Ursula O'Farrell: Pursuing Beauty and Building a Bridge along the Way
Publication: The Palette, Los Gatos Art Association
Publication Month: September
Publication Year: 2007
Publication Date: 9/20/2007
Ursula O’Farrell is that rare commodity that defies the old adage “Those that can’t do, teach”. O’Farrell more than succeeds on both points. As enthusiastic as she is about the sizzling reception her figurative abstract art has received of late is the joy she gets supporting others to find their own inner creativity, and carry on the torch of our artistic forebears. Her dedication to art is deepened by a strong sense of humility in knowing her current success is possible only through the efforts and sacrifices of countless artists, famous and unknown, who came before; as she states succinctly “we stand not on our own, but on the shoulders of giants.”
Los Gatos Art Association member O’Farrell’s simultaneous showings at the
Talk about your show at the Museum of
I took a risk titling the exhibit “Pursuit of Beauty.” All too often the term “beauty” refers to decorative art that often lacks content, expression or soul from the artist. But pursuing a sense of a universal beauty, that is something that reasonates within me as an artist – I find beauty in the murky, edgy qualities in the physical act of painting and then add in what is uniquely human---a sense of the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual. These attributes reasonate as beauty within me. When you respond to a painting with emotion you are feeling the painting from within yourself---from below your eyes and into your heart ---that’s what I want viewers to get a sense of from this show---the raw guts of feeling the work and resonating with the celebration of being alive. This current art show highlights the direction I’m moving toward; less detail, more about the visceral surfaces, unusual color harmonies and the gesture.
Note: O’Farrell’s simultaneous showings of her work are at The Linda Durnell Gallery,
24 N. Santa Cruz Ave. Los Gatos and at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in downtown San Jose at 560 North First Street through October 27. A subsequent Spring 2008 Show is planned at
You have an interesting story behind “Carmelina Revisited” a large-scale painting on view at the Museum.
Yes, it’s one I painted from inspiration after Henri Matisse’s masterful “Carmelina”, painted in 1904. I showed my painting in an earlier state at the Michaelangelo Gallery in
Do you use a show coming up as an impetus to do your work?
No. I’m a painter who paints every day. I do, however, work very well under deadlines. When a gallery wants additional paintings, it creates an artificial deadline pressure to produce. The collaboration requires a unique dance where you must only paint for yourself, but at the same time invite the deadlines to push you further and faster into your next new body of work. Beware: when you think you’re painting for an imagined audience or a specific client, then you have taken on the role and framework of a commercial artist. This is toxic for the spirit of an artist in pursuit of beauty!
You speak of being in
Egon Schiele, Kathe Kollwitz, Oscar Kokoshka, Ernst Kirchner – as a student these were my favorites. The strong color of their works in museums, the intensity of the emotions depicted is incredible. I appreciate the fact that these artists lived and worked in very social societies if you will, and they would come together and form the groups we know of today. I have to add, though, I love Henri Matisse; Matisse pushed his work into new ways of thinking about painting and never gave up his explorations, in fact his work remained fresh throughout his life and is still vital 100 plus years later.
Among your peers, who would you collect?
Terry St. John in
Coincidentally, your write-up with the
I like it. I think it says the artist has a fascination with paint –letting the paint be what it is. It is an admission that started back with Jackson Pollock, reminding us that the illusion is simply paint on a surface. I like to play with the issues of space in my work, where you have the figure and you have the setting and from there you can build a creative tension off of figure-ground relationships.
You said in your lecture that inspiration springs from many sources-explain
Sometimes I get my inspiration just being in the studio with my model, by simply saying “let’s start here.” I ask the model how she is feeling and to give me a pose that reflects her feelings. Often, models bring their own clothing and props, and I just let them relax and help create a pose with me. I learned from
Othertimes, I notice the model and how she’s seated and how classic her pose is. It reminds me of a pose I’ve seen done before and so I say, well, let’s get inspired by the masters. Art history is filled with accumulated knowledge by past masters. So I’ll go look up Matisse or Diebenkorn’s work, or maybe Paul Gauguin’s, Max Beckmann’s and so many others. Then I have my model pose, for instance as if she’s in a Matisse painting or Diebenkorn drawing. Why not go back to see where we came from as a means to understand where we are now, too? For me, it is VERY important -- we have to understand where we have come from to see where we are and then to know where we want to go. This is the theme from Paul Gauguin that I tried to convey in my large diptych in the
You acknowledge your affinity with the Bay Area Figurative Movement in the late 1950’s- right?
Yes, I do. In fact, historically we’ve already been through the Movement’s second generation – or second wave with Nathan Oliveira, James Weeks, Joan Brown and others. My dealer in Carmel recently shared with me that he sees my work in context with a newer, third wave of Bay Area Figurative artists; he cited breakthroughs with my work in the areas of unusual color choices and tensions created, and in the increased abstraction of my figures.
