|BELLS AND A WHISTLE, OIL, 14 X 18|
By Wolf Schneider
Even though she’s lived in McAllen, TX, for more than 30 years now, Berry Fritz hasn’t forsaken her British roots. She still speaks with a crisp British accent. And she’s still quite the gardener, adapting the skills she learned back in England to her south Texas garden, where she lovingly nurtures many of the flowers that show up in her paintings.
Her still lifes range from classical in nature—with vases of flowers, fruit, and figurines—to works that show light-hearted subjects, such as her brightly colored painting of a toy train titled JELLYBEAN EXPRESS. Regardless of the subject matter, Fritz’s paintings are all created with careful attention to shapes, planes, reflections, highlights, lowlights, and color gradations.
“I am very enamored of the Dutch painters of the 17th century,” says Fritz, whose works are clearly influenced by the techniques of Jan Vermeer and other Dutch masters. “It’s all about the light. The objects have to emerge from the background. I like the light to fall from the left, and it has to enhance the composition by highlighting the objects placed there, picking out the curves of a handle or a rim. As you move across the painting, the light becomes less strong, so objects on the right don’t catch as much light.”
In her series called Absorbing the Masters, Fritz incorporates the artworks of Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and other masters into her own paintings. For example, a horse painted by 18th-century equine artist George Stubbs can be seen tacked to the wall in Fritz’s piece titled HORSEPOWER. Beneath it is a Wyoming license plate, with its signature rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronc, and a toy model of a classic Mustang convertible. Using a palette of mostly orange-yellows and browns, with the punch of blue from the model car, she has used centuries-old European techniques to create an iconic homage to her adopted homeland. The result is pure Americana.
Fritz confirms that her style of choice is representational realism. “I tried impressionism, but I’m not satisfied with an impression,” she says. “I’m greedy. I want the whole thing, body and soul.” Controlled perfectionism is what’s she after, which is why she chooses to paint still lifes.
“Still life is the style you have the most control over,” she reasons. “I don’t have to wait for a model to show up. I don’t have to hike out into the wilderness to paint a landscape. I like order. And the reason I like still life is that I can set it up and move things around and change the lighting.”
Fritz stages compositions that are uniquely her own, like a cut-open watermelon against a night sky, a bevy of brass bells, or a cornucopia of citrus fruits spilling from a copper bowl. She often uses what is close at hand, such as flowers or fruit—“we have a lot of citrus fruit down here, so that’s convenient,” she explains—or items that she has picked up in her travels, such as copper bowls and pitchers and santos she buys south of the border, which is just 9 miles from where she lives.
So how does an English girl fit in in McAllen, TX? “I like to think I can fit in just about anywhere,” responds Fritz. “I’ve lived in England, Scotland, Morocco, Canada, and the United States. To me, it’s kind of exotic being here so close to Mexico. While I don’t paint specifically border paintings, I do sometimes draw on Mexican themes—like using a Mexican table or a statue of the virgin. And I travel to Mexico a lot. My paintings tend to be very colorful, and I think that’s a Mexican influence.”
Born in 1942, Fritz likes to refer to herself as “a pioneer baby boomer.” She grew up on the Isle of Wight, just off the southern coast of England. “It’s 20 minutes by boat from Portsmouth, which is the headquarters of the British navy. There are a lot of seaside resorts and Victorian hotels on the island, which is world famous for sailing regattas,” says Fritz, who still returns twice a year to visit her mother, and muses that if she had never left, she might have become a maritime painter.
|HELP YOURSELF, OIL, 16 X 20|
Her father worked for a company that printed greeting cards, so Fritz had ample paper stock for drawing, which she began doing in earnest at age 8. “I drew a lot with crayons. I was usually the best in the class at drawing and painting, so my ego was nourished,” she admits. A distant relative, Frank Brangwyn, was president of the Royal Academy of Arts, so family members were not surprised by her artistic talent.
When Fritz was 14, her family moved to Inverness, Scotland, where her father was sent to run a postcard factory. “It was absolutely gorgeous there,” she remembers. “We were in the middle of the highlands, with lakes and trees and mountains and seascapes. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are in Scotland.”
Fritz considered going to the Glasgow School of Art (and today regrets her decision not to), but instead of enrolling in college, she went to London where she worked as a secretary and took a few classes at the City & Guilds of London Art School. But the travel bug bit her, and soon she was off to the south of France, picking grapes to earn money. That was followed by teaching English as a second language for two years in Morocco. While traveling in Spain, she met Don, her future husband. Fritz then moved to Montreal, where she and Don reunited. They married in 1967, relocated to Lubbock, TX, and then to Missouri, where Don earned a Ph.D. on his path to becoming an English professor. In 1975 they moved to McAllen, TX (population 126,000), and have been there ever since.
Although Fritz did not obtain a formal art degree, she says she has been influenced by many of the great artists of history, specifically Diego Velázquez and Jan Vermeer. “When you look at Velázquez’s paintings from a distance, they look realistic,” she notes, “but up close they look impressionistic.” Of Vermeer, she observes, “His people look real. Beautifully rendered, but not stylized or idealized.”
Fritz sketches constantly to keep her skills sharp. “Any time I have to wait at an airport, I’ll be drawing people,” she says. “And I belong to a weekend drawing group.” She has taken workshops with Zoltan Szabo, learning about light and color mixing; with William Earle, who emphasized the importance of getting the drawing right early on; with Dick Turner, who taught her how to run workshops with lots of hands-on individual attention; and with Charles Baugh, who introduced her to painting with different materials, including scrunched-up Saran Wrap. “My favorite and most influential painter today is the Dutchman Henk Helmantel,” she says. “His still lifes are meticulously rendered and look real. He’s perfect.”
For many years Fritz was a weekend painter, working during the week for McAllen’s International Museum of Art & Science, where she handled public relations. When she was made a signature member of the Oil Painters of America in 1999, she decided it was time to get serious about her painting. “That spurred me on,” she says of her decision to quit her job and pursue painting full time.
|JELLYBEAN EXPRESS, OIL, 9 X 16|
Today, Fritz and her husband live in a 1940s three-bedroom ranch house with a large brick patio. It has separate guest quarters that she has taken over for her studio. The space measures 15 by 15 feet and has halogen lights for a warm glow. She paints her still lifes one at a time, unlike many artists who work on several paintings simultaneously. “I tend to stick with one painting until it’s finished. Two weeks is about as long as I spend on a painting,” says Fritz, whose canvases range in size from 5 by 7 inches up to 28 by 36 inches.
Now a U.S. citizen, Fritz belongs to the French Club of the Rio Grande Valley, the European Club, and the McAllen Art League. She says she’s become “sort of a fixture” on the local arts scene, and she is still involved with the museum, where she gives workshops. And, true to her English roots, she continues to garden, growing hibiscus and oleander and the pretty blue plumbago flowers that show up in her paintings. “I feel a connection to the land here because of the gardening I do,” says Fritz. “I certainly never expected, when I started out in my independent life, to wind up here in the Rio Grande Valley. You never know where life is going to take you.”
She is represented by Nuevo Santander Gallery, McAllen, TX; Austin Galleries, Austin, TX; Harris Gallery, Houston, TX. Her has a one-woman show at Nuevo Santander Gallery, September 1-30.
Featured in September 2008