Artist's journey takes her from danger to solitude

Tolson's paintings being exhibited at Rye Public Library until April 7

Ken and Judy Palm

The model for this 3-part painting was Kerry, Ann Tolson's favorite.

In the backyard of her 1780’s Cape in Portsmouth, artist Ann Tolson has a charming studio where she paints every morning for a few hours.  The quiet and her calm demeanor contrast with an early life full of danger and excitement, during which she served in a variety of wartime capacities in England.

From now until April 7, Ann's work will be on display at the Rye Public Library on the main floor.

Originally from Northumberland, England, Tolson was a young woman when World War II broke out in Europe.  At the age of 18 she felt the need to help in whatever way she could, so on September 3, 1939, Ann joined the Land Army for a couple of months.  She worked on farms bringing in the harvest and learned to milk cows, spread muck and pick corn, tomatoes and turnips.  When that was finished, she and her fellow workers were told they were done until spring.  Ann went to London and took a job as secretary to the actor Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa and Lynn, who was playing Macheath in the play "Beggar's Opera" at the Haymarket Theatre.

When the Blitz started in August of 1940 the theaters gradually closed.  Michael was expecting to be called to active duty, so Ann went back to Northumberland.  She wasn't much enjoying being bombed anyway.  She took a job for a year at the War Agricultural Executive Committee.   On October 16, 1941, she joined the WAAF and spent a year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as a plotter.  Ann then posted to HQ Fighter Command at Stanmore, north of London.   She worked 60 feet underground plotting the aircraft, both friendly and hostile, with a vast map of southeast England.   

After two years in the WAAF Ann wanted to be above ground and on an airfield.  She managed to get a Flying Control job on an airfield where she was in charge of transmitting information on the weather.  Ann was in the thick of things, which is where she wanted to be.  She was in Topcliffe for 2 1/2 years, when the war ended.  It was there that Ann made many friends among the Canadians.  

Ann's life during the war was Spartan:  Nissen huts and Air Force food.  She and a friend Sheila decided they needed a night of luxury and booked themselves into the Savoy Hotel in London.  Not wanting to arrive on foot, they took a taxi from around the corner and allowed the commissar to open the cab door for them.  They sat in the lobby and ordered an expensive tea and watched the people go by.  They went to dinner at Charring Cross and returned to the Savoy for a long and luxurious bath.  They were very impressed that there was a phone in the bathroom, but couldn't think of anyone to call.  The next morning they had another long bath and left, this time on foot, there being no one to impress.  

After the war Ann spent a year at home and then emigrated to Canada for two years to see what her Canadian friends called “God’s country”.  She worked in Toronto for three years in a stocks-and-bonds investment company.  She worked primarily to make money and travel.

Returning to England in 1950 she went to work for Proctor & Gamble (1951-1957) in Northumberland, the county next to Scotland.  There she met David Tolson, who would become her husband in 1957.  

David introduced her to art by taking her to galleries and museums.  In 1958 they moved to London where David went to work for an advertising agency.  Eventually they bought a house in Kent, where their daughter was born.

Their daughter, Penelope, was born in 1959, and they moved to the United States in 1969, living in Connecticut while David established his own advertising agency in New York.  Upon retirement in 1994 they moved to Portsmouth, N.H., to be near their daughter and grandchildren who live in Kensington.  Ann‘s grandmotherly pride is evident when she explains that her grandchildren have inherited her talent and passion for art.  Last week one of her granddaughters was awarded a silver medal, a major award for the state of New Hampshire.

Ann began painting as a way to meet people and pass time on vacations.  She took a few classes in England and some more here in the states, but really didn’t paint, except as a hobby for many years.  As Penelope grew older, Ann began to take the painting a little more seriously.

Ann’s early interest was in oils and she concentrated on the impressionist style, but when she didn’t feel that she was making progress, she made an overnight decision to change to acrylics and went from fuzzy edges to hard edges.  She said it suddenly felt right, nobody actually taught her.  She was inspired by artists Will Barnet and Alex Katz.

