Sarah Bienvenu | Enchanted Landscapes

Sarah Bienvenu celebrates New Mexico scenery in luminous abstracted watercolors

By Norman Kolpas

Sarah Bienvenu, Wall of Trees, watercolor, 41 x 60.

Sarah Bienvenu, Wall of Trees, watercolor, 41 x 60.

This story was featured in the June 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

The revelation came to Sarah Bienvenu, appropriately enough, on a mountaintop. It was the summer of 1978, and she and John Bienvenu, then her new boyfriend and today her husband of 36 years, were on a backpacking trip in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. For convenience, the recent art-school graduate had brought along a set of watercolors, and that afternoon she sat on a lofty prospect to paint with them.

“That’s when I discovered that watercolor was my best medium,” Bienvenu remembers, as vividly as if it were yesterday. “I’d worked and trained in oils, but I really enjoyed how watercolors were able to describe things, especially light and landscapes. Once I started with them, there was no turning back.” That was especially true when she soon discovered the state she has since claimed as her true home: New Mexico.

Almost four decades later—a milestone being celebrated this month with Point of View, her new solo show at Winterowd Fine Art in Santa Fe—Bienvenu has earned a reputation as not only a master of the watercolor medium but also one of the premier portrayers of New Mexico’s vast and varied landscapes. She describes her paintings simply as “abstract representational watercolors,” and they are sometimes surprisingly large-scale for a medium often considered better suited to delicate, gemlike renderings. In them she captures, in her own expressive geometric vocabulary, luminously vivid scenes that are entirely, instantly recognizable as the Land of Enchantment. “Sarah distills the landscape so beautifully into forms that interweave with each other,” observes gallery owner Karla Winterowd. “I love her vibrant colors and simplicity of shapes. She has her own style, and in her work Sarah is her authentic self. No one else really paints like her.”

Born in Detroit in 1955, Sarah Brick showed an early talent for art, and her parents encouraged it from the start. The family moved a lot: Battle Creek, MI; Buffalo, NY; western Pennsylvania; Chicago; Palm Beach, FL. But wherever they landed, both of her parents encouraged her talent. “My mom would always find an art teacher and say to me, ‘Sarah, I’ve got some classes you can take.’” She also fondly remembers her mother taking her and her two older sisters to see the exemplary modern and contemporary collection at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. “Some of the early 20th-century artists really interested me, like Paul Klee, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Milton Avery,” she remembers.

Art classes in the various public schools she attended could be hit-or-miss. But Mr. Randazzo, her sixth-grade teacher in Buffalo, represented a turning point for her: “He incorporated so much art into every project, with art projects going on constantly, that I couldn’t have been happier. By the age of 11 or 12, I’d decided I was going to be an artist, and I don’t think I ever wavered from that.”

In her senior year at Palm Beach Gardens High School, she was accepted to the Philadelphia College of Art. Though it was listed at the time as one of the country’s 10 best art schools, she says she felt like “a misfit” there. “Those were the early ’70s, and people were doing either very traditional art with traditional processes, or they were doing very conceptual things.” So she continued her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where the focus on studio learning, under the guidance of many teachers who would come down from the revered Art Students League of New York, suited her far better. One in particular, painter and printmaker Will Barnet (1911-2012)—revered for his dreamlike, modernist figurative images—opened her eyes to early Renaissance art, and she resolved to spend time in Europe. “I loved the style. Whether Giotto or Fra Angelico, they had a beautiful way of composing and simplifying things to lead your eye through the painting. It seemed very much like painting from the heart.”

By then, her own style was already beginning to emerge in her oil paintings, which focused largely on “cityscapes with rooftops and bridges, and some parks.” Her first show came soon after graduation, exhibiting with one other artist in a gallery at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was up for a month, I got nice feedback, and I even sold a few paintings,” she says.

After waitressing for a year to save up money, in 1978 Sarah headed for Paris, where she secured a part-time job doing housekeeping and running errands for a young woman artist. Her compensation included an attic studio apartment within walking distance of the Luxembourg Gardens, the Pompidou Centre, the Impressionist masterpieces displayed in the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, and the Louvre. “With my student card from the Academy, it cost me a dollar to go to the Louvre. Once a week, with nobody there, I would stand in front of the MONA LISA.

