I’ve never known that much about abstract painting, and I’m generally drawn to more figurative work, but I’ve been looking forward to getting enough space from show season and crazy family stuff to get over to Dixon to see this exhibition. It’s a stunning one. I’ve been twice this week and could even be tempted to go back another time before it closes on Sunday. Rothko is my absolute favorite of the abstract painters, but I had fallen deeply for a Helen Frankenthaler painting in Omaha a few months ago, and there’s a less totally stunning but still lovely one in this show. There’s also a gorgeous de Kooning, and I loved the second show of just Dzubas paintings (an artist I wasn’t previously familiar with) collected by a local businessman. It was a stunning retrospective of four decades of his work, and a number of them sang to me. I loved seeing the progression too. My only quibble with the main abstract show was that it was only one painting per artist. I really like being able to see two or three of the same artist, compare them together, get more of a feel for the body of work. Their survey of women artists earlier this year (with many less famous names — I was already somewhat familiar with a number of the abstract painters) was even more disorienting that way. I wanted to see more than just one. It’s almost jarring to move artists with every painting and have no compare and contrast ability. But that’s a small complaint about a stellar show overall.
I went back the second time with every colored pencil I own to try to capture a little of the texture of the Rothko, and the Stamos had also been calling my name. I did one small sketch of each. The de Kooning was too intricate for me to take on that day, and I didn’t have any of the right colors for the Dzubas pieces I liked best. With watercolors I can mix anything, but pencils just are what you have. The last two pieces are both by Dzubas.
I just hung all these for this weekend’s Open Studio, but it occurs to me that some of you might be too far away (or too busy) to make it to midtown Memphis just now. Here is the batch of small edible still lifes that are available this holiday season. The two oils have deep gallery sides and are ready to hang, and all the watercolors and gouaches are framed and ready to go. The oils are 8” square, and the others are in the 10-12” range. $225 each. It’s fun to see them hanging up all in a group in my hallway, but I’d be happy for anyone who wants to give the present of an eternal eclair or perfect avocado to take one home.
It’s been show season, and this weekend is the final one for me for the holidays, and always my favorite. If you’re around Memphis, please come out on Saturday or Sunday (the 14th & 15th) from 12-5 both days at 1780 Autumn in Midtown. As always, I’ll be joined by Melissa Bridgman and her gorgeous pottery. I recently hung up all my finished oils from the last year or so to look at and invite folks in to see. It’s fun to see them all together, dressed up and ready so to speak. I’m hoping to find an out of the house showing for them at some point, but Open Studio visitors will get a sneak peek.
I also have several recent prints and one set of brand new ones for this show. After my Daily Pleasures still life show this fall, I took the cherries image on the “choose joy” plate (one of Melissa’s!) and made a print. The show had been all paintings, but I really liked the image and wanted to play with it graphically as well. It’s a single plate, but I’ve been hand rolling different color combinations on it. Each one is a little bit different, and it’s been fun to play with them. Come see us if you’re able, and if you’re not, I’ve also been shipping prints off in a good quantity, and there’s plenty of time to get them before Christmas if you’d like to give some original artwork. My online store is at https://squareup.com/market/martha-kelly-art. I’m selling what’s left of the still life gouaches and oils too. I haven’t added them all individually, but if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to put up any that are in demand as needed. See the bottom photo for a sample of them. Give an eternal eclair or macarons with no calories!
My partner was digging around on YouTube and found this video of me talking about My Own Places, the landscape exhibition I had at Dixon Gallery and Gardens in 2015. They invited me as a current landscape artist to do a solo show as a complement to their Southern Impressionism exhibit. It was the highlight of my career so far, and it was fun to revisit talking about the way I paint and carve prints and how those two media differ from each other. And how keeping a sketchbook has radically broadened the work that I do.
Only so many photos will load easily at once, so I saved some of my favorites from the Joslyn for a second post. I’ve looked at Gustave Dore’s engravings for years, but I had only seen one or two oil paintings by him. This landscape blew me away. I took a couple of closer up shots as well as the overall. I’m a sucker for a twilight/stars scene, and the teal stripe of water beguiled me, as did the texture in the sky. If I could have taken one piece home to live with daily, this would have been it, even though there were likely some objectively “finer” pieces there. I adore it.
I also fell for this urban landscape by John Sloan, one of the founders of the Ashcan school. I’m late learning about them, but every piece I see, I like it more. They painted urban landscapes in the early 20th century, and I’m definitely a city girl. I kept coming back to look at this one as well.
