June 4, 2020 | By Jennifer Ring | creativepinellas.org
Laura Waller, known for her Port of Tampa series, recently embarked on a new project. Waller’s Museo series takes us somewhere many of us haven’t been in months – art museums.
“I’ve always been a person who loves museums,” says Waller. “My husband and I, whenever we go someplace, whether it’s in the country or out of the country, we always gravitate to their art museums. It’s a way of learning about the country through someone else’s art.”
As we neared the end of Florida’s stay-at-home orders, Waller asked herself what she missed the most. “I miss restaurants because that’s where I met all my friends,” says Waller, “The other thing I really miss is having contact with people, or even with other artists, alive or deceased, through art museums.”
So she started going through photos and found some of her most recent favorite museum moments. “That’s where the impetus [for the Museo series] came from,” says Waller, “beginning to step out from coronavirus isolation into a space that I’ve always enjoyed more than most other places.”
Waller launched the series with a painting of Lesley Dill’s Red Ecstasy Dress from the Museum of Fine Art’s Art of the Stage exhibit. The MFA, Waller tells me, holds a special place in her heart for many reasons.
Red Ecstasy Dress by Leslie Dill – Museum of Fine Arts, Art of the Stage exhibit, photo by Jennifer Ring
When her granddaughter was much younger, Waller used to take her to the MFA every Saturday. “They had what I called a hunt, where they would give a picture of one of the paintings in the museum and turn [the kids] loose to find it.” Waller remembers the one time her granddaughter was handed a copy of Georgia O’Keefe’s Poppy. After the kids found the painting, Waller tells me “they had to sit down on the floor and draw it and paint it.” This way, they really got to know that painting.
Another time, when Waller visited the MFA with friends, she chanced upon an engineering class from Florida Technical College. “The professor, as part of his curriculum, takes his class to the museum, puts two people at a time in chairs in front of a single painting, and makes them sit there for 45 minutes to an hour without speaking,” says Waller. “At the end of that time, they’re allowed to talk.” Like the hunt, this exercise forces students to really look at a work of art and consider what it means to them.
“Once you really study a painting,” says Waller, “it’s like running into an old friend whenever you see it again.” Museums provide the stage for that focused study to happen.
“We’re not able to go into galleries as much as we used to,” Waller tells me. “The whole world is changing right now, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all works out. Even though you can look at a piece of art over the internet, it still won’t be the same experience as walking into an art gallery and falling in love with a piece of art, or walking into a museum and falling in love with a painting before you.”
Museums, like so many of Waller’s favorite subjects, are a world unto themselves. They’re a special place, free of distractions, where you can truly get lost in someone else’s art.
“We can’t afford to lose museums,” says Waller. “We can’t afford to lose the galleries.”
Last week we hosted the opening reception for Laura Waller: Bright Lights, Big City. It was a great evening and it is always a pleasure showing the work of Laura Waller. If you weren’t able to make it to the reception, we hope you will be able to make it into the gallery to see her paintings before the show closes on October 5th. We were able to present Laura with some questions about her work and the exhibit and we are happy to be able to share her answers with you today.
Your upcoming exhibit at the gallery is entitled Bright Lights, Big City. Can you tell us a bit about the show and what inspired you to create these pieces?
All art is autobiographical. I have been painting bright lights and big city places that are part of my DNA from NYC where I was born, to Tampa where I have lived the longest, to New Orleans where I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees to Rockland where I feel I flourish.
I have returned to NYC almost every year of my life and feel it is the quintessential city of America. Probably the 9/11 terrorists recognized this when they chose their target. At night, the city is aglow with neon and headlights through which the people dash. But, as in my painting titled NYC Abstracted No. 2, it can be the loneliest place in the midst of the crowds. In this painting, there is only one person in the window.
Some of the paintings in the show depict the interiors of the theaters. What was your process for creating these paintings?
I am fascinated by places that are worlds unto themselves. There is that encapsulated warm feeling one gets when you enter a brightly lit theater on a cold night. Shubert Theater No. 2 evokes that mood.
