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Chester County Press

A new direction

09/12/2018 01:29PM ● By J. Chambless

Lisa Bartolozzi in her Newark studio. (Photo by John Chambless)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Somewhere between her epic paintings exploring human nature and her small, dreamlike landscapes, Lisa Bartolozzi is finding a new direction.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Wilmington, Del., since the age of 15, Bartolozzi knew at an early age that art was her calling. “My mother had a love of her European heritage,” Bartolozzi said during an interview in the soaring, sunny studio attached to her home in Newark. “Her father came from Malta and was an interior designer. She purchased a line of Time-Life art books back in the '70s, and they were a delight to me and my siblings.”

She and her three siblings “tried to draw from Matisse, Rubens and Rembrandt,” she recalled. After the family moved to Delaware, Bartolozzi attended Mount Pleasant High School, where art teachers clearly saw her brilliance and fostered her burgeoning skills. She went to the University of Delaware while living at home, delving deeply into all the art courses available without much of a thought about a future career.

“I'm not very practical,” she said, smiling. “I didn't worry about getting work or a job. I took some illustration classes in college, because if you could draw, you were encouraged to illustrate. But I was on a path of painting and I was fueled by all the artists of the past, and I figured I'd keep going and something would work out.”

Throughout her schooling, “I wasn't distracted by college life. I'm a pretty serious, focused person,” she said. “It was a matter of all-out effort and sheer persistence.”

During college, Bartolozzi worked at the Delaware Art Museum's children's gallery, and continued after graduation, doing everything from serving as the receptionist to coordinating tours of the museum's collections. “I was intimidated to do any kind of public speaking,” she said. “My hat's off to the docents, who worked very hard. But I did do a few tours. Mostly it was learning about art and how to relate it to anyone from pre-K children to adult groups. It was very helpful for learning how to speak about art, and how art hits other people. I think it helped with my later teaching.”
After getting an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, Bartolozzi has continued to build a body of work that is hugely ambitious and dazzlingly well painted. Her figures – life size or larger – are painted with a luminous precision that makes them look like they could breathe at any moment. And, true to her convictions, they are nude.

“All of my work, up to this point, has been a metaphysical journey,” she said. “It comes out of the background of the culture and theology – all the things that were in nudes from the beginning. I decided to use nudes when I went to graduate school. I liked th human body, and I felt it was a vessel that I could put any idea into – beauty, strength, endurance, but also judgment and prejudice. All the things that go into the stories, the allegories, that the human body's been used for throughout time. These are stories that depict our human nature – both our physical nature and our spiritual nature.”

On a parallel path to her art, Bartolozzi and her husband, Chris Cochran, have built several properties in Newark that they rent out to students, and they have learned their way around renovation projects. They are using those skills to renovate a house and barn near Landenberg, on an eight-acre property straddling the Maryland state line.

“We had a lot of fun looking at that property, which is around Fair Hill,” Bartolozzi said. “We didn't think we'd get it, but then it became available. The barn was falling in. That's been 10 years ago. The first thing we wanted to do was save the barn. We don't know anything about horses or farming or anything. I'm from suburbia and Chris is from Wilmington. We hired Amish workers and they came and put everything together. They thought some timbers were sent to the area, maybe by floating them down a river. We're really interested in any history we can find.

“The family who owned the property is still around,” she added. “They came to visit the house. Their grandfather built it, I think. In the 1920s, they added a kitchen and bathroom. This year, we completed the basement, which had been a mud floor. Now Chris is ready to go back and get working. We saved the pine floors and some of the woodwork. We've stayed there a few times. In the winter, we love the view.

“We're piecemealing the renovations. We have lovely plans for the property, among them doing figure modeling sessions in the barn.”

For Bartolozzi, the nude figure gets to the essence of “questions about why we're here, why we behave in certain ways, why we treat each other certain ways, why we see beauty and why we see pain.” The works draw on religion, mythology, ancient stories and archetypes, but Bartolozzi doesn't want to explain them too much. In her studio is “She Will Not Rest,” in which an elderly woman strides confidently through a stream under a storm-whipped sky.

