Thursday, July 4, 2013

An Artist Paints With Flowers

Gardeners run the full gamut of aesthetic inclinations, no subset more so than artists.  Monet gardened to paint, Jim Sullivan gardens in stone, Robert Dash gardens with painted doors and gates, Sarah Draney deploys rustic salvage and found objects. Only Linda Stillman grows flowers for their pigments alone. 

Linda Stillman With Flowers
I first saw her work at The Gallery at R&F in Kingston, housed within the factory producing R&F Handmade Paints.  I’ve seen endless photographs of flowers, and paintings of flowers, but I had never seen actual flower pigments used in the making of art.  Her interest in the direct use of pigments evolved from an early land installation, August Garden, a planting of annuals laid out in the form of a calendar for the month of August.  The garden was photographed daily from above and the passage of time documented by observations and drawings. The exhibition then moved on to a series of works on paper using colors derived directly from the flowers onto the paper.

Choosing Pigments 
Linda was not always focused on the ephemeral.  “1998 was the official start of my switching careers from commercial to fine art,” Linda says.“  I had been trained as a commercial artist and worked as a graphic designer and an art director.  At 50 I shifted gears, and earned an MFA in the Visual Arts from the Vermont College of College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.” 

From the beginning her work was centered on space, time and memory.  As she became more deeply involved in her art she worried about how she would find time to garden.  “That’s when I decided to plant for the August Garden land installation.  I converted my old vegetable garden into a planting of annuals in the form of a calendar for the month of August.”  She photographed the garden at various stages of growth, and then transformed her observation into art, abstracting the essence by creating the rubbings from the very plant materials she had been growing.

From there she moved away from the representational calendar and on to greater abstraction, using the petals from flowers and rubbing their pigment directly into paper.  Only freshly cut flowers would do; dried flowers would not produce the effect she is after.  The main concern in her art is how to remember.  “I select the flowers and rub the colors directly onto the paper as a way of remembering. Traces of plant matter often remain.”

A Typical Harvest Ready for Work  
I visited Linda in her beautiful garden and studio in a rural town in  Columbia County, NY.  She works out of a serene studio in one of pair of handsome barns.  There is a strong sense of calm; it’s hard to imagine interruptions. 

The flower drawings are only a small part of her concentration on ephemera, on the intersection of time, memory and nature.  She executes small sky paintings as seen from her the studio, from the same window in exactly the same spot, every day of the year.  “The idea, she says, “was to capture something ordinary and make art out of it.”  In 2008-9 she exhibited skylines by month at the Arts Club of Chicago

Studio View for Sky Paintings 
During a recent residency at Wave Hill, Linda made drawings using flower and plant specimen, and continued her Sky series by executing a small painting every day, but from a new location.  Her aesthetic is simple and austere; daily paintings are important if you are to capture time and memory.

Her garden is anything but austere, but it is composed with a painterly eye.  The vegetable garden is robust and immaculately organized.  The rows are meticulously maintained.  The flowers are clear and vivid, as is her body of work using plants.

Vegetable Garden
Everything grown can be utilized in a work of art, but there are problems still to be solved.  What is the life span of a pigment derived directly from plant materials?  Are fixatives necessary?  Will they change the character of the finished work?  Or is the whole point that the work is as ephemeral as the flowers themselves, and perhaps that is just as it should be.

A Flower-Stain Technique Demonstration 

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