Out of the Smoke

When I created my first paintings in oil on shaped wood panels, I had no idea they were in the tradition of a very old technique. I wanted figures that could hang from a central carousel in an installation at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium, moving through areas themed for Earth, Water, Fire and Air, and painted wood sheets seemed to be a good solution.
So I cut out eight-foot figures, sanded them, gessoed them and then got out my oil paints, and my father helped me install them on poles hanging from the corners of the wooden carousel top, which had holes drilled in it to let in dappled light.
The four- to eight-foot figures, and the ones I made over the years since, combine people and animals in gently fantastic forms like the Rockinghorse Woman, who can’t get anywhere, dressed and coiffed for gracious visiting like Edwardian society women who spend their days making formal calls.
The rider on Pushme Pullthem comes from my childhood love affair with Dr. Doolittle. He sits on a steed with a bird and a giraffe – two of my favorite creatures – making up the two ends. The more recent Seahorcyclist rides with bicycle pedals, and Dharmadillo shows a nature figure on the armadillo.
A fire eventually caused extensive smoke damage to the original pieces, but I’ve been recreating them lately, with more intense colors, and some still to come. The fantastic world seems to have taken on a stronger reality than it did in the beginning, when the colors were softer and the figures more misty.
I’m still working on the four Elements: Water’s hair is a waterfall; her body ends in a fish form. Air floats with a huge balloon or bubble, and I just completed the figure of Earth, growing up through tree roots out of rock. I’m still struggling with the Fire figure, which seems to be a kind of Phoenix, but it’s slowly emerging.
I love painting them all, and the little bit – usually an eighth of an inch – of thickness adds a dimension like relief sculpture. What I lose by not having a background I gain in a three-dimensional quality, once the piece hangs.
Now I see all sorts of people working with this technique, creating figures out of history, images from famous paintings and you can even buy blank cutout figures to paint. Seems as though there’s a big well somewhere and a lot of us have dipped into it.