Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank's Painting Process
Alyce Frank drives up in her 1988 Ford LTD Crown Victoria silver-gray station wagon. The car has a short, fat piece of metal pipe soldered to its left rear bumper, which holds a huge yellow-and-white vinyl umbrella to shield the sun or rain when the car is set up for painting on site. The impressively large Crown Royal sports dual rear mirrors and heavy-duty Uniroyal radial tires. Road trips are no problem, even with three people and tons of painting gear. The navy blue bench seats are deep and cavernous. The quadraphonic speakers reverberate faithfully. The 302 horsepower engine could fly a small airplane.
We meet at the Texaco station on the north side of Taos at 9:00 a.m. to begin an overnight trip to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. A custom wooden "baker's" rack set into the rear of the wagon supports up to eight canvases stacked tightly. The back seat holds several amber-colored plastic tackle boxes full of 4 oz. tubes of Windsor-Newton and Rembrandt oil paints: burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson. The oil paints smell eatable, organic and metallic all at once - like roast chestnuts, linseed oil, and blue cotton rags soaked in 10W40 motor oil. The smell fills the car. Dented metal bottles of turpentine jostle slightly as we cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, an architectural wonder spanning the jagged jaws of the river six hundred and fifty feet below. We cross the great divide and head swiftly out of town, off on another Barbara and Alyce painting adventure.
Standard gear includes a round plastic jug filled with ice water, a tall silver thermos of hazelnut coffee, a large red-and-white "Playmate Plus" cooler with lunch fixings, duffel bags with clothes, and classical music tapes for the rides up and back. I bring a purple backpack with a few clothes, my sketch pad and watercolors, a notebook, a felt-tipped writing pen, my open eyes and ears. They tease that I may need to ride on the roof rack, but somehow we all jam in.
Barbara and Alyce sit in the front seat and talk about the day ahead, unexpected changes in the weather, what several friends are up to, upcoming concerts, their partners' and children's whereabouts. I suspect this is their usual banter, although I don't really know. They are sensitive, alive people who certainly notice my presence. Yet, I don't sense that they are acting any certain way for my benefit. I sit in the back seat listening as my eyes swim across the vast ocean of blue-gray sage. Alyce refers to me as their "biographer." I feel more like a professional eavesdropper, sometimes friend, part-time interloper. They jokingly call me "La Escritora, " the Spanish for "writer." Even though their teasing pleases me, I know that my presence changes everything about their experience of traveling and painting together.
At 10:45 a.m. we arrive at what feels like the "top of the world." We pull onto a roadside overlook above the Rio Conejo, or Rabbit River, overlooking the San Luis Valley. The view is enormous - bigger than huge. Alyce and Barbara both survey the landscape, look at each other, and nod. Barbara says, "This is it," and they start hauling equipment out of the wagon without a moment's hesitation. They each regret not having brought larger 36" x 48" canvases. I'm amazed they set up so quickly. No great angst. No fooling around. This view could take several days to paint. No time to waste.
Alyce, wearing blue jeans and a magenta sweatshirt, squeezes glistening quarter-inch blobs of yellow, white, and red paint onto her palette. She sits on the Crown Victoria's tailgate, swinging her legs back and forth. Her long hair is pulled off to the side with a hand-wrought rectangular silver barrette. Her plastic-framed, pink-tinted glasses sit high up on her face. A wide-brimmed straw hat shields the sun and its beige chord falls loosely under her chin. The most engaging aspect of Alyce's appearance, however, is her endearing smile, which pulls you in immediately.
Barbara eats a hard-boiled egg as she sets up her easel. Then she arranges the colors on her palette with her own associative configuration based on years of painting the Southwestern landscape rendered in passionate colors that evoke her sensibilities.
It is colder than we thought. They reach for slightly paint-smeared outerwear and hideous but serviceable wool stocking hats stashed in the compartment over the station wagon's rear wheel wells. Lycee pulls out a light blue down vest and a rust colored sweater with snags on the sleeves. She laughs as she holds them up and asks Barbara, "Which one goes with your chapeau?"
