Testing the waters

Artist stretches canvas, ability in Va. program

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

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The Facts

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FAIRFIELD —Abstract painter Gail Salzman looks to water for sources of inspiration. Her ability to tap into that reservoir branched out when earlier this year she had the good fortune to attend a coveted artist-in-residency program.

The program was funded by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and held in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Their role is to sponsor the arts,” she said. VCCA, like other residencies, gives artists a place away from home to focus on their art and work without distractions.

“[It’s] one of many artist residency facilities in the country, around the world really,” Salzman said. Others include The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. and The Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt.

Salzman said residencies are an opportunity for artists to further their career and be surrounded by like-minded people.

Established in 1971 in Virginia by writers, its situated in the same town as Sweet Briar College, sharing some of the same resources.

“This particular facility has writers, visual artists and composers,” Salzman said.

The residency is “competitive,” with only two-dozen spots for all three categories, she said. “And people apply from all over the world.”

Salzman applied and was awarded one of the spots, with her fee subsidized.

“I paid a fraction of the fee,” she said. “Then I also got a small development grant from the Vermont’s Art Council.”

Packing up her paints and canvases, Salzman drove to Virginia, to spend a little over three weeks at VCCA, starting in the middle of January.

Salzman said she lived in a residency building, similar to a dormitory, where three daily meals were served.

Just a short walk across “beautiful” grounds that used to serve as farm land would bring her to her studio space.

Salzman said the studio building was “interesting,” a U-shaped extended barn that was converted into studio space, each studio private, simple and well lit.

“My studio had a skylight, several big windows and lots of ceiling lights,” she said. “Really good lighting.”

Salzman said it was very, very quiet even though more than 20 people were working among each other in separate rooms.

“You have all these artists in this one sprawled out building and yet once you close the door to your studio, it is quiet,” she said. “Nobody disturbs you. You’re encouraged to not even knock on anyone’s door, unless you’ve been invited to.”

Salzman has a studio at home, a little too small to start large pieces of artwork. But her studio space in Virginia was ample enough to allow her to paint something much larger than her typical canvas size of four-by-four feet.

“I was able to start a piece that was 12 feet long,” she said. “My intention is to divide it into five to six separate pieces that have a connecting element. There’s an image that carries through every part of it.”

“I’ve had it in my mind for a while and it keeps coming back,” she explained. “It’s basically a really large spiral form. It’s related to spirals that you see in water and concentric circles and ripples.”

The repetitive pattern of growth expands and thickens as it circles outwards. When the paper was divided, a piece of the spiral can be found on each of the separate paintings.

Salzman said her hope is that they will be exhibited next to each other.

Daily Life

“Basically people work all day nonstop except for meals,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

“It’s just really intense,” she continued. “There’s quite a lot to do if you want to take a break. Sweet Briar College is a long walk or a short drive away. But it’s amazing how many hours people put in.”

Salzman said the top reason artists apply for a residency is because there’s no other responsibility there except to do your work.

“Most people have responsibility in their lives that are other than their studio time,” she said. “Either you teach or you have a day job or you have family.”

All of those disappear when it’s just the artist alone in their studio, she said.

“The other reason is that you’re surrounded breakfast, lunch, and dinner by other people doing similar work,” Salzman continued. “You’re talking to other artists in your own discipline. You’re sharing ideas with them.”

And artists also get the chance to interact with people outside their area of expertise.

“The important thing for me was, well I don’t get the chance to hang out with writers and composers,” she said. “It was fascinating. Just so broadening professionally to talk to a writer and find out how many similarities there were between what they do to get their work done and to be inspired and what I do.”

“I met the most wonderful contemporary composer,” she said. “He’s doing work that I’ve never heard of.”

Salzman said artists share more than just their work. They also share resources and tips, like names of galleries that might want to showcase an artist’s work, helping each other further their career along.

“Its like you’re in this wonderful creative stew that’s bubbling,” she said. “A lot comes out of it. I would definitely want to go back there. Definitely.”

Delving into water

Whether it’s a trip down the hill to the pond near her Fairfield home or the annual two-week trip to Maine’s seashore with friends, Salzman finds beauty in the deep tones, the rippling lines and the meaning behind the liquid.

“It’s an element that interests me because it’s always moving,” Salzman said. “I use water as a metaphor for the way time and our memories are always changing.”

“Bodies of water, puddles, ponds, streams, flowing water, stagnant water,” she said. “All of those elements that, when we think about it, are absolutely essential to our lives.”

The textures and fluidity of water can be found in her brightly hued oil paintings. She creates a painting layer by layer, scraping and squeegeeing oils over wooden panels.

With each layer, she will stop and stand back to observe the new addition. If she likes how the layer has added to the movement within the painting, it stays. If the layer is jarring or the color isn’t quite right, it is quickly erased with the brush of a paper towel.

There is no such thing as a mistake in Salzman’s world. It’s all about trial and error until the final version emerges and she is satisfied with how the eye travels around the piece.

“It’s very important for me to have big blocks of time that are uninterrupted because my source of ideas really comes from inside of me,” she said. “So to get at that, you have to allow yourself a lot of psychic space to get at the underlying feeling and ideas.”

“My work is related to nature, always,” she explained, “but then it gets filtered by my life experience.”

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Salzman took art lessons every Saturday as a child at the local museum.

She went on to concentrate in painting during undergrad at Indiana University of Bloomington. She learned there how to paint and draw from the figure, but sometime in the 90’s switched into the abstract side of the art world.

Currently she works part-time at Community College of Vermont and Burlington City Arts as an art teacher and spends the rest of her time painting in her home studio, located in an upscale shed behind her house.

But over the winter, she got a break from her day-to-day routine to spend a month in the South to work on a new collection.