Innovations don’t miraculously come out of nowhere. If you look carefully at the work of David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, you can see the extent of Matisse’s influence with respect to their works. In an historical context they were studying a master 50 years before them to develop their response to the visual dialogue of their generation. Influences help to shape ideas, but cannot be the ending point if an artist is to be true to their own desire for sharing what is authentically their own.
Is that same phenomenon alive today?
Certainly. Our art today is benefiting from a rippling effect of its continuity with our abundant visual heritage. It’s all a creative journey like passing a torch. The commonality amongst most painters is a passion for painting and a clear desire to pursue their vision with an utmost perseverance.
I come from a family of educators. So it’s not enough to do well –it’s about the sharing, the going full circle. I think we oftentimes work stronger in a collective – like the German and Austrian Expressionist groups proved. So these collectives, like at
I was fortunate to work on a Creative Taskforce with the
Explain some of the processes of how you paint
I’m a consummate editor – I continually search for revisions; try something different here, build on top of that painting there. Give me a few things to start with and I can just go. I’m a passionate person about paint. I’m not afraid to work thick, to work intuitively, to work fast. I like to work on a variety of canvases at the same time-not just putting all my eggs in one basket. In terms of an art that is abstracted, I tell myself that if you wanted to capture life you’d use a camera- and say this is what you saw. I’m really more fascinated by the power of color harmonies, gestures and how these can convey an emotion. I especially look carefully at contrasts, in color and lighting for instance, and the tension between figure and the surrounding space. If I’m going for a specific light/dark contrast I’ll just key into that. I’ll work carefully (in my studio) to set up for a specific effect or contrast- like when I’m looking for ephemeral light.
I recommend to everyone to clean your brushes out on blank canvases. It gives you a start, something you can improvise from later which is more comfortable for me.
Say I want to do a painting series on a pose, and I’ve got these toned canvases. Well, that already offers a variety and I can repeat the pose and pull in the colors that work and push out the ones that don’t. With a white canvas I often don’t know where to begin. Of course, with darker canvases or repaints you lose the transparency you get with a fresh surface, so in that case your art is built up from opacity. When I do a large canvas, I typically want the alternative, the transparency. So I’ll often underpaint with Indian yellow and this lightness comes through the later paint layers. Why Indian yellow? – it’s a transparent color, and it has a joyous resonance.
Another composition rule I follow is to never have the same interval repeated, for instance never make one corner look the same as the others. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’ve made things the same. It’s the concept of intervals, and that reinforces seeking a rhythm in your work, with both active and restful areas, one entrance into the painting and one exit, etc. Oh, and one more thing about working big; the larger the scale you go, the more you ‘walk into’ the color.
You said you don’t mix paints looking at the canvas –why?
I turn my back to the painting because I’m trying to tap into my intuitive sense and respond to what’s happening on the palette before I get seduced by what I’m seeing on canvas. While mixing on the palette, it’s a search – it’s not predetermined. I love the joy and surprise in creating a color where I can say ‘yes, maybe this will work.’ If I may, I think that’s also what helps make me a painter’s painter.
So how do you know a painting is done?
That’s tricky. A painting could be almost done then boom, you’ve lost it. It’s there one moment and it’s gone the next. You have to approach painting without fear, like Matisse said “Creativity takes courage”. I look at a painting and ask myself if I am willing to settle for a painting that is almost okay. My answer is that I don’t want just okay – I want great. If I get two that survive out of twenty, that’s excellent.
Another thing; unless you live with them, you really can’t tell if they are done. My paintings are born in spontaneity---and only survive after careful scrutiny and editing.
So I hang them in my house. When I enter a room and see my painting out of the corner of my eye, -- I ask – is it done?, or oh no, too much green…and back to the studio it goes. There are some big ones, I like to keep them and live with them in the house at least a couple of months. But here’s the thing; the longer I hold onto my paintings, the greater their jeopardy of being repainted. They have to be sold and leave the house to be safe (laughs).
What life lessons have shaped your development as an artist?
As a woman, I’ve gone through periods in my life where I’ve given my power away to other people in my life. It’s taken me a little while to grow up. I look back on my experience of climbing Mt Fuji – I realized that was the first time I actually made a decision to do something for myself, the first instance I felt my own power.
My journey really is a life-long learning how not to be afraid. Keep going back and learning. But you can’t ever forget the doing part. You can get hooked on the studying or socializing part of art – but it’s a mistake if you forget to do it, too (laughs.)
-Kevin Kasik, Editor
Los Gatos Art Association, The Palette