Category Archives: Beauty

Ebb and Flow: a solo exhibition by Kathleen Dunphy

I had the chance to attend the opening of Kathleen Dunphy’s solo exhibition, Ebb and Flow, at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, California, this past weekend. Twenty-six paintings fill the gallery at Knowlton with light and—I have no other word for it—grace. The works range from still lifes of flowers in glass vases, to cows quietly watching the watcher, to fog rolling onto the Marin Headlands. Some were created on site, en plein air; many are larger studio pieces. (A couple of the pieces are 36″ by 48″, and one is 48″ by 60″.)

Kathleen Dunphy at Knowlton Gallery
Kathleen Dunphy discusses how she painted “Sanctuary” from the small plein air sketch in her hand. At the opening of Ebb and Flow, October 2012. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The landscapes, especially, have a grandeur and immediacy to them that stops you in your tracks. And it’s not the plein air pieces, so full of the energy, that strike you. No, it’s the big ones. So often, enlarging a smaller painting results in a loss of the energy of the original work. However Dunphy did it, whether by creating a new composition by using multiple sketches as the source material or what, she has given the larger pieces a different kind of energy: less visceral, perhaps, but more intense.

I overheard another artist at the opening say, as the highest compliment he could pay, “I wish I’d painted this.” Well—me, too.

(Full disclosure: I’ve taken several of Dunphy’s workshops. I’m a huge fan, so this is not an unbiased review.)

I’ve long maintained Dunphy is an incredibly generous teacher. She was also generous with visitors at the opening. The 30 or so people who attended last Saturday afternoon got to hear Dunphy describe how she uses her small plein air sketches as source material for her larger pieces. Her stories of trying to catch the light before the fog engulfed the view, or heading out for trip to the Sierras and forgetting all but one brush, helped give each painting a life beyond mere canvas. They also helped her listeners understand a bit of what it’s like to be a painter.

It’s also nice to see all the red dots at the exhibition.  But then, most of Dunphy’s paintings sell.  So if you’re interested, act quickly.


Ebb and Flow: Painting Nature’s Rhythms is at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi through November 24, 2012.



Red at the B Street Theatre: Four Stars

When I studied drawing with Dan Samborski at American River College, I had an ongoing argument with him (conducted almost entirely in my own head) about what constituted good art. Not well executed: good. Meaningful. Worthwhile. Samborski’s tastes run to post-modern, and I am far more traditional. He talked quite a bit about 20th Century American painters; about modernism, postmodernism, and how passé Impressionism’s “purple shadows” are; about meaning and the impulse to create; about what the artist was trying to express. It was good stuff, and my silent argument with my teacher energized me long after I completed his classes.

Mark Rothko No.14 San Francsico Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, 1960; painting; oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in. (290.83 cm x 268.29 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Samborski’s words came flooding back to me as I watched the B Street Theatre’s production of Red by John Logan on Saturday night. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010, Red focuses on artist Mark Rothko in about 1958, as he worked on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The play is an interpretation of Rothko’s struggle about whether his own work was meaningful art or commodity. Rothko is hugely self-absorbed, but eventually admits to his assistant, Ken, his fears of dying and, in the words written on the wall in the Book of Daniel, of being “weighed in the balance and … found wanting.” (Isn’t that what we all fear?)

This two-person play is a brilliantly conceived and, in the B Street production, finely executed portrayal of both the art world in transition and an individual artist’s struggle to make the work all it can be: to engage the viewer, to resonate emotionally, to communicate—something. The conversations between Rothko and Ken swirl around and through vast territories of human experience, from what they teach in art school nowadays to murder. Meanwhile, the action on stage (such as it is) revolves around the everyday acts of stretching canvas, mixing colors, getting Chinese takeout. One of the plays lightest scenes comes as the two prime a large canvas together, to music (Handel, I think).

