Painting from life, Linda McCluskey creates worlds of wonder.
Linda McCluskey at her Paris studio
By Rita Savard
Linda McCluskeyâs scrapbook of memories is forged from oil paint and brush strokes.
Many of the images are familiar â Middle Street, The Worthen, downtown canalways â places you might have passed a thousand times.
But when McCluskey reimagines them on canvas, the familiar seems to stir. Brick and mortar, cobblestones and canals bend and curve, twist and turn.
You can almost hear the music. Feel the energy. Itâs as if theyâre inviting you to step inside.
Welcome to McCluskeyâs world, where she breathes life into dream and memory through a paintbrush.
Her artisitc journey, she says, always leads her back to Lowell, which sheâs quick to call âone of the most beautiful cities on earth.â
A resident of Paris for the past 10 years, McCluskeyâs success as an artist is proof dreams can come true.
âIt was always my passion to paint but like a lot of people, life got in the way,â she says. âI was in my 20s when I put my brushes away to get a âreal jobâ and I lost sight of my dreams for a long time.â
Slogging along the daily grind, McCluskeyâs paints and brushes ended up in boxes in a basement. She carried old photos of her favorite works with her as a reminder from time to time of who she was before becoming a mom, a wife and a cubicle dweller.
Sometimes life holds up a mirror and forces us to take a long hard look.
Maybe it was the milestone, but McCluskey recalls her 40th birthday jogging something awake inside her.
âHow could I have stopped doing the thing I loved most for so long?â she said. âIf I wanted to call myself a painter, I needed to paint.â
And just like that, she put her dreams in action. With her kids, Jake and Carly, grown, she enrolled back in college courses at UMass Lowell. She travelled to France for a painting workshop and fell in love with her life all over again.
One of McCluskey's music paintings
She was the happiest she had been in years, then tragedy struck. Her partner of six years, Ed McCabe, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
âI felt like my life was over,â she said.
In the shadow of her grief, she managed to find a sliver of light.
âIt just hit me one day,â she said. âA voice inside saying if something as unbelievable as his death can happen, why isnât everything else possible?â
A close friend told her not to focus on the long and rolling highway. Follow the little paths life offers up instead.
With nothing left to lose, McCluskey moved to France in January 2002. She was 44.
Picking up her brushes and paint again, she was reborn.
Enter Linda McCluskey, the artist. Paris gave her freedom to rediscover and reinvent herself.
âIn Paris, if you say youâre a painter, people donât say, âwhat do you really do,â â she explains.
A scene in Paris
In the beginning, she was able to find work part-time as a nanny and spent the rest of her time painting.
She started experimenting with the idea of capturing music and mood. First she painted music in the metro, then musicians playing in cafeÂ´s and bars.
In 2004, a move into a 6th floor studio overlooking St. Germaine Boulevard inspired her to see new perspectives and play with light. Being a country girl â she was born and raised in Chelmsford â she had never lived up so high.
Still, the world on her canvases were beautiful but focused on proper form.
A trip to surrealist painter Salvador Daliâs beloved village of Cadaques in Spain, pushed her brush in a whole new direction.
Cadaques inspired Dali. The natural beauty of the area happened without his paintbrush, but the way he interpreted it on canvas brought attention to the region.
Taking in the breathtaking view from a hillside, McCluskey did a Dali-esque painting of the village and the church melting over the mountains.
âAfter painting traditional views for so long, this felt like freedom to play and make up the impossible,â she said.
It was the beginning of McCluskey's imaginative âdistortionâ pieces, and at the same time, she was gaining recognition as a unique and successful artist both in Paris and Lowell.
She returns to Lowell each year for inspiration.
Where Palmer and Middle Streets intersect
âLowell is one of the most beautiful cities in the world,â she says. âI didnât even realize it until I went away. In Paris there are a lot of beiges and grays. No other city looks like Lowell with its blue skies and red bricks, the cobblestones and the amazing detailed architecture of the historic downtown buildings.â
She points to her painting of Lowellâs Middle Street, one of her favorite downtown spots.
âThe streetlights, the music (Melvern Taylor is playing inside Fortunatos in her Middle Street painting), the cobblestones â the whole corner looks like a movie set,â she said.
âIn my paintings, I can choose whatever I want to be there,â she said. âI choose the best memories. Itâs like when youâre sitting at a cafe with a friend and having a great conversation. You remember that part of it, not the cars driving by or the background noise or the garbage in the street. Just the beauty of the moment. With my art, I capture what that means to me.â
City Hall. Brewâd Awakenings Coffeehaus. Hamilton Canal. Sleepy landmarks awaken through light, shadow and lines that âbreak the rules.â
Remember when Mary Poppins and her gang jumped into a sidewalk painting? As soon as they step foot into the two-dimensional reality, the frozen characters on paper magically come to life and a third dimension is born.
McCluskeyâs Lowell feels like that. A storybook-world where imagination rules.
Itâs an interesting place to explore, especially coming from a woman who abandoned her dreams, only to rediscover them later in life.
Today she has her own studio at Parisâ 59 Rivoli â one of the top three visited galleries in France â where she was accepted for a permanent residency.
Her advice to others: If you love something do it.
âTap into your passion,â she said. âWhether youâre 17 or 70, itâs never too late to follow a dream. If you keep it bottled up, youâll only have regrets. Express yourself in the way that means the most to you.â
McCluskey will be at Folk Fest with her paintings Friday through Sunday.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Art in the Courtyard, in the shaded, brick-lined courtyard between the National Historical Park Vistor Center and the Brush Art Gallery, off Market Street.
WHEN: Friday, July 27 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, July 28 from noon to 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.