“I use titles as guides for the imagery, that I hope is memorable, and will encourage contemplation upon meditation of the artwork,” she said. “That would be truest sense of fulfillment for me as an artist.”

The figures in these monumental works are arrestingly real. “Each person is so unique,” Bartolozzi said. “We forget that our fingerprints are unique to us, and that creates a universal concept. It's so amazing. The people I get to model, I can paint them so intently. The scale is to put you in their skin, to create a sense of empathy.”

Other works focus on a small part of a person, such as hands. Bartolozzi did a series of small paintings of fists – ranging from her feisty grandmother to a newborn to a young teenage girl. “They're like portraits,” she said. “They show a gesture of strength and aggression, so it's a visual of the duality of internal strength and outward power, and how you see that.”

The model for several of her major works is William “Dusty” Rhodes, a World War II veteran who lived in Avondale. Rhodes, who passed away in 2015, had an energy and willingness to pose nude that beguiled Bartolozzi and forged a friendship. “Dusty had never modeled, and at his time of life, to be painted nude – he was quite a character,” she said. “I think it sort of transformed his life. Art opened a new world to him.”

Some of her other models have also been elderly, and Bartolozzi turns the wrinkles and scars on their bodies into symbols of lives fully lived. These are not pin-up perfection, but real, living people who endure despite the toll of the years.

“I work with the models by taking many, many pictures in theatrical lighting. I try to create the light that I want to have on their bodies, and also what reflective colors I want around their bodies so it goes into their skin tone,” she explained. “Then I can put them in situations that are usually outdoors or abstract color fields.”

Bartolozzi was formerly represented by The Forum Gallery in New York City, and she worked on and off at the New York Academy as an adjunct faculty member from 1999 until recently. Her paintings have been placed in museums and private collections, and her career was solidifying well until illness sidetracked her about two years ago.

“There's a gap in my work,” she said. “I have an ongoing health condition that has kept me from my work for periods of time, but now I've moved into these smaller landscapes, plus a few figurative works that I still want to do. For now, the landscapes are kind of refreshing. It's finding something beautiful in the everyday.”

The landscapes made their public debut in a recent group exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum. They suggest vistas of night-shrouded landscapes, with tangled telephone poles and mysterious buildings that barely emerge from the darkness. Painted as if the viewer is in motion, the works are peepholes into a mysterious reality.

They came about “because I got an iPhone,” Bartolozzi said. “Just taking pictures into the black sky at night when I'm coming home on the train from New York, and then laying in bed and playing with the options of exposure and brightness and cropping. I spent hours when I should have been sleeping,” she said, laughing. “I loved the revelations that would happen from coming out of the darkness of this black screen. It was so beautiful that it just soothed me.”

Left unstated, but still clear, is that the new paintings came out of the darkness, just as Bartolozzi has emerged from her dark time of illness.

She's learning how to put together just enough detail in the scenes to intrigue the viewer, without giving too much away. “Something in them is in focus, and other things aren't,” she said. “I don't want them to feel like a photograph. I want to interpret the imagery and put it together in more of an abstract way.

“The elements are absorbing – trees against a night cloud from a car window going at 40 miles an hour, versus 20 miles an hour, and what happens when the moon's out. How do the telephone lines blur? There's enough elements there to rearrange and create these mystical … bypasses. I don't know what to call them.”

Bartolozzi is now working on small landscapes from a stationary viewpoint that have the barest sliver of blue sky beyond the foreground gloom. They are no more than eight or nine inches wide, but contain whole worlds of detail.

While she still has some ideas for figurative works she wants to complete, the new work is drawing her in a new, revelatory direction.

“I just want to create a consistent body of work and prove to myself that I have the dedication and confidence to invest in in my visions,” she said, “and really lose myself. And I can't wait.”

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].