Barbara takes the down vest with an exaggerated look of discernment. "This will go very nicely," she smiles in mock satisfaction.
We are very high up on the pass to Chama. It's 11:40 a.m., sun's out now, the shadows of small birds flash by overhead. A green fluorescent hummingbird, hovering in the pine trees nearby, catches my eye with a flash. The San Juan mountains stretch perpendicular into the dramatic sky ahead of us and straight up into the Colorado Rockies. The Conejo River curves off to the left and then turns dramatically to the North, to its spring-fed source.
Barbara and Alyce blow up their blue plastic painting gloves like balloons, popping open the five digits like scarecrow fingers, before slipping them onto their hands. Then they start to cover their canvases with a solid wash. Lycee puts on her usual cadmium red light, Barbara uses viridian green. They swipe the colors across the whole surface in broad rough smears with heavy duty blue paper towels. They have plastic grocery store bags hanging from the ends of the car bumper for messy used towels and other trash.
Barbara looks out over the enormous landscape and surmises, "Good thing we've painted before."
"Yeah," Alyce agrees, "Don't start here."
They sit on the tailgate, canvases off to each side, palettes set up in between them. They begin to sketch outlines of the complicated curvaceous river and the immense dark undulating mountains. The sun is out, but some serious weather looks to be moving steadily downriver straight for us. They seem oblivious to the threat and go right to work.
Lycee starts to draw the scene, making thick black outlines with her paintbrush. Then Barbara gets up and moves her canvas off to the side because a tree is in the way of her view. This still doesn't suit her, so she takes a small sketch pad and pencil, and stands even further off to the side, drawing a thumbnail sketch of the scene.
Then Barbara comes back over to her canvas and starts to roughly transfer her pencil sketch to dark painted outlines on the green ground of her canvas. She draws in the rough outlines of the composition, leaving a lot of room for the dramatic sky above the huge valley view.
They both continue to "state" their paintings in silence for a bit, each looking repeatedly at the landscape and then back at their drawings on their canvases. Both women seem very concentrated at this point. I am amazed at the unique compositions of the same scene emerging on their separate canvases.
Today Barbara's wearing aqua nylon pants, a purple sweatshirt, a blue-and-white striped cotton shirt for a smock, her red bandanna, a straw hat, and slightly paint-spattered black high top Reeboks. She does a side-to-side, back-and-forth dance step as she paints, a kind of minuet. She moves with a duck-like bobbing action as she looks up at the view, back to the canvas, down at the palette, back to the view, and then starts the whole rhythm over again. She dives in, penetrates the surface, marks the essence of movement and shadow, and tracks the ephemeral traces of the life-force. She swoops down with stunning accuracy and speed, catches the composition on canvas, and swallows it whole.
By now it's 12 noon. Sun's out again, but it still looks like a major rainstorm up the valley. A few minutes later Lycee starts humming, no tune, just humming. They both start to fill in patches of color, sweeps of shape and form in pastel and primary colors. Nothing looks quite discernible yet. Still just amorphous forms.
Lycee's red ground shows through in the rough, angular, energetic edges of her pine trees and screaming-out-loud mountains. They almost yell, "Hey, you! I'm talking to you!" as you take in their outrageous, reverberating presence. Barbara's characteristic brushwork is painterly and poetic. You feel her clouds moving through your heart in huge sweeping curves and swirls. The traces of her gestures look waltz-like and fluid as the painting gathers more shape and form.
Now they are both at a kind of problem-solving place. Silencio. They only have about an hour before pack-up time, so they have to work more quickly. Sun's coming out again, now. I don't know how they follow all these changes in the light. Lycee just asked me to pull her painting back so she could take a look at it. They'll paint till 3:00 p.m. or so. Bright sunshine now.
