The much-anticipated show by local artist Rachel Schlueter at the Morris Graves Museum this month is an impressive celebration of the art and artists that have most influenced her meteoric career. The show, A World of Paint, pays homage to over two dozen artists in that most flattering and yet most difficult genre, portraiture.
Rachel did not settle on painting in oils until taking a class with Ken Webster in 1992. Soon after (1998), she met, studied with, and married fellow artist Stock Schlueter. But her love of art and the lessons of the great artists have been with her since her childhood in Chicago in the '60s.
Rachel recalled, "I clearly remember my first painting [in 1964] and how I was encouraged by being included in a children's art exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. I cherish that memory because it frames the introduction of art as the love of my life. It is also why I feel so strongly about not just maintaining but emphasizing art in education. The other great thing about growing up in Chicago is I got to see many different races and cultures. Faces fascinate me!"
Tackling a project of this magnitude, painting portraits of famous people one holds in high esteem, feels most indebted to, or just plain loves, could be intimidating.
"On a recent trip to Mexico," said Rachel, "I got to experience the powerful murals of Orozco. I couldn't wait to paint him when I returned to Humboldt while the colors were still fresh in my mind. On a brief trip to Paris, I headed straight for the renowned collection of my favorite sculptor, Rodin. I gained a whole new appreciation for the man when I studied his drawings."
Her process? "I first must love the artist's body of work," she said. "Then I search for a strong photograph of the person, one that will allow me to express my feelings about them and their art, as if they were present."
Pointing to her large portrait of Auguste Rodin, she said, "I started this whole project with Rodin and he is the last one to be finished. He fought me all the way." Rodin's imposing father-figure peers out of the canvas with his billowing beard trailing a quick turn of his head, and levels a challenging, no-nonsense expression at the viewer. Rachel wins him over, disarming him completely, with a challenge of her own by surrounding him with a game of rock-paper-scissors.
Those who receive the quarterly newsletter for the Humboldt Art Council have already been treated to Rachel's warm, insightful portrait of Morris Graves on the cover. There is another poignant "double portrait" in the show, a young Morris unveiling a painting of himself as an older man. Rachel's confident, highly intuitive sense of color and placement is an unteachable gift. "I know little about color except for what I feel. I don't speak spontaneously, but when I paint I feel I'm able to come up with the answer!... right!... now!"
Many of the portraits are of instantly recognizable figures like Georgia O'Keeffe, José Clemente Orozco, Pablo Picasso, and a young Salvador Dali, and some less so, such as Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter and Ernst Kirchner.
Other faces will receive knowing nods as being of well-known local artists who are worthy of honor: Linda Mitchell, Curtis Otto, John King, Cynthia Hooper, and, of course, Stock Schlueter. A few cognoscenti will even recognize everyone's favorite muse, Zaila.
Rachel uses many of the "tricks" of good portrait painting such as filling the frame with the face or surrounding her subjects with clues to their personalities. The wit and wonder of A World of Paint is summed up in her rendering of Vincent van Gogh. There is no photo of this master, who has touched the hearts of so many artists, but there are his own riveting self-portraits. Rachel's kindly portrayal of a strong, untroubled Vincent, speaks of a bond between them. The French Impressionists, with their infatuation with color and light in broad landscapes, typically found portraiture restrictive. They were not ready or interested in painting green, red, or yellow skin and all but abandoned close-up likenesses. Van Gogh turned it all around and used a riot of color to model the features and broadcast the emotions of his subjects. Rachel follows that same path.
This show is glorious, educational and worthy of touring beyond Humboldt. Fittingly, the Graves museum is actively involving children by offering a series of after-school classes in portraiture and printmaking (see the Humboldt Arts Council ad for details).
Rachel Schlueter has presented us with a true homage in the best sense of showing public respect, fervent in its praise of the value of art and artists.
What: Rachel Schlueter, A World of Paint
Where: Anderson Gallery, Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636F St., Eureka.
When: Opening reception Saturday, Sept. 3, 6-9 p.m. during Arts Alive!