If flowers could throw punches or blow kisses, Theresa Oats would be right there to witness it with one of her signature rose paintings. Need a flower with a sweet disposition? Oats has you covered. Want one that comes with a sharp tongue? She's painted that too. You can see her roses — passionate, pugnacious and plentiful — at her Images from Life show at Sewell Gallery Fine Art during Arts! Alive and through May 26.
"Roses are like little individuals," Oats says while we sip fragrant green tea at her Loleta studio. As we talk, her language is filled with light and color. Outside, the wind howls, moving the walls in breath-like pulses. Birds trill in the trees, while Henry the burro slowly nuzzles the grass just below the studio deck.
Inside, the smell of oil paint and thinner, with a faint hint of diesel, hangs in the air. Oats' fervent flower portraits are lined up on a narrow shelf like school kids waiting for the bus. They are small, but substantial. Their simple, matte-black frames hug them close, giving each one a little space to call its own.
Her descriptions of them are almost parental. Pointing to one, Oats says it is "excited about life," while another is "interested about the world." This one is "more introspective," while that one has a "hot personality." Her hands fly around to the sides and above her head as she talks about the petals moving in the breeze. "They almost look like jellyfish to me!"
Well-known for painting en plein air, an approach that puts painters in direct contact with nature, Oats has now brought that dynamic to her flower portraits. After spending so much time painting in her lush garden, Oats says, she realized that the longer she looked at the variety of blooms, the more she noticed how each one had a slightly different structure. Her new work seeks to capture their "unique way of existing" by focusing on the flowers' individuality, gesture or expression. More so than the color, light and beauty (although these are important), Oats is in search of the personality of a flower by spending time painting each one.
Those familiar with Oats' work will notice that she has stripped away the surroundings and focused exclusively on the flowers. She has eschewed her well-known garden paintings and zeroed in on the beings she likes most. While the garden environment is still critical to her art, the uniqueness of each bloom has come to the fore in these new works. Oats has also painted tulips, gladiola and daffodils for the show, but her favorite flower portraits are the roses.
Each stroke sculpts peaks and valleys of petals, all coalescing around the heart of the blossom. The images offer the effervescent, frothy and unpredictable sense of time passing and working its magic on all of us. Indeed, Oats mentions often that her favorite moment to paint a flower comes when it is "a tad past its prime."
The contemplation and patience in her work shows the hand of a mature painter who has learned to look ever so closely at every subtle transition of color, value and light. These portraits, most measuring around 6 by 6 inches, contain only the essence of a flower that has long since passed on.
The paintings explode with color. Expressionistic strokes send rusty pinks to swoop past lemony yellows. Vivid oranges plunge into pools of crimson and coffee. At the tip of some petals, crisp sunlight-whites stand proud, radiant as royalty. Farther in, dark umbers set off delicious cotton-candy pinks.
Oats knows colors well. Posters from paint companies adorn her studio walls, describing every available hue. Paint tubes litter horizontal surfaces. They aren't just thrown around though; there is a method to the splatter of her crumpled, squeezed, crusty and rolled-up collection of tubes — each one plump with possibilities that only a painter can see.
Her favorites are the cadmium reds, yellows and oranges. Cadmium, a silvery, bluish-gray metal, is a byproduct from the processing of other metals like zinc and copper. Its vivacity helps give Oats' blooms their intensity and arresting vibrancy. To maintain each color's brilliance, she often paints with them straight out of the tube. When needed, she'll cool a color down with light yellow or heat it up with a bright orange.
Light seems to flow through her work rather than reflect off of it. The brilliant translucence of her surfaces suggests an ability to see through the light to the very core of the painting. Oats is extremely sensitive to the shifting angles of light as the sun crosses the sky. In fact, when painting her flowers, she places them in the ever-changing light of an east window rather than the more static light of a north window.
This atmospheric sensitivity comes from decades of painting outside. Oats is well-known for her trademark plein air landscapes, and alongside her flowers the Sewell will also be displaying a handful of her most recent vistas. Her landscapes hum with the fertile expectancy of change, halting those perfect moments so that we may linger on them before they disappear forever. The expansive views and dusky colors in these paintings perfectly complement the intimate facets of Oats' flower portraits. As a whole, they describe a painter who is not afraid to take on nature, large or small.
Ken Weiderman is a potter and art educator living in Eureka.