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Transcribed by Kristin Tollefson, Education Director
The following is a narrative based on a gallery walk led by Gayle Bard at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art on October 26, 2013, through her retrospective exhibit, Gayle Bard: A Singular Vision. The transcript loosely follows the exhibit, beginning at the south entry to the second-floor Rachel Feferman Gallery.
Gayle Bard, Skagit Flats, 2010, Oil on canvas, 48"x60" | Photo: Art Grice
Gayle develops one painting at a time, and considers herself a very slow painter. She needs time to look closely at the work and to step away from it for perspective during the painting process. Every painting is like a discovery: each time she begins a new one, she says it almost feels as if she’s never painted before.
Many thin layers of paint are used to gradually build up imagery toward the surface. The many layers contribute to the illusion of depth in her paintings. She has “a couple of recipes” of colors that work well together in this layering process, but she is always looking for new combinations. For example, look at Near Keswick (2011), the cloud painting at the welcome desk: the blue comes through the pink in these clouds, and creates a very specific effect in this painting, unlike other of the paintings with dominant clouds.
Bard spends hours mixing paint, and has considered the notion of mixing in quantity so that she might approach a series of paintings with similar imagery, similar feeling, equipped with these colors. But her practice is to stay present with the painting that is happening at the moment. If she leaves a work for a period of time, she feels the need to start over when she returns. She wants to reenvision the colors, the feeling, and what she was trying to communicate.
When she mixes her paint colors, she doesn’t typically keep a record of what she has used to achieve those blends. She limits her palette to about half a dozen frequently used colors, but she is also always looking for others that will enhance the particular needs of a painting. She noted one painting that is nearly three-quarters of the way finished that had been destined for this show, and wondered if she would remember the paint combination she used for even those recently blended colors.
Not remembering exact combinations has worked to her advantage in her layering process. In the Bunker series, the variation that occurred when she mixed five different batches of an army green color allowed for a depth to the work that would not have existed if the paint had been as single, consistent color.
“I’m a believer in happy accidents.”
The painting entitled It’s a Boy (1976) is the earliest work in the show. The pieces in this corner of the gallery date roughly from that time, during the overlap between Gayle’s abstract and figurative works.
Her abstract work is not represented in this show, nor is it in the book accompanying the show, Gayle Bard: A Singular Vision. However, she considers this stylistic approach to be what grounded her in art making. Abstraction and minimalism provided a strong foundation on which she has continued to build composition and structure in her paintings: form, line, color, and mass.
Gayle Bard, It's a boy, 1976, Oil on canvas, 72"x54" | Photo: Jake Seniuk
Dan (1982) is a portrait of a friend rendered in ballpoint pen in Gayle’s sketchbook. Framing it as a solitary piece allowed her to give it closure; the keyhole mat gave the work context, a grounded foundation for presentation.
It’s a Boy (1976) depicts a real event that Bard witnessed firsthand. She was working late at night, in an office that had been converted from a house into office spaces. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned to see a balloon gliding up the stairs, carried by air currents as if it was a walking figure. This was the earliest of her representational paintings. She chose the size to replicate the scale of the real event, and employed strong perspective to invite the viewer to share in her experience.
The hole in the wall directs the eye to see: when a viewer looks through a hole, whether it is a knothole at a construction site, a crack in a fence, or a keyhole, the focus of peering through a small opening at another world is transportive. The same thing can happen while looking at small things, such as images in a book. On a general level, this is the same phenomenon that engages voyeurs: they are consumed by what they are viewing.
The “how” of these boxes – construction techniques, namely – is not something Bard shares. These works are intended to create mystery, to capture the viewer’s imagination in a dreamlike way.
These boxes also tell the story of discovery and use of materials at hand. When living in her Pioneer Square studio, she came home one afternoon and sat down at her large worktable to mull over the events of her day job. Absentmindedly she began to “play” with an assortment of assorted objects and tools that just happened to lay there – as well as a couple of disembodied camera lenses. These parts allowed her to see a story that stopped her in her tracks.
One of Our Other Wars (1984) does not represent a personal experience, but one that was a common experience for many people after Vietnam, or any war for that matter. She had friends lost in war. Many others suffered from PTSD, which is another kind of war. The contents are discovered in the drawers, like a small dresser filled with mementos and personal odds and ends. The dog tags, love letters and divorce papers are all facets of shared cultural experiences. These pieces are expensive to create, so she rarely engages in this art form now, and doesn’t do them alone.