One of Samborski’s contentions was that few movies (or, by extension, plays) capture at all well what it’s really like to be an artist, to create for a living. On that point I agree with him. Happily, profoundly, Red is an exception: it fiercely captures both the mundaneness of studio work and the feeling of, in Samborski’s words, “walking on ball bearings” as one brings each piece to life and imbues it with one’s hopes and fears for its existence, even as the world marches on.

The B Street Theatre’s production, featuring Brian Dykstra portrays Mark Rothko and David McElwee as Ken, is definitely worth seeing. Red runs through September 22. Four stars.



Recently, someone asked me “What inspires you to paint en plein air?”

She was asking for a quote for some publicity, so of course I responded right away. But it got me thinking: what does inspire me to paint outdoors?

The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict
The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. 9 x 12, oil on board. Private Collection.

The short answer is: I like to be outdoors. I’ve been a birdwatcher longer than I’ve been a painter, and part of what I enjoy is bringing my binoculars along, setting my pochade up in a shady spot, and seeing who happens by. Though I admit, you have to be so focused when you paint—all that fleeting light and everything—watching birds can be a distraction. But, on a Saturday in the Sierra foothills, that didn’t stop me from noticing how, around 11:00, all the hawks took to the air.

And then there’s the fact that you really can’t see accurate color detail from photos. Painters know that camera lenses cannot see the range of colors and values the human eye can: cameras get the darks OR the lights, not both. And that pesky white balance! Change the white balance setting, and all the colors change. How in the world can that be accurate? So if you wanna do landscapes, you gotta go outside.

The long answer is that I love being in the moment, in the landscape. All of these are elements inspire my work: the feel of the humidity in the air, the sounds of hawks and swallows, the scent of the pine trees or the dried grasses. So often our days are taken over by our electronic devices and our automobiles, we forget to look around us. I love immersing myself in the day and trying to portray it with paint.

One of my favorite science fiction short stories (this really is related!) is called “The Light of Other Days,” written in 1966 by Bob Shaw. The device in the story was what the author called “slow glass”: a special glass that allowed light to pass through it only very slowly, so that the viewer looking through the glass would see what had happened years before. The story involves a couple shopping for a piece of slow glass to hang in their living room, a kind of moving painting of the mountains through the seasons. (In reality nowadays, I’ve seen HD TVs at hotels do something similar: but they’re displaying videotaped scenes of island paradises or mountain snowfall. Not quite the same.)

Well, I’ve always wanted my paintings to be a kind of slow glass: I want them to portray a morning, or an afternoon, and give the viewer the echo of actually being there. That humidity I spoke of, or the scent of the pines, or the heat, or the sound of the surf. That feel of a place is much harder to capture than even the fleeting colors of the shadows, and I don’t succeed every time. But that’s what inspires me, and that’s what I’m striving for.

What do you look for in a landscape painting? If you’re a painter, what inspires you?

Rivers of Gold

Full disclosure: I am an associate artist member of the California Art Club, and my painting was not accepted for this show.

The California Art Club finally came to the greater Sacramento area in the fall of 2011, when it established its Greater Sacramento-Sierra Chapter. Although the club is over 100 years old, it had never had an inland northern California chapter before. (And already the chapter has more than 90 members!) To celebrate, the club is currently holding its inaugural exhibition for the chapter, Rivers of Gold, at the Bank of America Gallery at Three Stages, at Folsom Lake College, east of Sacramento.

South Fork-Cosumnes River by Annie Fountain
South Fork-Cosumnes River by Annie Fountain. Oil. 6″ x 8″. Used by permission. On display in Rivers of Gold through September 2.

This is, as expected, a very strong show. The California Art Club is dedicated to supporting traditional painting and sculpture—that is, representational art. Rivers of Gold, themed around the rivers of Northern California, showcases 17 artists and about 25 paintings in styles that range from semi-abstract to very traditional tonalist works to impressionist styles. Many are plein air pieces, though not all. The artists represented include some well-known painters, such as Kathleen Dunphy, Susan Sarback, and Michael Knepp, to newcomers Annie Fountain, Tatyana Fogarty, Jane Welles. (I wonder if it’s significant that there are 5 men and 12 women represented in this show.) It’s great to see so many excellent pieces from around our region all showing in one place.

