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Constance Alexander: Workshop helps local artists find value of color in the study of still life painting

On a random Tuesday afternoon, stepping into Gallery 109 and Fairbanks Studio in Murray is a little like entering a place of worship. The mood is serene, quiet but welcoming. Six people are busy at work, each in various stages of silent concentration. In the background on this dreary spring day, Nat King Cole is singing “Autumn Leaves.”

The only other sounds are gentle wisps of activity: Brushstrokes on canvas, a paper towel extricated from the rest of the roll to blot an errant drip, a chair scraping against the floor as one of the artists stands to take a closer look at her still life set-up.

One of the artists is Kathryn Coon Harper, who taught painting and drawing at Louisiana State University before moving to Trigg County in 1978. She has a substantial body of artwork to her credit but admits to a fascination with the ways color affects value.

(Photo and paintings by Jennifer Fairbanks)

“I’ve done a lot of charcoal drawings but it is a whole new analysis process to translate to color. I’m learning so much,” she says.

Comparing the vibe in this workshop to an academic environment, Harper remarks, “It is a whole other genre and brain exercise.”

Seated next to Harper, Kathy Hartzog Timmons, from Murray, explains she discovered an interest in making art around the time she was retiring from Murray State University. “It was a hard year,” she recalls, “So I came here to paint.”

Now several years into retirement, she has not stopped.

The still life Marti Lopez is creating is awash in shades of blue, her favorite color. As the afternoon session draws to a close, she worries about finishing her piece within the four-week timeframe of the workshop.

“I’ll never get it done,” she says as she starts clearing up her space. “I always have something to do at home.”

Jennifer Fairbanks facilitates the workshop by circulating around the space, sometimes leaning in close to observe detail. Occasionally she comments or asks a question of the artist. When she runs a workshop, there is always a goal stated at the beginning and a demonstration to show one way of approaching the challenge. “The goal of this workshop,” she explains, “is to learn that every color has a value.”

She adds that her role is to help participants recognize the different values of color that emerge, depending on the way inanimate objects are arranged for a still life. “As they develop understanding of fundamentals,” she says, “they start to see.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Her own extensive experience makes her effective as another pair of eyes to view and respond to each still life in progress. She received her MA in Art Therapy from New York University and studied portrait and figurative painting at The Art Students League of New York and the National Academy of Design. She was awarded two Hudson River Fellowships from the Grand Central Atelier and recently received the Gold Medal of Honor from the Catherine Lorillard Wolf Art Club.

A student and working artist in New York for eleven years, she moved back home to Murray about ten years ago to establish her gallery and studio. In the recent past, she created en plein air renderings of sunsets in a small, four-by-five-inch format. That work depended on the weather and other variables that were not always apparent until the last minute.

“I left a packed bag by the door,” she remembers.

Throughout that series, she developed a rule about painting sunsets. “Once you finish, it’s done,” she said. “You do it and you leave it.”

Now she is painting on a much larger scale with a more deliberate approach. Her work in progress is a four-by-seven-foot canvas that is a spectacular arrangement of live flowers. Fascinated with the work of Rachel Ruysch, a Dutch painter who lived from 1643 to 1706, Jennifer took an online workshop to prepare for the project.

“I probably should have done a smaller version first,” she says, gesturing toward the vibrant canvas.

Flowers change over time, so a project on this scale has to be blocked out in a grid. She works in sections and then goes back to add the finer points. Sometimes she gets lost in the details and has to find a way to get back on track, a good exercise, even for a pro.

One student from Murray, Kathy Thile, has taken on a similar challenge on a much smaller scale. She is painting live flowers and having a whole new learning experience. “You have to try to do what you can do in two hours,” she says. “If you want to paint real flowers you have to be fast.”

Ms. Thile has been attending workshops at the Fairbanks Gallery for about twelve years “I was not doing artwork before that. I was not one who considered myself artistic,” she explains. “I just wanted to support Jennifer.”

Becky and John Fairbanks, Jennifer’s parents, had the same idea when their daughter moved back to Murray. Between her father’s history of making art and her mother’s quilting, they both have some artistic background. When they have time, they sign up for her workshops.

“Dad is more deliberate,” Jennifer reports, “but Mom just jumps in.”

Sounds as if their daughter is a unique combination of both.

Gallery 109 and Fairbanks Studio is located at 109 N. 3rd Street in Murray. The phone number is 270-978-1522. The website is jfairbanks.com.

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