Finally this El Greco blew me away. He was a painter so ahead of his time. Like Van Gogh and Walter Anderson and Georgia O’Keefe, he saw the world around him in a distinctive, visionary style, and his paintings could be no one else’s. There are only a handful of painters who have completely created a new visual vocabulary. Most great painters, even the masters, build strongly on those coming before. A handful manage to not start from scratch but get somewhere so unique that it feels as if they did. El Greco is one of those. You would think his paintings are 20th century, and he was 400 years ahead of that. This one is about 1582. It’s more muted than some of his, since the subject is the understated and ascetic St. Francis, but it contains that blaze of sky in the background, and the brushwork is loose and assured and only what he needs with not a jot more added. One of the true greats.
I visited family over the weekend and also did something of a Midwest art museum tour. Back in college I had taken one summer sculpture class in Omaha and visited the Joslyn, but my memory of it was hazy at best. It was a total delight. A gorgeous variegated pink stone building housing a beautifully curated collection. We had just that morning seen a piece on Helen Frankenthaler on one of the Sunday morning shows. My art knowledge of mid 20th century and beyond, especially in abstract work, is pretty sketchy. I had seen her being mentioned various places and seen a piece or two, but beyond that knew nothing. This monumental piece gobsmacked me in person. It’s the only one I managed to do a sketch of, but I was so glad to have that time to sit with it. Later one of my honorary nieces, which is how I think of several different daughters of people dear to me, wanted to do a collage project. I had told her that I’m always drawn to collage, but I don’t feel I do it well. So we sat down together with my journal page from the museum and each constructed at least an homage to the Frankenthaler piece we had seen together. It was great fun to do, if nothing else.
Here are a couple of other pieces I loved at the Joslyn. I’ve always been a total sucker for Dutch still life paintings, and they had a lovely breakfast piece — well on the fancy end of that category. Pieter Claesz’s super simple ones are my very favorites, but I really enjoyed this one from 1630 by Jacob Fopsen van Es. I was also struck by a Madonna with Botticelli/Fra Lippo Lippi resonances by Lorenzo di Credi, c. 1490. The detail is exquisite. I’m going to flood this blog post with too many photos, so I’ll put up another couple of favorites in a post to follow. Too good not to share.
Once a year, a painting just flows as I work on it and is better in front of me than the vision I had been hoping for. It’s magic, and it’s what hooked me on being an artist. That happened for me the first time when I was 14 painting in a Memphis College of Art summer kid session. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often. Even after decades of making art, usually what comes out never matches the vision in my head when I started. Which doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my work, but it does mean I always see the bits I wish were different.
I was struggling to paint all summer, and it was deeply good to come home from Paris with new ideas and inspiration. This is an image from there, even though I took the photo several years ago and have been thinking about it and waiting for it to make sense in my mind before I started to paint. I’m enjoying being back to oils now that I’m home with my easel (this is 3x4’, so not a travel kind of piece), and even though I’ll keep struggling with paintings in this water series, it was a lovely gift to get started again and have it be so much fun.
It's been a week, now. I did an artist market on Sunday, hung my main show of the year on Wednesday, and had the opening last night. It's lovely to see it all dressed up and on the wall. I've been showing bits of this edible still life exhibition along the way. It was my fun summer project, just grabbing something at a market or bakery and painting it without thinking too hard. I've always loved still life, and I've always loved the small things that together build daily happiness, so this show was a lot of fun to do. It's also the 20th anniversary of my first ever professional show, at Cecelia Lin Gallery, which is the last time I've done an exclusively still life show. It felt right to do one again and think about how lucky I am to do what I love every day. I'm so grateful for the whole tribe of folks who show up, spread the word, and sometimes even buy art. It was lovely to celebrate with friends last night.
I got home this week, having recently done those two small gouache still lifes, and I was ready to dive back into oils. Here was the first one, just 8x8”. But it suits the tiny cherries. I don’t tend to blow things up too much. I’ve found there’s a scale I feel comfortable painting in, both for landscapes and still lifes, and it’s not successful when I try to exceed it by too much. Process shots below. I started with a gray chalk for the drawing.
I recently got professional photographs made of some completed paintings in the water series. They are so much better than the snapshots I take in my studio, which invariably have a good bit of glare. So here are a few of them to enjoy today, since I'm in family time mode with my sister here and also getting ready to travel again. There will be travel sketches soon from Washington.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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