Hilarie Lambert | Mining the 
Mainstream

Hilarie Lambert seeks the beauty of everyday moments and ordinary things

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Hilarie Lambert, When the Sun Comes Up, oil, 24 x 36.

Hilarie Lambert, When the Sun Comes Up, oil, 24 x 36.

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Fish, feet, and Ferris wheels. China teacups, seabirds, and vintage movie theaters. These are a few of Hilarie Lambert’s favorite things—at least for a spell. The South Carolina artist admits that she relishes exploring subject matter in depth and, then, having exhausted its inspiration, moving on. As an observer once told her, “Hilarie, you are a serial painter.”

On a recent trip to France, for example, Lambert noticed that Parisians riding the Metro frequently sit with heads bowed, staring at their cell phones in technology-enabled social withdrawal. “No one looks you in the eye,” she says. “You can’t see their faces. All you see are their feet and shoes.” Lambert has created eight paintings spotlighting just that—legs, feet, and shoes—mining the subject matter until she intuitively recognizes that she is done and ready to explore something else.

When we first caught up with Lambert in early September, she was just back from her annual sojourn to Paris, where she visits her daughter and spends time painting, sketching, and gathering reference material for the months ahead. As she unpacked from that trip, she simultaneously repacked a few essentials and personal treasures and evacuated from her home on James Island off the coast of Charleston. Hurricane Irma was headed her way. A veteran plein-air painter and survivor of multiple hurricanes, Lambert knows how to pack light and faces the task resolutely as a fact of life in the coastal South.

Aside from evacuations and trans-Atlantic flights, it’s been a busy year for Lambert. She is currently completing several commissions, and her paintings have appeared in three major shows: the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, and a solo exhibition at Principle Gallery. “Hilarie is brilliant at depicting an ever-changing symphony of vibrant colors and soft shapes, something she strives to capture in all her works,” says Frank Conrad Russen, director of Charleston’s Principle Gallery. “Her paintings are freshly impressionistic and compelling, featuring depth and emotional responses to the subject matter she paints.”

Lambert is well known for her generous paint application, brushing layers of color across the canvas. She puts down the paint in quick, loose but strong brush strokes, imparting energy and a spontaneous sensibility to each work. The resulting patches of colors and shapes come together to form her signature style, best described as contemporary impressionism. She is fond of drawing, and viewers can expect to see the artist’s hand in her paintings. “I want people to see the linear strokes,” she says. “I want my drawing to show, and I want to see all the layers of color underneath the work.”

Her paintings, such as FRESH CATCH, often shimmer with light. The three fish in this painting take on a radiance usually associated with more traditionally beautiful subject matter like florals or beaches at sunset. But Lambert prefers to focus on the extraordinary qualities that can be found in ordinary subjects. “My work is not just about subject matter but about the way something looks in the light,” she says.

It’s also about problem-solving and challenging herself to become a better painter. In PATIENCE, for example, Lambert depicts a Parisian woman perched on a park bench. Three pigeons bob at her feet, waiting patiently for breadcrumbs or other treats. In addition to exploring the theme of legs, feet, and shoes in this piece, Lambert also focuses on the subject’s hands. Her artistic mission: to master portraying hands accurately, an element she considers one of her weaknesses as a painter. At first glance, a viewer doesn’t notice the woman’s age, but on closer inspection, her hands offer clues. “I like to paint from life,” Lambert says. “So I took the reference photo home from Paris and asked my mother, who was 88 years old at the time, to pose. Those are my mother’s hands in the painting.”

Observers of Lambert’s work know that she often injects a sense of whimsy and sly humor, sometimes evidenced in her titles. In one painting from her latest series of bathroom interiors, she depicts a bathroom sink and tub and titles the piece SINK OR SWIM—once again finding beauty in the ordinary. Who knew a painting of a bathroom could be charming? In fact, Lambert says, the works in her bathroom series are some of her most popular pieces.

Lambert describes her hometown of Charleston as “a visual feast for plein-air painters.” A port city, the historic destination features harbors, sailboats, cobblestone streets, antebellum homes, and outdoor cafés where people dine on she-crab soup served with a dollop of sherry.

Lambert paints both pure landscapes as well as urban scenes of the area with such gusto that an observer might think she is a native South Carolinian. But Lambert is from the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her family was of the creative sort: Her grandfather designed pipe organs, her mother was an aspiring writer, and an uncle—a toy designer—invented the Nerf ball. “I grew up in a very Norman Rockwell kind of small town, Geneseo,” Lambert says. “The only rule in our house was to be home by five for dinner.”

Like many future artists, as a child Lambert loved to draw. In her early years, she especially favored designing houses and floor plans, and she spent long hours building miniature structures with cardboard and glue. Her parents promoted creativity, and the children learned to “make do with what we had in imaginative ways,” she says.

Lambert dreamed about becoming an architect one day, but by the time she graduated from high school, she realized her math skills lagged behind her artistic talents. So after graduation, she studied graphic arts at a local community college and eventually worked as an illustrator and graphic designer in upstate New York. “Graphic design gave me a solid foundation for composition and form,” Lambert says. “Color, brushwork, and temperature are the things that came later and developed over time.”

As a graphic designer she also learned to tackle a wide variety of subjects for advertisers and learned to listen to input from her customers. “I liked working with the clients, finding out their thought processes,” Lambert says. “But I also liked being left alone afterward to create something memorable.”

About 16 years ago, Lambert took a leap of faith and moved to the Charleston area after visiting the city only once. She began her fine-art career in her new hometown by painting with pastels, a natural evolution from her years as a graphic artist. Initially she intended to continue her graphic-design business, but she soon found she was making significant progress with her personal work, gaining gallery representation and making sales. Lambert eventually switched to oils because, as her travels abroad and her interest in plein-air work grew, she realized that oils were more portable. “It was pretty intimidating at first because I knew nothing about them,” she says. “I swore I would just plug along and enjoy the process. Every so often, I do pastels to loosen up and explore abstraction.”

As this story was going to press in mid-September, Lambert was in upstate New York at her mother’s home. She had driven more than 850 miles to escape Hurricane Irma, and she says that evacuations are “a great exercise in deciding what’s important to you. I have my oriental rugs, my camera collection, my French boots, a wooden Madonna statue passed down from my Brazilian godmother, my Bose stereo system, my paintings, and all my painting supplies,” Lambert says. “With these things, I can always start over.”

While she waited out Irma, Lambert set up her painting gear and began work on a series featuring her mother’s china teacup collection. She soon learned that her home and studio escaped damage, and she prepared to head home. “It’s the downside of living on the coast. The stress of [potentially] losing everything is hard,” she says. “But then again there is the year-round beauty of marshes, beaches, and the ocean. I have developed a love of plein-air painting, and there is never a lack of beauty there to paint.”

representation
Principle Gallery, Charleston, SC; City Art Gallery, Greenville, NC; Hilarie Lambert Studio & Gallery, James Island, SC.

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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