Paintings from Château Orquevaux is a before-and-after show. The relatively small oil paintings by Karin Clarke at the Karin Clarke Gallery were done during an artist residency in France in May 2019, before the pandemic began, and in Oregon after it necessitated self-distancing and isolation. The most recent paintings, Clarke says, are the ones where she begins to see herself in her art.
After she got back from France, Clarke realized she was interested more in interiors than the landscapes she had focused on, and she arranged to return in April to the Château Orquevaux, a private estate in northwestern France that offers artist residencies. But travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19 were in effect by then. Her April residency was postponed to September, and that one was canceled as well. It was then she decided to follow the pattern of traveling to paint, although closer to home.
She went to Portland instead of Paris and Newport instead of Orquevaux. At the Benson Hotel in Portland, she painted the interior of her room. “Morning at the Benson” has the drapes pulled open to reveal a large picture window front and center. Rather than looking out the window though, she paints herself looking inward.
“It’s sort of weird,” she admits about staying there alone.
On the other hand, she found what she was looking for — the feeling of retreat. It’s that feeling which she wants to get across in her paintings.
The Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport is author-themed. Clarke booked the Jane Austen room there purposely with the idea of painting it. Although painterly, “Jane Austen Room” has a color scheme reminiscent of a sepia toned photograph. Its focus is on a desk in the room. A mirror hangs on the wall above, but she chose to leave her reflection out of this one.
Finding one’s self in your art is a big deal. You might wonder, who else could you be as an artist, other than yourself? But, if being yourself in general was that easy, there wouldn’t be an industry of self-help books designed to help find the real you. The assumption being, the real you is buried under cultural conditioning or influence. If you are an artist, finding yourself translates to finding your own style.
During her residency at the Château Orquevaux, Clarke spent evenings having dinner with 15 other artists. But she pictures herself alone at the table in “Morning Light, Orquevaux.” Light streams in through tall windows and falls across the long table while Clarke looks down at a book. It’s not clear if she is writing, reading or sketching. One thing’s for certain: It’s a picture of an artist with the day stretched out before her.
Clarke hung her first solo show at her gallery in 2018 after she returned from a trip to Italy. It’s just now, though, that she feels like her artwork is more her and less under the influence of art teacher James Kroner, whose art she’s also shown at her gallery, or of her mother, artist Margaret Coe.
Coe spoke about her own fondness of painting abroad when she had a show at her daughter’s gallery in 2018. In particular, she was inspired by the way light reflected off the canals in Venice. Clarke’s own paintings pay wonderful attention to light as well, particularly in the interiors where there is a focus on windows as light sources. Unlike Coe, though, Clarke’s inspiration seems more connected to mood — solitude, retreat and travel — than to any formal element.
During this time of social distancing, when many of us have long since become tired of keeping to ourselves at home, Clarke’s romantic views of traveling on your own take on a significance they might not have had pre-COVID. She is from Eugene, and her gallery showcases “Masters of Oregon Art.”
So, has she ever thought about painting here? She’s been asked that before, pointedly, by her husband, Michael Johns. He wants to know when she’s going to paint Mount Pisgah.
“I’ll get to it,” she says. “One day.”
Paintings from Château Orquevaux runs through Nov. 28 at Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street. Hours are noon-5:30 pm Wednesday-Friday and noon-4 pm Saturday. Masks required. You can also make a virtual or in-person appointment; contact 541-684-7963 or firstname.lastname@example.org.