If you’ve studied drawing or painting then there’s a good chance you’ve sat in front of a still life while wondering, “Why do I have to draw this random collection of objects?” That’s what I thought. Then as an instructor, I found out why. It strengthens techniques having to do with composition, perspective and creating value — skills that allow artists to create the illusion of the real world on a flat picture plane.
Everyday Inspirations: A Still Life Invitational, on view at Maude Kerns Art Center until June 4, was co-curated by the center’s Executive Director Michael Fisher and Exhibitions Coordinator Sarah Ciampa. It is the first still life show at Maude Kerns, though Fisher has wanted to put one on for a long time, Ciampa says.
Ciampa taught at the community art center before becoming staff, and she has set up one of the five actual still lifes, or “installations,” and has art in the show. Her painting style is highly realistic, but the way she arranges objects provides a surrealistic edge. “In Your Own Time” features a handful of time pieces draped on a branch hanging over a spotted egg. And “Alarm Clock and Nest” delivers a compact arrangement of a nested egg inside a broken clock.
Kate Ballons, another of the 34 exhibiting Lane County artists, created two still lifes for the gallery. Her “Moving Pears,” an oil on board, is a study in complementary colors. The objects depicted don’t seem to have been carefully arranged, as in Ciampa’s work, but rather found “moving” on a table.
As a landscape artist who prefers to work outdoors, rather than inside or from photographs, Ballons found still lifes “static” at first but now appreciates their “quirkiness.” For her, the quirk is found in the objects themselves. As an example she cites some of the things she chose for one of her still lifes: a 1950s tungsten lamp, some 1930s oil cans, a white pedestal, an old beer can. It’s a study in gray and white tones, she says.
She sets up about four or five still lifes per class. That’s a lot of still lifes, about 100 per year. And she’s been teaching at MKAC for 20 years.
“I like to give people choices,” she says.
Her students must appreciate the effort since some have been taking classes with her since she started teaching.
Pears are Carolyn Gates’ favorite subject. She taught painting at Maude Kerns for just two years before COVID-19 hit and hopes to teach again, although she says that remains to be seen. Previously a librarian, she now spends her time drawing and painting. Her colored pencil drawing “All Dressed Up” is of two types of pears lined in a row. Alternating color and size and shape, they do look like they’re ready for something.
She doesn’t know why pears are her favorite thing to paint, but thinks maybe it has to do with the pear’s vague resemblance to the female form.
When teaching painting, she asks students to draw circles before turning those flat shapes into spheres, then fruit or flowers — or plastic flowers. She is not a fast painter, so real flowers might not last long enough (and that’s why students are often asked to paint plastic instead of the real thing). She also prefers to work from life. A photograph sometimes gets people bogged down in details, she says. You can lose track of the big picture.
Like all the artists in this large show, Sarkis Antikajian is associated with Maude Kerns. He began attending figure painting sessions at MKAC when he moved to Eugene in 1966 and showed up nearly every week until “the COVID-19 situation put a stop to it.”
Antikajian’s paintings are influenced by the French Impressionists who first inspired him to paint as a teenager. As he is a retired pharmacist, I ask if art has always been a hobby for him. The answer is a resounding no. Art has never been a hobby.
He explains, “To make a living, my life took other paths, studying chemistry and pharmacy.”
His story is similar to other artists in the show, at least the ones I spoke to. They aren’t professional in the sense of making a living at it. But they spend their lives dedicated to practicing, teaching, producing and exhibiting art.
Still lifes are a way to practice. But sometimes an amazing thing can happen, which is that an arrangement of what otherwise might be perceived as junk is transformed into art.
Everyday Inspirations: A Still Life Invitational runs through June 4 at Maude Kerns Art Center, 1910 E. 15th Avenue. Open 10 am-5:30 pm Monday-Friday, noon-4 pm Saturday. More info at MKArtCenter.org and 541-345-1571. Masks required.