Lately, I have been focusing on the 1920s-1930s built theaters that dot our country and miraculously have been preserved and restored. The Strand in Rockland and the Tampa Theatre are examples of these classic architectural gems. I am lucky to live near both. They are a direct contrast to the cookie-cutter nature of our neighborhood multiplex cinemas. They welcome you by their elaborate settings from a slower time. Tampa Theatre brings you into a small Mediterranean village at night with stars above your head and white doves resting on ornately carved walls of muses and patterned plaster. After the event, you walk by a brightly lit concession stand in the lobby surrounded by tapestries, majestic stairs and Spanish tiles below your feet. You linger. Tampa Theatre: Concession Stand and The Strand Theater.
What about the I am Woman pieces? Can you give some background on these paintings?
I paint what I can’t say. For the recent past, I have been speechless as I watch what has been happening in how we as a country treat our citizens. I am very concerned about the return of misogyny in this era— from denigrating women and their looks to the somewhat misogynistic question even my female friends are repeating about the upcoming election — but is she electable?
And so I began celebrating women by painting them close up and uncontained by the canvas — perhaps a metaphor for how women should not be bound by outdated restraints.
You divide your time between studios here in Maine and in Florida. Does your work differ much from studio to studio?
This year for the first time I have a studio outside my home at Lincoln Street Center in Rockland. Bottom line, I am more productive. There are no distractions, and I’m on a schedule to work (as I was as a businesswoman for 35 years). I have a dedicated space to work, to explore, and to reach. I can also share thoughts with other artists by opening my door.
Thank you so much to the artist, Laura Waller, for sharing some insight into her life and work. Please visit our website for more information about the exhibit and her available paintings.
My studio is on the second story of a 300-year-old house in a tiny village in Castilla. The plaza is still — illegally — named Generalissimo Francisco Franco, over 40 years after the fall of the dictatorship.
All visitors think that the studio is charming, but its beauty isn’t very practical. The poorly isolated space is freezing in winter and scorching in summer. The shipping companies hate it — the access is through narrow stairs, and the door is low. Big works must be crated outside. When I’m rich and famous, I’ll build a functional studio, but I know that I’ll miss this place where I’ve created many works since I was a young artist.
I share my studio with seven other artists but personalize my portion of the space to suit my needs as a painter. In this picture, I have several paintings at various stages of completion. I like to work that way, often swapping between paintings within a body of work to create a unified aesthetic. Within reach of my chair I have my palette, airbrush, and at least a dozen varieties of acrylic paint.
Taking breaks really throws me off, so I try to have everything as organized and accessible as possible. Usually, I’ll get into my studio around 9am to get the most out of the natural light that comes in through the windows. In the past, I’ve worked in studios without windows, and it just wasn’t working for me. Having so many other artists around has also helped tremendously. So much of painting is subjective, and it helps to have someone who can lend a critique before I commit to a major decision.
I am a Portuguese-born performance and interdisciplinary artist that creates site-specific installations which I activate with interactive performances. Pictured here is my super tiny studio where you can see my work from both past and present in ceramics, photography, 3-D printing, and more. Activism, feminism, and food are key influences in my projects.
Tiana Traffas, La Crosse, WI
My workspace is a desk in the corner of my living room. I work in a very ritualistic way, inviting in those trance-like states that I think many artists know. I mostly work to music (Kelsey Lu induces the artistic flow) late at night when my family is sleeping. Often, there are multiple projects going at once, usually spread across the desk and floor. I work mostly with acrylic paint, India ink, watercolors, sometimes with fiber and polymer clay.
I draw inspiration from neolithic goddess cultures, myth, animism, symbolism, and menstruation, sex, breastfeeding, etc. My initiation into motherhood was this intense and powerful catalyst for emerging more fully into myself, and it inspires my work greatly. I have known as far back as memory reaches that I was an artist, but I’ve mostly created for myself. I have been anonymously wheat-pasting drawings, some with poems, and affixing small sculptures up in the streets of my neighborhood for a little over a year now. But now I want to really claim the title of artist. My goal is to bring my work out into the world. This means more street art, and selling at art markets, maybe even local gallery shows.
My studio is a special, private place in my house where I can close the doors and paint with my oils. I am free to keep it as I please, organize it chaotically, and fill it with art and thoughts. It reflects the stages in my life — a messy room as a kid and in college, then a house of five people’s things overflowing, to the neatness of these later years for efficiency, to this one spirited room full of loved objects in my artist studio. I want to walk in and smile, and I do as the warm colors of my NYC paintings reflect my early years and heritage. It is me.
The Alliance for the Arts’ 33rd Annual All Florida Juried Exhibit opened last Friday with an awards ceremony. Although juror R. Lynn Whitelaw could only name three winners, an honorable mention and two juror’s choice awardees, all 60 works he juried into the show are noteworthy and deserving of recognition. One of those works is Laura Waller’s 55th St., NYC No. 2. But it’s the subtitle of the piece that tells the tale. And that would be “Strung Up and Strung Out, a commentary on our times,” divulged the artist at the opening on March 8.
The painting is part of a new series that will be the subject of a show at Elizabeth Moss Gallery in Falmouth, Maine in September. The series is centered around motifs gleaned from Manhattan at night, particularly in Times Square and the Theatre District. The Falmouth gallery that’s hosting the exhibit is calling it In the Limelight. Waller and her husband visit New York City every December.
Laura doesn’t paint en plein air. Instead, she takes a slew (that’s a technical term for hundreds) of photos that serve as both motifs, mnemonic triggers and painterly inspiration. This past December she collected even more material than she normally shoots. “When you’re walking in the City, there are all these magical sites, especially down Broadway with the neon lights and everyone is looking down on their cellphones [instead of at the building, the lights and the cityscape towering overhead],” Waller laughs ironically. “The ubiquitous cellphone that’s everywhere.” But that was just one of many anomalies.
Waller also happened upon a model of the Statue of Liberty chained to a suitcase and storefront so she couldn’t be hijacked. Laura found the imagery so full of import and social commentary, that she had to capture it on linen. But Waller’s interest is in the angles, geometrical shapes and broad swaths of color that spire far above street level. Laura especially delights in the water towers that top virtually every skyscraper and tall building in the city. “They’re all up there [like gargantuan spiders] with their spindly legs hanging down.”
Another object that insinuates itself into the skyline are the jibs, booms and operator’s cabs of the immense cranes that are reconfiguring the city’s Lego-like architecture on a real-time basis. Waller is sensitized to cranes and big booms. Many are featured in her Port Side series, which presents an up-close and personal view of the cargo ships, freighters and other big boats moored in Port Tampa Bay.
“If you think about that, there are people who spend their days looking down on the city from the vantage of an operator’s cab,” Waller muses expansively. “They’re doing the drone view,” she adds, rather than taking part of the ebb and flow of the workers, shoppers and tourists who clog the streets and sidewalks far, far below. Waller’s new Limelight series continues the artist’s abstract exploration of large spaces that focuses over the past three seasons primarily on the commercial freighters and cargo ships that sit at anchor in Port Tampa Bay. As is the case with 400 and 500 foot vessels, you cannot take in a 40, 50 or 60 story building all at once.
Because of their size and scale, you can only experience a skyscraper or aggregation of such edifices by focusing on some detail or component part, and that’s definitely the case with 55thSt. NYC No. 2. You can train your eyes on the American flag or the wires bisecting the vertical and horizontal planes that comprise the surrounding buildings, but it’s impossible to take in all of these various components at the same time. Just like the paintings in her Port Side series, there’s a very abstract quality to Waller’s Limelight paintings when viewed up close. The emphasis on flat color, geometrical shapes, parallel lines and other forms is vaguely reminiscent of Mondrian’s use of the pure geometric forms underlying all existence to convey absolute reality.
But as you retreat from proximity to the canvas, the composition becomes representational. Even then, however, your mind has to finish the image because the actual subject extends hundreds of feet off canvas. “I like to present subject matter where, if you made a viewfinder with your hands, you can go anywhere within the composition and find something interesting to look at,” Waller said of her Port Side series.
“This lets viewers choose which part of the composition to connect with, and that enables them to have a different experience each time they look at the painting…. [T]hey get to choose the relationship they forge with the composition.” As she did with the Port Side series, Waller feels equally compelled to uncover what lies beneath the surface of massive, imposing structures – buildings and industrial plants which are historic as well as others not yet complete.
“It is their dynamic sense of scale that I seek to convey through tight, focused composition of color and form.” Waller has introduced one subject into her Limelight paintings that viewers won’t find in her ships at port. The new series of urban landscapes will be include people.” I seem to be including more people in my work, especially of New York, but they are usually not the stars of the canvas,” Laura shares. “They compete with the manmade structures which, in NY, typically minimize their presence.” Laura Waller’s 55th St., NYC No. 2 is on view along with the other 59 works included in the Alliance’s 33rd Annual All Florida Juried Exhibition now through March 30, 2019. For more information, please visit artinlee.org or telephone 239-939-2787.
Some people have one career in their lifetime. Others have two. Laura Rhodes Waller (NC ’66, SW ’68) is now on her third.
After she graduated from Newcomb, she earned her master’s degree in social work at Tulane and began a career as a therapist. Eleven years later, she became a financial planner, and ran her own company for decades. When she retired in 2012, she sold her business to her son (who is also a Tulane graduate) and began her third career: full-time artist.
She admits the transition may seem strange, but her enthusiasm for art started long before she began making it. She credits her Newcomb art history professor Roberta Murray Capers for generating her interest in researching art. Waller was assigned a term paper for class, and she chose an artist whose work she had just seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Jules Bastien-Lepage. “I saw his massive painting of Joan of Arc, and I was just floored by it. But [Capers] came back and said, that’s not a prominent enough artist to do a whole paper on. I said, you’re trying to teach us enough so that we can walk into any gallery or museum and identify good art, and this is what I did, I used what you taught me. It worked out and I got an A on the paper. But that class stayed with me, and taught me how to see things, not only art but the world around me at more than just a brief glance.”
But it would be years before she turned her interest in art into something more. First, there was the financial planning. It was a great career move, but it came with a high stress level. “To relieve that stress I would go to watercolor workshops. It was a way to totally get away from the market,” she said.
When she decided to pursue art full time, she had the advantage of her business experience to help jump start her career. “I also switched at that point to oil paints; I studied one-on-one with a woman artist to make that transition, partly because I think oils are taken more seriously, even though I love watercolors and still do them too.”
Today, Waller is about to start her fifth residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Many of her paintings focus on urban landscapes; one series was on the Port of Tampa Bay. “I love what I call ‘drop-ins,’ where you enter a new world that you’ve gone by all the time, but you’ve never been in it, and maybe it’s also a place where very few women have entered. So painting the Port of Tampa Bay meant going to our port and getting sponsored in; there are very few women in the port. I got in and learned something totally new.”
She is represented by two galleries now, one in Maine and one in Florida. She divides her time between the two places. Both galleries are run by women, she notes. “I had two solo shows this year that were initiated by women curators, and I have a large show that will be opening in Florida in January that again was initiated by a female curator. I point that out because I think it’s interesting the way all of a sudden women—and particularly older women—are being discovered by the commercial side of art. The Whitney Museum just had the first retrospective of Carmen Herrera’s work when she was 101. So, maybe I’m just entering the prime of my career.”
“The nice thing about having an encore career like art is you’re giving up managing people and all the extraneous things you have to do in a business career, and you can just focus on learning your craft, and developing what you want to create through your art. I think we’re forging a new way of looking at this stage in life, which used to be you retired and died, but now you retire and if you’re lucky you may have 20 to 30 years. To me, playing golf or whatever is not enough. If you’re at this stage in your life just go for it. This is the time to try what you’ve always wanted to do, have some adventure.”
Laura Waller’s next solo exhibition Rockland, Tampa and New York: Recent Works by Laura Waller opens January 11, 2019 until March 1, 2019 at Dunedin Fine Art Center in Dunedin, Florida.
We are so excited about the the opening reception for Laura Waller’s “Industry and Urbanity” opening reception tomorrow night at the gallery. We hope you will join us but if you can’t, you can come in to see her work on display until July 14th.
In anticipation of the opening we presented Ms. Waller some questions relating the show and her life and she very graciously responded with some very thoughtful answers. I am happy to share our interview today on the blog and know you will enjoy learning more about this accomplished artist!
Your show “Industry and Urbanity” is opening this Thursday at the gallery. Can you tell a little bit about the show and how you chose the pieces to include?
After four years I finished the Working Port Series but I am still exploring two themes that run through these works.
The first theme is what I call Drop Ins. I am fascinated with situations where I am dropped into a world I don’t know. It is there but I don’t know it is there—hence the Port, the cement plant and in some respects, the theater.
How many times over the past 25 years have I passed through Dragon Cement on US1 but not passed into it? The plant and the excavation site exist on either side of the road but are shielded by the foliage. I had the opportunity to do an after hours private hard hat tour and was amazed. To look down from the 9th floor of the tower and see the deeply terraced landscape of the limestone vein on one side of the road and the simple industrial shapes of the massive plant in all hues of grey on the other side of the road was astounding.
Dragon Cement No. 7 is an attempt to capture these shapes which remind one of a Morandi-type still life of a landscape.
Dragon Cement No. 4 is the scene in the harbor across from my house in Rockland where a family of osprey has built their nest atop the ladder on the Dragon Cement barge. The barge has not moved in over a year. Giant wings flap if you approach the nest warning one away from this locale where nature and industry’s needs have met.
As I understand it, you developed your passion for art while in college at Tulane University. Can you share what sparked your passion and the path you took to follow it?
After falling in love with art history classes in college, I of course got a Masters in social work, became a therapist then naturally morphed into financial planning before segueing into painting. I joke, but that is the real path I pursued. Along the way I used art as a way to escape the stresses of the stock market while I ran my financial planning firm. I firmly believe all of these life experiences shape the way I perceive the world which consciously and unconsciously becomes part of my paintings.
You currently live and work in your studios in both Florida and Maine. Are your studios and work habits similar in both locations? Are you inspirations easier to come by in a certain location?
My work habits and days are similar in each place. An early riser, I transition from home to studio by going to a local restaurant( Rock City Cafe in Maine) and painting or drawing in my sketchbook over a pot of tea and surrounded by neighborhood friends. I then return home to my studio and paint from 8 am to 2 pm. It works best for me to have regular hours as I did as a businesswoman lest I get distracted.
You have often painted works related to the waterfront but you have recently begun to focus more on industrial sites. Can you tell me more about your interest here and inspiration?
The concept of “wabi sabi” intrigues me—there is beauty in the humble, the incomplete… Hence, the luscious shades of rust in Dragon Cement No. 2 with its crisscrossing pipes intersecting on the canvas. A colleague once said that I paint the grit that starts the pearl. A poetic way of saying it! Radio City Music Hall No. 1 celebrates the jewel of neon on a cold December night in the city.
Can you tell me about the theater paintings featured in the exhibit?
Shubert Theater NYC No. 2 shows the restless anticipation before the curtain rises. I painted it during an artist residency. A fellow artist from France wanted me to remove the exit sign and then the painting would be timeless and could be the 1850s. Never mind that women didn’t streak their hair then, I felt sadly that the exit sign is so much a sign of our times. When we enter the plane, the theater, the movie house, one notes the exit in case of an incident. There is a person pointing in the foreground. Is it because the curtain is rising; something unexpected is happening; or there is danger?
I know you have inspired many artists but are there some that have inspired you?
There are so many. They are truly the muses who sit on my shoulder in the studio. To name a few:
Tina Ingraham who taught me how to transition from watercolors to oils.
Helen Frankenthaler whose painting, Canyon, best captures the awesome feeling of looking into the canyon. I tried to emulate that capture of the sensation when I painted 57th Street NYC and hoped to share a bit of vertigo when looking up.
Giorgio Morandi’s beauty in simple subjects.
The Ashcan School and its celebration of the real life of real people.
Do you have a favorite painting in the show?
This is like asking me to play favorites with my children. Perhaps 57th Street NYC explains the second theme I continue to explore. I usually paint angles. Often the vanishing point is off the canvas so the viewer has to join me in completing the image. This often hints at the massiveness of the structure as you are only seeing part of it on the canvas. I am intrigued by why, when I look with my head bent to the side , does the horizon still seem straight across or the skyscraper still look straight up in my mind? I am rarely holding my head vertically straight and yet lines are straight and perpendicular in my perception. This painting lets the buildings tip dramatically as in reality they did when I snapped the photo to paint from. This particular painting ,which seems to have a house at the intersection of the cranes way up in the sky, brings to me a childhood image of the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk.
Thanks again to Laura Waller for giving us an in-depth look into her paintings and her work. You can find her website HERE as well as following her on Facebook HERE. Don’t forget to come to the gallery tomorrow night to see the paintings discussed here and celebrate Ms. Waller’s opening. It is an evening we are very much looking forward to!