Irish artist is inspired by Salem

Kristin D'Agostino

When artist and former social worker John Patterson was 27, he left his home in Ireland and came to live in Salem. When he wasn’t working with troubled teens in Lynn, he spent free time wandering Salem’s streets and sketching its cemeteries and historical buildings.

Though it was only 18 months he spent in the Witch City, the artist developed a signature style that would stay with him through his artistic career. He photographed buildings like the House of the Seven Gables and the Witch House, which would later serve as subjects for his dark dream-like paintings.

In a recent e-mail, Patterson, now 47 and living in Northern Ireland, reflected on just what it was about Salem that brought him inspiration.

“I like the architecture of the buildings,” he says … “The shops, the porches, the gables, the doorways, the open spaces … The smell of the sea, the noise of the seagulls, the bells on the boats ringing with the movement of the water…”

This month Patterson’s artwork is being exhibited for the first time in the city that inspired it long ago. Ten paintings will be on display in a show that runs through the end of October at the Salem Arts Association’s gallery on Artists Row.

Over the course of his artistic career, Patterson has dabbled in oils, acrylics and colored pencil. His paintings of Salem, done in acrylic and pencil, depict buildings at dusk, highlighted in eerie light that evokes the atmosphere of an Edward Allen Poe story. Planted in each shadowy painting like a jewel is one bright object designed to draw the viewer’s eye — a fiery orange moon floating behind a dark gable, or a window lit up with crimson light.

“I like to have a center of interest in my paintings,” he says. “An open window or … an artificial light source for the viewer to focus on. A touch of red in an area of blue.”

Patterson’s background is evident in the work: He studied advertising and graphic design in Ireland and cites the American painter Edward Hopper as one of his greatest influences. His half lit night scenes glow with the same graphic quality of Hopper’s paintings.

These days Patterson divides his time between his job in the pharmaceutical business and his painting pastime. While in Salem last week for his exhibit’s opening, the artist picked up where he left off two decades ago, collecting interesting sights to use for inspiration. This time he photographed the Custom House, which he plans to incorporate into future work. Not content just to visit, the artist hopes to return to Salem to live in the near future.

“I hope to come back to New England next year to live and work and see much more of the country …” he says. “Plus, I would like to get involved in Salem and the North Shore art scene.”