Gretchen Dow Simpson

From Island Journal - 2002
Gretchen Dow Simpson

Looking beyond the obvious

For Gretchen Dow Simpson,
architecture is a surrogate
for the human presence

Carl Little

The painter Gretchen Dow Simpson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1939. She first came to Maine on a trip to Prout's Neck when she was 12 and a friend of her parents drove her to visit his daughter. "I remember him driving 100 mile an hour on the highway and showing me the speedometer," she recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, Maine is a wild place!' "

Simpson's introduction to island life happened four years later when she babysat for the Byrd family's four boys on Vinalhaven. She thought the island was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. She recalls the view looking across to North Haven, the clear air, the trees and, above all, the feeling of freedom.

Simpson attended Rhode Island School of Design in 1957-1959. She majored in painting, but after she left RISD she didn't take up a brush again until 1970. She worked at the 1964 World's Fair in New York; she learned how to type and took secretarial jobs in Boston. She started taking photographs of the buildings and set up a dark room in her kitchen. Eventually, she landed a job at an advertising agency in New York, starting as a secretary, but then becomming assistant to the photographer.

About 1970 Simpson started submitting work to The New Yorker. She describes these early pieces as "very rough, magic marker sketches, flowers on buildings and the like." She was also creating larger-than-life papier-mache jewelry, some of which ended up featured in Vogue.

The New Yorker responded favorably to the sketches and encouraged Simpson to keep sending art, which she did for nine years until a new art director, Lee Lorenz, took over. By that time she had started doing abstract paintings, which was what Lorentz liked. He suggested that she do realistic paintings with the feeling of abstract ones.

Not knowing what to paint, Simpson followed Lorentz's advice, which has stuck with her to this day: "Paint what you like to look at." She went to a friend's appartment, took some photographs of her hallway and made a painting. Lorenz bought the picture for The New Yorker in March 1974, "probably the most exciting day of my life," recounts Simpson, "besides giving birth to my daughters!" She has been using the camera to respond to the world ever since.

When she started doing cover art for The New Yorker, architecture provided a basis for form. Despite her interest in houses, she never considered becoming an architect--"too many rulers" is her simple explanation. In 1988, she adjusted her style and subject matter in response to the magazine's new editor, Robert Gottlieb, who wanted more punch and drama in his covers. Architectral studies in acrylic were replaced by cropped images of pumpkins, the American Flag, rowboats and other objects excuted in oils. "It was a progressive and wonderful learning experience for me," Simpson once said.

- Carl Little


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