Cynthia Rosen | Life in Motion

Cynthia Rosen paints the natural world in all its dynamism and color

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Cynthia Rosen, Coastal Living, oil, 18 x 36.

Cynthia Rosen, Coastal Living, oil, 18 x 36.

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

In her first year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Cynthia Rosen remembers thinking that what she really wanted to learn were “the colors of black and white.” She meant pencil drawing, but what she was really talking about was her fascination with the spectrum of grays on the scale from white to black. Using layering and a range of soft to harder pencils, Rosen produced a series of still-life images of eggs and one of windows, pushing the darks and lights and exploring the seemingly infinite shades in between. At the start of her second year, she was invited to have a show at the Boston Athenæum.

Fast-forward some 40 years, and the kind of color that fascinates Rosen these days reflects our common understanding of the word. But rather than simply mirroring the landscape’s hues, her use of color instead conveys the dynamism and ever-changing atmosphere of a scene. Spirited, knife-edged marks add a strong sense of rhythm and movement to what some artists might render as a more static scene. While Rosen appreciates traditional plein-air landscapes and loves to look at and learn from them, she describes her own, more contemporary style—which has quickly gained a broad collector following—as “dancing on the boundary between impressionism and abstraction.” It offers suggestions and visual possibilities but always leaves room for “imagination and heart,” she says. She discovered this artistic place the same way she has found almost everything in her life: by following her own independent path.

Rosen’s interest in art started early. As a teenager in her family’s home outside Philadelphia, she defied her mother’s nightly command to “stay in bed with the light off” by sitting on her bed, painting by the illumination of a small lamp. The paint set was a gift from her uncle, a weekend artist who did illustrations for Cynthia’s father’s company and who recognized and encouraged his niece’s interest in art. Following high school, her winning portfolio in a national scholarship competition led her to the Boston Museum School.

As it turned out, it was the perfect environment for a self-motivated student who needed freedom to find her own creative voice. There was no requirement to attend classes. Instead, students were evaluated on portfolios submitted at the end of the year. Rosen took advantage of this flexibility to dip a toe into various forms of art, including ceramics, photography, sculpture, printmaking, and jewelry. “But I realized all I wanted to do was draw,” she says. She spent time in life-drawing studios and pursued her self-guided intensive study of the “colors” of black and white.

She was also working full time. After volunteering at a drop-in center during her first year of school, Rosen was hired to provide art therapy at a halfway house near Boston. The experience had a significant impact on the development of her art—not through the job itself, but because of the commute to get there. Day after day, she made the 45-minute drive each way to work and back while musing on art. As a result, the visual impressions that filled her mind were of constant movement, of the landscape flowing by.

After a year at the halfway house, while still in art school, Rosen obtained a grant to establish a nonprofit called Art To People, Inc. She set up therapeutic and vocational art programs in jails, halfway houses, mental-health institutions, and alternative schools in communities around Boston. That meant more driving. At night, she would go home and paint. What resulted were nonobjective works inspired by the color field movement in New York City and by the world zipping by outside her car each day—pastel markings breaking through the horizon line of a spray-painted tonalist background. The paintings, selling through a New York gallery while she was still in school, were largely monochromatic. But more intense color would soon emerge.

Following graduation, Rosen returned to the Boston Museum School for a postgraduate program that included competition for a traveling fellowship. She applied, and won, with the idea of spending a summer on an island in northern Norway, where in nonstop daylight she could teach herself about color and light. Inspired by the strongly hued work of Wayne Thiebaud, she shifted from nonobjective pieces in quiet, muted tones to painting landscapes, seascapes, and fishing villages in vivid color.

Back in the United States, Rosen lived briefly in New York City, but she missed being in nature. She moved to Vermont, Colorado, and Florida before settling back in rural Vermont, where she lives today. Her art was in a number of galleries and selling well, but when her first child was born in 1981, she made a decision to take a hiatus from painting to raise her family. Later she earned a master’s degree in art education and taught art privately and in Vermont schools. Her re-entry into painting was stimulated by creating theater backdrops, which led to commissions for mural work, which inspired her to return to her own art.

When she did, her son, painter Ian Marion, suggested she try a more representational approach. He knew she could draw well and thought she would enjoy it, and he was right. The next step came when Rosen, who for many years divided her time between Vermont and Scottsdale, AZ, happened to see a notice for a chocolate festival near Scotts-dale that included a plein-air painting event. At that point she had not done much painting on location and was intrigued. “I thought, oh, that’s cool, you paint outside and get to eat chocolate!” she remembers, smiling. “I found out I loved painting outdoors. It opened up a new world for me.”

Rosen joined the Scottsdale Artists League and began taking part in painting excursions, learning to paint on site by doing it. She experimented with various styles before settling on one that expresses her experience of the natural world. It starts with a canvas she has stained red, underscoring the vitality of life. She uses a palette knife almost exclusively, working quickly and often creating two or three paintings side by side—“because we see more than what’s right in front of us,” she says.

And what we see is always changing, in dramatic or subtle ways. It’s an element that has remained central to Rosen’s thinking since her days of driving while contemplating art. With plein-air work she may be standing in one spot, but the light, clouds,
shadows, leaves, smells, and feelings are constantly in motion. At the same time, countless invisible changes are taking place. “Even rocks wear away,” she says. “Nothing natural to this earth stays the same.”

That fundamental law of life is expressed in her paintings through the vibrant movement and interaction of color and shapes. In MEANDERING THROUGH EARLY SPRING, for example, the suggestion of new green leaves breaks up the strong vertical angles of trees beside a stream. “I’m smitten with the dynamics of the landscape,” the artist says.

With all her work, Rosen draws a parallel to music, likening the perception of a painting to experiencing an entire symphony at once. “You have the melody and various threads that run through it, and yet they hold together,” she says. Just as music contains stops, pauses, and parts that move and flow, Rosen creates visual components that function in a similar way. COASTAL LIVING suggests a marshy harbor inlet on a cloudy day, with colorful boat hulls beside a pond. In the background, square and rectangular shapes of buildings signal the eye to momentarily stop, while low-hanging clouds and the dance of color directs the gaze as it moves around the scene.

Rosen also enjoys figurative work and would love to do more of it, but her focus for now is outdoors. “The landscape is always here, and I haven’t anywhere near exhausted my wonderment of it,” she says. Her exploration of diverse settings has led to painting extensively in the West, while plein-air events have taken her along the East Coast and into the South. This summer she is traveling again, living and working on the road in an RV-turned-mobile-studio. “Partly what drives me is the excitement and challenge of the new,” she says. “I want to taste it all, to learn from the challenges that get presented. I still consider myself a new painter, and I want to learn as much as I can.”

No matter what scene is in front of her, Rosen aspires to perceive the underlying aliveness and delight of the natural world and share it through her work. “If we don’t appreciate the beauty that exists, then we’re losing something,” she says. “I hope my art can express beauty and bring joy and broaden the imagination for some. It can bridge the gap between total abstraction and imagery that gives a feel for memories and beautiful sights. And that’s important to me.”

Chasen Galleries, Richmond, VA; Desert Art Collection, Palm Desert, CA; McCartee’s Barn and House Fine Art & Antiques, Salem, NY; Gallery 46, Lake Placid, NY; Helmholz Fine Art, Manchester Center, VT, and New York, NY; Robert Paul Galleries, Stowe, VT; South Street Art Gallery, Easton, MD; Lagerquist Art Gallery, Atlanta, GA;

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

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