A funny thing happened on the way to the Gauguin and Polynesia show now at the Seattle Art Museum. My wife Betsy and I were walking along Second Avenue in cold rain when, across the street from SAM, we were both stopped in our tracks by the bold, colorful, expressive figure paintings displayed in the windows of the Patricia Rovzar Gallery.
On investigation, we learned that artist Ursula O’Farrell had created these breathtaking images. O’Farrell, 49, an admirer of Gauguin, displays her kinship with the French artist in her colorful palette, as with the vibrant oranges and yellows that depict three pulsing figures in Circle Dance or the rich reds, violets and lime greens in Thinking of Beauty and Dance of Four. Her haunting Rhythm of Youth could be set on a verdant Polynesian isle. The deep emotion of Turbulence or Departure is almost palpable in O’Farrell’s energetic, agitated brushwork.
Eminent art historian Dr. Peter Selz, who interviewed O’Farrell for the 2011 book Ursula O’Farrell: Emotion in Motion (Fine Arts Press), lauds her work and describes her an heir of the German Expressionists and as "a third-generation" Bay Area Figurative Artist — those gestural painting icons such as Nathan Oliveira, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Manuel Neri.
O’Farrell herself eschews labels and instead views her work as created upon the “deep layers of strata” of artists who move her, from Gauguin and Henri Matisse, to Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. And her work is a departure from the often testosterone-fueled paintings of the Bay Area group of a half-century ago. Her emotional figures more often than not are women: women emerging from chaos and displaying strength or vulnerability or compassion.
O’Farrell has loved art since childhood. She has a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing from Loyola Marymount University, and a master’s in fine art from San Jose State University. During college, she studied painting in Florence, Italy, through a Gonzaga University program, and traveled farther with the prestigious Eugene Escalier Scholarship for the study of German and Austrian Expressionism.
After college, according to O’Farrell, "life happened," and art took a backseat to marriage and the responsibility of raising a family. She returned to painting in 2004 and, in an incredibly brief period, gained prominence as a nationally recognized painter with numerous exhibitions since 2007, representation by numerous galleries, and favorable assessments from noted art critics.
Her paintings are on display at the Patricia Rovzar Gallery in downtown Seattle through this month (March).
Ursula O’Farrell talked about her background and her art by telephone from her home in Aptos, Calif.
Robin Lindley: Your show is right across the street from the Seattle Art Museum show of Paul Gauguin, an artist you see as a special influence.
Ursula O’Farrell: I was delighted when I saw the visual connection between my show at the Rovzar Gallery and Gauguin’s incredible work at SAM. I felt a resonance in our choice of color palette [and] a shared focus on a humanistic, soulful chord in the painting.
I feel the harmony of color and pattern in our work, especially in the bravura of bright oranges, verdant greens, and vibrant violet. This fascination with the secondary palette evokes moods and emotions that convey a particular melancholy and bitter sweetness within the full spectrum of human pathos. Some examples in my show now at Rovzar Gallery are Messenger, Circle of Women, Cat’s Cradle, and Music of the Day.
Gauguin is a "father figure" for me within the realm of painting. The beauty he shares with us originated under intense physical and emotional duress. He broke the rules of tradition and faced the shame and loneliness of going outside the social mores of his time. And just as Gauguin’s masterpiece asks: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" so does the quest continue within my own series of paintings.
Robin Lindley: Your work also invites comparison with the moving paintings of the German Expressionists. Do you consciously work in this vein?
Ursula O’Farrell: Yes. I find my work is rooted within my cultural heritage (half German/half Chinese). The German/Austrian Expressionists were among the most influential in my beginning years. They moved away from the mind and the eye and into the heart and soul of the vibratory power of color.
Angst is what drove me to study German and Austrian expressionism in college with the Eugene Escalier scholarship. I was drawn to Egon Schiele’s drama, Nolde’s Dance with the Golden Calf, Beckmann, Kokoshka, Schmidt-Rotluff. It is powerful work, not easy. Not for over the couch.
Robin Lindley: Your work also evokes de Kooning and the neoexpressionists Frank Auerbach and Susan Rothenberg. Who are some artists you admire today?
Ursula O’Farrell: Wow, you’ve named them! I also love the work of Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Egon Schiele. De Kooning’s bold strokes are a force, and also Franz Kline’s early bold black and whites. My associations with Auerbach and de Kooning must be coming out. I love their work. It is about soul. Humanity.
