5 AM oil on linen 1993 25″x30″ from my 1995 exhibit at AS220
If all goes according to plan, my aunt Vicky will celebrate her 100th birthday on July 4, at Hallworth House. She doesn’t remember much, but her personality is intact – she is still the stubborn, spiky woman I knew from childhood. Vicky was the middle child, my mother the eldest. aunt June the baby. Vicky lived a small life, close to her mother, home and work, never venturing too far afield.
When I was six, I started taking classes at RISD. Every Saturday morning for years, aunt Vicky would drive me to the Waterman building and I would trudge up the stairs to class. My mother and June would tag along and shop in downtown Providence until it was time to pick me up. Vicky taught me to garden, to balance a checkbook and to put family first. She wasn’t an easy woman, often suspicious and demanding. She once made a store clerk take back an item she had bought several years beforehand from a totally different store.
And yet, she was Vicky – entirely dependable, stubborn and supportive to a fault. The one who sat with me on the grass looking for, and finding, four-leaf clovers. When I was an undergrad at RISD and learning how to use a camera, she and my grandmother patiently allowed me to photograph them. My fondest memory of Vicky was at AS220. I had an exhibit in the main gallery. There she sat at a table with my mother and aunt June, dressed in navy blue raincoats with their handbags secure on their laps, a plateful of hors d’oeuvres between them. How could I go wrong with a foundation like that?
Where Shadows Meet 36”x54” by Paula Martiesian
Growing up in Pawtucket my bedroom faced Division Street, the main drag on the ambulance run to Memorial Hospital. My mother had very particular ideas about how to raise a child, especially a girl child. Pink was never part of the equation, an all-girls school and a variety of cultural activities were.
When it came to decorating my room, I had a say, but only if my ideas reflected my mother’s. Once when I was about 10 or 11, we had an ugly fight in a wallpaper store. She chose a small floral pattern in yellows and oranges, almost identical to the wallpaper already on the walls. I chose an off white linen with a design similar to a fleur-de-lis, simple, elegant, and probably to my mother’s mind, a bit too adult. I left the store thinking I had won the wallpaper battle, but when I arrived home from school a few weeks later to see the newly papered walls, they were covered with the dreaded yellow and orange flowers.
Later she purchased a Scandinavian design bedroom set that filled my room and left little space to maneuver. I promptly took the three-piece bureau apart and rearranged the room to my liking. After a few days of my mother’s anger and tears, I reluctantly put the bureau and room back to their original state.
I often tell these stories to illicit sympathy (albeit sympathy for a spoiled only child). But I’ve come to see these mother-daughter skirmishes from a different angle. They taught me valuable lessons, demonstrating that ideas about beauty are not universal and that everyone has their own personal aesthetic. More importantly, these episodes built in me a resolve to develop and defend my own ideas about beauty. With so much ugliness in the world, beauty is always worth the battle.
Coral Bark Maple in Fall (36”x54”) by Paula Martiesian
Deep shade fills my backyard. I’ve long since given away the roses and tree peonies that graced past sun-filled gardens. Instead hostas and hydrangeas keep company with a slew of trees – big trees, understory trees, trees I planted and trees that moved in on their own.
But the winter has been tough. Many large limbs came down and some older trees show the unmistakable signs of age and decay. As saddened as I am to say goodbye to old friends, it’s time for me to plant some new trees and I am very, very excited.
For me the act of painting does not start with an idea, it starts with the planting of a tree. I pour over books and email old friends and acquaintances asking for tree advice. Cedar of Lebanon, a favorite tree of my late mother, tops the list. Chinese Witch Hazel, the most optimistic of all trees blooming as it does in late February, is another. Sassafras, a fragrant and forgiving tree, is a suggestion by a RISD friend who is a horticulturalist for the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. It currently sits third on the master list.
I’ve been deliberating all winter and finally (I hope) spring is here. I have a pickaxe, a shovel and all my tree books. It’s time to start digging!
The True Nature of Gold
The golden slant of autumn light transforms the scene outside my kitchen window. I stare at it for days when it’s my turn to wash the dishes and soon it becomes a drawing, then a painting. I’m thankful for the prime view my current sink affords me. For years, dishwashing was an unpleasant chore, not the inspiration-filled meditation I now enjoy.
Our first kitchen was a converted closet with a stove, a sink and a slit masquerading as a window. The sink faced the wall, and my husband or I (we couldn’t fit in the room together) did the dishes while looking at a soap-stained square the size of a folded newspaper.
Three other kitchens followed; all of them with the disappointing sink/wall combo. It wasn’t until we renovated the kitchen in our home that I was finally able to have a large window above the sink overlooking our yard.
Now when I wash dishes, my mind wanders through the trees and follows the flight patterns of the birds. I bear witness to the ever-changing view and am thankful for the inspiration it provides.
Promise of Spring
This is one of my favorite older paintings, Promise of Spring (36”x50”), completed a few years back when winter was melting away and spring within arms’ reach.
Most of my paintings focus on the wilds of nature within the urban environment. Vines grow unchecked, trees are never pruned, weeds celebrated. Uncharacteristically this painting features something manmade – a wire plant support.
