Calm at the Center: Stacie Seuberling

January 23rd, 2012  |  Published in Digest, January 2012

Editor’s Note:  The following is reprinted from the October 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Anderson’s Crossing (pastel, 12x16)

Stacie Seuberling’s landscapes may seem like sets for Romantic ballets; the movement of trees equates to the movement of bodies in space; the lines convey form against curtains of color. Smaller in scale than a stage set, however, their magic lies in Seuberling’s insistence on the real (always an actual landscape), as it combines with a fairy-tale-like evocation of memory, where shadows dis-solve and time slows. Calling her pastel paintings “draw-ings,” she emphasizes her control of this medium that depends on draftsmanship. So sure are her drawn lines and deft gradations from darker to lighter that what may have begun as a rendition of a landscape becomes a near-minimalist study of color and light as essences—both part of and separate from nature.

Seuberling’s investigations of color, space and place exist on a spectrum that harks back to Matisse’s Fauvist experiments with color; her investigations also fuse the essence of Asian motifs with the walled garden of the Persian miniature. Like her Western and Eastern artistic ancestors, Seuberling’s realism is less specific to a place than to the moods those places evoke, which is all to say that Seuberling has a talent for choosing the right scenes. Her drawings often feel like cropped photographs, wherein we peek through a gate into nature’s secret gardens.

The Boys’ Club

Seuberling came of age in the early 1970s, when Abstract Expressionism wasn’t just the dominant mode of academic painting, but the only acceptable one. This was an era— perhaps the last—of the heroically defined, male, god-like, expressive artist painting large brushstrokes on large canvases. Seuberling’s small-scale, intimate paintings in oil were written off as decorative, “women’s art”—the typical pejorative view of the male artists who dominated the era. In this hostile climate she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting with a minor in pottery. After graduation, she put aside the making of art. Seven or eight years ago, however, she had an epiphany. “I walked into M. Katherine Hurley’s studio and felt that Kay knew my soul.” She signed up for a pastel class of Hurley’s shortly thereafter. Hurley, well known to readers of The Artist’s Magazine, has made two instructional videos for ArtistsNetwork TV; a master colorist, she began her career in pastel.

The Possibility of Control

What draws Seuberling to pastel? “It’s the color, of course—the intensity coupled with what may seem paradoxical, the softness of the medium,” she explains. Seuberling prefers to work directly on white paper; the layering comes quickly. “The color almost never wipes off,” she says, “but it’s the build-up that I love.” There’s nothing more direct than pure pigment on paper. “I’ve experimented with different surfaces—sanded paper or a pumice ground I made myself—but my preference is for plain white paper,” she says. “I’m fascinated by what the chalk can do—the simplicity of it, of the mark-making, of the layering of one stroke upon another. What I love most is that the artist is in control of the medium.”

Simplicity is a Gift

One notable aspect of Seuberling’s work is the absence of people or buildings, actually of any reference that would pinpoint the locale or the decade. Striving for simplicity, she sticks to the essence of the scene and restricts her palette to a small set of colors. “When I start a landscape, I don’t want a lot of detail,” she says. In choosing a scene, she looks for strong contrasts. The strongest contrasts in nature come in the early morning or at twilight. “The two elements that catch my eye are color and negative space,” she says. A typical Seuberling drawing focuses on emerging form; a sun or a moon often appears roughly one-third of the way into the composition. So beautifully nuanced is her color that it seems her experience with pottery’s glazes has positively affected her work in pastel.

Detachment and Concentration

Seuberling describes her process as one of detachment: “When I see something I want to paint, I disengage myself from my surround-ings.” That disengagement is key to both how she works and what she achieves. She grew up on the west side of Cincinnati in Peach Grove, and the backyard of the house in which she grew up was filled with woods and (as yet) untouched farmland, landscapes she describes as “very comforting”; her personality is “even and calm,” as well. When she withdraws from the vicissitudes of daily living into “the zone” in which she creates, she “enters the most exciting part of the process of creativity.”

“This process,” she says, “is more important to me than any final piece. I am one with that moment that drew me to want to paint it. I start with the horizon line, dividing the work into three sections, and work from dark to light. I start with a No.2 pencil, drawing on paper. Then I tape the paper off, lay the dark colors in and build from there. Next, I layer the shapes. I render the sky—the largest expanse on the paper and usually the lightest (so the pastel dust won’t smudge). All the darks then jump into the lights.”

That “all the darks then jump into the lights” is an apt description of the creative process, a journey inward to the spirit or soul or essence, where place and memory conjoin through color. Seuberling has intuited the Asian, specifically Zen Buddhist, approach to art making, and her methods are as Eastern as they are Western. She is the small traveler in the Chinese painting of mountains seeking refuge in nature. The calm in her work is nearly otherworldly; she locates the spiritual midway between her inner self and her sense of place. As Benedict Leca, curator of European painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum, observes, “Seuberling stands out because she is able to strike that very difficult balance between the freshness of plein air painting and the formal power of more delib-erate conception. She’s got a very good eye for the striking natural effect without its seeming forced or studied. She’s also very good at creating effects of light, and her colors are both natural and quite unexpected, again striking a very difficult balance.”

All four seasons appear in her drawings; water (rivers, streams and ponds) is a frequently depicted element, as we associate it with serenity, with detachment from the everyday. She makes us long to be in the places she evokes. Groups of trees in a row are a frequent compositional focal point, grounding the space roughly midway into the image, keeping it from becoming either too ethereal or too distant. Although we’re frequently just out of range of her havens, she makes them seem attainable. She can make us long for the sanctuary of a bank of trees covered with ice crystals, as the shapes emerge from morning mist, because her color is so extremely beautiful.

At the center of that beautiful work is calm. “This is a solitary, inward process,” she says. “My work isn’t political or environmental; I’m not trying to preserve land so that it’s not developed or draw attention to a cause. I’m trying to depict nature the way it was at the moment I encountered it—where memory meets place. I’m trying to draw the color of light; I’m consciously giving beauty to people. My work may fall between Impressionism and Tonalism, but these are real places that I’m assembling and/or simplifying. I’m trying to take out the noise.”

–Daniel Brown

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