By Mark Mussari
As a girl, Laurie Kersey used to go to the art shows where her mother, an amateur painter, was exhibiting her work. By the age of 13, Laurie was exhibiting her own work in the junior division of these shows. “Charcoals, pastels, pen and ink—I would mat the pieces and sell them,” Kersey recalls fondly. “And I’d win awards.” Unknowingly, she was preparing for a life as a fine artist, following in her mother’s footsteps.
Born in Canada, Kersey spent most of her youth on the move. Her father raised horses, and the family relocated frequently, often going south for the winter. “I grew up in Ohio and went to school in Pittsburgh, New York, and Florida,” she explains. “Everywhere I moved I took my can of crayons.” In the schoolyard, she heard a frequent request from the other children: “Draw me a horse!” At home, she observed her mother’s artistic pursuits. “Every Friday night, she had three friends come over and they set up easels in the kitchen to paint,” she remembers. Her own identity as an artist was taking shape.
In grade school, Kersey received encouragement from an art teacher who put up a showcase displaying her work. In high school, she received more support: Recognizing Kersey’s talent, another art teacher took the fledging artist to the arts supply closet, opened it, and said, “Knock yourself out.” Kersey would go there during free periods and “just experiment” in different media. By the age of 16, she was begging her parents for an airbrush. “I never had to debate about what I was going to be when I grew up,” she says. “I knew it would be artsy.”
After high school, Kersey won a scholarship to attend a summer session at the Chautauqua Institution, a fine-arts camp in Chautauqua, NY. “It was a mentor-type program,” she explains, “and students were given free rein to experiment and develop their talents.” Kersey found herself immersed in the arts, surrounded by youthful painters, musicians, dancers, and actors. Although the experience was inspirational, she noticed that her teachers “ate, slept, and breathed art 24 hours a day. I didn’t want that at the age of 18.” Instead, believing it would leave her more free time, she chose a career in graphic arts, which she studied at the Arts Institute of Pittsburgh. “I was surrounded by artists with the same interests,” she says.
For the next 15 years, Kersey pursued a successful commercial art career, taking jobs in both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Eventually, she moved to Kill Devil Hills, NC, where the landscape inspired something in her. “I had moved to this beautiful coastal area, and I thought, My god, it’s gorgeous!” she recalls. “I kept seeing scenes that just melted into my brain.” Kersey produced a number of paintings that enabled her to show her work in some local galleries. In 1993, she spent a year in Sedona painting the Arizona desert. “In addition to the light and atmosphere, there’s a grandeur that you don’t get on the East Coast,” she says of painting among the red rocks.
Returning to North Carolina, Kersey realized she could no longer sit in an office all week. “I was unhappy with my work,” she admits, and nature’s beauty was calling to her artistic sensibilities. But she had a nagging feeling that she just didn’t know enough about painting. So she decided to go back to art school.
Kersey moved to San Francisco to study at the prestigious Academy of Art University. One day, she remembers, she was walking on campus when she passed by a huge display window with artwork by a teacher who was promoting his class. “It stopped me dead in my tracks,” says Kersey. The professor, Brian Blood, was teaching a plein-air landscape class. “It was my first real experience with plein-air painting,” she says. The course had another profound effect on Kersey: She eventually married Blood, whom she refers to today as her “built-in painting partner.”
Kersey cites her experience painting en plein air as defining in her development as a landscape artist. “It makes you see differently,” she says. “I do still work occasionally from photographs, but given the option, I prefer painting from life.” Like most landscape painters who frequently work outdoors, Kersey copes with the many challenges. “There’s the time factor and the rapid changes in light. And then the fog rolls in,” she notes. “But still, it’s addictive! It’s all worth it. There’s just no substitute.”
Kersey explains that the power of landscape painting also comes from conveying the unseen elements: “The crash of the ocean, the rush of the wind, the birds twittering—that’s also a part of it.” She admits that she does not really know “how that happens” but observes that “it just comes out.”
The California-based painter claims that her primary challenge is “to be as fresh and concise as possible.” One of the influences for this approach stems from her experiences as a graphic artist. “At commercial art school, I fell in love with some of the work done by artists using markers. A few strokes of the marker—and there was an automobile!” she recalls. She observes that the strength of those deceptively simple drawings emanated from “concise, deliberate strokes” and adds that “it’s a case of being more condensed, more poetic, with your brush strokes.”
A similar poetic quality surfaces in much of Kersey’s work. Blocks of color and seemingly rapid strokes draw the viewer deep into the picture. A distant sky, for example, may dissolve into a flat, misty tone. Kersey says it is this quality—“my concise brush stroke and somewhat subtle color palette”—that distinguishes her from other painters. Her chromatic sense is, indeed, noticeably quiet. “Many other landscape painters are bright and splashy. I’m more reserved,” says the artist. A subdued elegance emerges from these muted tonalities, and some of her oils actually seem more like watercolors with their soft blocks of color.
In addition to the stellar beauty of her landscapes, which comprise about two-thirds of her work, Kersey divides the rest of her artistic time equally among still lifes, figures, and horses. “Because I know horses and grew up with them, I can impart a sense of the animals’ gesture and character,” she notes.
Kersey says she admires those painters “who can do anything” and admits she is floored by the many accomplishments of Michelangelo: “He could paint, sculpt, and draw.” And, not surprisingly, she admires historic California plein-air painters such as Percy Gray and Granville Redmond.
The splendor of the California coast takes center stage in her piece LATE AFTERNOON, a large studio painting of a sweeping shoreline. “It’s that long, low light resulting in a rich, warm glow. It’s something that happens on the coast at certain times of the year,” she observes. One of the painting’s strengths is its strong diagonal division of space: the red-orange hue of the beach and cliffs offset by the expansive blue defining the ocean and sky. “I like a strong value contrast,” she says.
Today, the young girl who once hung her drawings next to her mother’s paintings at amateur art shows has exhibited and won awards at such prestigious venues as the San Luis Obispo Plein Air Painting Festival, the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters National Show and Paint Out, and the Carmel Art Festival Plein-Air Exhibition. Asked to define her painting style, Kersey says she considers herself a “painterly realist” and also comments on the general effect she is trying to achieve: “I want to provide a sense of peacefulness. I want to offer the viewer that sense of peace and beauty found in the natural world.”
Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; The Garden Gallery, Half Moon Bay, CA; K. Nathan Gallery, La Jolla, CA; Westbrook Galleries, Carmel, CA; Pitzer’s Fine Arts, Wimberley, TX; www.lauriekersey.com.
Featured in February 2010