"Anchors for the Ether: Paula Blackwell's Spiritual Landscapes"

By Richard Speer, copyright 2021

It is impossible to describe the subject matter and settings of Paula Blackwell's landscape paintings without using words that conjure drama and romance: "haunting," "sylvan," "glen," "gorge," "ethereal," perhaps even "Wagnerian." Her encaustic and oil paintings on cradled wood panel transport us to realms we cannot quite place, though they seem to materialize fully formed out of our collective memory. Their "air of mystery and timelessness," as arts writer Veronica Russell describes their allure, lends "a curious sense of familiarity: Where have I seen this, in a dream? An old movie?" Although the painter hails from the foggy shores of Pacifica, California, just south of San Francisco, and currently lives only 25 miles from the majestic Columbia River Gorge, her towering vistas do not scream "Northern California" or "Pacific Northwest," rather, they whisper of terrains of the mind, in-between zones midway between waking life and dreams.

Nature envelops Blackwell on the grounds of her sprawling 1970s ranch house in the countryside near Oregon City. Each morning on the patio outside her studio she writes in her journal, with horses and cows lolling about in adjacent pastures and visitations by deer, chipmunks, honeybees, and hummingbirds. Scents of cyprus, cedar, redwood, and maple mingle with lavender, marigold, and hydrangea. It is an aptly Edenic spot for the birthing of her paeans to organic beauty, especially given her heightened sensitivity to the physical world as a former athlete, lifelong hiker and camper, and now as an artist who paints with the elements themselves: fire, beeswax, and the ground-up minerals we call pigment. It is noteworthy that an artist so engaged with nature arrived at the fine arts by way of the decorative arts, with its lineage spanning the fog-shrouded mountainscape screens of dynastic China through the abstracted woodlands and primrose gardens of Art Nouveau. For many years her specialty was faux-finish painting, itself derived from the illusionism of trompe-loeil.

Blackwell brings a varied background and a tenacious, upbeat character to her aesthetic pursuits. Prior to becoming a full-time artist, she did everything from assembling semiconductors in Silicon Valley to becoming involved in the San Francisco music scene to founding her own business in Portland, Oregon. A pivotal development, which channeled her toward the visual arts, was beholding the faux-finishing work done on her mother- and father-in-law's home in preparation for the 1990 San Francisco Decorator Showcase. An important 1919 Beaux-Arts mansion designed by architect George Applegarth and overlooking the Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge, it was a sumptuous but fusty abode until master craftspeople and artisans updated every square inch of its 6,100 square feet, replacing dated wallpapers and fixtures with painstaking terra-cotta ornamentation, Italian milk-glass chandeliers, and frescoes spilling over with cherubs and statuary, fruit baskets and flowers. (Two years later, the home was featured in the Michael Douglas/Sharon Stone film Basic Instinct.) Blackwell was deeply impressed by this transformation, especially the ways in which illusionism can recontextualize space and scale: "It was magical," she recalls today. "After seeing that, my inner artist was ignited."

(pictured on left: The Calm, Paula Blackwell, encaustic, 40x30, 2021)

When she moved to Oregon in 2000 she learned the ins and outs of this ancient art, became a licensed contractor, and in 2005 started a successful faux-finishing business, Faux du Jour. Eventually the firm was chosen to work with designers in the Northwest Natural Street of Dreams, the Portland equivalent of the San Francisco Designer Showcase, bringing her passion for the decorative arts full circle. A restless creative spirit loath to rest on laurels, she moved on to a new fascination in 2010, one that would prove fortuitous: encaustic painting. After encountering encaustic art and artists during the annual Portland Open Studios walking tour, she tried her hand at it with the help of a fellow encaustic painter and found she had a natural affinity. "Intuitively." gallerist Dan Addington has written, "Blackwell realized that the medium of wax had the potential to evoke space uniquely, unlike other materials. The waxy translucency of the medium can act both as a portal and a veil, allowing us to see into the painting, yet obscuring the details and thwarting the desire for definition."