Fir (1994), the small landscape framed in a wide natural wood frame, was her first landscape painting, done on shirt cardboard during a residency at Centrum Foundation at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. It is a view from the stoop at the house where she stayed, done in one afternoon. Plasteel Frame Co. had a sale, and this frame is a liner that would have been covered in fabric – the work and frame integrated together. Later, Dennis Fisher built her early signature broad, dark frames.
Gayle grew up in Kansas, and not being able to see the stars here has been challenging. She pursues open skies, loves the shapes that open vistas, horizon lines, peninsulas and water make. These shapes have more to do with forms and openness than telling the story of the place in a narrative way.
Monumental landscapes are a signature style of Bard’s more contemporary work, and the subject matter continues to intrigue and excite her. She is currently at work on a big Skagit piece that is larger and cloudier than some of her previous paintings. Along this same topic, she suggested that she is becoming increasingly interested in portraying weather, and in depicting the “feeling of air.” She also claims that she doesn’t really know how to do this yet, and it is the state of unknowing and the process of discovery that she embarks upon with each work.
She does not work plein air, painting outside on site directly from what she sees. Rather, she takes photographs for use for reference materials, and doesn’t compose through the lens. Taking photographs, printing them from film and laying them out on a flat surface was a key process she used in composing her images. This allowed her to group them and rearrange them in order to see new relationships. This process has become more challenging and less physical with the shift to digital images on a computer screen.
Photographs work as a reminder of the qualities of a place. She shoots images to gather information about both dark and light. Occasionally, she’ll get to a point in a painting and think, “I don’t know what happens in this dark spot,” and the photos help her remember. She mines the photographs for bits of information that are useful to her work as she paints.
And yet photographs are not enough. Bard underscores the importance of revisiting places that appear in her artwork. It is the “visceral feeling” of the place she records on these visits, and it is this emotional, tangible, kinesthetic engagement that she tries to impart in her painted works. This is not a feeling that she’s able to draw out of old information.
Quietness is something she is striving to evoke in these works. She wants to make space for the viewer to enter the paintings, to have a visceral response to the work, to embark on a direct relationship with the landscape, the space portrayed.
“The connection to the land is in our DNA,” she suggests. Not everyone has this – generations of city-dwellers may not be so drawn to the landscape. She wants to “ignite excitement or a memory.” The large format of the paintings is such that they enable a viewer to “walk into” them, and her signature black frames create a very clear separation from the surroundings.
Jake Seniuk, former Executive Director at Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, author of the essay in Gayle’s book, and friend, helped lay out this intimate corner within the gallery, featuring a combination of old and new pieces. This series was done during a residency Gayle had through the Centrum Foundation at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. Every day during her November residency she walked through these cannon emplacements constructed beginning in 1897 when the Spanish American War became imminent. The fortifications felt like ancient civilizations, with beautiful qualities of construction. Fine craftsmen from Europe had been brought over to this site to do the cement work, and it is evident in the flourishes and the enigmatic evidence left by these workmen. She sees them as war niches, these bunkers. They remind her of meditation places, looking into darkness and starting to see with imagination.
She has remarked that men relate especially strongly to her bunker images. Inherent is the story of dark tomes, how they got there. Through this exploration and this body of work, she became interested in other such structures around the world – what will it take to get rid of these? They are built to last, and have a timelessness that suggests this.
Wild Rose, Battle Point (2004) is a continuation of these heavily structured, geometric pieces. These relate back to her love of the rectangular structure and to her own practice of living sculptural gardening. In England at Bateman’s East Sussex, on a tour of great gardens, Gayle encountered a minimalist hedge, the centerpiece of a broad field. It’s modern and minimalist form and mass belied it’s hundred year history evident on close attention to it’s horticultural content. A non-artist, an old friend of Gayle’s, looked at this piece and called it “a bunker with leaves.”
Forms, structure and an alignment with geometry run through Bard’s life work. She knows how to measure, having grown up with a T-square and a triangle, and these are tools she uses. Complemented by her love of the long view, of atmosphere and light, the greens and blues and greys and all their subtle shimmering, her work evokes a conversation between interior and exterior. “We all have landscape inside us.”
Gayle Bard, Bateman's East Sussex, 2011, Oil on canvas, 54"x72" | Photo: Art Grice