By Norman Kolpas
Viewing an assortment of Molly Schmid’s recent works can make it difficult to pin her down. At one glance, she’s a landscape artist, capturing snowy scenes of rural villages under hazy winter skies. Turn your head, and you encounter an accomplished floral painter, filling canvas after canvas with vibrant blossoms in oil. Her way with still lifes expresses equal mastery, each object impeccably yet casually placed and expertly rendered. Intimate portraits of adults and children alike bespeak a fine-tuned sensitivity that imbues physical likenesses with a true sense of spirit.
Whatever their subjects, Schmid’s works shine as exemplars of classical representational painting, a term she offers up herself to describe her style—before she adds in the next breath, “That always sounds so academic to me. But I have not been able to come up with a really catchy alternative.”
Ask the artist herself to contemplate the variety evident in her growing body of work, however, and she finds a common thread that also expands on how she defines her approach to art. “They are all paintings of things that are near and dear to me or things that I find beautiful and fascinating,” she says. “I paint them with a tremendous amount of care and thought, sometimes in a more painterly style, sometimes more refined in my brushwork and colors.”
Schmid comes by both her painterliness and her refinement through genetics and training. As her surname may quickly suggest to lovers of realist art, she is the daughter of renowned master Richard Schmid. “We weren’t really aware of our dad’s stature or of the work he was doing and how it impacted others,” says Molly of her childhood in Sherman, CT, where she was born in 1969, the youngest of Schmid’s three daughters. “I was always interested in art because it was part of our daily environment. I loved sitting in back of my dad and just watching him paint,” she says. “But I didn’t grow up thinking this was the path that I wanted to follow.”
Her early interests and talents, in fact, went in a far different direction. “I was a terrific math and science student,” she says, explaining why she entered Florida State University in Tallahassee to major in biology. “I had a vision of doing some sort of important research involving animals out in the field.” The realities of such work, however, soon made her revise that romantic vision. “The repetitious nature of science and experimentation didn’t fit my personality,” she explains. “I get bored very easily.”
Eventually, she took a yearlong break from college to explore other options. “I found myself picking up a camera and playing with photography. I did gourmet cooking and toyed around with the idea of going to culinary school. And I started sketching and doodling, which turned into a fairly regular practice.” She also met a local graphic artist she eventually married, who encouraged her to take art classes.
Back at Florida State, Schmid enrolled in a basic drawing class. “At the end of the course,” she recalls, “the professor pulled me aside and encouraged me to pursue art and take it more seriously. His words really hit home. I’d been looking for a path that would be fulfilling, enjoyable, fun, and positive.” Art proved to be all those things for her. Schmid graduated magna cum laude in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art.
Steadily, she began to build her professional career. “It just became a matter of reaching out to people, sending out photographs of my work, and slowly introducing myself to the art community,” she notes. “Things fell into place for me, and one thing led to another.” Though the efforts were all her own, she also benefited from her father’s input. “Once I had graduated, he came down from New Hampshire, where he lives, and saw some of my work,” she recalls. “He understood what I was doing and gave me a lot of advice on things like framing and photographing, how to put together a portfolio, what formats galleries like to receive, the business of art, and how galleries deal with artists.”
They also painted together for the first time, a practice they continue on Molly’s visits to him. “In the beginning,” she says, “it was a student-teacher relationship. We’ve sort of moved out of that phase, and we’re painting now, well, not as peers, because I don’t paint at the level he paints, but on more of an equal footing.”
Two years ago, she became a part of Stove Prairie Press, the company her father formed to publish his book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, which was released in 1998. On average, Molly now spends about half of every day working as the company’s vice president, overseeing the business operations and designing advertising. She also did some of the design work on her father’s latest book, The Landscapes, which came out this past December.
If those responsibilities make it seem as if she has a very busy life, that doesn’t even begin to express the extent of it. She’s a dedicated single mom to her 8-year-old son, Ian (she and her husband divorced about six and a half years ago), and she’s beginning to plan a new home, complete with upstairs studio, on a couple of acres in the horse country between Tallahassee and the town of Monticello. “It will have pastoral views with lots of cows and gardens and some beautiful oak trees,” she says of the area. “And my studio will be very airy and light, with a vaulted ceiling and a tall set of windows with views of the pasture.”
With construction most likely to begin next year, Schmid is dedicating every moment she can spare this year to her painting, “stockpiling work so I’ll have something to show even when my painting comes to a screeching halt.” She stays fresh, she says, by “switching subject matter and sizes.”
One ready-at-hand subject she returns to frequently is her son. “I’ve been painting Ian since he was born, and he’s constantly posing for me,” she says, admitting that it’s harder to let some of those very personal paintings out of her grasp. “I do have a couple that I have not parted with—and will not part with—because they are beautiful images. But, hey, I also have the real deal.”
It’s clear that her talent is the real deal, too. Take her small PINK ROSE STUDY, a floral work with such presence and depth that it’s hard to restrain oneself from reaching out to pluck a blossom from the canvas. She herself cherishes the painting for multiple reasons. “I love the rich color scheme,” she says, “and the way each flower has its own little identity and personality, from the bud in the middle to the brown, decaying flowers to one spectacular rose that looks like it has a face.”
Most significant of all to her, however, is the fact that the painting “started off as an assignment from my father,” she says with obvious pride. “He wanted to give me a subject to see what I was going to do with it. Three quarters of the way through, we sat down and he critiqued it for two and a half hours. It helped me add certain things to make it more powerful, like pushing my darks a little bit more, and not being afraid of the contrasts in all the flower petals or the heaviness of the leaves in the background. He told me to bring out some of the fresh petals, make them stronger, and then give more texture to the dying flowers. He kept saying, ‘Paint the dead flower, paint the dead flower. You don’t need to have perfect flowers all the time.’”
Sometimes, however, rather than approaching a canvas with such critical deliberation, she’ll create something in a burst of spontaneity. Take, for example, MY BAYOU, a small monochrome portrait of her dog, a rescue animal from Hurricane Katrina. “Bayou was sleeping in my studio. I did a rough sketch to block her in, and then photographed her so that when she finally got up, I could load the photos onto my computer,” she explains. “I just put the color all over the canvas, then began taking it off and pushing the paint around, using stiff brushes and rubbing textured cloth across the canvas to scoop up paint. Then, I went in with a finer brush to get the nice little details of her face and paws. Start to finish, it maybe took two hours, and it’s so her.”
Hearing Schmid relate such creative acts with so much joy and vigor, it’s obvious that she has found the fun, fulfilling, positive path she’d first sought almost two decades ago. “It did not happen overnight, and it came about as the result of a lot of hard work and perseverance,” she concludes. “But I feel incredibly privileged to spend my days the way I do, being an artist and doing something with my life that I really enjoy.”
Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; M Gallery of Fine Art, Sarasota, FL; www.mollyschmid.com.
Group show, “The Art of the Portrait” Conference, Portrait Society of America, Reston, VA, April 22-25.
Richard Schmid Fine Art Auction, Bellvue, CO, September 5.
Featured in April 2010