yet I have lived near moving water my entire life. I suspect the same is true of many of you, and that your interaction with the river runs deep, when you stop and think about it.

I grew up in the central Massachusetts town of Brookfield, where the slow, meandering Quaboag River begins its westward journey from Quacumquasit and Quaboag ponds (known locally as South and North ponds). As a youth, I fished and canoed in the river and swam in the ponds.

Since leaving Brookfield as a young man I have lived near the Connecticut River for nearly 40 years now, in Plainfield, New Hampshire, Amherst, Massachusetts, and, for the past 17 years, in Hatfield.

I have run along the dike beside the river in Hatfield and walked along it in Hadley. I have ridden my bicycle over the Connecticut in Sunderland, and glided on its surface at dawn in a crew shell in the Northampton oxbow, inches above the water. I once supervised a rowing program in South Hadley, and photographed a regatta in Hartford.

I crossed or drove beside the river commuting to jobs in Greenfield and Chicopee, West Lebanon and Keene. I rode the worn, clacking boards inside the 1866 covered bridge connecting Windsor, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire numerous times during my years in Plainfield.

I have walked, run, and biked above the river on the Norwottuck rail trail bridge in Northampton, viewed the river from the vantage point of an Amtrak train in Enfield, Connecticut, and caught fleeting glimpses of it through guardrails on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Springfield.

A dozen years ago I published a magazine, New England Watershed, about the river and the people who live along it. Before that, my poetry about the Connecticut was published in the literary magazine Connecticut River Review. Since then, I have completed a number of paintings inspired by the river.

For the past eight years, my dog Molly and I (and often friends) have walked daily to the Connecticut through fields and woods from my Elm Street home, year-round, at different times, in all weather. I cross the Mill River on a cockeyed footbridge to get there.

A year ago this month I stood in the cold snow in silence for an hour with poet Jonathan Wright at a spot along the Mill River less than a mile from here. We repeated the exercise in April at the Northampton oxbow, arriving just before dawn, and Jonathan wrote about it and I made paintings in the weeks thereafter.

With a dozen other artists, I painted the Connecticut from the majestic summit of Skinner Mountain during a plein-air session organized by the Kestrel Land Trust in June.

Despite these many connections and after all of this time, I feel as if I barely know the river. It retains an air of mystery, and presents a never-ending, elemental drama.

I can’t really get to know a place simply by passing through it, especially a river, since it is never still. Even an hour spent silently observing its complex beauty is a paltry investment in my world, especially considering the river’s ever-shifting dynamics.


Surface Tension I, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x12

Surface Tension I, oil on canvas, 24×12

Living next to a river has influenced my painting in many ways. But before I expand on my particular relationship to moving water, I’d like to reflect on some things about the river that we all share, including its beauty — and its inconvenience.

The river has always dictated our travel patterns. We’ve been able to cross the Connecticut by bridge for less than 250 years. Before that, ferries and other boats were the only ways to cross the river, including Connecticut’s now-seasonal Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry, which began in 1655, and is considered to be the nation’s oldest continuously operating ferry. The once aptly named Ferry Street in Hatfield, a short spur off of Main Street, comes to an abrupt halt at the river’s edge today.

The first bridge across the Connecticut was built in 1785, and connected Walpole, New Hampshire, and Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Closer to home, toll bridges were built in Hatfield in 1807 and Northampton in 1808. Thankfully for those of us who live here, the toll bridge in Hatfield on Bridge Lane had a short life. It was dismantled just 16 years after it was built, in 1823.

The Norwottuck Rail Trail Bridge in Northampton was built in 1887 and retrofitted for pedestrian use in 1992.

Less than a century ago, the Flood of 1936 took out several bridges that were quickly rebuilt: the Calvin Coolidge Bridge on Route 9 between Northampton and Hadley, and the Deerfield-Sunderland Bridge on Route 116, both of which opened in 1937. Those are the nearest places we have to go to in order to cross the river today.

The Connecticut River does not influence just our east-west travel patterns. The river is western New England’s north-south spine, and it created a natural path for the region’s other dominant feature of the landscape, the human-made band of pavement known as Interstate 91.

We don’t get where we want to go without taking the river into account.

Before the interstates, the river was a means of moving people and goods, including the thrilling, spectacular, and often deadly log drives that clogged the river every spring and summer. While this industrial use ended a century ago, the river continues to float a wide range of recreational boats today, from canoes to crew shells, kayaks to rowboats to motorboats pulling water skiers, fishermen, or biologists.

The river thwarts our east-west movement, and accommodates us north to south.

Surface Tension II, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 12x24

Surface Tension II, oil on canvas, 12×24

The river is a source of great natural beauty and a habitat for native and migratory wildlife. On a recent walk, within minutes I came across a snowy owl, a bald eagle, and a pair of pheasants, all within a few hundred yards of the river. While exciting and novel, the experience was not unusual.