At 3:15 Lycee announces, "I'm done." Barbara says, "A few minutes and I'll wrap up too." They wind up their paintings for the day. They'll finish them back in their studios. They scrape the paint off their palettes, carefully take the wet paintings off their easels with pliers, clean all their brushes, and then gingerly slide the canvases into the wooden racks. They tell me they usually finish at the same time.
I wonder how their particular blend of creative collaboration works exactly, how they simultaneously help each other out and let each other be. I make notes and free-associate to my questions of process and planning and coordination. I remark at how they drove along and then just chose the same spot to paint without any discussion, much less disagreement. This is remarkable to me. I also marvel at how totally different their finished paintings and their painting processes are, especially since they are observing the same scene.
fig. 5: Cumbres Pass
fig. 6: Cumbres Pass
In terms of process, Lycee gets an idea in her head before she even sets up her canvas, she then uses the landscape to support her idea. Barbara, on the other hand, paints her composition in response to the landscape. They are both working back and forth from the same landscape, but their ways of holding, and being held by, and incorporating the scenes are different.
Although they sometimes both use solid underpainting, Lycee uses this technique almost exclusively, whereas Barbara uses it much less. Barbara, conversely, is much more likely to use glazes and to layer her paintings in a way Lycee never does. Lycee's paintings often have a vertical arrangement, much like prints by Hiroshige (1797-1858), her favorite Japanese landscape artist. Barbara's paintings often have more of a curvilinear sweep to the composition. In general, Barbara's palette is comprised of carefully mixed colors: pastel, somber, vibrant. Lycee's palette, on the other hand, is often right out of the tube, though of course she does mix colors as well.
One thing I note is the atmosphere they create while painting. I feel the reverberations of their ease with one another. Creating is fun. There is a sense that they are challenging themselves, and therefore one another, but not competing. I get the feeling that they are supporting one another in being the best each can be, and experiencing concentrated pleasure while they're at it. There is also a tautness to their efforts. It is obvious that they are working hard and engaging their respective intelligent sensibilities. This isn't just a "feel good" enterprise without real effort or careful discernment. They are not just "goofing off." Lycee once told me a key reason she likes to go out painting with Barbara is that she learns something new every time.
I feel this sense of hard work and joyous play spill over into their appreciation of my writing. I genuinely sense that they want me to have a good time and that they are totally willing to be supportive of my writing process. Their openness feels important to me. I also sense that they are genuinely curious as to what I think. They are open to learning. I am also curious as to what I will continue to learn from them. I wonder how I will continue to write about our time together and my observations of their process.
I ask them, again, "How it is that your relationship has worked for over twenty years?"
Alyce says simply: "We don't need each other."
Barbara adds, "We don't need each other, but we need to be together. If we had not found each other, we wouldn't have our brilliant careers. Kind of like the men who had groups, or schools, needed each other."
I want to describe their relationship in a way that will evoke a sense of possibility for other people to live creatively in relationship. Somehow, I understand this seeming paradox. They do need one another, to get outdoors and paint, to help get set-up and carry things, to provide all sorts of practical, technical support. They also need each other for companionship and mutual support. So, being together helps to get their painting done.
On the other hand, they don't burden one another with the inevitable ups and downs of their emotional lives. For example, they do not often ask for a rain check because they simply don't feel like painting on a given day. If they say they'll be there, they will be there, unless there's a very good reason for canceling. At the same time they don't take it personally. If one of them can't make it, the other one will simply paint in her studio or ask someone else to go out painting. So, there's not a lot of emotional insecurity. They are also not so connected with one another that they can't paint if they are apart. In that sense they don't "need" each other. So, need/don't need, it makes sense.
I do find myself wondering, however, at the cultural notion of what it means to be "needy," especially for women, who are often stereotyped as being physically in need of protection and emotionally in need of stability. I feel an appreciation for the resilience and self-reliance of two women painting outdoors together, especially in contrast to these stereotyped notions of neediness.
I picture Barbara and Lycee standing side-by-side, not leaning into one another, but rather two independent women painters giving one another company along the way.