By Gussie Fauntleroy
For still-life painter Elizabeth Robbins, certain gardens and flowers mark the chapters of her life. Pittsburgh, for example, where she lived for 22 years after college, still blossoms in her mind in azaleas, rhododendrons, and “an incredible garden that it broke my heart to leave.” In Kansas her equally lovely garden was profuse with irises, roses, and lilies. Back at her childhood home in Utah a few years later, she immersed herself once more in her mother’s rose garden—the same garden she grumbled while weeding as a child, wondering why her three brothers couldn’t do the job. (“Because that’s women’s work!” her little brother once declared.)
But really, the flower theme goes even further back in Robbins’ life. She remembers walking through Wasatch Mountain meadows and woods as a small child, holding her grandmother’s hand and picking wildflowers her grandmother pointed out. Both of her grandmothers lived not far from her family’s home in Holladay. Both loved flowers, and young Elizabeth adored her grandmothers, whom she remembers as “beautiful, gentle women, inside and out.”
Flowers continue to hold a central place in Robbins’ world. But now the fragrant blossoms are matched by their equally radiant counterparts on her easel, and, in the past few years, her floral still-life paintings have earned top awards. Among them: Best Still Life at the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society Show in 2007 and 2009, the Tuffy Berg Award at the C.M. Russell Auction in 2008, an Award of Recognition at the 2009 American Women Artists Exhibit, and Best of Show at the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society Best of America exhibit in 2010. It’s a rewarding turn of events for someone who, as a young adult, “never, ever thought I would have a career in art.”
Both flowers and creativity have been constants in Robbins’ life, although over the years they have constantly changed forms. At first there were wildflower petals pressed and kept in a book—which, decades later, the artist still has. As an older child, she built shadow boxes adorned with dried flowers and butterflies under glass and sold them to her neighbors by going door to door.
Creativity also took the form of music in Robbins’ childhood home. Her mother, Ann Cardall, was a professional singer “with the voice of angel,” the 50-year-old artist says. “She was incredibly gifted and beautiful—the complete package.” Cardall had her own music-themed television show in Salt Lake City and was invited to the White House to sing for President Eisenhower. Robbins’ older brother sculpted and loved the arts; her great-aunt was a painter, and her father did a little painting as well. “I grew up in a very creative environment. It was a family that made things,” she says. “My parents had the philosophy that God gave you a talent to use.”
In college Robbins’ artistic drawing talent emerged after her roommate encouraged her to practice with paper and pen. That led to a drawing class during her sophomore year. At around the same time, her mother became involved in tole painting, creating decorative imagery on furniture and household objects. One day while explaining how she had painted a scene of chickens and chicks, Cardall handed her daughter a paintbrush and a piece of cardboard and instructed her in the basics of decorative art. “That was probably the start of my painting career,” Robbins says, smiling. A quick learner, she progressed rapidly and, by her mid-20s, was teaching decorative painting herself.
Marriage to a man with two children put the brakes on college for Robbins—“I was an instant mom”—and slowed down her artistic endeavors for a few years. But a hunger to learn propelled her, and soon she switched from acrylics to oils. Largely self-taught at first, she studied art books and later, along with her mother, took weeklong workshops every summer for 10 years with Kansas-based master decorative artist Mary Jo Leisure. “I immediately fell in love with oils and with Mary Jo’s still-life style,” she recalls.
Soon Robbins was developing her own style, creating her own designs, and passing on her knowledge by writing and illustrating books on decorative arts. (These are still available under her former name, Elizabeth Hayes.) She became well known in the field, which offered continuous opportunities for refining her skills in painting the graceful blossoms she loved. Yet something in her passionate nature was ready to take her talent further. As it turned out, that next stage presented itself in the need to support herself and her children after her marriage ended. Not surprisingly, it involved painting flowers, but also leaves and vines, animals, galaxies, geometric designs, and any other theme requested by Pittsburgh-area clients for whom she created room and ceiling murals as interior decor. For four years Robbins painted murals and continued teaching decorative arts.
She also studied portraiture with Robert Daley in Pittsburgh and began painting portraits of children. Her talent was rewarded with commissions, but her creative vision was inhibited by other people’s perceptions of their children and how their portraits should look. Encouraged by an artist friend to return to her considerable gifts with floral painting, one day Robbins set up a still-life arrangement with white Casablanca lilies. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do,” she remembers. “It was a combination of my love of flowers and being able to paint what I wanted to paint.”
When Robbins remarried in 2004 and moved to Kansas, she bought herself a new, top- quality easel and found a spot for it in the beautiful, high- ceilinged room that was to become her studio. “I set up the easel and stood back, looking at it,” she recalls. “I thought: That is a professional easel and deserves professional work to be created on it. It deserves better artwork.” To meet her self-imposed challenge, she began studying intensely with painters whose work she admires. Since then she has taken at least one workshop each year with such greats as David Leffel, Sherrie McGraw, C.W. Mundy, and Robert A. Johnson.
In 2007 Robbins’ husband, whom she still thinks of as her soul mate, died just three years into their marriage. She moved back to Utah to spend time with her elderly parents and regain her bearings. That phase in her life brings memories of baskets of flowers and fruit gathered from her parents’ gardens and orchards, and the pleasure of arranging and painting them, she says. Still, she knows that in keeping with her own emotional state, some of the previous vitality was missing in her art, even if the difference wasn’t obvious to viewers.
At the time, Robbins imagined herself remaining in Utah, painting and quietly living with and caring for her parents for the remainder of their lives. “But then John came into my life and kind of changed things,” she says with a smile. That’s award-winning western historical painter John DeMott, whom she met a few years ago at the C.M. Russell show. Their relationship deepened, and, about a year ago, Robbins moved to Colorado to be with him. The artists share their love of painting, and each has a fresh eye for the other’s work, she says.
With his Loveland studio filled with historic western and Plains Indian artifacts and clothing, DeMott encouraged Robbins to try painting still lifes with western themes. “I avoided that for a long time,” she acknowledges. “He finally set one up, and I painted it. It was a lot of fun.” That first piece, CIRCLE OF POWER, features a Gros Ventre shield whose concentric circle design symbolizes the wholeness and cyclical nature of life, the circling of the sun, earth, and moon, and other elements of the Plains Indian worldview, Robbins notes. Then DeMott brought out another shield and a tomahawk for a painting that became SILENT WAR CRIES. The tomahawk contains a heart-shaped cutout on its blade, a detail that puzzled Robbins until DeMott explained that the blade was French-Canadian, likely obtained from mountain men in trade.
While Robbins continues to create western-themed works and also enjoys painting portraits, her primary subject is still the gracefully petaled beauty that has always been closest to her heart. And just as the past few years have seen a return of the sense of peace and confidence that was broken by widowhood, her style has begun to move in a freer, looser direction as well. SUMMER GIFTS, with wild sunflowers, watermelon, and plums, reflects the artist’s increasing interest in the abstract shapes that inherently make up representational art. “The more knowledge you have as an artist, the looser you can get—not just copying what you see,” Robbins observes. “Emotion can come out when you take what’s before you and use it as a jumping-off place.” She pauses for a moment and then adds: “If it lacks emotion, it’s just a painting. I truly believe that great art comes from within.”
Highlands Art Gallery, Bernardsville, NJ; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Tierney Fine Art, Bozeman, MT; Hueys Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Montgomery Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY; www.elizabethrobbinsart.com.
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