The Written Image: Patricia Hanlon

From the July/August 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Patricia Hanlon knows New England’s wild salt marshes perhaps as intimately as anyone—as a swimmer, as a writer, and as a painter. She started writing about tidal estuaries around twelve years ago, when she and her husband began swimming the Essex River Basin in eastern Massachusetts regularly in the summer and even into the fall. Her swim journal grew into Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet, published in June by Bellevue Literary Press, a lyrical account of her encounters with wetlands and a citizen scientist’s testimony to what it may take to preserve them. Four years ago Hanlon trained her eyes on these estuaries in a new way—as a landscape painter. In the saturated colors and rich light of oil paintings like Newburyport Salt Marsh, shown below, Hanlon captures the thrum of life in these wild places. “As I swim I’m often bombarded with thoughts and perceptions that I want to translate into a painting or a bit of text,” says Hanlon. “Always there’s this poignant sense of things being much more complex than I can ever do justice to—but I try anyway.”

Patricia Hanlon’s oil painting Newburyport Salt Marsh. (Credit: Patricia Hanlon)

Working in both mediums has required ingenuity: “At times I’ve swum with a pad of waterproof paper and stub of pencil tucked into my bathing suit or wetsuit,” she says. “I’ve also duct-taped my camera to a small barge and floated it downriver with me, in hopes of capturing something of the sheer deliciousness of a summer salt marsh at high tide.” Most ideas with a narrative or moral dimension find their way to language, says Hanlon. “On the other hand, if I’m floating in that same creek and I’m more in visual mode, I’m thinking color, form, light, motion. Back in the studio I’m not thinking about salt marsh ecology or environmental threats; I’m mixing paint, hunting down color juxtapositions, looking for surprises.”