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.
The Last Dance
by Paula Martiesian
My technique, if I have one, is to put paint on and then take it off. Brush, rag, knife – it doesn’t matter. Whatever paint I put on, however I put it on, I almost always take it off. It’s as if I am unwilling to commit until I’ve tried every option, a time consuming and ultimately frustrating endeavor I call painting.
Each color I do put down presents a whole new series of choices. Each path I take has a seemingly infinite number of side paths I’m eager to explore. Every choice I do make influences old decisions, so I often have to go backwards and repaint something I thought I had finally nailed down.
Not too long ago I found myself sitting in a Boston gallery next to a dear painter friend. I listened as she lamented her growing inability to tell the difference between one of her successful paintings and one that was a complete failure. I had nothing to offer her as I felt the same way.
The Color of Copper by Paula Martiesian
Lately I have been drawing inspiration from a 17th century Japanese painter named Tawaraya Sotatsu (early 1600s). He created large-scale screen paintings and collaborated with calligrapher Hon’am Koetsu on small poem cards. Sotatsu worked in Kyoto at about the same time Rembrandt was painting in Amsterdam.
Each day in my studio I open a book on Sotatsu and stare at a different page, hoping to somehow absorb by osmosis his open-ended sense of space. I am convinced if I look long enough, Sotatsu’s talents and insights will jump from the page into my mind.
His bold compositions enthuse, but it is his range that astounds. I am half convinced he had multiple personalities. How else could he have achieved such extreme finesse one moment and a crude, childlike quality the next? I don’t know if he lived and worked by the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi, the philosophy of accepting transience and imperfections, but it seems to me he must have. Across the divide of culture and time this man, who painted 400 years ago, speaks to me more intensely then most of my contemporaries.
View The Color of Copper in person at the URI Providence Campus Gallery March 1 through March 31, 2017. It will be part of the exhibit 30 Years of Women’s History.
Summer Shadows by Paula Martiesian
I know you’re not supposed to have favorites. I care for all of my paintings almost as if they were children, but I do, have a favorite, that is.
I wander through my house looking out into the yard several times a day and the views never disappoint. I don’t live on a cliff overlooking the ocean or in an aerie high in the mountains. I live in the city where asphalt reigns, but my garden doesn’t know that. It is a wild oasis, and often something catches my eye and just like that, I see a painting, wholly conceptualized in an instant.
That’s the way it was with Summer Shadows. A trick of light, a dense summer green and my favorite sideways branch combined in just the right way. The painting took a lot longer to actually paint (four to five months is average for me), but in the end, it felt just like what I experienced that summer’s day.
This painting has another, odd kind of front story. Three times I’ve loaded it in the car for an exhibit, but only once has it made it onto the wall. Twice, curators have told me it didn’t work well with other artworks in each respective exhibit – the strong colors overpowering the room. My rebel painting, my favorite.
Spinner Dolphins by Paula Martiesian
Once upon a time in the 1980s, I made a series of paintings about fearless, confident women in unusual situations. I called the series Urban Eve. These were surreal paintings, combining real life places with imagined women, quite different from what I do today.
The women were portrayed as Eve was in the Bible – naked, without sin and with nothing to fear. There was the woman reading a magazine in a claw foot tub out in the garden. Another lounged on a lawn chair while watching Oil Can Boyd pitch for the Red Sox on TV. In one particular painting, a woman leaned over a ship’s rail reaching out to a pod of dolphins.
I sold some of the paintings and kept the rest down in the painting racks.
A few months ago, a woman I didn’t know contacted me unexpectedly about the dolphin painting. She had seen it years earlier and remembered it fondly. Although events in her life prevented her from purchasing the canvas, it touched me deeply that a stranger had kept the memory of one of my paintings alive for so many years.
Waiting for the Moment by Paula Martiesian
Outside my bedroom window is a Japanese maple I bought from a mail order catalogue several years ago. When it arrived, it was just a stick and a promise, not more than a foot tall. Today it is a glorious burnished orange six feet high and at least ten feet wide.
Every fall I wait for the moment. The transformation from lovely fern green leaves to shimmering fan-shapes of yellow and orange always takes my breath away. The show lasts only a short week or two, but it’s worth every minute of anticipation. Soon it will be winter and the trees will draw their charcoal branches against the cold grey sky, but in my studio it will be warm. I’ll be painting a memory of fall – spectacular, bright and beautiful.
The Trinity River by Paula Martiesian
It’s clear I have a thing for trees. They populate most of my paintings in abstracted and figurative forms. They call to me, their stories silent but obvious to anyone who bothers to look.
On trip to the west coast last year, my husband and I visited the redwood forests with friends. We hiked alongside a fallen sequoia twice the length of a football field. We climbed inside a redwood charred and cut down by lightening. Even though the tree no longer lived, it was brimming with life, host to all manner of plants and creatures. The forests astounded me with layer upon layer of life and death, the ancient growth a marker of time oblivious to mankind.
Yet I returned home with not one sketch of a tree. They were too magnificent for me, too large a presence to capture on such a small thing as a canvas.
Instead I hunkered down near a lovely jade-colored river named Trinity. It was there I found inspiration in the movement of the waves and the undulation of the plants growing in the water. I’m not sure anyone would recognize the painting as a river, but to me it embodies the constant motion of the current and the subtle shifts of color as sunlight glimmered across the water.