Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Meet painter Valerie D'Ortona

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Painter Valerie D'Ortona was the first featured artist on Cow Art and More in January 2009. Valerie is a Ph.D. college professor who was attracted to painting in 2003. Cows immediately came to the forefront of Valerie's artistic talent and "Isabel" and her friends were born. Valerie has since created a line of prints, t-shirts, tote bags, and note cards to share "Isabel's World".

Why do you paint?

I paint because doing so takes my mind off my worries and petty annoyances. Also, painting whimsical animals is just plain fun. My images make me laugh; perhaps they’ll entertain others, as well. And, I think Tony would be relieved to know that I’m “stay[ing] out of trouble.”

How did you get started?

In 2003, I retired from college administration work and moved from Missouri back to Gainesville, FL, to live with family and bask in the sunshine. I didn’t “do” ice and snow very well, even though I was born in Bloomington, IL, and fondly remember building snow forts and throwing snow balls. When my brother and I would come in for tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, Mother would hang our snow suits near the radiator to dry a bit before we headed back out to fight off the enemy. I wasn’t even five then, so, of course, the snowy battles were fun.

Anyhow, back in Florida and without job identity (you know, “And what do YOU do?” “Oh, USED to be a college dean” stuff), I needed something to do to “keep out of trouble,” as per my son’s instruction. Consequently, my very wise son Tony, who had often noticed me dabbling with children’s paints while we watched evening news in Missouri, suggested that I take painting lessons. The local community college was offering a beginning painters class, so I signed up.

What is your technique?

I usually use acrylic paint, although sometimes I have used watercolor. I’ve never tried to oil paint. I notice that red, black, white, and yellow usually turn up. Although I started out painting on paper, now I seem to prefer stretched canvas or canvas board.

Where did you learn your technique?

(My first) teacher Dale, actually a potter rather than a painter, was pitching in for someone else. Dale pretty much let us splash paint around as we saw fit, and, in that process, I discovered that I always chose bright colors and created “primitive” images (probably because I couldn’t draw worth a hoot). Dale concluded that what I was doing looked somewhat similar to paintings from his friend Mike Segal (Cedar Key), so Dale brought in one of Mike’s pieces and suggested that I try to emulate it. That’s how the bright colors/primitive images part began. A class member brought in a photocopy of a stick-figured cow, saying she thought it looked like the subject matter I seemed to like to paint. Thus, the cows started mooing to me.

In more recent years, I’ve become friends with Mike and his wife Marvi. Although he probably internally cringes when I re-tell him the Dale/Mike/bright colors/primitive story and claim that he’s my (unauthorized) mentor, Mike is always very patient (well, as patient as Mike can stand to be) and has encouraged the development of my style. We end up in some of the same art shows, such as Thornbrook and Tioga. He wins the prizes and the big bucks, of course, while I look longingly in his booth’s direction, thinking, someday . . . .

After the beginning painters class, I took a couple of acrylic painting lessons with Elizabeth Barakah Hodges, another character in her own right. One time, I had the privilege of being her sole student for an evening. She introduced me to using collage with acrylic and, so, opened up another avenue for me.

I found out about Linda Pence’s watercolor classes, and thought that maybe I should learn a softer touch. It didn’t work. Even in the painting exercises, my work was always “Bold” and “Graphic” instead of subtle and delicate. Pence, being very wise and also quite flexible, didn’t try to change my bold color/primitive style. She just tried to sneak in some lessons on basic stroke work, mixing colors, thinking about composition, and stuff like that—you know, more the fine-tuning kinds of things.

We’ve become friends, and whenever I can, I take her workshops, sneaking in my acrylics among the watercolorists. Everyone is always friendly—in fact, when my son (only 33) died in June 2008—these wonderful people were the ones who made me an art sympathy card, and who donated money to the Artisans’ Guild where, after he had moved to Gainesville in 2007, he had shown/sold his exquisite Damascus-steel knives and jewelry.

Somewhere along the way, I also had the good fortune of hooking up with landscape artist extraordinaire Linda Blondheim. Going to her once-a-month open studio workshops has boosted my self-esteem as well as my skills. As with Pence, Blondheim has never tried to eradicate my style. She simply wanders around the studio, spending quality time with each (sometimes only two to five people) student, studying the painting in progress, asking questions, and making suggestions. Occasionally she hires me to write press releases for her, too.

