Back when he was a student in the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Peter Knapp imagined he might have a career as an artist. He studied woodcuts, drawing and painting and, after graduating in 1972, had a studio for some time in Florence.
Knapp never quite made art a career, though he continued to find time to be creative outside of working for many years in the furniture business. But after confronting some serious medical issues 10 years ago, he’s developed a renewed dedication to his work — and at age 71, he’s about to have his first-ever solo exhibition.
His abstract works, which have been part of many group shows over the years, are full of energy, with elements of psychedelia, free-flowing lines and a variety of shapes and images. Mixed media paintings such as “Garden of Geometric Insights” pulse with color drawn from acrylic paint and ink, gouache, graphite pencils and other materials.
But some of these pieces, including “Anxiety’s Playground,” also speak to a brush with death Knapp had in 2012 when he went into cardiac arrest, after which he went through a period of severe depression and anxiety. Doctors told him he had actually died, he says, but he was luckily revived though “the miracles of modern health care.”
Knapp says he found his way back to better health in part through a renewed commitment to his art — and he hopes his Northampton exhibit, which runs through March 30, will shed some light on that journey.
“I’ve always loved making art, but there were many years when I just didn’t really have time, or nearly enough time, to devote to it,” Knapp, who lives in Sunderland, said during a recent interview at his home . “But I feel like things are different now — this is really my time.”
Art had to be largely sidelined because Knapp worked for 45 years at Danco Modern Furniture in Hatfield in a variety of positions, including as the store’s owner for his last nine years at the business. He and his wife, Jane, also were busy over the years raising two daughters, Elizabeth and Jillian, who are now grown.
Knapp sold Danco Modern in 2017 and, with plenty of time now and his health improving, threw himself back into his art. He’s been part of 18 juried show competitions since 2020, he says, and some of the shows have included judges from institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of New York City.
But things really took off last year, he says, when he heard from an old UMass colleague and friend, painter Scott Prior, who saw images of some of Knapp’s recent work on Instagram and Facebook and was intrigued; he visited Knapp in Sunderland last spring.
“Scott graduated a year ahead of me at UMass,” Knapp said. “I’ve known him a long time and always admired his work, so when he came to see me, that was a real boost of confidence.” (He says Prior has since purchased three of his woodcuts.)
When Prior asked him if he had any prints of his work, Knapp confessed he didn’t really know how to go about doing that. “And Scott says, ‘Peter, there are places that will do that for you!” Knapp said with a laugh.
In fact, Prior introduced Knapp to Dan Chiaccio, a printer in Brattleboro, Vermont, with whom he works, who’s since made numerous prints of Knapp’s woodcuts and paintings.
“I’m really grateful for the help and encouragement Scott’s given me,” Knapp said.
Another Prior connection led to Knapp’s coming show at Anchor House. Knapp went last spring to see an exhibit at the gallery of Prior’s printmaking and drawings, including work from his UMass days, a show called “A Different Take on Scott Prior.”
Michael Tillyer, founder and co-director of Anchor, gave Knapp a tour of the show, and Knapp mentioned he was a longtime friend of Prior — and that he, too, was an artist. So straightaway, Tillyer had a look at Knapp’s website, and he liked what he saw. He offered Knapp a show.
“I took a look at an image or two and was taken by his visionary aptitude and careful craft,” Tillyer wrote in an email. Prior had already told Tillyer about Knapp’s new burst of creativity, and Tillyer says when he asked Knapp about it, “He told me … how it came about from the ultimate life experience, a brush with death.”
Knapp has produced so much work, in fact, that Anchor is devoting three separate gallery spaces to it. “And here we are, March, and there is no better way to mark the arrival of spring than with this bright exhibition that celebrates a life renewed,” Tillyer said.
Knapp’s work extends in several directions. He’s also a photographer, concentrating on natural landscapes, and he has a portfolio of colorful digital art featuring fantastical settings he calls “dreamscapes,” which to some extent mirror his mixed media paintings.
He’ll even paint the occasional pastoral landscape, like one of a meadow and trees that’s mounted on a wall in his living room.
But his bread and butter these days are his woodcuts and mixed media work. In some cases, such as “Tools of the Trade,” he’s added various household items — pull tabs, buttons, pulleys and wires — to older woodcuts to create a sort of 3-D assemblage, with multiple shapes and colors giving the pieces a real kinetic feel.
The natural world is also an inspiration — as are human-made threats to it. Writing about his mixed media piece “Nature and The Covidian Age,” a kaleidoscopic assemblage set against a backdrop of paint, ink, gouache and colored pencil, Knapp suggests COVID has been created by nature “as a response to … the environmental harm we are causing on this planet.”
In some cases he’s turned woodcuts into small tables, mounting them on legs and putting a sheet of glass across them. “I’m always looking for different ways to present my art, so it can be something that doesn’t have to hang on a wall,” he said.
Looking back, Knapp says his wife and daughters provided him with critical support as he rededicated himself to his art; A change to a healthier diet also helped him regain his balance. And, he notes, he’s found artists inspiration “from so many other,” from Willem de Kooning to Chuck Close to Vanessa Prager, as well as those with Valley connections such as Leonard Baskin, Linda Post and Laura Radwell.
“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m so grateful for that,” he said.
There will be an opening reception March 11 from 6 to 8 pm for Knapp’s exhibit at Anchor House of Artists. Visit anchorhouseartists.org for more details and COVID protocols.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.