In the Studio with Patricia Chidlaw
By Kit Boise-Cossart
Monday, July 8, 2019, was the last day to view a collection of landscape painter Ray Strong’s work at the Wildling Museum in Santa Ynez Valley, the day coincidentally, I sat with Patricia Chidlaw in her studio to talk about painting.
Patricia was an early member of the Santa Barbara based Oak Group that Strong, who passed on at 100-years-old (1905–2006), was a founding member of.
The studio is a narrow sun porch, full of light even on this dull overcast day. It’s attached to the back of a classic Craftsman-Mission style home. Her latest painting is about 28” x 36”, and so far, it’s been three days in the making. It stood almost straight up attached to a sturdy paint splattered easel, the shelf below it full of Winsor Newton oils, under a large skylight. Outside through a bank of windows, the leafy green canopy of an over-productive avocado tree dominates. Trumpet flowers of red and yellow spill over a fence from the neighbor’s yard.
As a realist-oriented painter, Patricia struggled with the conceptual and minimalist movements of her UCSB college (1969–1973). These two movements were the new king and queen of the art world, and “painting was dead.” It was a new world order. Fortunately, Irma Cavat (b. 1928), the only female professor in the Art Department at the time, recognized Patricia’s leanings and moved her beyond non-objective, cerebral trends.
After graduating, Patricia was motivated to gain some background in the technical aspects of painting that she didn’t get at the university and enrolled in Santa Barbara City College. “Mostly I had to teach myself. Just think how much better we would be as painters if we had had some training”—it was, she noted ironically, her “grad school.”
The current painting under construction is an interior scene of the Berkeley City Pool, a natatorium designed by California architect Julia Morgan (1872–1957) whose work includes the stunning pools at San Simeon’s Hearst Castle.
On a side table by the easel, repurposed glass jars and old coffee cups are full of very clean, sharp, Connoisseur brand sable mix flat brushes, keeping company with a couple of spray cans of Grumbacher Damar varnish, “to make it shiny.”
A handful of other unfinished canvases of different sizes lean against the short stem wall under the windows. “The scenes are all odd sizes. I stretch all my own canvasses.” If she gets “stuck” on “City Pool” there are others to get her going, she says.
Looking at an impressive assortment of fifty of Patricia’s paintings in the catalog to her 2014 solo show at the Nevada Museum of Art, it’s apparent she likes interiors. She’s most interested in architectural spaces with history, especially ones with all kinds and types of lighting: direct, reflected, diffused, satiny, polished, ambient, incandescent and neon.
How those lights illuminate an interior and reflect both inside and outside spaces make up the substance of her paintings—day and night visions of train and bus stations, diners, bars, motels, laundromats, movie theaters, restaurants, car dealerships and parking lots—the ubiquitous spaces of our time.
Edward Hopper’s influence on Patricia is clear. For example, Patricia’s “Night Shift,” 2002, is a nod to Hopper’s famous “Night Hawks,” 1942, now enshrined at the Chicago Art Institute. However, whereas Hopper used pencil and charcoal studies, Patricia prefers to piece together photographs taken at the scene. She took several shots at the Berkeley location early in the day to get the calm reflective water before the pool filled up with swimmers. One lone figure on the canvas, pausing, appears in the shallow end. The actual photos show two.
A while back, some of her friends at SBCC, later Oak Group members, began painting in the wide-open spaces far removed from studio work, and invited Patricia along. She discovered that street and urban scenes were more to her liking than her compatriots. “I like buildings better than nature.” It’s a different take for an artist in the primarily landscape-oriented group.
Nevertheless, Patricia enjoyed working outdoors and it improved her confidence. Passers-by on the street were supportive. It was good to be in the fresh air. Soon enough, though, she wanted to spend more time in a controlled environment, skipping the outdoor painting sessions and instead photographing the views, then working them into sketches on canvases indoors, re-jiggering the photo input directly into paint. Studio work gave Patricia more time to ruminate on the compositions, colors and technical effects rather than the hit-and-run nature of plein-air.
Vintage urban structures, interiors and general out-of-the-way transportation corridors of highways and railroad sidings made their impressions, partly brought on by her upbringing—road trips with her parents in the ‘50s and ‘60s, high school in the Netherlands—“I saw a lot of great paintings in Europe”.
Patricia is not alone in her interest in architecture. “I’m not as obsessed as Davis Cone!” she happily objects, who is a like-minded friend more entrenched in the intensely detailed intricacies of photorealism. Someone closer to her camp would be the Santa Barbara painter Stephanie Jamgochian who shares a slightly more painterly focus as a realist. All three could be included under the heading of “contemporary observation-based” paintings, a phrase lifted from the website of an LA gallery that closed in the 2009 economic downturn. That gallery carried Patricia’s work.
Keeping company in the studio are miscellaneous period memorabilia—a red and black with white bubbles “7Up” sign, a ‘50s theme park “Lake Dolores Waterpark” emblem, and a white Mobil Oil coffee mug full of brushes with a red winged horse logo.
A few crowded shelves indicate some influences: collections of poetry of Auden and Yeats; a crime mystery by S. Hodel, “Black Dahlia Avenger;” an architecture bio of Frank Lloyd Wright; a photography book “Small Town America” by D. Plowden; Edward Burtynsky’s “Oil;” James White’s “Paintings,” and J.R. Taylor’s “Exactitude: Hyperrealist Art Today.” “Roadside America: Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions” is caught behind a hanging lantern that looks suspiciously like those in one of Patricia’s Chinese restaurant scenes.
When asked how much longer it will take to finish “Berkeley City Pool,” she replies, “three weeks.” It’s been three days and the composition, outlines and infill washes are pretty far along.
Patricia is planning a February 2020 solo show at Sullivan Goss. “I’ve got four started and need about fifteen. Yikes! It’s already July!”