The hydrangeas are bedraggled and winter worn, the rocks surrounding a plant bed look more like a necklace than stone, but it’s the tomato cage that people notice most. Why they are in my yard is anyone’s guess as I don’t have enough sun to grow a tomato, but they still dot the landscape and even make it into a painting every once in a while.
Here’s an even older painting from the 1980s when I was still working figuratively. It features the great opera singer Leontyne Price. I love almost all kinds of music and on occasion, opera fills my studio. Ms. Price recently turned 91. She possessed an amazing talent and has lived a life worthy of her wonderful name. Diva measures 20”x30.”
There are times when you just have to take a break. Constant pushing can be counter-productive. Around the holidays, I allow myself some time off. I still go in my studio and I still paint, but there are no extended sessions – the shortened days won’t allow it. Truth be told, half the time I have a book or a crossword puzzle in hand to distract me.
Several years ago at a family gathering, my cousins and I (mostly female) watched the next generation at play (mostly male). Several of the young boys were trying to push toy trucks through a wall, an impossible, but clearly fascinating endeavor. I laughed and pointed out the futility in their undertaking, but sometimes that’s exactly what I feel I am doing in my studio – trying to push a solid object through an impenetrable wall.
I started the above painting Understory (36”x60”) this past summer after my exhibit at ArtProv. Several people suggested I should include smaller paintings in my repertoire. Predictably I stretched this much larger canvas and started painting!
The Shape of Shadow by Paula Martiesian
I didn’t paint a tree today.
Instead shadows have my attention. They appear on bedroom walls or on the ground outside, swaying apart then meshing together to form shapes entirely unique and unlike their origins.
Mutable and mercurial, shadows have no corporal mass. No amount of coaxing will quiet them to pose for me. The act of painting seems to subdue, giving shadows equal weight as rocks, trees and other less movable bodies. I search for a way to make them move again, this time with color and gesture and using the play of light that lies between.
And yes, this particular shadow was cast by a tree – a chokecherry in my backyard that the birds and I love.
The Moment by Paula Martiesian
I was six when I first trudged up the stairs of the Waterman Building to take Saturday morning classes at RISD. On and off for the next few years I continued to take classes, my mother and two aunts driving me into the city, then dropping me off to go shopping at Shepards and the Outlet. I was petrified of the glass block floor on the third level, put off by the taxidermic creatures in the Nature Lab and fascinated by the sinks with their decades old patina of paint.
Older, along with a bus load of other students, I visited the RISD Museum. My fellow students were attracted to the Buddha and Egyptian Sarcophagus, but I was enamored of Edouard Manet’s painting of Berthe Morisot. I couldn’t get over her flowing white dress anchored only by a thin black belt.
There was another painting that drew me, but not because I like it. Instead, it bothered and offended me. It was an oil painting of the ocean by Winslow Homer. The sea looked like cement and I couldn’t understand how something that symbolizes constant movement could be portrayed as an inert, unmoving object.
This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession for me, evoking motion in painting. I love color and I have an affinity for it, but it is movement that draws me, inspires me and is the real basis for my painting. I had learned an important lesson – nature can be quiet, but it is never still.
Seedpods by Paula Martiesian
I knew exactly what I wanted to paint – several large clusters of leathery seedpods dangling from a honey locust tree I saw on one of my walks through the city. I couldn’t get the image out of my head, so the next time my dog and I went out for a walk, I brought a camera along hoping to take a few good shots.
I wandered around for two weeks looking for that tree. I had such a clear concept of what it looked like, but no real idea of where it lived. I had lost my tree! Finally a few blocks from India Point Park, I found it on East Street next to a fenced in parking lot.
On May 24th, a U-Haul came to pick up Seedpods and 15 more of my paintings. I trailed behind in the car to make sure they reached their destination safely and hovered about for a while until one of the gallery owners (Michele Aucoin) kindly shooed me away. Then I’ll returned to my empty studio to wait for the show to open and roam around the city looking for a new tree to paint.
Camo Trees by Paula Martiesian
Years ago when I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 70s, I painted a trio of small portraits. I remember one in particular. It was a self-portrait about 20”x16’ in size and I worked on it happily for hours. At the end of the day, I stepped back to take a look expecting to see a skillful rendition of subtle facial tones. Amazingly there was nothing, or at least nothing of what I thought was there.
Instead a bland painting of no one in particular stared back at me. All those beautiful quiet shifts of color I had imagined were virtually invisible. It was a lesson I learned well – what’s in your mind’s eye isn’t always what’s on the canvas.
A painter approaches a painting with an idea of what might be. If the vision is strong and the artist dedicated, there’s a chance that idea will become reality. It’s taken me years to achieve those subtle color variations I have always seen so clearly in my head. Hundreds of paintings later, the successes finally outweigh the failures.
Watch for my upcoming exhibit at ArtProv Gallery in Providence, “Heart of a Tree” with Karen Rand Anderson and Mary Jane Andreozzi. The opening reception is Friday June 2 starting at 5 pm.