”I am interested in painting figures," says Tolson.  "I like to get a rapport, either between a single person and her surroundings or between two figures or groups.  Young people are in touch with each other, and I try to develop a feeling of togetherness.  Older people are more in a world of their own, and I try to capture that feeling of detachment.  I work in acrylics, using several thin layers of paint, to produce an opaque effect.”

Ann would describe her painting as hard-edged and opaque.  She does no blending of colors, but decides where there is light and dark.   She enjoys working in sunlight, because it gives clear-cut shapes.   A face will be divided into areas of light, dark and shapes.  All of Ann’s paintings will have people, even landscapes.  Ann is a keen observer of nature and human nature.  She paints what she wants, and will leave out as much detail as possible.  In the painting above of the “Cocktail  Party”, there are no faces visible.  The body language is what is important.

Tolson has experimented with cutouts also.  They are done on masonite, but are hard to cut out, and after a year her hands couldn’t do the work any more.  At one time she had accumulated so many paintings that she cut some up. Then she decided to mount them in strips and create a new look. These paintings are called striped collage (an example is at right).

Ann likes to work on a large scale but doesn’t do that much any more.  A larger painting could take six weeks to complete, the smaller ones about two weeks.  Plus, large canvasses are bulky and difficult to move.  Smaller paintings seem to be more appealing to the public.  After deciding that she couldn’t do large-scale paintings any longer, Ann thought of doing 10 x 35-inch panels and showing a portion of the person or painting on this one panel.  That way she could still paint on the large scale but end up with a smaller painting.

Tolson has exhibited her work in many galleries and shows.  At the moment, aside from the exhibit in Rye, 21 of her acrylics are being given a one-woman show in Auckland, New Zealand.  She also has a painting at the Currier Museum of Art show, which this year is being held at the University of New Hampshire, due to renovations at the Currier Gallery.  This is a Juried show, and an artist must qualify to be eligible.

Ann’s style has not changed over the years.  She originally started painting to meet people and have something to do on vacation. She is still using her talent to meet people and fill her days with productive enjoyment.  Visitors to the library exhibit have commented that you can't help but notice her powerful paintings.  Stop by and see for yourself.

Tolson's grandchildren take a boat ride down a river near Exeter.

"My Ancestors" depicts Tolson's Victorian aunts and uncle.

Reading a book while her cat snoozes is Tolson's daughter.

Neice sketches Mt. Chocorua with placid lake in the foreground.

ANN TOLSON, At a Glance

Kings College, Newcastle, England
Silvermine School for the Arts, Connecticut

One Person Shows
Run Gallery, Cornish, Maine
Robert Lincoln Gallery, Portsmouth, N.H.
University of Connecticut, Storrs, Ct.
Landmark Tower, Stamford, Ct.
Munson Gallery, New Haven, Ct.
Town Hall, Westport, Ct.
Gallery 3, Greenwich, Ct.

Two-Person Show
Artist’s Signature Gallery, New Haven, Ct.
Invitational Group Shows
University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.
Artwork Gallery, Hartford, Ct.
Danbury Library, Danbury, Ct.
Rohatyn Arts Center, Ct.

Juried Shows
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.
Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery, Portsmouth, N.H.
Ogunquit Art Association, Ogunquit, N.H.
Sunapee Fair, Sunapee, N.H.
Stamford Museum, Stamford, C.T.

Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery,Portsmouth,N.H.
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.
Westport Summer Show, Ct.
Greens Farm Academy, Ct.
Rohatyn Arts Center, Ct.
New Canaan Art Show, Ct.
Ridgefield Guild of Artists, Ct.
Stamford Art Association, Ct.

Member of the New Hampshire Art Association

One-person show scheduled for March/April 2007 in a gallery in Auckland, New Zealand.

Photos of paintings by Judy Underwood and Ken Palm.

March, 2007