Friday, April 19, 2024

All Florida Artists Up Close: Sonya Gaskell

When she’s not teaching others how to paint, modeling for figure drawing classes or shooting aerial photographs, Jupiter resident Sonya Gaskell is observing nature and recording it the best way she can: in quasi-abstract plein aire landscapes that take on distinct, familiar forms the further you step away from them.

Gaskell’s recent paintings can be viewed on her minimalistic website. These vivid representations of dense thickets of forest and waves lapping onto beaches share with the turn-of-the-century American Impressionists a passion for the very medium of paint, rendered through harsh, self-aware brush strokes. You can easily get lost in her art, and after combing through the blotches and swirls of paint, it’s fascinating to find yourself in them.

“Kaboom,” her piece on display at the All Florida exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, is atypical in the sense that it depicts an immediate action more tailored to the instantaneity of a photograph: the demolition of a local building that, for many, conjures harrowing memories of a more famous toppled tower.

What was the inspiration for “Kaboom?”

The inspiration for this painting was the demolition of 1515 Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach. The condemned landmark was badly damaged in the 2004 hurricanes and was slated for demolition. Just a stones’ throw from the Norton Museum of Art, the high-end buzzards’ roost was slated to be instantaneously destroyed in a public event cheerfully slated for Valentine’s Day of 2010. A little girl in a red Valentine’s Day dress had the privilege of pushing the button that initiated the multimillion-dollar sequence of explosives which incisively destroyed the monolithic structure with little or no damage to any surrounding structures. The impact of the event drew widespread horns and cheers, as many an onlooker was filled with the immense sense of impermanence that witnessing such rapid disintegration of such a large and seemingly permanent structure can stimulate.

I was standing on the Flagler Bridge with my Nikon, and the shot I used as reference for this painting was the one before the frame, where there was no longer a building, just a huge dust cloud, and then clearing to reveal a perfectly conical pile of rubble about eight stories high … a small short-lived mountain.

That particular day also happened to be the Losar, The Tibetan New year, The year of the Iron Tiger. It was at this celebration that Lama Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche mirthfully mumbled something in Tibetan and proffered a small plastic tiger into whose mouth he stuffed a piece of bread (it was a feast celebration) and held it out to me in his outstretched palm. Only a few precious months later he consciously shed the mortal coil.

Later that day, I placed the two images side by side and knew that it was a huge karmic message from the universe about impermanence, about the destruction of old and dangerous karma by the loving kindness and skillful means of an enlightened master.

Iron Tiger, indeed.

I thought instantly of 9/11 when I viewed this painting in the museum. Did this cross your mind, and did you expect the work to have this of a connection with people?

Hey, you’ve seen one imploding building, you’ve seen them all.

It was only after I had completed it and entered it into another show that it was pointed out to me that the connection to that event in the minds of many would be ineluctable, even though there was no teal tropical water or palm trees in Manhattan on 9-11 (global warming was not then that well-advanced) or pleasure boats watching. But I was surprised to find that not only were many reminded of 9-11, some were convinced that it was indeed a painting of the destruction of the Twin Towers.

The context of the two events could not be more polarized. One was a destructive act committed with angry and hateful intent. The other was the necessary removal of a large column of old karma, done with enough skillful means and loving kindness so as to harm as little as possible. Even the flower beds at the Norton were spared.

What the phenomenon has taught me is how engrained images really stop us from seeing what is right in front of us. That deeply engrained memory can override direct observation.

How does a painting of an action shot like this differ from the landscapes you’ve completed?

This painting , although painted in a similar manner to many of my plein airepaintings, represents visual exposure to a fraction of a second of reality. Many of my paintings done on location represent visual exposure to a subject matter over long periods of time. In any case, whether it’s a fraction of a second or hours or weeks, the experience becomes compressed into a single moment, frozen on a canvas in thick and sumptuous paint.

What are your favorite locations to paint?

I find myself most attracted to water, and if I am painting on location, shade. I usually swim in the landscapes I am painting and walk about and get lost in them, and live in them for a while. I also live in a small house in the woods with a couple of abandoned cars which are slowly being absorbed back into nature, which fascinate me, so I paint them as well.

Do you see your paintings, as I do, as a mix of the abstract and the representational?

Of course. But all paintings are abstractions (extractions) of reality. I don’t really think that any honest painter believes they are duplicating reality but representing it through the language of mark-making. I do believe you are definitely onto my intent though, as I wish to establish a kind of tug-of-war between the perceived space and the immediate reality of 3D piles of paint on a 2D surface. If enough shifts like this take place in perception, something transcendental to the perception of space begins to emerge; the experience of spaciousness itself being perceived as a quality of consciousness and perhaps of the vast nature of that space.

Why do you paint?

To participate in a millennia-old visual conversation. To speak through the window of public attention of some of the deepest questions and aspects of our existence. The plasticity of paint communicating the plastic, insubstantial and empty nature of reality itself.

When you were shooting aerial photographs for clients, were you still able to be an artist?

Yes. I can tell you this as well … being strapped into the seat of a small two-seat helicopter shooting down directly with the craft in a sharp bank is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

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