Kim Lordier | Windows to Grandeur

Kim Lordier’s career took off once she got her feet on the ground

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

California Style, pastel, 16 x 12.

Not everyone takes a direct route to a career in fine art. For some there are a few stops along the way. Take Northern California pastel painter Kim Lordier. Although she graduated in 1989 with a degree in illustration from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she soon decided that working in the commercial art field was not for her. “I promptly placed my portfolio under my bed and became a flight attendant,” Lordier says.

During countless hours in the clouds, she passed the time by following a flight plan of her own: Finish servicing the cabin quickly and then head to a window seat to gaze out at the spectacular geological patterns below. As she crisscrossed the country for United Airlines, the aerial views that unfolded from season to season kept captivating her imagination, and she usually waited until the last possible moment to return to the jump seat for landing.

On September 11, 2001, Lordier was at home in California on vacation when her mother called with news of the terrorist attacks, including the ones that involved United Airlines Flights 93 and 175. “I was in total disbelief,” she says. “It didn’t seem real. The airlines were like a family.” Not only did Lordier work for the airlines, so did her brother and her father, who was a pilot for United. As long as she could remember, flying was part of her life.

But the events of 9/11 were a turning point that would soon take her off that course. After the attacks, United, like other airlines, experienced a dramatic loss of revenue. The company offered Lordier a voluntary furlough with medical benefits and the chance to go back to work at any time. As she pondered future choices, she realized that during her stint as a flight attendant, her art career had been blossoming on the side. When she wasn’t up in the stratosphere, she was down on the ground painting in her spare time. Art, not aviation, was her true passion. After deliberating, she decided to chase her dream of becoming a full-time fine artist. “It wasn’t that I was scared to fly. I am not a natural caretaker of humans. Give me an animal, and I’m fine,” Lordier says. “But I’m not the kind of person who wants to cut your filet for you.”

Serenity at Fan Shell Beach, pastel, 16 x 20.

Today Lordier lives in the San Francisco area and has a small studio tucked away in the backyard of the home she shares with her husband, Tim, and son, Ryan. Sliding glass doors on two sides make for an airy, light-filled space. On this particular day, about 20 paintings in various stages of completion lean against walls and cover available surfaces. Top 40 tunes drift from a radio; Lordier is fond of dancing to the music while she paints. As this story was going to press, she was preparing for the opening of the Pastel Society of the West Coast’s exhibition at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA, and she had just dropped off a painting for the California Art Club’s annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. She was also looking forward to two additional group shows in the fall.

Reflecting back over the past decade, Lordier says there have been many influences on her painting career, but one of the most significant was seeing the exhibition Native Grandeur: Preserving California’s Vanishing Landscapes, which opened in November 2001 at the Oakland Museum of California. The show featured works by early California Impressionists. “Not only was this the first time I was brought to my knees while viewing an exhibition, but it marked the beginning of a never-ending quest to work from life and study those who painted before me,” she says.

These days Lordier carries on the traditions of early Golden State Impressionists such as Guy Rose, Franz Bischoff, and Percy Gray—all artists she finds inspiring. “The tonal quality of this art movement leaves me breathless,” she says. Like those who have gone before her, she is inspired by light, although she admits that sometimes when she hears other plein-air artists say this, she laughs. “How many times have we all heard that one? But really, isn’t that the ultimate gift we humans have been given—the ability to see?” she says. “And that would not happen without the differing qualities of light available to us. Sounds simple, sounds clichéd, but it is the truth. And simple it is not.”

When Lordier sets out to paint on location, many of her favorite spots are ones where legendary artists like Rose stood before their easels decades ago. She is particularly drawn to the ribbon of land that runs from Elkhorn Slough on the Monterey Peninsula, where fresh water meets salt water, south to Point Lobos and the breathtaking cliffs of the Big Sur. “To paint these preserved locations is to honor those that have painted in the past and to record the passage of time,” she says, referring to her works such as CARMEL COAST and SERENITY AT FAN SHELL BEACH.

Experts in early California Impressionism agree that Lordier’s strong suit centers on portraying light. “Kim is a master of light, able to capture the most elusive light effect and make it appear effortless,” says Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, which is dedicated to the preservation and display of early California Impressionism. “Her powers of observation, drawing, and color handling make her one of today’s most effective painters. A skilled and experienced technician, she is one of the very rare artists who seek the truth in nature and present it in a direct and honest way.”

Spiritual places also hold a special allure for Lordier. And for her nothing is more worthy of the label “spiritual” than a eucalyptus grove off Highway 280 in Redwood City, CA. This leafy retreat is where she has created atmospheric depictions of forests such as in her landscape painting SERENITY. “Once you are among these poetic and aromatic trees, the outside world drifts away, and you see the coyote and deer stare at you inquisitively while you paint,” she says. “I have painted this place in every season, and, for some reason, the paintings, whether painted on location or inspired by a field study, resonate with my collectors.”

According to gallery owners, Lordier’s unique ability to make pastels appear as if they are oil paintings also resonates with collectors. “People are usually fooled looking at her pastels. They think they are looking at oils until they get up close and see the glass,” says James J. Rieser, owner of James J. Rieser Fine Art in Carmel, CA. Rieser says when he first began representing Lordier in 2007, he worried about clients not accepting paintings under glass. But over the years, and much to his delight, she has become his best-selling artist among a stable of more than 20 contemporary landscape painters.

Like many plein-air artists, Lordier rhapsodizes about the sheer exhilaration that accompanies painting from life. Being exposed to the elements—sun, wind, rain, snow, and heat—allows her to communicate with viewers in a way that working from photographs as reference material cannot. Painting in the open air imparts a fresh visual voice and many opportunities, she says. “You see so much more color when you are working from life, and this allows you the freedom to play with color,” she explains. “And with the elements all around you, you see colors you would never see in a photograph. That is exciting.”

For Lordier there is no better compliment than when viewers say they feel the sensations of heat or cold emanating from her landscapes. “Painting from life is an emotional experience—like doing yoga, having sex, and having an argument all at the same time—peaceful, exciting, and frustrating,” she says.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, Lordier says she has no regrets about leaving the flying life behind. These days she is content to survey geological formations with her feet planted on mother earth. And lately she is thrilled to help preserve some of the terrain she treasures. For example, the BayWood Artists recently invited Lordier to be a guest painter. The respected organization is the first professional plein-air painting group in the San Francisco Bay Area that was established to save the very landscapes that inspire their art.

This year the BayWood Artists are joining forces with Save the Bay, a 50-year-old environmental group working to regulate shoreline development and protect the environment from pollution and sprawl. During 2011 the artists are painting endangered lands, and the resulting works will be presented in an October show at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, CA. Partial proceeds from the sales go to Save the Bay.

“I wasn’t meant to do illustrations for high-profile companies, and I wasn’t meant to fly the friendly skies,” Lordier says. “In 2001 I finally found my passion—my drive to paint, learn, and study. Ten years ago, I never could have predicted all this would come my way. I have been so blessed.”

Knowlton Gallery, Lodi, CA; James J. Reiser Fine Art, Carmel, CA; Debra Huse Gallery, Balboa Island, CA; Sekula’s Fine Art and Antiques, Sacramento, CA; Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; Windrush Gallery, Sedona, AZ;

Featured in June 2011. She is also this month’s cover artist.