Altoon Sultan: A Studio Visit

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By Craig Stockwell

On a cool rainy June day I visited Altoon Sultan at her home/studio in Groton, Vermont. I wanted to visit Altoon because I think that she has gone through an evolution in her work that speaks to what I see as a generous and expanded role of the studio artist.

It begins with Facebook. There’s nothing sacrosanct about Facebook but it happens to be, at this moment, a truly useful tool for me as an artist. Blogs are passing out of their usefulness. Facebook is alive and the conversation amongst the art community, if you can locate it, is rich and engaged in all of the aspects of that which those of us that love this conversation do love.

Altoon in her studio

Altoon is dedicated to Facebook and that is how my friendship with her deepened from a passing acquaintance to a lively interaction. An important aspect of Altoon’s story is the transition from a fully engaged New York studio artist with twenty years of showing at Marlborough Gallery, New York to an isolated Vermont artist living in an 1830’s remote cape and fully engaging in a daily conversation with a lively art community.

There’s a tension here. In some ways Altoon is shadowed by a sense of having lost the connection to being a successful artist. Having lost her gallery I feel that she has moved into a rich, connected and powerfully self-directed engagement in a wide field of artistic endeavor and questioning. She is living art rather than simply going to the studio.

In my studio visits one question I’ve been asking is, “What are the edges you’re afraid of…where do you think you might stray into danger with your work?” Altoon immediately answered, “Sentiment.” A horror of the sentimental. She also added, “The insistent call for authenticity, for showing the artist’s hand. The sense that realism somehow lacks emotional commitment.”

The work she became known for at Marlborough was large farm landscapes. These paintings were developed using exhaustive traditional drawing as the base and oil paint as the medium. The paintings eschewed photo-realism for a more visual accomplishment of reality based on traditional technical method. As the paintings evolved she began to add notes of the tension between the pastoral expectation and the reality of real farms. Exquisite objects with a note of worry, a question about our notions of farming versus the reality and, by extension, the larger worries about humans in nature. Within this work Altoon began to focus on details of farm machinery using digital photos to gather her images and began developing small, nearly abstract paintings of forms and color. A long suppressed (and feared) fascination for abstraction surfaced. Perhaps she also began a move away from the (perceived and complex) sentiment that was growing in the farm paintings. In following this desire she lost the interest of her gallery, however, and soon found that she was, for better and worse, set free to pursue her own interests in picture making.


Picture 4
Picture 3
Picture 1
Studio Views

Around this time Altoon was transitioning to fulltime living in Vermont and she fully grasped that there was a need to develop a sustaining and sustainable practice because it was no longer necessarily going to come from elsewhere.

At present there are several different projects going on, all purposeful and all ardently communicated through postings on Facebook: First, there are the paintings. The paintings are small tempera-on- parchment formal studies of the color and forms of machinery. The paintings are vivid in their clear presence and are evidence of a love of close-slow observation. Then there are sets of textile abstractions that have developed using traditional rug-hooking techniques with hand dyed wool; here abstraction sings simply and boldly. The textiles are both accomplished and casual in a blend that recalls Richard Tuttle. There are certainly the photographs themselves, after having initially considered these as worth exhibiting Altoon has stepped back from that idea and holds the photos now as information. Next there is the garden, the art of gardening and the photographs of the location itself, close observation of a very local and beloved site. Finally there is the aesthetic attention to the house and the land itself. And all of this becomes formatted and rigorously communicated from a quiet farm in Vermont via a beautifully constructed blog, “Studio and Garden” (follow her blog) and Facebook (view her page here). Within Facebook Altoon is also a generous researcher and compiler of works by other artists both contemporary and historic as well as offering a myriad of thoughts, visits and observations. A recent post included images of granite carving from the cemeteries of Barre, Vermont.

At a certain or many points in our work as artists we face encouragement or discouragement, inclusion and rejection. Ultimately there is always the need to reexamine the questions that are deeply held within us and find the means and the artistic voice to address these. And then find the means to communicate. Altoon Sultan has moved with quiet determination and rigorous vigor to reinvent herself as an artist and within her home and studio she has shown how a deep commitment and love of artistic possibility can emerge in new forms.

To see work by Altoon Sultan, visit her website :
  All images courtesy of the artist.

Craig Stockwell is an artist/educator based in New England.

Thank you. Your comment raises some important questions having to do with a kind of fear of neo-victorianism. The original victorian had embedded in it many transfixing, if perhaps tritely romantic feelings. We have learned to distance ourselves from this. Then here it is again, frequently in the most contemporary of art. I guess it's that old search for meaning. -Judith
Posted by: admin    On: Oct 3, 2012 1:34 pm
Your writing adds so much depth to mynunderstanding of the art, artist, and artistic process. Thank you Craig
Posted by: Frederick Boyle    On: Sep 1, 2012 2:40 pm
I am also a fb friend, an art lover, and gardener. Needless to say, we have a lot in common. I find Altoon's post not only engaging but scholarly and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing more of her personal history.
Posted by: Karen Desnick    On: Aug 13, 2012 8:49 am
You and Altoon are precious gifts to the art community. The sharing of your visual thoughts is generous and inspiring. We look, paint, cook, paint, look, paint.... We cannot make art in a vacuum. You both write eloquently of the trials and struggles of taking risks in and out of the studio. The unknown awaits, and on most days, it makes our hearts race with determination and joy.
Posted by: Berri Kramer    On: Aug 11, 2012 7:37 am
Yes, we're all fearful of sentiment. But what, exactly, is it we're so fearful of? Is it that our expressions will descend to--or fail to transcend--the level of the trite, the commonplace, the cliche? And would that be the equivalent of occupying a place, or places, we've already visited, places we already know, instead of places new and unexplored? I can see there the desirability of avoiding the sentimental, the "lesser" or superficial range of feeling. Nonetheless, in my experience, the sentimental periodically appears and seems to want expression, and I wonder at those times if those urges should be repressed and left to others to express--there are lots of outlets in the popular media for that--or if we should somehow deal with them from within our own expressions? And what would that look like? Would it be achieved by appropriation? Would it be in quotes? Would the voice of its expression simply be an alternative our usual voice of expression? Could it just be acknowledged for what it is without sacrificing the "higher" road? Please advise.
Posted by: Carl Belz    On: Aug 10, 2012 1:50 pm
a true description of a thoughtful & dedicated artist. Altoon has my immense respect for her integrity in living art as her life & her life as art. Described so well by Michael Kimmelman in his treatise "The Accidental Masterpiece, On the Art of Life and Vice Versa". Altoon's life is so carefully thought out & is a true art in itself.
Posted by: fran mccormick    On: Aug 10, 2012 10:29 am
Freedom comes with courage.
Posted by: Joe Giordano    On: Aug 10, 2012 4:12 am
Thank you for this post Craig. And lucky you, to have the opportunity to visit with Altoon in situ. I am one of the many artists who has benefited from her generosity in sharing her work with us.
Posted by: Tamar Zinn    On: Aug 9, 2012 10:59 pm
I am a face book friend of Altoon's and enjoy her contributions and blog. I am also loving the contact I can have with other artists across the country, my students, my school peers and new artists in the wider community. It keeps me in touch with what would ordinarily be a lonely pursuit. Thanks for writing this. I am happy to connect to others far and wide and delighted to have critique and connections to artists who are generous with their support. It keeps me current and most importantly, inspired!
Posted by: Susan Richards    On: Aug 9, 2012 6:28 pm

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