The gallery itself is fairly new. It’s part of the Three Stages complex in Folsom, which opened only in 2010 or 2011.  The gallery space is quite small, a triangular room tucked between the building’s exterior wall and an interior wall surrounding one of the theaters. While I’m glad to have another art gallery in the region—the space could use some sound muffling. The maybe 50 people who attended the reception July 21 filled the space with the kind of din you get at modern restaurants, where you almost need to shout at your companions to be heard. I am sure that lots of attention went into the acoustics for the theaters, but it seems they overlooked this gallery space.

And the gallery is open very limited hours. So if you’re planning a visit—and I do recommend the show—be sure to check the website or call first, to make sure it’s open. Rivers of Gold runs through September 2, 2012.

Why Collect Art?

Update: added link to the letter.

The New York Times Magazine tells me they’re publishing my letter to the editor in the June 17, 2012, edition. (Woo hoo! One of my 15 minutes of fame!) I wrote in response to Adam Davidson’s article called “How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality.”  The piece discusses whether buying high-priced art is a good investment, how prices in that market are manipulated.  At the very end, Davidson says this:

As I talked to art advisers and economists, I kept thinking of my childhood in Westbeth, a subsidized housing complex for artists in Greenwich Village. Our neighbors, painters and sculptors among them, were decidedly not rich. To them, the very idea that art should make someone wealthy was laughable, even offensive. It makes me happy to think that this world of art-as-investment is a minuscule fraction of the art world overall. Most people who create, trade and own art do it for a much simpler reason. They just like it.

Regal by Stephanie Benedict
Regal. ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. 12 in. x 12 in. Oil on linen.

So I wrote a comment on the website, and they’re going to publish it in the magazine!  Here’s what I wrote (they’re publishing a slightly edited version):

For me the most important point in the piece is not that the 0.01% will pay stratospheric prices for a handful of artwork by dead artists–of which, of course, there will never be any more than there are now–but the very end of the article: most people create and purchase art because they like it. There is a vastly different art market out there from the one that Davidson describes: galleries featuring living, working artists in all sorts of mediums; art fairs; artists showing their work on line. People will plunk down $200 for a new phone or $700 for a tablet that lasts, what, 3 years? Or $20K for a car that might last 10? A thing of beauty is a joy forever: and it may only cost $300 or $3000. Collect art because you love it. And if it turns out to increase in value over time: you can tell people how insightful you were to get it!

Several other commenters had similar views. (Full disclosure:  I didn’t think up the comparison of art prices to car prices.  I got that from Robert Regis Dvorak’s Art of Selling Art.)

Adam Davidson is right:  if you’re part of the 0.01%, the economy has been great these past five years.  But for more commonly I see galleries struggling, artists chattering about whether or not they can raise their prices at all—or should they actually drop them, and whether that’s a mistake in the long run.  Arts organizations sponsor events in which they raffle off artwork; my local PBS station has a major fundraiser every year that’s an art auction, in which artists donate work and in return receive 5 minutes of air time, but no commission.  The local art museum also has an art auction every year, but at least they give the artist a portion of the sale price.

But those events serve to reinforce the idea that art should be a bargain.

So we have two extremes:  on the one hand, local arts organizations or non-profits can foster the impression artwork can and should be inexpensive (never mind that the artist has to make a living). On the other, the press going on and on about how a very few can pay enormous sums of money to purchase artwork.

Well, I stand by my statement.  Buy art because you love it. Realize that each piece of art is handmade and unique. Art isn’t a commodity or an investment vehicle.  It’s a form of communication, an expression of an emotion or an idea that moves you somehow. (Or doesn’t.  Don’t collect the pieces that don’t move you.)

What do you think? Why do you collect art—or why don’t you?