Contributed by Dian Parker / Vermont artist Laurie Sverdlove has been painting for four decades. In high school she took classes at the Art Students League in New York City and earned her MFA from UC Berkeley in California, where she studied with Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff. After completing her PhD coursework in Russo-Iranian History at the University of Pennsylvania, Sverdlove lived in India for three years, eventually returning to the Bay Area and raising two sons. She supported herself by working in the non-profit sector, where her most recent job, which she held for eleven years, was as the Director of Planning and Analysis for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Berkeley. She always chose positions that had flexible hours so that she could spend as much time in the studio as possible.
Until recently, Sverdlove’s landscape paintings featured natural cataclysms, industrial ruins, the disaster of battlefields and human debris of all kinds. These post-industrial landscapes, like dilapidated roller coasters and rusted barbed wire entwined with mounting wild flower and vine, showed the conflict between plant life and the often beautiful wasteland of industrial production.
In her current work, Sverdlove begins to draw the viewer into unknown territory, a mysterious world of seething movement and restless space. These paintings are beautiful, with gorgeous and bold colors, dancing lines, vortexes, spirals, and dashes leaping across the canvas.
Dian Parker: Tell us something about your paintings.
Laurie Sverdlove: I am interested in violence and change in the natural world – thunderstorms, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, tsunamis, ruins of war, explosions, artillery shells, industrial ruins – all these natural as well as man-made occurrences.
DP: How did you become interested in this subject matter?
LS: I’ve always been drawn to ruins like castles and monasteries; ancient sites like Persepolis and Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been interested in history both in texts and in images. As for the violence of natural and manmade events, like bombed-out buildings, fields that become gravesites furrowed by artillery, all this clicked for me as an artist when I inherited some photos of a friend’s father from WWI. I did a series of portraits of soldiers, and then some pastels of Vietnam, as well as victims of napalm.
DP: How did you end up with this new work, clearly not the industrial ruins being overrun by vine and flower that you were painting a few years ago?
LS: My palette and mark-making are lively but my vision is a dark one. The dark is as beautiful as the light and nothing is ever all one or the other. Although beauty is considered by many in the contemporary world to be outmoded, it is essential to me. Right now I’m thinking about space, both macro (outer space) and micro (quantum space) – about particle and chemical interactions, about patterns and trajectories – about creating space with colored stains rather than with perspective.
DP: Has your painting process changed over the years?
LS: When working on the sorts of landscapes I do, I would begin by taking multiple photographs of the kinds of territory that I wanted to include, hang up dozens of images in my studio, and go from there. My studio is also cluttered with plants, rocks, dirt, and other field collecting that I paint from. These days I hardly photograph, preferring to use images I research on the internet; bird flight patterns, cloud chamber interactions, electro-magnetic action, bacteria. I begin my paintings with an image that captivates me.
DP: Could you describe what you are painting now?
LS: I want to paint a kind of space. Complex interlocking movements in space. Air layered, and with depth. Unsettled and unresolved. Without stasis. Constantly moving with no known result. The subject matter is all unknown. Undefinable.
DP: What materials do you use?
LS: Oil on canvas. Flashe on paper and small canvases. Flashe is vinyl gouache. I use a wide variety of brushes, as well as silicon spatula-like tools. A small double brush used to clean an electric razor. Also toothbrushes − any stuff I can find that makes interesting marks.
DP: How do you start a painting?
LS: With a thinned-out wash for the bottom layer, I then work up to the surface. Or I work from the top layer, laying in paint and going back into space. Once I have the idea, the rest proceeds intuitively. I do not sketch in notebooks or on the canvas; I always use paint. Sometimes I get stuck so I wait a few days. Or turn the canvas different ways. All the ways artists have been using forever. And I work on only one big painting at a time. Sometimes in between I make small sculptures with found objects or paint small canvases on my table. For the pure fun of it, for play. With my recent paintings, I’m experimenting with loose washes that are thinned-out with mineral spirits, and pour them on a flat canvas on the floor. Then there are no visible brush strokes. With the Flashe paintings, I might hit the gouache with a garden hose before the paint is completely dry. I like to work with fine, Script Liner brushes. And also Egbert brushes that are long and floppy.
DP: What colors and line do you prefer?
LS: Right now I am liking orange, black and blue. There are no colors I don’t use, except for fluorescent colors. I like saturated colors, and rarely pastels. Energetic, emphatic, bold lines. And strong diagonals with a lot of movement.
DP: Tell us about yourself in and out of the studio. What do you listen to?
LS: I give myself full days in the studio so I have the time and space to immerse myself in the work. When I’m working, I either listen to music, or crap on tape − audio books. Mostly thrillers and mysteries. Violence is OK. I love Jack Reacher. When I’m not in the studio I love to hike and walk on back roads. I live in Vermont and it’s beautiful and lush here. I worked in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens for ten years and I love plants and flowers, which you can see by my studio. I’ve got plants hanging all over the place.
About the author: Dian Parker writes about artists and their work for Vermont Art Guide, Kolaj Magazine, Art New England, and Mountain View Publishers. She also serves as Gallery Director for White River Gallery in South Royalton, Vermont.