Work From the Model: Re-Emerging Artists and Their Many Interpretations of Bob and Edna

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Imagine clothed figure drawing and painting from eight artists, many of them using the same models, and it's unlikely you'd envision the diversity of East Bay Figure Painting Group's first show, currently running at Berkeley's Firehouse North Gallery. The surprisingly simple theme of "Work From the Model" brings us everything from Diana Blackwell's life-size, colorful, bold acrylics to Deborah Rogin's small, subtle pencil drawings, highlighting each artist's style and skill. Some models, such as Bob and Edna, appear in three different artists' work and look original in each. But it's not just the range of mediums and approaches that's interesting. The East Bay Figure Painting Group itself is unique in its focus on re-emerging artists.

The question of how to sustain oneself as an artist of any kind is a difficult one. Get a non-demanding, probably low-paying day job and do art in the evenings? Squeeze in art while pursuing another career? Find work that allows you to use your creative skills in a profitable way? Artists can get burned out just trying to navigate it all. One of the East Bay Figure Painting Group's founders says, "Sustaining a lifetime of creative work is an art in itself."

The re-emerging artists of the group represent another way of doing things. All are returning to full-time art after another career or raising a family. For years Karen Zullo Sherr fit her art around her job as a community organizer and union organizer, while Georgianna Greenwood did graphic design, calligraphy and lettering before returning to painting. Diana Blackwell began painting again after decades as a freelance journalist and art model. The group was founded to provide supportive community, and for the past two years the group has been working together, sharing professional models and a location.

The result is this intriguing first show. Blackwell's paintings recall Mexican muralists and can be seen clearly as you pass Firehouse North Gallery. Rogin's quiet drawings require a closer look. Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez primarily uses oil paint to work with light, producing beautiful, detailed work. Karen Zullo Sherr's acrylics are vaguely impressionist. Kathleen Flannigan uses India ink and white pencil shading on gray paper for a dramatically different take on the models. Vicki Salzman's intimate oils contrast against Meredith Steele's colorful, playful acrylics.

Georgianna Greenwood's background in lettering and calligraphy influences her soft watercolors, which integrate quotes and phrases. A portrait of Lorianne, a model who appears in several works, is rendered especially unique by a quote from writer Peter Schjeldahl. "Unlearnable, the vocation of art entails idiosyncratic strategies for learning toward unclear but performatorily felt ends."

How can something be unlearnable and still entail strategies for learning? Greenwood emphasizes that the appearance of the text is important more than its literal content. Still, I find something significant in the quote's relationship to this show. All the artists involved have taken winding roads in their work, beginning in art, exploring other aspects of life, and coming back to art again.

Art professors are sometimes fond of saying that art is the territory only of those who cannot imagine doing anything else. Yet these re-emerging artists show that artistic lives can be more complicated. Art does not have to be the only meaningful thing in life. It can be one of many incredible things, one aspect of a full life. The strategies of learning and living this unlearnable thing are indeed more idiosyncratic and complex than romantic statements about singular artistic calling would suggest.

The show opened Friday at Firehouse North Gallery in Berkeley's gourmet ghetto with a small computer slide show of the artists at work. Though the lovely food and drink spread and the fantastic live guitar of the opening reception are over, the work will be up all month. Take a peek at this creative show, and check out the unframed work from the artists that is also for sale at Firehouse North Gallery. The small gallery is also displaying paper, wood and canvas work from Patricia K. Kelly.

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