Patterned Cloth and Pedestal oil on canvas 38"x 24" 2007
The art critic Robert Hughes has written that the still life is usually the “most materialistic of the arts", but the contemplative mood in the paintings of Gabriella Soraci makes them quite a wonderful exception. Her still lifes are far removed from the "itch of desire" that we can see in, for example, the table-laden delicacies found in 17th century Dutch painting. In viewing her work, I feel that I have just entered into the meditative calm of a Zen garden.
You can find out more about Gabriella Soraci at her website.
TD: Gabriella, there is such serenity in your work, causing me to wonder if you usually feel equally quiet and calm on the inside, or if this mood is something you strive towards?
GS: First let me thank you for your interest in my work. It is a pleasure to answer the insightful questions of a fellow painter.
I think the mood you are referring to is created in a couple of ways; through composition, through color relationships, and through a certain restraint on my part to try and simplify what I am seeing down to the essentials. I have to be very focused to bring these things together, so perhaps that is a form of calmness. But if the composition isn’t working, or if I’m having trouble with my color relationships or spatial relationships, I can experience quite a bit of anxiety. If I rush during these times things get worse, so slowing down and being patient, even if it means leaving the room for a little while, is important.
Camellia in Tall Glass Vase oil on canvas 20"x 16" 2010
TD: Let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
GS: Eugene, Oregon, which is where I live today. I have also lived in Western Massachusetts and California, but I can’t seem to escape my hometown for very long.
TD: How did you first become interested in painting?
GS: As a child and young adult I loved to draw and would pour over art books of all kinds. I attended a Waldorf school where a variety of arts and crafts are integrated into the learning process, but I did not begin my formal training in fine arts until college. Growing up in Oregon there were not many opportunities to view paintings in person. In my late teens and early 20’s I began traveling to places like New York City and Western Europe and my desire to learn how to paint intensified through exposure to viewing paintings firsthand. It took a while to warm up to using oil paint. I stayed for a fifth year BFA program, which is when I really began to explore paint by working primarily abstractly.
Untitled oil on panel 2002
TD: You received a BFA from the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, and as part of the program you spent a summer in Siena, Italy. Your balanced compositions and love of geometric form reminds me of the Italian frescoes of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. Were you influenced by the art you saw over there?
GS: Yes. But I didn’t know what to do with that influence. For a while I mimicked the style of that work and tried to give my paintings an “old” look, mostly by overdoing the glazing and using too much burnt umber. In my BFA year I made a series of abstract works on arch-shaped panels, and even built arched triptychs with doors that opened and closed like an altar. I paint differently now, but if anything I appreciate the late medieval and early renaissance period artists more and more the longer I paint.
Still Life and the Unicorn oil on canvas 10"x 16" 2010
GS: I can’t say that the Italian landscape had an influence, but I do think that the different environments I have painted in during residency programs around the country have impacted my work, as well as the environment here in Oregon. I actually want to incorporate landscape more into my painting practice. I’m not sure if this means painting outdoors, or finding more ways to integrate landscape conceptually. Looking through a window is one way that I seem to naturally be drawn to the landscape.
TD: You paint beautifully, but your work is obviously about far more than technique. You graduated with an MFA from the University of California at Davis in 2007, and I wonder if you thought the emphasis there was more on conceptual skills than technique, or the other way around.
GS: I was the only painter in an interdisciplinary graduate program of about 16 students. The emphasis was definitely on conceptual development (Bruce Nauman is a celebrated alumnus). Being the only painter forced me to think about the nature of painting and why I wanted to work in that particular medium. My work completely changed as a result. In my second year I decided to teach myself to paint all over again from the beginning, starting with drawing from life and then mixing limited palettes from a set of primaries. It was a humbling experience, but in the end it was so important for my personal growth as an artist.
TD: Can you name some of your favorite and/or most influential teachers?
GS: At the U of O Ron Graff, Carla Bengtson, and Laura Vandenburg all helped me immensely in my early development. At UC Davis, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to David Hollowell, who tells it like it is, and pretty much told me that I had no idea what I was doing (at that point he was right) and then was so supportive as I started anew, welcoming my participation in his undergraduate figure drawing classes. Gina Werfel and Hearne Pardee where also influential and have been extremely supportive of my teaching career since graduating.
While at UCD I had the good fortune to work with Wayne Thiebaud as his teaching assistant, and also attended his art appreciation lecture course. I absorbed so much about the tradition of painting in the short amount of time I was in his presence and it changed me completely. If I start to describe his wisdom as I teacher I will gush for pages, so I will simply say that he is a rare genius, and treats his students with the utmost respect.
Blue China Cup on Table oil on canvas 26" x 24" 2010
It seems to me that you have realized your own “natural bent” while quite young. Do you agree? How do you think you have been able to do this?
GS: For my work to remind you of Bailey's work is a very big compliment since I greatly admire his work. And I can certainly relate to that quote. In order to find my true temperament as a painter, I had to strip away a lot of the identity I had built around myself as an artist. The paintings I began to desire to make seemed to call for working from perception, but in order to see clearly what was right in front of me I had to teach myself to paint again from the beginning. In terms of what to paint, I decided I could use anything as a subject as long as I was curious about it and it made me think. During the time that I am describing I tried not to look at other artists work for influence. I was already saturated with images and needed to let go of preconceived ideas. Today I feel free to let my work evolve in whatever direction it needs to in the future – it may look very different a decade from now.
Folded Map II oil on canvas 18"x 14" 2008
TD: The subject of still life gives an artist plenty of control over the design of a painting. Do you think this is one of the reasons you have focused on still life instead of landscape or figurative work?
GS: I do like control, and I do pay a lot of attention to composition, so you could be right. When I try to describe why I paint what I paint, I usually end up describing painting itself, as it applies to all genres. Of course the subject of a painting does matter, but I think more important is how the painting is made. I never really intended to become a “still life painter.” What matters to me right now is painting from perception. I think landscape will emerge more as a motif in the coming years, but probably not in a straightforward way. So far, other than self-portraits, I have not been attracted to the figure as a source, but you never know!
Pear Blossoms oil on canvas 10"x14" 2010
TD: Can you explain your love of elemental geometric forms, or would it be too difficult and maybe unnecessary to put this into words?
GS: Only an artist could ask that question! It has something to do with balance, and with natural order, and with mystery. I am not religious, and I don’t think of my paintings as being overtly spiritual, but I do think that when I use a form like a circle, triangle, or square I feel the power of that form on a higher level. A circle speaks of connection, continuation, and eternity. A triangle has a reaching quality. Squares are about pressure and stability. I feel different looking at, for example, a piece of lace wrapped into a circular structure than I do looking at it lying loose without that form.
Lace in a Circle oil on canvas 18"x18" 2008
TD: Part of the appeal of your paintings is your unusual subject matter, which can make subtle references to the outside, larger world. You often paint maps, sometimes folded, sometimes pinned on a wall, or a black piece of paper pierced with pin-holes and taped to a window, representing stars in the night sky. Do you find that almost all your chosen subjects have a personal meaning for you? For example, if you paint a map, is it a specific map of an area you have traveled to, or that you want to travel to?
GS: Most of the time it isn’t the personal connection to the object that is important, rather it is the potential I see in the object to hold several layers of meaning at once, either alone or juxtaposed with a particular kind of space. Often the objects and materials selected were left behind by others, stumbled upon by accident, or encountered in a different context first. For the map paintings I used a cheap AAA driving map of Oregon that arrived in the mail. The polka dot scarf I painted during my residency in Vermont was the only item left behind in the top dresser drawer in the room I was given upon arrival. The cup in “Blue China Cup on Table” was just one out of an assortment of mix-matched mugs I was drinking coffee out of during my residency at the Millay Colony. I try not to anticipate the subject of the next painting, and instead stay open-minded to suggestion on many levels.
Black Paper in Window I oil on canvas 24"x 20" 2008
TD: Please explain a little about your painting process. Do you always first work out the composition in a drawing? Do you work on a toned ground? What kinds of brushes do you use? Do you begin thinly, and then begin to build up the paint?
GS: Often I will make a full-sized charcoal drawing on paper before I begin to paint, to clarify my approach. At the very least I usually make a lot of thumbnail sketches before starting a painting.
Jar of Water on Corner of Table charcoal on cream paper 16"x 10" 2010
I always paint on a toned ground, sometimes a cool blue or pink, but usually a light yellow. I like natural bristle brushes and try to use the largest brush I can since it helps me think about shapes and edges in a more simplified way.
When I start the painting I work from life. I’ll sketch loosely for a while with paint to compose on the canvas, and then I mix, mix, mix! I can’t seem to do anything worthwhile unless I have spent the time to carefully observe my colors and mix until the relationship of the colors on the palette start to approach the nature of what I am experiencing. This means that I’m not always true to local color. What is more important to me is the relationship of the colors and the mood and feeling that is produced by that interaction. This can take a long time. Once painting is underway I have no problem scraping everything off as many times as is necessary. It can be frustrating, but it usually creates a much more interesting painting with a more varied surface than what I would have made in the first phase. I like to paint “wet on wet” and don’t use any painting medium, just some linseed oil from time to time if the paint is too stiff for the brush.
Gold Foil on Window oil on canvas 18" x 14" 2008
TD: You have said that your “sources of inspiration include art history, literature, place, season, and found objects”. Can you elaborate by telling us about your favorite artists?
GS: The list is long but here are a select few: Vermeer, for his light and the way one shape touches another without ever feeling like an edge. Paula Modersohn-Becker, for her daring color and her fusing of nature and structure. Gwen John, for the muted softness of her palette and the quiet spaces she creates. Pierre Bonnard, for his energetic thumbnail sketches, embrace of the domestic, and powerful use of warm/cool contrasts. Giorgio Morandi, for his humility and ability to remain curious about his objects through an entire lifetime. Wayne Thiebaud, for his commitment to the tradition of painting while still breaking new ground. And Vija Celmins, for finding a way to fulfill conceptual and perceptual needs simultaneously, and not giving up painting in the process.
Three Books oil on canvas 28"x 18" 2008
TD: You often include books in your still lives, with titles easily seen. What are some of your favorite books?
GS: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle remains a favorite since childhood. All of the British writer A. S. Byatt’s work is at the top of my list for fiction. Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit” has been invaluable in the studio. I also love reading about artists. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s “Letters and Journals” and the two-part biography on Matisse by Hilary Spurling are some examples. For the most part I use books in my paintings in the same way I use other objects I come across. My painting “Birdsong” existed in my minds eye for months before I painted it because the gold title on my bookshelf kept catching the light at certain times of day in such an exquisite way.
Birdsong oil on canvas 10"x14" 2010
GS: I am married to an architect and have come to appreciate the built environment in a more profound way over the years, especially designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sustainable. I am also interested in the current renaissance of handmade crafts with the help of websites like Etsy. It’s a totally different world from the more elite “art scene,” or from the academic arena, and one I find playful, genuine, and refreshing.
TD: What do you enjoy besides painting?
GS: Reading, which we have already touched on, and more recently, running! I started running a few months before I became pregnant with my daughter and ran my first 10K trail race while 6 weeks along. I started up again last May with Francesca in a jogging stroller and ran my first half-marathon at the end of August. I’m already signed up to run my next half-marathon in April. I enjoy my teaching and feel grateful for the opportunity to share in the process of learning. It’s a great feeling as a teacher to see a student suddenly grow passionate about art and share in his or her excitement. I also love to travel, and make pilgrimages to view art in person as often as I can. I’m hoping to visit the new Barnes Collection this winter.
Daffodils in a Circle oil on canvas 25"x30" 2008
TD: Can you describe what it’s like to be both a dedicated artist and a mother of a young child?
GS: I won’t lie – the first year turned my life upside down! I continued teaching through pregnancy and after my daughter was born, but did not manage to have much studio time until recently. Francesca is almost 15 months now and I’m starting to get the hang of things. When I feel frustrated or tired I try to remind myself that I am committed to a lifelong art practice, and that helps. It also helps that my husband is very involved in raising Francesca and we have lots of help from my family who also live in Eugene. But this is new terrain and I don’t know how it will all work out yet. I’m used to being able to shut the studio door for 8 - 10 hours at a time – that won’t be happening any time soon so my challenge will be learning to work in smaller chunks without loosing my focus. Hopefully I will have more insight to share in a few years time.
TD: Thank you Gabriella Soraci!
You can find out more about Gabriella Soraci at her website and her Etsy Shop.
You can find out more about Gabriella Soraci at her website and her Etsy Shop.