Stephanie J. Frostad | Powerful Narratives

By Dottie Indyke

Stephanie J. Frostad grew up with books and a constant hunger for reading. Among her inspirations were the rich, imagined worlds of southern regionalist writers such as Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, as well as the parables of the Bible. “I grew up in Christianity and with Bible stories,” Frostad reflects. “Although I’m not trying to moralize in my work, the power of the story to instruct, illuminate, and edify is one of those early experiences that directed me into narrative work. Probably it has shaped some of the narrative, too.”

Indeed, what defines Frostad’s artwork is its eloquent visual storytelling. Like novels, her paintings prick the imagination with intriguing characters, often women, in well-defined places such as rural landscapes or interior rooms. She teases her viewers, dropping only a few clues about these leading ladies. Exactly who, we want to know, are these people, and what are their circumstances? What is happening in these moments of their lives? Where is this big open, unplanted field with the storm-laden sky? Like Bible stories, Frostad’s paintings offer a framework within which we must apply answers and lessons to our own lives. And like the southern writers, hers is an extravagant, invented universe that is part real and part make-believe. The stories in her paintings revolve around the cycles of a day or a season. They speak to the slow passage of time, to changes in weather, and to a woman’s relationship to nature. They are epic tales with a palpable western flavor, painted in colors so luminous we are left wishing we could step inside the frame to become part of Frostad’s world.

At 36, Frostad is only beginning to make her mark as an artist, but already she is known for painting in series. In 1999, inspired by an intimate gallery space in Butte, MT, she began a group of 12 paintings depicting a year in the life of a family of characters. The paintings were to be hung in a circle, each referring to the one before and after. Over the next two years, she created a body of work in which each month was portrayed by a single, allegorical piece. August—The Eighth Month features a ripely pregnant woman stretched out on two chairs beneath a tree. In February—Leap Day a woman gingerly crosses a stream on patches of ice. The identity of the characters is vague, but there is a central female figure who herds the goats, plants the fields, and burns the autumn leaves, while those around her tend to myriad other chores compelled by life on the farm. The light in these paintings gradually shifts from the blue-violets of winter to the greens of spring and summer to the orange-yellows of fall.

“I’ve always been fascinated with time and the calendar,” Frostad says. “For many years I created handmade calendars as holiday gifts. I’ve got archives of information about holidays and such. It was Y2K. I wanted to make a series about the turning of the year, especially those natural cycles that have no regard for human cycles. All of that funneled into this series of paintings.”

Her innate attraction to sequential paintings was first revealed when she was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD. There, she was encouraged to pose an inquiry and pursue the idea wherever it might lead. “Making series was required of us in some cases, but I think I have an impulse [for it] that’s authentic to me as well. Sustaining precipitating questions really shaped me,” she recalls. “That could mean in a single work, or moving from furtive gestures in a sketchbook to more finished work, or even working in different media.”

In graduate school at the University of Montana in Missoula the place Frostad now calls home serial narratives became the center of her work. She painted prolifically, in-venting a single character that would appear regularly through-out her canvases. The June Cycle, for example, consisted of 13 paintings, each 4 feet square, which described one day in the life of a mysterious woman. Another series, which Frostad made for her master’s thesis, focused on a figure she called “big sister,” a woman on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood who was seen both alone and with her family. This group of paintings, in particular, was inspired by William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, an intricately constructed network of fictionalized lives. Frostad borrowed the structure but inserted her own imagined places and people.

These days, she is more likely to explore themes related to the passage of time through pairs of paintings. Her images ponder the facets and unfolding of a brief moment, such as Shortest Day, in which a woman fills a lantern with oil, and Longest Night, in which she reads a book by the light of the lantern. In Fertile and Fallow, her familiar female character stands alone, in slightly different poses, in a tilled but unplanted field. Though they tell a story as companions, each painting is meant to stand alone.

“My life is really unstructured,” Frostad explains, “so I’ve always benefited from choosing a lens through which to look at the world. There’s often a thematic relationship between works even when characters are not repeated. I’m still learning why I’m inclined to work with these pairings, what they can do for me, and what the narrative possibilities are.”

Frostad begins her paintings with smooth, flat, simple under-painting in opaque colors, then applies thinned-down transparent oils and resins so the base color shows through. This glaze is what gives her pieces their lush incandescence. In Listening Post, for example, the autumn leaves are painted in brilliant golds that makes the piece literally glow with light.

Her starting point is the figure, which is often fully formed in her mind or clearly enough perceived that she can intuitively pursue its “story.” The women in her paintings bear a certain resemblance to one another because they are often based on Frostad herself not consciously, necessarily, but perhaps because her own image is the one with which she is most familiar and which allows her to paint without constant references to photographs. The rest of the imagery, Frostad says, she sees in something akin to her peripheral vision. It appears on canvas as bits and pieces of her life and imagination.

“The curious thing about my work is [that] everything is a composite,” Frostad explains. “There are elements of memory, invented things, references to photographs, books about mammals in North America. If there’s something distinctive about the look, it probably has less to do with paint handling than the fact that I’m trying to create a synthesis of all these sources.”

Frostad grew up in Walla Walla, WA, an intimate and supportive community of some 25,000 people at the time. Early on, her family, teachers, and friends identified her as an artist. Though you could set any art supplies in front of her and she would become enraptured, the most she could envision was a career as an art educator. Even after she went to art school (continued on page 192) on scholarship, her future was uncertain. But a year spent studying in Florence in the mid-1980s convinced her that art deserved a place at the center of her life. It took about seven years for Frostad to complete art school. To save money for tuition, she worked as a mold-maker in a bronze foundry in Walla Walla. Then, in a complete departure from art, she moved to Portland, OR, and spent a few years as a social worker with developmentally disabled clients. Once the work began draining her creative reserves, though, she enrolled in graduate school.

A decade ago, a friend recommended her artwork to the alternative exhibition space Wonderful World of Art in Seattle, and Frostad was taken on. When that venue closed, Davidson Galleries approached her about joining their stable. Ever since, the gallery (which is also based in Seattle) has sold nearly all the work Frostad can produce. In September the gallery hosted a one-woman show of her latest paintings.

Meanwhile, Frostad has entered a new phase of her artistic life. Though still painting figures, she is also trying her hand at traditional landscapes and is exhilarated by the challenge of painting only those things that exist in the real world. “I’m not inventing anything, just trying to move as quickly as the light,” she laughs. “This might be a line I’m crossing. I don’t know how it will affect my imagery. My intention is to go on working between genre and narrative in the way I do. But I see this as a new current that might become a tributary to the stream of my work.”

Frostad is represented by Davidson Galleries, Seattle, WA.

Featured in October 2002