Scott Sutton isn't a hoarder, but he does collect the oddest things. On the local artist's shelf inside his studio at the downtown Brunswick building sits a six-year-old petrified orange peel that could almost be mistaken for leather. Next to the orange peel are old pinecones and random tools. Some of the objects are items he compulsively picks up from walks around Missoula, and most of them have sat in his house for years before he brought them into his studio to use as models in his paintings. They're not really mementos, he says. He might have originally picked them for sentimental reasons or for marking an occasion, but over time the reasons he keeps the objects become more obscure.
"The fact that they're just sort of there existing and aging with me, defining a small space in my life, warrants the greater part of their meaning for me," Sutton says. "For instance, the petrified orange peel. I continue to keep it maybe not for reasons I can even remember. I just don't necessarily want to trash it."
Sutton's paintings, in some way, all have to do with intimacy. For his upcoming First Friday show at the Catalyst Café he displays still life paintings that put collected objects side-by-side with everyday household items. In one, he combines a saltshaker, a metal scraper for priming canvas and the pinecones—all objects he has spent enough time with to have made a visceral connection with them, however subconscious. And it's not so much that the objects represent some grand meaning or novelty to him; in fact, it might be the opposite. When objects are a part of everyday life, they tend to be as familiar as an arm or a leg—easily taken for granted but ultimately quite inextricable from a person's life.
"Having that relationship with those objects feeds into your experience when you paint them," he says. "It feeds into how you're going to use the paint because they're so known to you."
A photograph is also an object that you can become familiar with even if you don't know the context surrounding it. For years, Sutton recalls seeing a Polaroid in his grandmother's photo album of a woman (a family friend) walking with her back to the camera through some trees. It evoked something he couldn't explain, and instead of trying to transcribe it onto canvas exactly how it looked in the photo, he painted it with colors and dreamlike movement that emphasized the feeling he got from it.
"Family photo albums are another way of collecting," says Sutton, "They collect memories. I always remembered this photo. I had no idea who it was, and it was taken before I was born. But there's something sublime about it and you can experience my relationship to it in the way I ended up painting it. It's based on the photo but it's been sifted through the lyrical sense."
Sutton moved to Missoula six years ago, right around the time he started really getting into painting. In the same way that he's been collecting objects he's also been essentially collecting people.
"Not that you can compare people to pinecones," he laughs.
Sutton's studio is full of portraits, but it's almost all people he knows well. For instance, he has a painting of almost every member of local band Bird's Mile Home (he also illustrated their last two album covers) as he's become friends with the musicians over the years. And if you've met the members of Bird's Mile Home you can see that the likeness isn't just about pure translation of their facial features—it's that their expressions on the canvas are just so typically them. Because his understanding of certain people is so embedded in the senses, he says, it's easier for him to paint them—instead of a stranger—in a way that's authentically true to their personality.
Sutton plans on showing a portrait or two at the upcoming show in anticipation for a full-on portrait exhibit coming up this summer. It will be his last exhibit before moving to Pittsburgh, Pa., with his wife, Clare, who's pursing school there. It won't be easy to leave behind the things he's come to know so well, but it will afford him a chance to begin a relationship with a new place, and with new objects to collect.
"Somebody might say, 'Who cares about the relationship to an object?' But when you look at something or someone for a very slow period of time, you are more apt to see nuance," Sutton says. "It's not a radically new idea, but it has its merits. And that's where all these pieces come together for me."
Scott Sutton's exhibit of recent works opens Friday, May 7, at the Catalyst Café, 111 N. Higgins Avenue, with a reception between 5 and 7 PM. Free.