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.
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.