Gail Roberts shows her true colors at the Oceanside Museum of Art
Ever since there have been paintings, there have been painters trying to capture the majesty and mystery of nature. Sure, happy little trees (to use a Bob Ross phrase) and landscapes abound, with a whole genre of art devoted to the latter, but it’s more often flowers that have served as both muse and metaphor. From the 6th century ‘Asuka Beauties’ paintings inside the tomb of Takamatsuzuka in India to more recent masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s iconic ‘Irises’ and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’, the flower as that subject is almost as old as the art itself.
Gail Roberts has made a career out of capturing the variable magnificence of the natural world. From her work in the late 90s – in which she painted nearly 50 landscapes of the same local mountain range in various states of tranquility and disaster – to her series of Birds Nests, capturing the unique spiraling of structures , Roberts’ paintings are obsessive. , almost sequential in nature, but never repetitive.
“I’ve always been interested in working with what’s right outside my door,” Roberts says from his home studio in La Mesa. “Wherever I live, art responds to that, and that’s what I know best.”
Such is the case with “Color Field,” a multi-year series of floral paintings that spans as many varietals as color schemes. Launched last year at the Quint Gallery in La Jolla, and soon to be featured at the Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA), the paintings in the “Color Field” series are striking individually, yet majestic in mass. To hear Roberts tell it, she didn’t originally envision “Color Field” as a multi-faceted, multi-year, multi-paint project. It all started, quite simply, with the artist simply trying to capture the intricacies of each petal and the fineness of each filament.
“It has really evolved. Initially I had this idea and took them to a much larger scale,” says Roberts, who started the series over five years ago and eventually scaled down each painting to a 20 x 24 canvas. inches. “I thought if I was going to maintain an interest, I had to do it on a more manageable scale. I even tried a few where I enlarged the flower more, just in the center of the flowers, but that didn’t seem to be enough. So there were a lot of false starts.
A single flower in a vase is cute, a bouquet can be splendid, but a field of flowers? It’s impressive. And when taken together, the more than 130 paintings in the “Color Field” series, the majority of which will be on display at the OMA from July 30, are indeed curated and exhibited to elicit that kind of awe of the part of the viewer. Organized by color palette, the viewer feels a kind of serenity among the paintings’ vibrant hues and soothing subjects.
You could say that the show’s true origins began decades before when Roberts became interested in gardening on a 5-acre property she lived on in Valley Center. The property had 400 avocado trees that Roberts admits she “naively” thought she and her husband could maintain. The couple eventually moved to a half-acre property in La Mesa, and Roberts says she initially didn’t want to take on large-scale gardening projects, but after retiring from her job as a school teacher art at San Diego State University, she gradually began planting flowers around the property.
“When we moved in, there was nothing but ice plants, ivy, oleander and lots of grass,” Roberts recalls. “It was just a big open canvas to start working on. There wasn’t really a clear concept of what I was doing, but I gradually got interested in collecting nests and then started to collect flowers.
Roberts says she soon began working in the garden as much as painting in her studio. This has resulted in a variety of series of nature-inspired works, including “Nests” and, more recently, “Blooms”, a sort of predecessor to the “Color Field” series. But whereas “Blooms” focused much more on the blooming and pollination aspects of flowers, the oil and acrylic paintings “Color Field” deal with more serious subjects, including conservation, ecology and what Roberts calls “the accelerated erosion of the diversity of plant species and natural habitats.
“Imperfections are the beauty of it,” Roberts says. “We talk about balance, and when people think of balance they think of equal weight, but it’s interesting to me that a flower can have such an original shape and yet it has balance. I’m trying just observe and interpret what is there.
Additionally, of the 250 types of dried flowers she painted in five years – from imported flowers to drought-tolerant native weeds – Roberts says she wanted to draw attention to the medicinal and edible functions of the flowers and invested a great deal of time researching each.
“It became even more remarkable to me that this little piece of this property could become a microcosm of the world,” Roberts says. “I planted them thinking about their beauty, but ended up learning a lot about flowers.”
The resulting paintings, while dealing with serious themes, work together as something of a harmonious settlement among the chaos of the natural world. Additionally, Roberts says working on it during the pandemic, and shortly after her husband was in a biking accident, provided her with “another form of appreciation for life and its fragility.”
“Painting has become more of a refuge,” she says. “To an even greater degree, I was aware of and appreciated these flowers – all their beauty and what unfolds in them on a daily basis. Just not wanting to take it all for granted.
She now sees the “Color Field” series as an ongoing project. She has long admired artists who returned to a series and recalls Rembrandt who made self-portraits throughout his life.
“I always wanted to do this, where I would start something without having an end in sight,” Roberts says. “With that at least, I said I wasn’t going to end it. I want to see if this can continue without repeating itself. Always trying to find something new, something where I will continue to explore and become aware of how the environment affects the flower. I’m just trying to push it further, to see if it continues to unfold.
‘Gail Roberts: Color Field’
When: Opening July 30. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Until November 27.
Where: Oceanside Art Museum, 704 Pier View Way Oceanside
Admission: Free for members, students and military with ID and 18 and under. $10 general admission. $5 seniors (65 and over).
Call: (760) 435-3720
On line: oma-online.org
Combs is a freelance writer.