Don’t Turn Your Face To The Wall
By Nichole Dupont
We’ve all had at least one some time in our lives. Perhaps it was that dour portrait of great grandmother Agnes in her mourning attire, sitting over the mantle. Or worse, an entire stairwell laden with stern faces and eyes that seemed to be judging our every move. Even that rendering of Miss Mona Lisa, with her little smirk, isn’t the most inviting, come to think about it. But not every face is a somber affair, at least not when one enters Ruth Kolbert’s Sheffield studio, where she has been painting portraits (and landscapes and barns) for the last 23 years. The space is a jubilant cacophony of colors and faces. Every wall is covered with giant, for the most part life-sized portraits on canvas, stacked against each other — sometimes two or three deep — on the floor.
“I never intend on making them so big,” Kolbert says, inspecting a nearly six-foot portrait of a young woman holding a parasol (and a defiant gaze). “That’s my mother. She felt larger than life to me, so that’s just how I painted her. I couldn’t paint her any other way.”
Kolbert’s collection of grand portraits and landscapes (including some of the areas beloved barns which have since fallen to decay) are on display now through August 29 at Art on Main in Great Barrington.
And it’s not just the size of her work that engulfs any space (although Kolbert herself is a petite woman). The vibrant palette of oranges, blues, pinks, and greens — along with sweeping gestural brush strokes — shares a likeness that falls somewhere between Diego Rivera and Edvard Munch but is most reminiscent of fellow female portraitist Alice Neel. That she is unafraid to go after the “energy” of her subject rather than take a realist’s approach is not surprising. Kolbert was, in her early 20s, a student of the late Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). For nearly two months in Salzburg, Kolbert and other young artists painted under the watchful gaze of Austria’s king of expressionism. But he wasn’t as austere as his self portrait implies.
“We stayed in the [Hohensalzburg] castle fortress; there were dormitories there for the artists,” Kolbert recalls. “We painted from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. And models and still lifes were set up, mostly models. He used to come around two times a day to see what we were up to. He brought us each little Austrian bonbons but once, he had run out of the candies when he got to me, so he scribbled on my paper in German ‘I owe you a sweet, OK.’ I still have that piece of paper. He taught me how to look at a white wall and see eight colors.”
While Kokschka informed Kolbert’s technique and gusto, it is her own turbulent youth that in no small part wends its way into much of her work. Born in Czechoslovakia, at five years old Kolbert and her family fled to England on the dawn of WWII. Living just outside London, she says that she remembers the howling chaos of the Blitz and how she would run to a tree in the yard and put her arms around it, thinking that it would somehow keep her safe. Fifty years later, that terror still fresh in her mind, Kolbert “had to get that image out” and the result is a painting of a little gray girl embracing a giant evergreen.
“I don’t like to say that I have a photographic memory, but I might,” she says. “I remember so many things so vividly. But mostly I remember people. Part of the reason I paint some of these people is because I really want to get to know who they are. A lot like the old barns I used to paint, I want to preserve them as they are right now.”
Kolbert doesn’t employ typical tactics — endless hours of sitting still in the studio, layers of shadowing, props and drapes — in order to capture her subject (or subjects). She is a resourceful artist, culling her local community and friends and family to find people to paint. Her studio is graced with likenesses of local blues singer Vikki True, pianist Hilda Banks-Shapiro (right), photographer Sarah Nicholson and her husband Roger Reed (a.k.a. Roger the Jester), Seymour Robbins (above right), and many more.
“People intrigue me; their lives and what they do,” she says. “These are characters who have a passion for life. I go to their homes and do short sketches, in their surroundings, and talk to them while I’m sketching. Then I take pictures and have the film developed. I always do the face last.”
Her subjects’ reactions to the final product range from a surprised ‘oh my god, I look exactly like my mother’ to a satisfied nod. And in some cases, a little constructive criticism. Once, when putting the final touches on a commissioned portrait of Bruce Howden of Howden Farm — whom she painted sitting regally on a tractor surrounded by his prized pumpkins — the latter noticed that something was amiss.
“We were both looking at the painting and suddenly Bruce asked ‘Where are my eyebrows, Ruth?’” Kolbert recalls. “‘I’m known for my eyebrows.’ And he was right. The whole portrait is very orange and he has his eyebrows and his tractor. I try to speak for the life they live.”
Ruth Kolbert: Paintings
June 29 to August 29, 2013; Artist reception on July 13, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Art On Main, The Gallery at Barnbrook Realty
271 Main Street
Great Barrington, MA