I’ve seen bluebirds and scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, hawks and herons, otter and beaver, deer and fox, coyote and bear, even the skull of a wild boar between here and the river. Sunrise and sunset on the water are often spectacular, as are the fields of wildflowers that spring up on every uncultivated nook or hollow.

Surface Tension III, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 10x8

Surface Tension III, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 10×8

Many of us live here because of the river’s intrinsic beauty, or because we took jobs that exist because businesses chose to locate here.

The river is a magnet to civilization. It feeds our souls and bodies, supplying life-giving water and depositing thick alluvial soils along its banks, some of the richest farmland in the country. Farmers from other nations helped populate and feed the Connecticut River valley, notably Polish immigrants in Hatfield. It is impossible to know western New England without knowing its agriculture, which thrives because of the river.


Why, I was asked recently, have painters been inspired by rivers through the ages?

I think there are several reasons.

There is the vast physical beauty, of course, abundant and diverse enough to inspire any artist.

The river is also a powerful metaphor for the human experience.

Like our blood, the river is always flowing.

No matter how placid its surface, the river churns beneath it, mirroring our lives. There is always more going on inside us than meets the eye.

Like us, the river has a future and a past. It is always coming from somewhere and, like the time that measures our lives, is continually advancing. The water here one moment is gone the next, never to return. The river provides a constant reminder to be present to our experience, or risk seeing our lives float past us before we take action or notice.

On a deep, primal level, a body of water evokes life in the womb, where we all began. After birth and into adulthood, we humans are more than half water; the brain, heart, and lungs are even higher, comprising 70 percent to 80 percent water. Our kinship with the river is physical as well as psychological.

The river also makes manifest some of our many contradictions.

Despite its dominating beauty and presence, we often ignore the river, driving over it without as much as a glance.

The Connecticut in 1998 was named one of just 14 American Heritage Rivers. But for a long time before that we polluted it, and I still see trash along its banks.

Driving through Hatfield, we barely see the river that delineates the town’s eastern border.

The river is both calming, and a threat. We value the river for its steadiness and stability, but it occasionally creates havoc along its banks, and it is always agitated, en route to somewhere else.

We admire and need the river, are inconvenienced by it, and sometimes take it for granted. But we cannot ignore the river for long.


Path to the River X, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 40x30

Path to the River X, oil on canvas, 40×30

The exercise we began with illustrates the infinite possibilities presented by nature and our response to it. Not only are our first images different from each other, each of us has countless other images to choose from, which surface at random when summoned. Our mood, the season, and the time of day all impact our memory of the landscape.

We have a common understanding of a river as “a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another such stream,” according to Merriam-Webster. But what lies beneath it? What of the river flows deep within us, and how does it influence our lives?

In my paintings, rather than a representational, or objective, view of the physical river, I depict a subjective, nonverbal perspective that captures something essential about the river beyond its ever-shifting physical appearance. I attempt this by diving so deeply into my personal experience that eventually I break through to the universal, to something felt or sensed rather than thought or seen.

My focus is on the natural world. I think the best way to care for this world and steward it to my children is to immerse myself in it. I gladly partake of many of the inventions of our current communications revolution, but nothing rivals the complex, intense, sensory experience of the physical planet.

The river is beautiful to behold, but also a rich source of tactile pleasure when I dip my foot in it or jump in fully submerged, a liquid sensation through every pore. The river and its streams make intermittent music, and produce unique, and not always pleasant, smells. The same extends to the watershed as a whole, a uniquely sensuous blend of sights and sounds, textures and smells, that has no mechanical rivals.

Our technological revolution has influenced my approach as a painter. Nearly everyone today carries a camera in their pocket, and can capture literal images of the river — or any other scene. These cell phone images are often beautiful but ephemeral, rarely printed or seen again (except, perhaps, in the confines of a computer screen), so ubiquitous they lose distinction, composed of perfectly placed pixels rather than messy paint.

I, too, take many photographs, and I admire representational painters who see the world like a camera. A good landscape painting is more sensuous and tactile than any photograph.

Because a painting takes greater time and physical effort than a snapshot, it is more distinctive and relatively rare. I learn a lot and derive great pleasure from the representational painter’s subject matter, use of color, and composition.

But I am in search of something else, what I call the residue of experience. What remains of the river in me — in all of us — when we are no longer there witnessing it?

The river appears in many of my paintings, often seemingly by accident rather than conscious design, in a patchwork of fields and meadow, or as part of colorful, yet obscure, narratives. I absorb my landscape rather than study it, and then trust the painting process to reveal what I retain. In this way I hope to capture something that I can’t see or express through a viewfinder.

