Joan Potter pursues the tradition of the still life
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the May 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
One day recently, Santa Fe artist Joan Potter was reflecting on her very first trip to New Mexico. In 1984, Potter says, she had been around the world several times and lived in Asia for a number of years, but she had never seen the American Southwest. With a solo show opening at Total Arts Gallery in Taos, NM, she decided it was time to pay a visit to the Land of Enchantment. As she was leaving her home in New York City, an artist friend, David A. Leffel, gave her one last bit of advice. “Check out Santa Fe,” he said.
Potter listened to Leffel, with whom she shared a studio in Manhattan. She recalls being “blown away” by what she saw on that first foray to the southwestern city. “I thought the architecture was so unique in Santa Fe, after living in Manhattan, and the sky was this Mediterranean blue. It was beautiful,” Potter says. “That was it. I was a goner.”
Within two weeks, she had returned to New York City, packed her belongings, rented a U-Haul, and was heading west on her way to a new life and home. Potter, who was born and raised in the Boston area, thought she would give the idea a six-month trial, to make sure her quick decision wasn’t foolhardy. But after renting a house for two years in Santa Fe, she knew she was there to stay. In 1986, she spotted a comfortable adobe bungalow for sale, a guest house that was part of a compound once owned by the renowned southwestern painter Gerald Cassidy [1879-1934]. As is Potter’s decisive nature, she committed to buying the property the minute she saw it. Located in the historic area of Canyon Road, the quintessential New Mexico abode possessed all the architectural accoutrements associated with the region’s residences, such as wooden beams on the ceiling, kiva fireplaces, carved niches in the walls, and tiles on the floors. “It was meant to be,” Potter says. “It was love at first sight.”
Potter quickly added on a studio to the residence. Today, the master signature member of the Oil Painters of America follows in the footsteps of Cassidy, a Chicagoan who came to Santa Fe in 1915 and stayed. Known for his Native American portraits and depictions of southwestern landscapes, Cassidy arrived when a number of well-known East Coast artists were descending on Santa Fe, including Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, and Randall Davey. Their arrival represented the beginning of Santa Fe’s evolution from sleepy, small town to major art destination. Cassidy, Hartley, Sloan, and Davey would be followed by waves of artists who would continue to flock to the city in future years, including Potter, who arrived about seven decades later.
Potter is the first to admit that, unlike Cassidy, she is not influenced by the southwestern terrain and its Native peoples. As she was in New York, Potter is known for creating traditional still lifes and, on occasion, classic figurative works in a style that is more reminiscent of Rembrandt than Remington. Gallery owner Nedra Matteucci, who has represented Potter since 2002, agrees about Potter’s artistic influences. “I greatly admire the thorough discipline and technique found in the still-life paintings of Joan Potter that remain true to the tradition of the Dutch masters, while still being infused with her own brilliance,” Matteucci says. “Potter’s choice of subject matter is widely varied and always fascinating. It is fitting most anywhere and has a broad appeal that is timeless yet has a fresh vitality. We are honored to have the quality that she brings to the gallery.”
In the afternoon—her favorite time to paint—Potter’s Canyon Road studio is flooded with light from a large, north-facing window. Potter has surrounded herself with objets d’art that will eventually find their way into her tableaux. Copper buckets, fine porcelain china, antique kettles, and wicker baskets are a few of her favorite things, and she doesn’t mind if the stars of her intimate table-top dramas have cracks or broken handles.
Potter has always been attracted to still-life painting, perhaps out of practicality, she says. Early in her fine-art career in New York, women didn’t go out into the streets and set up their easels. “New York was a jungle at that time. It wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t done,” she says. “Many of the women back then became studio painters. Because we didn’t have much money to afford models, we painted still lifes.”
Although today she does have weekly drawing sessions with a model in her studio, the still life remains the main focus of her work. Potter continues to find the genre challenging as she envisions and paints more and more complicated compositions. Still-life painting, like all genres, is all about problem-solving, she says.
Potter begins a painting by playing around with vessels, vases, flowers, fruits, and vegetables until she arrives at a composition that interests her. Often it takes more time to set up the composition than to paint it, she says. After arriving at a pleasing arrangement, then the “fun part” begins, transferring her composition to canvas. Sometimes, though, what starts to unfold on the canvas looks boring in comparison to the real-life set-up. “That’s when I pull out a piece of paper or put my hand over something I have painted, like a piece of fruit,” Potter says. “I keep covering bits and pieces until I figure out what’s wrong. Maybe it needs more light or more dark. I am constantly playing with the painting.”
If she can’t figure out the problem, she puts the painting aside in a bin in her studio—out of sight and out of mind temporarily. Later she can return to the problem child in the bin with a fresh eye. And since she doesn’t work from photographs for her still-life paintings, Potter also problem solves by simply eliminating certain objects from her work altogether, such as fragile flowers like poppies that droop, wilt, and jut out in different directions while she is trying to paint them.
It comes as no surprise that the decisive Potter relishes working spontaneously. The inspiration for THE PAINTER’S APRON, for example, came recently when she had gotten tired of painting fruit—an occupational hazard for a still-life artist. She suddenly noticed how her painter’s apron, which she had thrown over a backdrop, created an intriguing shape. She then added seven onions to the arrangement because the white of the onions added contrast, light against dark, and also added drama to the painting. Still-life paintings for Potter are not only about problem-solving but also about the interrelationships of various elements. “When you work with still life, you have to consider all the parts—the textures, the colors, the shapes—because you don’t want the work to become monotonous,” she says. “It’s what makes a still life a still life—a combination of the colors, shapes, lights, and darks. All of them have to be synchronized and complement each other. It’s like you are the conductor of a symphony. You are creating art, and you have to consider all the parts of the orchestra.”
Looking back on her career, Potter says she wouldn’t have done anything differently except for one thing: She wishes she had started her fine-art career sooner in life. After she graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, she went to New York City to work as a fashion illustrator. Eventually she went on to study painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York with David Leffel and Robert Philipp, which bought her closer to her artistic dreams. Today she says, “I have everything I have ever wanted to achieve. I can’t say that it goes that way for everyone. I loved New York when I was there, but right now, I’m here, and everything I want is here. And I only leave on a stretcher with my toes up.”
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