Robin Lindley: The female figure is a frequent subject of your paintings. Do you work from models or photographs?
Ursula O’Farrell: I love beginning from life for inspiration, for challenge, but not for direct “reporting” as to what the eye sees. In fact, I hate the constrictions of what “reality” says is in front of me. Allowing one’s intuition to guide the process is key and can only be done from imagination, invention and play.
I trained for years from models, but found it too limiting and not in my natural flow or process. My work may be labeled as "figurative," though I think it is deeper than the shapes of figures and implied narrative on canvas.
The power of my paintings is, in fact, in the play with "emotional color." I want the viewer to feel the paintings, to allow vibrating color harmonies to guide them to a place of knowing within themselves. It is more sensory than visual. The figures help prompt an entry point, but the soul of the work is a feeling sense.
Robin Lindley: Do you begin with a particular image or emotion in mind?
Ursula O’Farrell: No. Generally I start without any preconceived notions, applying the paint and turning the canvas until I find the rhythm within the painting that resonates with my own life experiences. One of my objectives is to allow paint to be paint. I approach it organically. I begin by putting paint down. Then I turn the canvas to see if the visual weight has perhaps something to share, and then honor what comes forward intuitively, instinctively, and what the paint wants to become.
It’s almost pulling form out of nothingness or implied shapes that come forward. I never know what [will] happen until the very end. An example is Get Up and Dance!, where the figures emerged after several turns of the canvas.
My greatest hope is for a connection with others and, if possible, development of a visual language that employs figures to bring forward "visual archetypes" that might be felt and understood by others.
Robin Lindley: Your paintings suggest stories but don’t necessarily present a resolution. Isn’t that a role of art?
Ursula O’Farrell: Yes. It begins the conversation but doesn’t pretend to offer the full answer because the answers change for each person, their circumstances, and life histories. I like to infuse the paintings with enough mystery so others might project their own experiences into whatever narrative might present itself.
Robin Lindley: You are especially sensitive to the experience of women and, at this time in our history when the political right wages a war on women, do you see your paintings as political?
Ursula O’Farrell: I am not a feminist per se, but more of a humanist in a female body. I hope my work allows for the feminine dance to come forward. We’re moving toward an understanding that we each have a male and a female side. For so long we’ve been trained to bring forward the male — the analytical, career-oriented accomplishments. I have to wonder if we’re hungering now for a soul-based, feminine, emotional, feeling sense that goes deeper into what it means to be a human being today than living in our heads and cutting off our hearts.
Robin Lindley: And you have made art since childhood?
Ursula O’Farrell: Yes. I have always loved to paint expressionistically with a myriad of colors and feelings. In kindergarten, my parents were pleased when a painting of mine was hung in the principal’s office.
Robin Lindley: Were your parents artists?
Ursula O’Farrell: My father was a U.S. naval officer. My mother painted and would copy from the masters. When I was a young teen, she wanted me to copy [Picasso’s] Guernica, and I wouldn’t do it. Why would anyone spend time copying another’s work of art? We disagreed on issues around duty and conformity versus self-expression and originality. For me, it was vital to paint from my own vantage point, from my personal life experiences, and to decidedly speak with my own voice.
Robin Lindley: Many of your paintings deal with family themes, such as mother-daughter situations. Do they often come from your relationships?
Ursula O’Farrell: Yes. Often, my source material does come from a sense of self and relationship, and there’s a catharsis while trying to resolve issues that are deeply rooted from my childhood.
Robin Lindley: Is there an overarching theme to the paintings in your new Seattle show?
Ursula O’Farrell: The theme is emotions and relationships, especially for women. Emotion in Motion prompts going into the deeper waters of our consciousness and exploring what we feel and hold true as a human family.
Robin Lindley: How has your work evolved in recent years? Are the new works in Seattle a departure?
Ursula O’Farrell: I feel like I am laughing more often, and this laughter is finding its way into the work. Perhaps I’m not as serious or brooding as in the past. And I can feel greater congruence with self and paint. My darker elements seem to be giving way to more light and movement. I also think I am getting more "sculptural" with thicker paint and expressive gestures, almost bas-relief.
It’s fun to play and dance with color. I am excited about what may come next.