January 1: An ambiguous day

1 Jan
"Winter" by Lisa Mellinger

“Winter” by Lisa Mellinger

The winter solstice is past, the days are growing longer, and I’m hankering to pay a visit to the studio of Tacoma artist Lisa Mellinger. I find her in a retro-cool 1920s abode complete with a roaring fireplace, a huffy gray cat and a chihuahua-like dog with long legs that resembles a tiny deer. Stacks of drawings and paintings in various stages of completion give the place a sense of industry.

One piece, Winter, stands out as capturing the balancing point between uncertainty and expectancy – looking backward or forward in time – that marks the start of a new year. What is this piece about?

“That painting is from when I lived on the Upper Westside of Manhattan in a tiny studio apartment with a view of the Empire State Building,” she explains via e-mail. “I actually had a tiny art area next to the bed.

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Ambiguous artist: Lisa Mellinger at home.

“I had just ended a relationship. I walked my dog every day to Riverside Park – the Hudson River was frozen and solid ice.

“The bare branches represent my raw self. A simple closeup of falling leaves, and a new season starting. Letting go. That was in 2005….”

A Tacoma native, Mellinger spent seven years in New York City. “I was going to Louise Bourgeois’ salon on Sundays where I would bring a painting and talk with her. It was at her house in Chelsea. A group of artists and her and a filmmaker video taping us. She was so cool and had great insight when she talked to me about my work. They kept calling me back but I had to teach college art history on Sundays.”

An ebullient blonde with an impressive array of grunge woolen plaids, Mellinger recalls this period with enthusiasm. “Last night I had New York City in my dream. I was on a corny tour bus and screamed, ‘New York, I love you!'”

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A study in walnut ink by Lisa Mellinger.

Winter is as crisp – and delicate – as a crust of ice over fresh snow. Mellinger has embarked on a new series of paintings using walnut ink; the technique, called brunaille (painting executed in shades of brown) developed in 17th-century France. Like Winter, her new works possess a certain ambiguity. “The subject matter is large tools like a wrench, clamp, and hammer….So, tools to fix things? Or ruin things? Am I trying to fix things?”

She’s working out the answers far away from the the Empire State Building and the buzz of Manhattan. She’s finding a fresh vibe amongst “the douglas firs and cedar trees, eagles, falcons, ducks, cattails….For fun I throw the canvas in the car and go plein air drawing in the woods all over here and Gig Harbor. Then go back to the studio to fill in the rest.”

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