Painting from life, Linda McCluskey creates worlds of wonder
By Rita Savard
Linda McCluskey’s scrapbook of memories is forged from oil paint and brush strokes.
Many of the images are familiar — Middle Street, The Worthen, downtown canalways — places you might have passed a thousand times. But when McCluskey reimagines them on canvas, the familiar begins to stir.
Brick and mortar. Cobblestones and canals. All bend, curve, twist and turn. You can almost hear the music. Feel the energy. It’s an invitation to step inside McCluskey’s world, where cityscapes seem to breathe.
A resident of Paris for the past 10 years, her artisitc journey always leads her back to Lowell, which she’s quick to call “one of the most beautiful cities on earth.”
Lowell, after all, is where she found inspiration to pick up a paintbrush again at age 40. Her success as a full-time working artist in Paris is proof, she says, that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.
“It was always my passion to paint but like a lot of people, life got in the way,” she says. “I was in my 20s when I put my brushes away to get a ‘real job’ and I lost sight of my dreams for a long time.”
Slogging along the daily grind, McCluskey’s art supplies ended up in boxes in a basement. She carried old photos of her favorite works with her as a reminder from time to time of who she was before becoming a mom, a wife and a cubicle dweller.
Sometimes life holds up a mirror and forces you to take a long hard look. Maybe it was the milestone, but McCluskey recalls her 40th birthday jogging something awake inside her.
“How could I have stopped doing the thing I loved most for so long?” she says. “If I wanted to call myself a painter, I needed to paint.”
And just like that, she put her dreams in action. With her kids Jake and Carly all grown up, she enrolled in college courses at UMass Lowell. Back at school, she travelled to France for a painting workshop and fell in love with her life all over again.
She was the happiest she had been in a long time, then tragedy struck. Her partner of six years, Ed McCabe, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
“I felt like my life was over,” McCluskey admits.
But in the shadow of her grief, she managed to find a sliver of light.
“It just hit me one day,” she says. “A voice inside saying if something as unbelievable as his death can happen, why isn’t everything else possible?”
A close friend told her not to focus on the long and rolling highway. Follow the little paths life offers up instead. With nothing left to lose, McCluskey moved to France in January 2002. She was 44.
Picking up her brushes and paint again, she was reborn. Enter Linda McCluskey, the artist. Paris gave her freedom to rediscover and reinvent herself.
“In Paris, if you say you’re a painter, people don’t ask, ‘what do you really do?’ ” she explains.
In the beginning, she was able to find work part-time as a nanny and spent the rest of her time painting. She started experimenting with the idea of capturing music and mood. First she painted music in the metro, then musicians playing in
cafe´s and bars.
In 2004, a move into a 6th floor studio overlooking St. Germaine Boulevard gave her a new perspective. Being a “country girl” born and raised in Chelmsford, she had never lived up so high.
The scenes unfolding on her canvas were well painted but still focused on proper form, until a trip to surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s beloved village of Cadaques in Spain pushed her brush in a whole new direction.
The natural beauty of Cadaques inspired Dali and the way he interpreted that on canvas brought attention to the region. Taking in the breathtaking view from a hillside, McCluskey did a Dali-esque painting of the village and the church melting over the mountains.
“After painting traditional views for so long, this felt like freedom to play and make up the impossible,” she says.
It was the beginning of McCluskey’s imaginative “distortion” pieces, and she gained recognition as a unique artist in Paris and in Lowell.
She returns to Lowell each year for inspiration.
“Lowell is one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” she says. “I didn’t even realize it until I went away. In Paris there are a lot of beiges and grays. No other city looks like Lowell with its blue skies, red bricks, the cobblestones and the amazing detailed architecture of the historic downtown buildings.”
She points to her painting of Lowell’s Middle Street, one of her favorite downtown spots.
“The streetlights, the music (Melvern Taylor is playing inside Fortunatos in her Middle Street painting), the cobblestones — the whole corner looks like a movie set,” she says. “In my paintings, I can choose whatever I want to be there. I choose the best memories. It’s like when you’re sitting at a cafe with a friend and having a great conversation. You remember that part of it, not the cars driving by or the background noise or the garbage in the street. Just the beauty of the moment. With my art, I capture what that means to me.”
City Hall. Brew’d Awakenings Coffeehaus. Hamilton Canal. Sleepy landmarks awaken through light, shadow and lines that “break the rules.”
Today she has her own studio at Paris’ 59 Rivoli — one of the top three visited galleries in France — where she was accepted for a permanent residency. Her advice to others: If you love something do it.
“Tap into your passion,” she said. “Whether you’re 17 or 70, it’s never too late. If you keep it bottled up, you’ll only have regrets. Express yourself in the way that means the most to you.”