Friendships with Blondheim and with her students in these studio visits have also helped me in my grief journey. To honor my son (who attended a couple of the open studio sessions with me and, although color blind, painted a respectable still life that Blondheim generously varnished and framed for me after his death), I’ve been writing and illustrating a children’s book on organ donation/transplantation. A couple of months ago, two of the studio artists listened as I sobbed my way through reading the draft and showing the images. Both offered excellent advice for continuation of my project and helped me feel comfortable after having shown my grief so openly.

How do you get your ideas?

Sometimes I’ll toy with words, maybe a cliché such as “Hang in there!” Then I visualize Isabel and friends in various circumstances and positions of “hanging in.” Sometimes I’ll sketch the image before putting brush to paint, but, mostly, I “draw” as I paint. One of the beauties of working with acrylic is that if I don’t like the way something looks, I can just paint over it.

Sometimes I’ll see something in a magazine that triggers an Isabel moment. I’m notorious (just ask my family) for cutting up magazines. For a couple of years, I kept a file on magazine eyes; one on frogs; one on barns; etc. Recently, I threw out all those scraps of paper. Most of the time, I paint from memory or imagination, sometimes referring to a calendar or book for a particular detail.

My images tell stories, I’ve found. Even if Isabel is by herself, one may guess a scenario by the scenery or props. Also I try to give clever titles to pieces, such as “Udderly Octo-whelmed,” tools to prompt the viewer into understanding the story.

How long does it take you to make a painting?

I paint very quickly. For a 5 x 7” canvas board, for instance, I may paint for part of an hour; then I “revise” and then add detail. Of course, the amount of time will depend on the size of the canvas and the number of “people” who populate the scene. A 20 x 24” piece might take days of my working off and on. I’ll take a break when my body hurts or I’m starting to make too many mistakes (or I have to meet appointments or teach a college English class—as an adjunct).

I work quickly because acrylic paint dries quickly—and because I’m impatient. Life is too short; I want to finish a piece and move on to the next.

Do you ever have goof ups or work you don't like?

Honey, I have a rented 10 x 10’ storage building chock full of paintings that I’ve done along the way. I don’t know that they are all goof ups, necessarily; they are simply earlier (than today) work. When I print too many reproductions and they don’t sell, I stuff them away in storage also. One of these days I’m going to have to have a large “storage unit” sale—or a bonfire.

Where did Isabel's World come from?

Who can say? I’ve been prolific with my work (probably at the expense of quality control, sometimes), so I was anxious early on—probably before I should have—to show off my work in shows, exhibits, in stores, etc. I needed a name for my fledgling company. “Isabel” just kind of popped up. I have no Isabels in my family; I just liked the name. I selected “World” because I felt as if I had many stories to tell (through images as well as words). Using Isabel’s World has given me permission, so to speak, to develop whimsical animals other than “just cows.” Now Isabel (my main cow) has friends, such as Freddie the Frog, Kitty the Cat, Millie the Pig, and Hattie the Hen, among others. Last year Isabel morphed into a MOO-maid for a series of several paintings. Who knows what ‘09 will birth?

What are your future plans with Isabel’s World?

Isabel’s World will be forever under development. What started as one whimsical “stick” cow has multiplied into hundreds of painted stories. I’m fascinated by the idea of merchandising Isabel’s World. I’ve already produced MOO-month Calendars (08 was the 4th year), MOO Mugs and MEOW Mugs, greeting cards, and post cards. I can “see” Isabel on children’s pajamas, bed sheets, wallpaper, and tee shirts.

One day, I intend to slow down long enough from other obligations to concentrate on putting books together. My children’s donor/transplantation book to honor my beloved son Tony consumes my entire focus now. When the book is complete, I will have to find a publisher—or an agent—which ever is supposed to come first. The rest will fall into place, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, as long as I can see and my painting hand functions, I intend to keep painting whatever nonsense pops into my head.

What advice do you have for wanna-be artists?

If I—a little ol’ lady school teacher--can do it, you can do it! I taught college English or served as a college administrator my entire career, never having picked up a paintbrush until I was 58 years young. You, too, have something to express, whether it’s joy or pain, hope or despair. Paint is a great place to start. Don’t restrict yourself with “I can’t draw” (neither can I, my friend); or “What will people think?” (who cares?) or “I’m too old” (as long as your fingers or toes or mouth can hold a brush to dip into paint, you’re plenty young enough).

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