Still Life With Asian Pears, oil, 8 x 16.
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
New Mexico painter Laura Robb used to think she would make an excellent eyewitness during a grocery store robbery. “I thought I was so visual that I would remember everything very accurately,” she says. “Then about 15 years ago, I realized that I would be the worst eyewitness because I would be staring at the eggplants the whole time and thinking about how I would paint them. I wouldn’t even know anything unusual was happening in the store.”
Robb laughs good-naturedly about her oblivion. And in fact, friends and gallery owners who know her well most often use the word “focused” to describe her. “As much as any artist I know, her art and her life are fused together. She sets up her life to focus on her painting,” says Dan Blanchard, co-owner of Grapevine Gallery in Oklahoma City, OK.
Gladiolas With Asian Figurine, oil, 40 x 24.
Robb agrees with Blanchard’s assessment. As an example of her focus she describes the house she designed and built near Taos two years ago. The salmon-colored, adobelike structure has no living room; instead, the space on the first floor where most visitors would expect to find a living area is her studio—a bright, airy space with an easel placed where a sofa might have nested. Robb believes that everything she subtracts from her life gives her more time to paint. “A living room is a low priority compared to a studio. Cooking is a low priority, too. I eat lots of tortillas wrapped around things,” she says with traces of a genteel Oklahoma drawl.
It was in Oklahoma that her love of art first took root, she says, beginning with half-day art studies in high school. After graduation she spent a year studying with New York classical painter Michael Aviano. Back in Oklahoma, she solicited critiques from Richard Schmid and became a voracious student of works by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin [1699-1779] and John Singer Sargent [1856-1925]. Then in 1986 Robb left her native Oklahoma behind and moved to New Mexico, attracted by the light and landscape in the Land of Enchantment.
One recent weekday morning in Taos, a slight snow has fallen and already melted. The temperature is in the low 30s but the sun is hot and bright, sending a shaft of light across Robb’s living room-cum-studio.
Upon surveying the room, a visitor quickly surmises that it is inhabited by a still-life painter. In one corner there’s a bookcase that displays an assortment of vases, fans, urns, pots, and Asian figurines. A visitor might also surmise that a figurative painter works here and a model is about to arrive. Nearby is a green velvet curtain suspended from the ceiling, forming a background behind a chair that sits on a wooden stand. Inches away there’s a poster advertising a French Impressionist show, indicating the inhabitant’s interest in nature and landscape painting.
On the High Road, oil, 10 x 10.
Robb paints all three subjects, of course—still-life, figurative, and landscape. She is primarily known, however, for her lush still lifes filled with exuberant brushwork and expressive color. Radiant red gladiolas, brilliant gold sunflowers, and glistening blue porcelain vases are the objects of her artistic affection. Robb quickly points out, however, that her still-life works are not about their individual components. “The beauty is not in the objects themselves, but in the way they go together—the abstract interaction of shapes and colors,” she says.
Although she believes that individual objects are not the source of beauty, Robb admits that she is particularly attracted to Asian figurines, vases, and bowls because of their grace and elegance. “I have had a long love affair with Asian things,” she says. Once she purchased a pair of shiny red chopsticks that she painted over and over again. “I still paint them,” she laughs. “They seem like such a great addition to compositions. If landscape painters had an excuse to put in a bright red pointer to lead the eye around the painting, they would do it.”
Lately she is more likely to include a figurine in her creations, as in Gladiolas With Asian Figurine. Like the chopsticks, the porcelain statue—on loan from painter Walt Gonske—serves as a compositional device, providing a focal point that draws the viewer’s eye into the painting.
Still Life With Pears and Teacup, watercolor, 6 5/8 x 7 5/8.
Robb’s inventive rendering makes the figurine even more attractive. In real life the statue appears stiff and static, but the artist has added movement by using curved and sweeping brushwork that mimics brushstrokes in other areas of the painting, like the gladiolas. As a result, the figure’s garment has a windblown look. The technique is in line with advice that Robb’s teacher, Michael Aviano, once gave her. “Painting something accurately is not nearly as important as making sure there is a unified feel to the objects in the painting,” he told her. “When you set up and paint a still life, make sure the objects talk to each other,” she says, paraphrasing her teacher.
Robb says this particular painting was inspired by a neighbor’s gift of the fiery red bouquet of gladiolas. “I had just finished painting for a big show, but I couldn’t resist painting the glads,” she says. After deciding to paint them, she fashioned a tableau of objects to accompany the flowers. Part of the joy of painting still-life works is setting up the various arrangements, Robb says. “I love being able to pick my own colors and push the shapes around the way I want. I have gotten spoiled knowing that I control all these things.”
Still, she is even more pleased when arrangements come together spontaneously—a group of objects randomly thrown on a table can inspire her. Indeed, a glance around Robb’s studio reveals countless possibilities for artistic tableaux—copper pots, glass pitchers, blue vases, urns, and Asian fans all rest side by side, waiting to become a painting.
Inspiration can also come from a visit to the produce department at her nearby food store. “When I go to the grocery store I get just as excited about the turnips as I do about roses,” Robb says. She notes, however, that she rarely goes grocery shopping for food to eat and food to paint at the same time. “I’m usually on a mission to get one or the other, but not both,” she says. Searching for objects to paint requires a certain single-minded focus.
Not surprisingly, Robb works on only one painting at a time—a mission that can take anywhere from a few hours to several days. Unlike many artists, she doesn’t play music while she works because she finds it annoyingly distracting. And though friends have encouraged her to join plein-air excursions and paint with groups of other artists, she always declines. Again, too distracting. The sole visitors to her studio while she is painting are her dog, Trudy, and her orange tabby cat, Scooter, whom she rescued after he was run over by a car near her home.
To continually stay fresh, Robb frequently switches either subject matter or media. “When I switch to a new subject or medium, my feet are knocked out from under me and I’m able to look at things with a childlike or student’s point of view,” she says. She chooses oils, pastels, or watercolors, often depending on her mood. “The choice is an instinctual thing,” she explains.
For example, if she is feeling particularly introverted she feels drawn to watercolors. In comparison to her lively, expressive oils, Robb’s watercolor works tend to be quiet and spare, reminiscent of paintings by Danish painter Emil Carlsen [1853-1932]. The straight horizontal line of the shelf in Still Life With Pears and Teacup, for example, intentionally evokes a sense of calm. Interestingly, she says, the simpler compositions in many of her watercolor works are more difficult to paint because she must work harder at making the negative space interesting.
Ever vigilant about staying inventive, Robb often crops her compositions in unusual ways and selects canvases in uncommon sizes. “Life would be easier if I used standard-size canvases,” Robb says. “It would also be less trouble if I didn’t use so many colors in my paintings. But staying out of trouble has never been a goal.”
What has become her goal is to communicate her personal sense of beauty in each painting. “My most cherished paintings are the ones in which really common things like onions become beautiful,” she says.
As for long-term career goals, Robb says she lives and paints day to day. She adds that she will be happy if she can live her life like her father, an engineer, who invented and created things until the day he died. “He loved what he did,” she says. “I hope I can always stay in the moment and enjoy the process of inventing and creating things like my father.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; and Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO.
Featured in April 2001