Gripped by the medium's promise and her innate ability to finesse it, she converted her garage into a studio, set up a ventilation system, and painted day and night. Collectors took notice of this gifted newcomer, and her work became very popular very quickly. Only a month after having established her home studio she joined the stable of Z Galleries and sold 25 paintings in one week through One Kings Lane, the New York-based luxury home decor and furnishings store, including three to actress Jessica Biel. Her works have subsequently been featured in film and television productions and now hang in the U.S. embassies in The Vatican and The Republic of Latvia.

The multi-step process that produces these moodily, broodingly beautiful artworks is a transubstantiation of beeswax, water-soluble oil paints, and pigmented oil sticks, overlaid in as many as five layers. Often she distresses surfaces using rocks, old keys, razor blades, dental instruments, pottery tools, scrapers, spatulas, and a rotary tracing wheel from her grandmother's old sewing box. These tools impart the appearance of oxidation, use, and age. Backwell begins with gloved hands, liquefied beeswax, dammar resin, and pigment, coaxing the putty-like admixture into evocative forms and miasmas on the wood panel. Next, out comes the blowtorch as she singes the surface, fusing wax and pigments together, a technique that requires an exceptionally delicate touch, for too much contact with the flame can ruin a carefully planned composition. She tends to paint from the sides of the picture plane inward toward the white space in the center, effecting a lightness and pellucidity that complement rich contrasts of light and dark, delicate sfumato, and glistening brushwork, which imparts texturality and sheen to tree leaves and sunlight glinting off water. In the midst of the making, not everything goes perfectly every time. "I am in a struggle with the paint," she reflects. "Sometimes it's a battle. I'm trying to accomplish something, and it either works out or it doesn't. I always have the option to smear it away. Sometimes when I smear it, it looks better! But you battle it out, and whatever happens, happens."

(pictured on right: Out of the Blue, Paula Blackwell, encaustic, 40x30, 2021)

Her imagery encompasses not only her signature fjords, gorges, and ravines (as in The Valley Expiration and The Calm), but also skyscapes in which land is only hinted at (as in Out of the Blue and The Escape), as well as pure abstractions, which she describes as "lyrical and metaphorical, expressing beauty and emotion in a more imaginative, avant-garde way - engaging the eye with a more complex and playful fusion of color, shape and atmosphere." Across this broad range of expression, her imagery steers us toward the transcendental, the mystical, the connective fibers between the personal and the cosmic. She has referred to her paintings as "spiritual landscapes," and the phrase rings true. In the potent distillations of the earth's grandeur she aims to lift our gazes from the quotidian into the sublime. This may explain why her paintings are suffused with the sensation of floating, of hovering above rocks, trees, and lapping waves like a consciousness without a body. Indeed, there are no bodies, no traces of human habitation in these idylls. Whatever humanity they communicate is inferred or invited, for they do beckon us to project ourselves into their untrodden expanses.

While the works have inevitably drawn comparisons to historical paintings of the Old Dutch Masters, J.M.W. Turner, and the Hudson River School, Blackwell's closest correlate in contemporary art is probably the Nagasaki-born painter Hiro Yokose, renowned for his dreamily calmative pastorales. Nature, as Blackwell conceives it, is a conduit toward reflection and inner peace, offering everything from simple escapism from the exhaustions of urban life to spiritual edification of the highest order. In her vision, landscape promises rejuvenation and the possibility of epiphany. The columnar light emanating from the centers of works such as Worlds Beyond and Deep into the Mist, often cradled within the cleavage of a chasm’s opposing slopes, is dually meteorological and metaphysical. Atmosphere and light allude to an impending encounter with the preternatural. Those tilting slopes, and the woodlands and waterways they plunge into, ground us in the face of unspeakable numinous forces. They are anchors for the ether: vanishing points where matter dematerializes, one-point perspective ends, and realms of enigma and wonderment commence.

Richard Speer is a critic, author, and curator based in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. His essays and reviews have appeared in ARTnews, ArtPulse, Art Papers, Visual Art Source, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Oregonian, Salon, and Newsweek. He is the author of "The Space of Effusion: Sam Francis in Japan" (Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020) and co-curator of the exhibition "Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness Overflowing" (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2023). For more information, please visit www.richardspeer.com.