Artists’ Studio | Shirley Novak & Ralph Oberg

By Wolf Schneider

You’re married, you’re both painters, and you share a studio in Montrose. Now Shirley, you’re from California originally, aren’t you?

Shirley: Yes, from Long Beach.

And Ralph, you’re a Colorado boy who went to Colorado State University on an art scholarship, began doing wildlife art in 1974, then plein-air landscapes in 1987?

Ralph: All true.

Shirley, your specialty is flowers—both painting them and growing them. So what flower grows well in the arid Southwest without being a water hog?

Shirley: Well, I’m a member of Overwaterers Anonymous, but I’ll say Iceland poppies. They grow very well here.

I know you two met at a painting workshop in Aspen in 1996, but who pursued whom?

Ralph: It was a mutual attraction. I do recall, though, one of the days I’d gone off into this meadow to paint, and I heard this racket coming down the road. Shirley had her palette on a luggage carrier, and she set up pretty close to me. Then she offered me half of her lunch. And she’s been taking care of me ever since! [Laughs]

Tell me about the studio you share—you built both the studio and your house, right?

Ralph: Yes. It’s an American farmhouse, clapboard. Lots of porches. The studio is upstairs—it’s a vaulted room of 1,150 square feet. It’s not where we’d entertain high rollers or anything. It has industrial carpet. No skylights, but north-facing windows. We have a full 4-foot-wide stairway going up there from the front door so we can haul large canvases up and down.

Then there’s a garden cottage that’s a studio, too?

Shirley: Yes, that’s my summer studio; it’s about 12 by 16.

Is it sometimes an awful lot of togetherness to live together and paint together?

Ralph: With anybody but her, that’d probably be true. Shirley’s very easy to get along with. I, on the other hand, am tough to get along with. I do think the mutual critiques have been very valuable for both of us.

Who critiques whom more?

Shirley: Now, it’s a free-for-all. It didn’t used to be.

Ralph: Yeah, I used to get my hand bit off once in a while if she wasn’t ready to hear it. [Laughs]

Who’s the neatnik, and who’s the messy one?

Ralph: We’re both slobs. [Laughs]

Well, you’re compatible then. What do you each consider the other’s forte in painting?

Ralph: With Shirley, it’s her palette technique and her juicy, rich, impasto paint that she mixes.

Shirley: Ralph really captures the essence of the light and color when he’s plein-air painting.

Where do you go for a gourmet meal and how many hours does it take to get there?

Shirley: Actually, Cazwella’s here in Montrose. It’s where the artists go—like our friends Wayne Wolfe, Mark Pettit, and Len Chmiel.

How have you changed since being together?

Ralph: She made it rather clear to me early in our relationship, “Now, you’re not really getting a wife, and you’re certainly not getting a secretary. You’re going to be living with another artist.”

Shirley: We don’t have a wife. We need one.

What quality have you each decided an artist must have?

Shirley: Clyde Aspevig once told me an artist has to have an opinion.

Ralph: Yeah, if you don’t have something to say, what’re you doing?

Shirley: And you have to take risks, and you better not dwell on the negative.

What’s your mantra?

Shirley: “Laziness is the curse of the human race.”

Ralph: “Face it, nobody owes you a living.”

Which artist, living or dead, would you most like an hour of advice from?

Ralph: Nicolai Fechin.

Shirley: Childe Hassam.

When you reach the end of this incarnation, what sentence would sum it up for you?

Shirley: “She was a late bloomer.”

Ralph: “What’s next?”

Novak is represented by Simpson Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; Sylvan Gallery, Charleston, SC; and Smith-Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO. Oberg is represented by Simpson Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; and Sportsman’s Gallery, Atlanta, GA.

Featured in “My World” August 2006