In Paris, she just happened to meet John Bienvenu, an undergraduate from the University of California, Berkeley, visiting the city as he wrapped up a year of studying abroad. They fell in love, he stayed on for the summer, and their idyllic time together led to Sarah’s mountaintop watercolor revelation.

John returned home to California at summer’s end, and Sarah followed in early November. They decided to move together to New York City and set out cross-country in a VW van. En route, they stopped to spend a week with John’s older sister in Santa Fe. “I was just astonished,” Sarah recalls of seeing the place for the first time. “I’d never seen anything like that incredible varied landscape. New Mexico was beyond anything I could have imagined for inspiration.”

Continuing on to set up digs in a Manhattan loft, the couple spent “a cold, miserable winter,” with Sarah waitressing and John driving a cab. “I kept thinking that I wanted to move someplace where I could find something I wanted to paint,” she recalls.

In February 1979, they headed back to New Mexico, where—apart from three and a half years spent in Palo Alto when John attended Stanford Law School and then began his career as a civil-rights attorney—they have lived, and Sarah has painted, ever since. Their two sons, now both in their early 30s, were born and grew up there, went away for college, and “couldn’t resist” returning to the state recently. Today, the Bienvenus make their home, which also includes her studio, on the eastern edge of Santa Fe, on a semirural piece of land surrounded by big cottonwoods, junipers, and piñon pines. There are views of the foothills, but they’re not far from the galleries of Canyon Road and only a five-minute drive from the Plaza.

It’s the ideal base of operations for her painting process, which begins with her heading out by car with a backpack filled with watercolor supplies. “There is such a variety of places to explore, with mountains, deserts, high deserts, canyons, farmlands, rivers, each very different and with combinations of all of those,” she says. Add to that the variables of seasons and weather, Bienvenu continues, “and they change throughout the year. And I change, myself. So I go to a lot of those places over and over again.” Plus, she adds, “Watercolor itself is something so complicated that it doesn’t have an end for me. I feel like I’m always exploring new options and never having to repeat myself.”

On site, she may create small finished watercolors or make pencil sketches and notes in her sketchbooks. Back home in her studio, those materials become the starting point for her larger works. “I’ll use my sketches almost like a skeleton for compositional ideas,” she says. “They keep me grounded. I try to stay close and true to the sense of the original scene, but I don’t want to have personal rules that will limit the painting.”

The result of such a combination of discipline and imagination can be a painting as complex, dynamic, and yet harmonically coherent as WALL OF TREES. One of her largest watercolors ever at an impressive 41 by 60 inches, it depicts a lineup of pines (depicted by triangular shapes) and aspens (oval crowns with long, narrow trunks) along a meadow and stream in the Big Tesuque area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe. “The original small painting I did there was very, very loose, with all the trees melding together,” says Bienvenu. “When I went to do the large work, I really wanted that sense of it being a wall of trees. It’s nature’s architecture, I guess.” Returning to the work repeatedly over the course of about 14 months, she says, she finally finished it this past December. “The bigger you get, watercolor becomes more challenging. You have to
coax the paints to cooperate,” she says.

Even after 40 years, Bienvenu continues to make new discoveries in her adopted home. Take, for example, BIG CLOUDS, VALLEY BELOW, depicting an area northwest of Abiquiu in the north-central part of the state. Referred to by locals as “the big wonderful,” says the artist, “it’s one of the places that feels as untouched as most people could feel in New Mexico.” She started painting there just a year and a half ago, and this particular view—abstracted to its essence of plains and rock-strewn hills, distant mountains, trees, and huge clouds rushing across a deep sky—
perfectly captures what Bienvenu de
scribes as “a peaceful, gentle world.”

It’s a lofty place worthy of some sort of fresh personal revelation. Yet, Bienvenu quickly adds, “I’m not trying to paint what I feel about nature. I’m just trying to be a very good observer.”

Winterowd Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.

This story was featured in the June 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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