Schulenburg’s Rising Tide
Artist Paul Schulenburg paints the inspiring life that surrounds him on Cape Cod.
In Paul Schulenburg’s painting, Soon to Return, a catboat lies canted on its port side upon the sandy tidal flats of Cape Cod Bay. In the immediate background, turquoise green water bisects the sandbar; along the horizon the cornflower blue bay converges with a pink line of sky. Although the time of day is most likely dusk, there’s an ambiguity about the palette that could allow one to register dawn instead. Either way, the metaphor in the painting’s title works, for whether the sun is setting on this particular period or rising to usher in a new one, the theme of returning is most apropos in 2021.
Vacationers, tourists, and summer people will come back to the Cape this season, families will reunite, and the tide will flood over these sand flats to buoy that catboat once again.
Schulenburg says, “During the time of Covid, I have been working closer to home, so I have been doing these paintings alone at the beach at the end of my road, or high and dry in my studio. I’ve used this time to concentrate on my work, doing several paintings of boats on the flats at low tide. The motionless boats allude to how we have been waiting for the pandemic to end; for the tide to return, so that we can all sail back into our normal lives.” Thus, while on the surface this painting may be of a boat at rest on the sand, there is also a deeper symbolic message. “My paintings often will have a narrative quality, but usually it’s a partial narrative; something to pique your interest but not tell the whole story.”
Schulenburg paints a variety of subjects, from scenes in cafes or village streets, to landscapes consisting of beaches and inlets, to people moving through these worlds- exploring, working, or unwinding. Depending on the subject, he will sometimes adjust his style to fit the mood and situation. “For example, if I am painting a serene painting of my wife, there may be more blending, maybe a softer use of color and of paint,” he says. “If it’s an active scene at the Chatham fish pier, there might be more contrast, more color, and there may be blockier, thicker paint in chunkier brushstrokes, which helps convey that rustic feeling of the fish pier.”
Over his career, scenes of fishermen returning with their catch have been recurring subjects for Schulenburg. He became fascinated with the fish pier in the late 90’s; he says, “I was painting a few local landscapes, like people do. It was springtime, and the weather was still a bit gray on the Cape. I was driving around looking for subject matter when I decided to stop at the fish pier. I was intrigued with the activity, the colors the fishermen were wearing, and the perspective of looking down into the boats.” He had studied figurative painting at Boston University, taking classes in anatomy and classical training in painting the human form. “So painting the fisherman was another way of exploring figurative work,” he says, “and capturing an integral historical part of Cape Cod that is not observed by as many people. It’s the working, gritty part. There’s a beauty in that which intrigued me.”
While sometimes Schulenburg connects with the workers, other times he’s just a face in the crowd. He explains: “The fish pier can be packed with people watching and taking pictures, so the fishermen are used to being observed. If there aren’t many people around I will talk to the workers, but I try not to bother them. Basically they’re working and I’m working, and I try not to get in their way.” Schulenburg’s conversations might also lead to further developments such as finding models who come into the studio to pose for him and for other painters. “I studied a fisherwoman at the pier for quite a while one particular day. Eventually I felt I should explain to her why I’d been watching her,” says Schulenburg. He gave her his business card and explained what he was doing. Since then, he has painted several large paintings of Stephanie, and she has posed in her fishing gear at his studio during one of the many group painting sessions he holds with other artists.
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