|DOROTHY LAMPL INSIDE HER STUDIO|
By Gussie Fauntleroy
In the Zen-like spirit that guides her daily life (although she’s not a practicing Buddhist), Taos painter Dorothy Lampl looks around at her quiet, simple lifestyle and declares herself fortunate in the realization that she has all she needs and that “enough is enough.” Well—except for books. The 72-year-old artist, an insatiable and eclectic reader, smiles as she admits, “I often get rid of books, but there are always more I need.”
And cats. Without naming a number, Lampl (whose name rhymes with “sample”) coyly concedes she possesses “the number of cats the county will allow.” And then there are her “paintable objects.” The small studio in her thick-walled adobe home is crowded with a lifetime collection of still-life material: richly colored fabrics, Chinese figurines, porcelain cups, Japanese dolls in traditional dress, dried flowers, copper pots. Outside in the garden, even more paintable subjects represent both lavish abundance and simple joy. In a profusion of summer color, peonies, poppies, dahlias, and wild roses await. Many will find their way onto Lampl’s canvases. She is known for the exquisite floral element in her award-winning works.
|PANSIES & PLUMS, OIL, 12 X 12|
Although her house brims with personal treasures and her paintings are in collections and galleries across the country, Lampl maintains a serene, semi-solitary life on the outskirts of Taos, and it suits her well. “I’m happy at home with my cats and books and paints, and there are days when I don’t even leave the house,” she says. “We live life between our ears, and it can be as complex or simple as we decide to make it. I made the decision a long time ago not to choose a complex life.”
Lampl’s early life, however, was perhaps less simple and more turbulent than she would have chosen. Raised in Oklahoma, she was, she says, a “rebellious misfit” whose unruly ways began at age 5. On the first day of kindergarten, her mother walked her to school, where little Dorothy did not want to be. She immediately snuck out, ran through the back alleys, and beat her mother home. “My dad thought it was hilarious, which spoiled me forever,” she confides. But less than a month later, her father died of cancer. Three months after that, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Dorothy was an only child, and her mother’s wartime job with the Army Corps of Engineers meant they moved frequently for several years before settling in a small northern Oklahoma town.
Already a solitary child, Dorothy found solace and refuge in drawing and books. The pattern she had established of sneaking out of school continued, and after her father died and her mother went to work, she was free to wander around town or, more frequently, spend hours at the public library. She was finally “busted” at the end of her third-grade year and forced to stay in school. That ignited her rebellious spirit even more, and she “got to know the vice principal very well,” she recalls. “My poor mother, bless her heart, had a lot to put up with.”
|PANSIES, OIL, 11 X 11|
Lampl’s love of drawing was established early on. Her mother’s steno pads, used only on one side, became Dorothy’s sketchpads, filled with drawings of everything she saw. She would go to the movies, memorize the actors’ costumes, come home, and draw them. “I still have one of those sketchpads from when I was 9 or 10. I couldn’t draw arms very well, so the women all had their arms behind their back!” she says, laughing.
At age 10 she created her first oil painting, a landscape copied from a postcard at the home of a private art teacher. Later Dorothy and her mother rented the second floor of a house whose owner, an elderly part-time painter, lived downstairs. Lampl remembers this landlady as the first person to show her how to stretch a canvas. “I learned art in a lot of odd little piecemeal ways,” she notes. “My father’s mother painted on fine china, and for a while I thought that’s what being an artist was. Learning from hobby painters gave me the idea that I could be an artist too, although it wasn’t until I was out of college that I got a better sense of what that really meant.”
College was Oklahoma State University, where Lampl majored in art for the first two and a half years. Then, faced with the requirement of an airbrush course, she panicked. In those days most art students expected to go into illustration, and airbrush painting was a necessity. However, the process involved a bulky, intimidating contraption with which Lampl was uncomfortable and not especially adept. Plus, she measured her artistic skills against those of an exceptionally talented fellow student—“and it didn’t look good,” she remembers. “I hadn’t found my niche at that point.” She switched majors and graduated with an advertising degree from the journalism department, a degree she never used. Soon after graduation she married and had a son, eventually expanding her family to include four daughters.
|YELLOW FIGURE WITH FLOWERS, OIL, 16 X 16|
At age 26, Lampl’s true art education began. Living in Shawnee, OK, she took a course with Richard Goetz, a noted still-life oil painter whose wife, Edith, taught pastels. Lampl studied with Goetz on and off for many years, raising her children—a playpen was a fixture in her studio when they were young—and later teaching art to children and adults. Although she has taken workshops with other renowned artists, such as Sergei Bongart and David Leffel, Lampl considers Goetz her most influential teacher. “He was such a master of color,” she says. “Never raw or jarring color, but subtle and lively.”
A close friend of Lampl’s in Oklahoma, still-life painter Laura Robb, moved to Taos in 1986 and immediately began badgering Lampl to consider relocating as well. The timing was right. Lampl’s marriage had ended some years earlier, and she had visited northern New Mexico a number of times and fallen in love with it. When her youngest daughter, a dancer, left home to attend performing arts school, Lampl headed west. “I rented a place and said I would spend three months in Taos. It turned into 20 years.”
Today, Lampl creates delicately lush imagery in which fallen petals reflect the insouciance and impermanence of nature, balanced by the timeless beauty of simple objects, often Asian in origin. Some paintings, such as ANN’S BOWL, have a story. “I have a very good friend who’s a potter, and her work has an Asian feel,” says Lampl. “I walked into her house one day and saw this bowl. It was extraordinarily simple, but purely perfect.” Lampl borrowed the bowl and set it up in an arrangement with green apples. “It was one of those pieces that I say just painted itself. It was like magic, like the brush knew exactly what to do.”
Her painting YELLOW ROSES began with a glimpse of the profusion of blooms on the rose bush outside her bedroom window. On other occasions it may be the local farmer’s market, or even the produce section in a grocery store, that provides the initial inspiration for a new work. Like her mentor, Lampl is drawn to color and revels in the discovery of subtle, unexpected hues—such as in a white onion, for example. With flowers, the color is lovely but obvious, Lampl observes. “But with something like an onion, the more you look at it, the more color you see.”
|YELLOW ROSES, OIL, 14 X 14|
After Lampl’s initial attraction to an object, the next step is pairing it with other items for the perfect arrangement. At this point she may stroll around her studio, attuned to the flicker of excitement that tells her to stop and pick something up. She might contemplate an object, put it down, and pick up something else. “In the process of looking at these things, I’m deciding whether there seems to be a natural conversation between the objects. I don’t want it to look stiff or contrived,” she explains. “I’m actually a painter of relationships between objects, rather than a painter of objects. It might take a day or two, but I just sit in my chair and look until I get an arrangement that seems graceful and natural.
“It’s like watching people around a table having a conversation when they don’t know they’re being watched,” she continues. “One person will lean forward and another will sit back with arms crossed. I’m sort of a voyeur of objects in this way.” And although Lampl’s focus remains on still lifes, she envisions one day portraying people in natural groupings as well. “I’ll do it someday. I’m always experimenting,” she says. “That’s what keeps painting fresh.”
Featured in June 2008