The camera narrows my view to a small rectangle, focuses my attention on something specific within my environment. The decision to snap a picture is a conscious one, made in the moment: the reflection of a tree hanging over the river, perhaps, or an apricot sunset lighting up its surface.

Back in my studio, I have no such choice. At my easel, my mind cannot edit my experience, order my perception, or rewrite my history.

I can paint a scene from a photograph, of course. That is a good, practical way to improve my technical skill at replicating what I see (or saw), on canvas or paper.

But unless I choose to alter the photographic scene in some way it will never be superior to the digital one. Unless I invest something of my person in the painted image, I can only go so far. I cannot match the camera’s clarity. To be truly distinctive, I must communicate to the viewer something about what made the scene unique, important enough for me to paint it besides its surface beauty.

I can paint a scene from memory. It may be beautiful but it will not be exact. Certain details will be omitted, either because I forgot them or because I do not consider them essential to the painting. Colors become a blend of memory, tradition, and imagination rather than a literal portrayal.

Invoking the river as metaphor, I can also let images stream. I surrender to the current of my mood and psyche with all its swift, random, subliminal complexity. Who knows what will turn up?

Reeds, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 18x24

Reeds, oil on canvas, 18×24

It could be a two-foot scroll of birch bark peeled off of a lifeless trunk, or the wind whistling through cattails.

What surfaces could be as diametrically opposed as the ominous drift of a massive log rushing to the sea following a November windstorm, or returning mallards splashing skyward from a sheltered inlet in March.

There may appear in my paintings the shape of fiddlehead ferns emerging from moist, pungent leaves in late April, or a school of minnows darting just beneath the river’s surface in May.

Perhaps the sharp stench of spent shad washing ashore in June translates onto my canvas, balanced by a bank of wildflowers: clover, geranium, and daisy, swaying in a July breeze.

It could be a string of elephant-like tobacco barns, a slow-moving beetle hanging upside down on a thin branch, or the eerie sight of bright orange pumpkins bobbing along after a heavy September rain.

It could be a combination of sights and sounds, like the primeval squawking of a great blue heron as it casts its shadow over fast-moving leaves glittering in late-afternoon October sun; the chain-like chimes of slow-moving ice in January; or three red foxes running single file along its frozen surface on a gray February day.

All of this is the river, all of it tells a story, a story that is continually unfolding, and that we are all a part of.

If capturing the essence of the river is a goal, my paints are my means. My brushstrokes attempt to mirror the movement and music of the water, smooth and strong and fluid, raging or calm or silky smooth, filled with color and light and sound. I seek the state known as flow, when mind, spirit, and body work effortlessly together, seamlessly, powerful as moving water.

Part of the process of becoming a painter is learning to trust this process, to acknowledge the limits of my waking mind and surrender to a nonverbal language over which I have little control.

Making a painting is not a random act, though; I begin each painting with a premise, like using a palette knife or cloth rather than a brush, listening to a certain piece of music, choosing particular colors, or trying to express something indelible about a person, thing, or place, like the river.

Sometimes it begins with something as simple as a shape because I can’t stand to waste the paint left in a brush after I have been working on another canvas. These first generous strokes are similar to yoga, or a musician practicing scales: simple, repetitive movements over and over to relax and loosen up mentally and physically, creating a pathway, in harmony with the music playing on my stereo, that puts me in the ideal frame of mind to paint and access the unknown.

Like an athlete, I trust the movements of my arm, wrist, and hand in these moments; any shape will do to get me started. The lines that result are energetic, my marks felt and authentic, not mediated or constrained by my rational mind. At some point I begin to see where a painting is heading, and I gently steer it to shore, mind in tow.

In the end, the paintings speak for themselves. They are in a language that I am still learning, and that by definition I can never fully understand. Using line, color, texture, and shape, I attempt to create something that is beautiful to behold, thoughtful to contemplate, and that makes viewers feel something essential that they cannot name.

The river is in me. I cannot quantify the many ways it affects me, but I am confident that like the stream itself, it is always there flowing beneath the surface, and fragments of it will continually emerge in new combinations as long as I draw breath.


Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Juno Beach, Florida. Photograph by Bar Lois Weeks.

Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Juno Beach, Florida. Photograph by Bar Lois Weeks.

My wife, BAR LOIS WEEKS has photographs and I have paintings in “Pas de Deux,” the new exhibit at Big Red Frame’s Elusie Gallery, 143 Main St., Easthampton, Massachusetts.

The opening reception is this Saturday, February 8, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It should be a good crowd and there will be plenty of refreshment.

I hope you can join us for the opening, but if not the exhibit will be up until March 3.

25 Florida18, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 10x8

25 Florida18, acrylic on canvas, 10×8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *