|Cleaning Ballet, Farhat Art Museum collection|
"A lively expression of color…”, says Emily thoughtfully.
“Whoa! Totally sick!” brays Rosie the Barrista.
They are both complementing the paintings of Vanessa Stafford, an artist who specializes in the subtlety of night scenes, of light and water, and city scenes… a visualist painter, a narrative artist, whose current canvasses have the tones and flavors of Klee, Gaugin, Chagall, and James Doolin. Her earlier work is surrealistic whimsy that floats closer to Peter Max or Aubrey Beardsley than Heironymous Bosch. Current paintings are more structured and harmonic, but still tinged with a dream-state and a curiously muted intensity. A musical rhythm is evident in her orchestration of movement that unifies disparate elements. That is an extension of her training as a cellist, as well as the influence of her parents, both jazz musicians.There is also a sense of boldness of imagination and a willingness to pursue it.
For nearly thirty years Ms. Stafford has been a significant artist in the seaside community of Santa Cruz, California. She began at the age of fourteen decorating eggs in traditional Baltic style and colors, selling them for eight dollars each. Today, her canvasses hang on the walls of collectors and, tellingly, on the walls of other artists. She has exhibited at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor as well as at galleries across the United States and internationally.
|Birthday, Farhat Art Museum collection|
“I respect her work quite a bit” declares Russel Brutsche, a Santa Cruz artist who exhibits extensively in the West. As a mutual member of Artwork Network, an informal artist support group, Mr. Brutsche has watched Ms. Stafford’s style and technique progress for ten years. He notes her interest in capturing movement and the quality of light in night scenes as an indicator of her personality and style. ”She uses a lot of glazing in her acrylic…in fact, to the max…to get a sense of depth. But it is not just her unique and distinctive style that strikes me. It is the fact that she chooses challenging projects. She really takes chances. Vanessa is not a safe painter.”
Another artist, Kevork Mourad, says, “Vanessa Stafford is highly gifted. She has an insightful use of light. I love her colors… Her colors are vibrant.”
“Doing realistic scenes and going after the essence of nature, including the chaos, is crucial in art because that is where original ideas come from.” says Stafford. “A combination of order and chaos is important. Too much orderliness is sterile. Too much chaos is self-destructive. I grew up in a very chaotic background. I wanted order. But looking back I see the value in the chaos. I am pleased when images manifest themselves on paper or canvas. I do art for my own satisfaction but I do like to show and I do care what other people think of my art. I want the people who buy my works to see them as joyful, magical. They should be warm, graceful, to be loved.”
|Chaos and Order, Farhat Art Museum collection|
Stafford paints scenes of inner journeys and external realities with command of her mediums, which include watercolor, pen and ink, oil, acrylic, and inlaid glass mosaic. “I especially like the intensity, biting vibrancy, and versatility of acrylic,” she explains. “Oil I use when I want a softer effect. Something I am getting interested in is hiking and discovering the patterns in nature, for example, the abstract quality of streams. You can see the pattern of strips of sunlight going through to the bottom, and then you can see the shadows. I am very intrigued and challenged by the transparent quality of water and of the patterning in different layers as it appears, disappears, and reappears very quickly. I focus on the different levels of light and shadow: at the surface, in the middle of the water, and the bottom, integrating them with their patterning on plants, boulders, muddy ripples, coarse pebbles, sodden leaves, fine sand, moss, and organic debris. It’s tricky stuff but that’s what’s challenging to me. It’s totally thrilling and challenging, because it’s like, IMPOSSIBLE! Most people think it’s impossible, but I think, ‘Yes, I can!’, and I will!” Ms. Stafford’s ability to become absorbed in reflection over the puzzles of patterns during her walks has a hazard: “I sometimes walk into trees!“, she says.
From her home on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz Harbor, the sound of breaking surf and barking elephant seals rolls faintly through the screen door. The air in her living room is scented with sea salt and linseed oil. One wall is a shrine to her mother. The other walls are covered with her framed paintings. More are stacked in a corner. In another corner is her painter desk speckled and daubed, an elegant black cat sleeping in a banded rectangle of sunlight leaking through the Venetian blinds. A bookcase spills books onto the carpet, especially her favorite author, Katherine Anne Porter. CDs, classical and jazz, are stacked near the boom box pointed at her work area. Debussy is playing as she paints. “I get visual images while listening to music. I don’t like to draw silence or be in silence as I create.”
Ms. Stafford’s journey to her current level of technical expertise was a long and thoughtful one: “When I first started painting I used watercolors, and I would lay down the idea with ink lines. I used a German technical instrument called the Rapidograph. My other school chums had them as well, and we loved using them. We used the tiniest line imaginable, called a four ot line (in terms of line width). I would draw these very fragile outlines and then paint in the colors with watercolor. My beginning watercolors were very pale, as I applied the color hesitantly. I was a teenager (14 years old) and was shy. Those paintings looked shy. About twenty years later I had exhausted the possibilities of watercolor. I wanted to use colors that were stronger, or different, or be able to get a different ‘look’ to my paintings. I started using acrylics. Acrylics are sort of like watercolors, since they are water-based, but they have a polymer binder in the pigments which allows you to paint in an ‘opaque’ way. I started with acrylics by squeezing the color out of the tube, onto a palette, and thinning them down quite a bit. I painted the so called ‘undercoat’, the very basic background colors. Then with the next applications of color I would squeeze the color out of the tube and not thin it down as much, so that the brush strokes began to be opaque. I would use the opaque strokes selectively, like the side of a building for example. That's a good place to lay down opaque brush strokes. I would use a flat brush of different sizes, anywhere from a 4 "000" (small tip) to a 1 "0" (wider tip). I experimented using opaque brush strokes and fusing water into a part of that brush stroke to make it suddenly thin. That would create a variety of opaque levels, as well as create a change in texture. An example might be a boat harbor scene where the surface of the water changes and has opaque parts and translucent parts.
I also wanted to become proficient at oil paintings since they are so traditional. I was determined to ‘conquer’ oils. Oil paint is basically opaque: you can achieve a translucent layer with enough linseed oil, but it looks funky because it produces a very uneven surface texture if you thin it too much. I painted "nature" subject matter, like dead tree branches halfway submerged in a pool of water. I painted outdoor scenes, like that salt pool place in Moss Landing. I did get a lot of practice in. I was out there in the fields with other artists, and it was a blast. Very exciting and adventurous. But my back paid a price for hauling around all these heavy easels, canvases, boxes with oil tubes, and brushes.
It was a lot of physical work but I painted a lot and when you keep painting you develop this automatic response, kind of like driving a car. You're not thinking about every little maneuver when you're driving, it becomes automatic. You know when to down-shift and do it evenly, without thinking about it. That's the way it is with painting when you do enough of it. Part of the painting process becomes automatic, and you can experiment while in that automatic mode. It’s like combining opposite modes(automatic with experimental) to achieve something new.
|Still Life, Farhat Art Museum Collection|
There's an intuitive aspect to experimenting. You have to try things without analyzing it too much, otherwise there's a premeditated look, a kind of predictable flatness that happens. If you let these weird brush stroke combinations of thick and thin, opaque and translucent happen, it has this fresh spontaneity. I think it takes years to paint in a stream of consciousness kind of way. You have to be very familiar with the media you're using. Usually in the beginning, when a painter is not familiar with the media, the paintings look stilted. It's interesting how brush strokes and applications of color can portray confidence , or lack of it!”
Another aspect of Stafford’s career is her teaching. She has a teaching credential in Art from San Jose State University. “I’ve taught art classes in public schools”, she says. “I like the enthusiasm of elementary school students. They usually like my classes because I have really fun art projects. I design art lessons for the different age groups. There are lessons I have that involve introducing watercolors as a medium, as well as other mediums. For example: pastels, colored pencils. I give short, entertaining lectures (for short attentions spans) and teach the basics. At older ages I'll introduce one point, two point perspective lessons. I'll show the railroad tracks disappearing into the horizon, explaining the vanishing point as the rail road tracks come to a point off in the distance. Nine year olds are old enough to grasp some of these concepts, as long as you use concrete examples. Perspective can get very confusing and tedious but it's important. Otherwise they might be in a state of ignorance for the rest of their lives. The fun part is opening their world. For a lot of them, this is the first time that they have experienced Art. I like teaching. I like opening the door of possibilities for other people."