Deborah Bays pushes a classical genre into the fourth dimension
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the August 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art August 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art August 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
When a friend arrived at her studio one day with a newborn kitten peeking out from his pocket, Deborah Bays knew she would give the tiny creature a home. Bays soon named the kitten Puck after the mischievous sprite in Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. True to his name, the impish Puck seemed to love nothing more than crashing into every teacup, vase, and vessel in Bays’ studio, often destroying the very objects she was trying to paint. “His personality seemed to fit the naughty fairy that created so much mischief,” Bays says.
Finally, in 2011, Bays decided to pay homage to Puck and his countless mishaps in one of the elegant pastel still lifes for which she is known. “He just jumps into my still lifes. And one day I thought to myself, I have collected all these things, and Puck, you have broken them,” she recalls with affection. “Now I am going to paint all the things you have broken.”
Thus the painting CATALEPSIA [see page 90] was born. Catalepsia is a Spanish word that means trance. Bays says she meant the title also as a reference to catatonia or a moment frozen in time. Soon after completion, CATALEPSIA was on view at the Pastel Society of America’s show at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH. Earlier this year, CATALEPSIA also won the Southwest Art Award of Excellence at the annual Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale in Denver.
The painting is a good example of the new direction Bays is pursuing: creating still lifes that are not so still. In this painting the artist evokes the illusion of movement by depicting multiple images of Puck—some of which are fully realized, while others are so lightly painted as to be mere suggestions or echoes of the cat’s presence. In another example of her new direction, a painting titled LAUNDRY DAY, multiple images of an iron appear to press a flowered cloth, suggesting that an unseen figure is hard at work at the ironing board.
Janet Freese, owner of Breckenridge Gallery, has represented Bays for three years. Freese says it is Bays’ ability to convey a strong and intriguing narrative that first attracted her to the still lifes. “Deborah is unparalleled in her use of pastels. And the drama in her pieces drew us to her work,” Freese says. “She has an amazing ability to tell a story through her play on movement as well, transcending the confines of ‘still life.’ And that makes her stand out in the genre.”
Ironically, Bays originally started painting still lifes because they involved objects that didn’t move, and thus she could ensure that the light would remain fairly constant. Her goal at the time was to master the techniques of classical painting. But more recently, confident with her technique, Bays sought the challenge of upending the traditional genre of the old masters with her own vision—one that adds an extra touch of drama to the tableaux. However, she is quick to point out that she first needed the classical background before entering into this new realm in her body of work.
Spend time with the artist, and you soon learn that Bays not only brings her traditional art background—from the Art Students League of Denver, where she studied with artists such as Quang Ho—to the artistic table but also carries with her a classical training in the theater. When she speaks of drama and movement, she sometimes talks about the stage, and how things she learned in her academic background and as a costume designer for theater productions have all served her well when she stands before the easel. “I love using light to reveal objects and figures in a painting. It’s just like the lights coming up on a stage set. And composition in a painting is like blocking a scene,” she says.
“When I do a vertical composition, I still think, lower left to upper right.” Bays explains that in western culture we read from left to right. And when dealing with a stage space, it is natural to use the lower left and upper right as powerful positions. She often keeps this in mind when she blocks in a painting. Thus she may place what she considers an interesting object on the left but illuminate more brightly another object in the upper-right corner of a painting, creating both a focal point on the upper right as well as a powerful diagonal line that the viewer can follow from lower left to upper right.
The composition may be even stronger, Bays explains, if she can also place a focal point on a predefined spot on a grid based on the golden mean. The golden mean is a mathematical formula that harks back to ancient Greece and the mathematician Pythagoras. Over the centuries, golden-mean proportions have been employed by artists, architects, and composers who believe that they achieve aesthetically pleasing results. Thus, a visitor to Bays’ studio is likely to see an array of preliminary grids drawn on tracing paper that assist in the placement of objects in her still lifes—a technique, she says, that helps her solve compositional problems time and time again.
For Bays, music is also a profound source of inspiration. Growing up she was classically trained in the violin and viola. Today she is as much inspired by Degas, Caravaggio, and Vermeer as she is by great composers, and she can turn to them like old friends for their guidance. Bays looks to Bach and Mozart for order and beauty; Chopin for sensitivity; and Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler for passion and deep emotion. Music possesses a language that suits painting well because it features color, chords, and tempo, she says.
Sometimes it’s even the discordant sounds of a contemporary composer like Philip Glass that can serve as a conceptual springboard for a painting. Such is the case with her work titled ARBOREAL. “I think Glass captures the sounds of our time, the pulse of the city. Like the sounds of the traffic outside my studio window,” she says. “My painting ARBOREAL looks confrontational with objects facing each other like an odd board game. In the painting I wanted to take a poetic approach to Glass’ music.”
Although she sometimes paints landscapes and figures, she continues to favor still lifes because they accept the light beautifully and, in the process, evoke compelling silhouettes and patterns. At times the objects may suggest something otherworldly, beyond the reality people associate with them or their everyday functions. For Bays part of the enjoyment of “staging” a still life is the option of continually rearranging the objects until she is satisfied—moving them as if they were pawns in a game of chess.
Bays didn’t always dream of becoming a painter. In fact, her passion for the theater and costume design took center stage in her life for many years. She earned a degree in costume design for the theater from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a graduate degree in scenography from Purdue University. But after 25 years of working in numerous productions with regional repertory companies, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and various off-Broadway productions, she decided to enroll in a figure-drawing class at the Art Students League of Denver. “I viewed the class then as a refuge from the upheaval in the theater,” Bays says.
By the early 1990s, costume design was becoming just one more industry being hit by outsourcing, and the work was going abroad to places like South America, where it could be completed more cheaply. Plus, Bays adds, she was also getting older in a young person’s game. “There is a saying that there are no old costumers because it is underpaid work with terrible deadlines and long hours,” Bays says. “I had lots of wonderful moments of artistic fulfillment; however, it is a team sport, and I needed to see what I could create without modifying it to fit another’s concept.”
By 2001 Bays had switched careers and become a full-time painter, choosing pastel because, for her, the medium was similar to drawing. Beth Lauterbach, who has represented Bays for three years at Scottsdale Fine Art, sings Bays’ praises for her pastel talents. “I am fascinated with her mastery of painting with pastel,” Lauterbach says. “Most collectors don’t realize it is pastel until they read the gallery wall tags. They assume it is oil paint. Deborah creates a luminosity and depth not typically found in work by other pastel artists.”
In addition to music, the old masters, and the theater, Bays says inspiration can spring from anywhere—a sentence, a phrase, a line of poetry, or even a scientific discovery. “I know that I am compelled to allow the still life to evolve into an expression of my own time. I return to classical work to develop technique and for rest,” Bays says. “I then gather up the muse, instruct her to hold on tight, and tilt at windmills as I must. Sometimes this is just Quixotic, and sometimes it is what I live for as an artist.”
Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Scottsdale Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; SmithKlein Gallery, Boulder, CO; Breckenridge Gallery, Breckenridge, CO; North Water Gallery, Edgartown, MA; deborahbaysstudio.com.
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