Wendy Schwartz’s serene and teeming creative life

07/05/2012

Painter Wendy Schwartz doesn’t like stormy weather, but she loves the look of a tumultuous sky. And if the 22 paintings now on display at Toby’s Gallery are any evidence, she also loves skies where the clouds have just cleared, skies that turn the dry grasses pink, and skies spreading brilliant and blue over a stretch of desolate highway.

From her Inverness tidal flat studio, Ms. Schwartz has been painting the beauty around her since she moved to West Marin in 1983. While most of her work depicts local scenes, the smaller paintings displayed on the studio’s back wall reveal Sierra Nevada desert underbrush, and the steps to a New York City laundromat.

“I don’t look for the magnificent,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I look for what I see emerging around me, for what strikes me unexpectedly at a particular moment in such a way that I see it as a painting.”

This might happen while driving past farms on Highway One, or while walking her Labrador retriever, Gracie, under looming Bishop pines on the ridge. She often paints white buildings, or, more accurately, the blinding light that hits them and their smoky blue shadows. In one painting in her current show, on display through the end of July, an abandoned farmhouse crouches from behind the shelter of spreading, dark trees. In her only night scene, called Rich Ready-Mix, the warm light coming from a mysterious porch contrasts with the cool light of a streetlamp shining above.

“I suppose I’m drawn to forlorn places,” she said. “There’s an ache that one can lean into.”

Indeed, there is a vertiginous quality to many otherwise straightforward settings, where buildings and telephone poles tilt slightly, suggesting motion, or a hastily taken photograph.

She occasionally works from photographs, but she also sketches and paints from life, as well as from memory — whatever she needs to produce the picture she’s seen in her head. Her brush strokes are almost always visible, so there is always motion; the feel of the piece is more important to her than whether or not it is true to life.

“Everyone takes out telephone poles,” she said, speaking of other landscape artists. “But I am always putting them in! They are wonderful for defining distance.”

Ms. Schwartz has traveled some distances. Born in Brooklyn, she grew up in suburban Long Island and studied fine art at Boston University. She enrolled in the liberal arts program there, and while she’d always “been good at making pictures,” it wasn’t until her sophomore year that she fell in love with painting.

“I wandered into the art department one day, and encountered that smell of turpentine and saw all the easels and thought, ‘I want to do that!’” she said.

But while she was always passionate about painting, she did not begin her studio practice in earnest until she settled in her present studio. She moved out to San Francisco and was working as a graphic designer in the publishing world when she met her now husband, Mark Dowie. They’d been out to West Marin to visit friends a few times, and Mr. Dowie had stayed at a house a few doors down from where they now live. In 1983 their present property — a cluster of former ranch outbuildings with a stunning view across the marsh — came up for sale.

“Mark basically took the property sight unseen,” she said. “He heard it was available and more or less said, ‘That will be fine, I’ll take it,’ and so we moved in together. And we’ve been here ever since.”

In 1987 she converted the garage into a studio, which is lit by a bay-facing picture window and skylight. Despite it’s locational hazards — it has flooded three times — it’s a tranquil setting that beckons visitors with a sign that reads Wet Paint. Outside the studio door is a green lawn, bordered by lavender bushes and a white picket fence, and a trail that leads out to a little wooden launch and boat house on the bay.

Her first local show was at Gallery Route One, and she’s taken part in the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT)’s Ranches and Rolling Hills art show since its second year. And while she continued her freelance graphic design work for a time, she’s been working exclusively as a studio painter since the late 1990s.  She’s since exhibited in galleries across California, and her work can be seen in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She last showed her paintings at Toby’s in 2008.

These days she says she’s often inspired by authors, especially those who create with words the kind of remote settings — with just a hint of human presence — that Ms. Schwartz is drawn to.

“If you can believe it, I’m just reading “The Grapes of Wrath” for the first time,” she says. “Wow! Steinbeck can really give you a sense of place!”

It is this sense of place that Ms. Schwartz’s own work so aptly conveys. Asked to describe her long-time home, she said: “It’s majestic in a serene sort of way. It’s teeming with life. To see the cattle slowly grazing their way down a hillside really make me feel . . .”

She pondered that very hillside for a moment.

“It really puts my own life in perspective,” she said.

An opening reception for Ms. Schwartz’s solo exhibition will take place this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m.