Coconut Angel Food Cake, oil, 9 1/2 x 11 1/2.
By Gussie Fauntleroy
Painter Sarah Lamb’s dream is to have each foot on a different continent a studio somewhere in Europe as well as the one she shares with other young artists in New York City. But her paintings already appear to traverse the span between cultures—and time. Lamb’s still-life images, in a classical realist style, celebrate the quiet beauty of simple arrangements and often feature objects that could have come just as easily from the 18th century as the 21st.
Lamb’s artistic training and ongoing discipline hark back to earlier times as well. As a member of the Water Street Atelier in New York, she is one of almost 30 students under the mentorship of painter Jacob Collins, who maintains the atelier in a traditional European manner. Every student begins in the “cast hall,” refining his or her drawing skills by creating likenesses of plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture. After several months or even a year, the students are ready to move on to the next level, eventually working their way up to the figure painting room.
Lamb was among the initial group of 10 artists already working with Collins in 1997 when he moved the atelier from his home to a larger space in Brooklyn. At 29, she continues to receive guidance and critique from the older artist, while also sharing a separate studio space with two other working artists.
Boat in Mallorca, Spain, oil, 4 1/2 x 8.
Although her paintings are represented by several galleries around the country, Lamb still considers herself a student. “I’m in both worlds. It’s a great situation because everyone in the atelier is inspired and motivated. I tried painting by myself at home for a couple of weeks, but I got lonely,” she says in a soft southern accent acquired from her childhood in Georgia. “I’m surrounded by peers who are also doing realism. Outside this studio it might be considered kind of odd for young artists to be doing realism, but here we all have each other.”
Lamb’s art professors at Brenau Women’s College in Gainesville, GA, considered it odd for a student to be interested in realism as well. Commercial art and abstract expressionist painting were encouraged, but no training was available in traditional painting techniques. So Lamb signed up for commercial art. “During my first three years in college the professors all told us, ‘You’re never going to make it in fine art. You need to get into graphic arts,’” she says.
Figs, oil, 9 x 11.
Then, during her junior year, she spent a semester in Florence, Italy. “That semester changed everything. I came back and said, ‘I’m going to paint. I’m going to do it.’”
She changed her major to studio art. She also began painting portraits of professors’ children and wrote her senior thesis on how to succeed as a fine artist, complete with a business plan. Her professors were convinced.
Lamb’s association with Jacob Collins began soon after college, when she attended a two-week portrait-painting workshop he led in Santa Fe, NM. She learned that part of Collins’ training had been with painter Ted Jacobs, an American who left a teaching position at the Art Students’ League in New York to live and teach in France. Still hungry for classical academic art training, Lamb decided to study with Jacobs.
During two winters and a summer, the young artist worked under Jacobs’ tutelage at the Ecole Albert de Fois in France’s Loire Valley. It was there that her love of the still-life genre began to take hold. Every morning Jacobs led his students in a long figure-drawing session, and every afternoon was spent on a still-life composition that could take as long as a month to complete. In her free time on weekends, though, Lamb experimented with painting more quickly. She set up still-life compositions of simple food items on a neutral background and just had fun with the painting.
Savon de Provence, oil, 11 x 11.
Having fun with art is a thread that has run through Lamb’s life from as far back as she can remember. As an only child growing up with her mother in south Georgia and later Atlanta, she was offered all kinds of after-school lessons beginning in the second grade. She liked piano and ballet lessons well enough, but Lamb’s grandmother noticed that the young girl especially enjoyed and excelled in art. So her grandmother offered to pay for private art lessons, which Lamb continued for several years. When mother and daughter moved to Atlanta, Lamb began studying with Sarah Brown, a professional wildlife artist, and her conception of the possibilities of art expanded.
“Sarah Brown was a great mentor. She was a working artist, making a living at it, and she loved what she did. My previous teacher had been more into arts and crafts. In Atlanta, it was fine art,” she says. Another inspiration came at around age 12, when Lamb saw a show of three generations of Wyeth art in Washington, DC. “I was just overwhelmed,” she says. “It was one of the first things to make me feel like I wanted to paint realism.”
By the time she returned to Atlanta after studying in France, Lamb was more excited than ever about realist art, but she believed her training should be more well rounded. So she moved to New York and began studying with Collins again. “Doors opened,” she says of that period in her career. “I would probably just be doing children’s portraits if I was still in Atlanta.”
Today, Lamb is devoted to painting still lifes. A love of food and cooking influences her choice of subject matter, which often involves simple arrangements of food as it could have been presented a hundred years ago. Other still lifes feature objects that are special to the artist, such as a linen towel that belonged to her great-grandmother. Describing herself as a “traditional” person with strong ties to family and heritage, Lamb sees a logic to her love of old objects, uncluttered compositions, and a traditional style of painting.
“There’s something about the 18th- and 19th-century paintings—a simplicity in the way they’re done. The values are clean, not fussed over,” she says. “I think the old painters knew more; they had better training. We kind of lost a lot along the way, but we’re getting it back.”
Lamb has also begun to do more figurative paintings, interiors, and plein-air landscapes. And she is continually experimenting with different types of lighting, objects, and arrangements for still life. A show at Meredith Long Gallery in Houston,TX, this winter featured several paintings of “decadent desserts,” as the artist puts it. “They were fun, with all the textures, the whipped cream, the glaze on the strawberries.”
Another source of inspiration for Lamb is travel. On a recent three-week trip to northern Spain and the island of Mallorca with other members of the atelier, she was drawn to winding village streets and crumbling, ancient stone buildings. The trip was a welcome opportunity to paint on location. “I love the freedom of being outside, out of the studio. It sort of wakes you up,” she says.
Lamb hasn’t decided where in Europe she would like to have a second studio, but she knows spending time on the other side of the ocean is important to her aesthetics and provides a spark of creative stimulation. Paris is on the agenda for this summer, she hopes. “Paris provides such different subject matter. I love the food, the lifestyle, the architecture. I love the gray, rainy days,” she says. “As long as I can get away for a good amount of time, I’m happy.” Wherever she finds herself, Lamb is clearly on the path to a long and successful career.
Photos courtesy the artist and John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Meredith Long Gallery, Houston, TX; Grenning Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY; and the Art Students’ Showcase, New York, NY.
Gussie Fauntleroy wrote about “30 Stars of 30 Years” in the May issue.
Featured in June 2001