The Splendor of Women, Boatyards and Winter’s Hidden Places: Stephanie Bush Retrospective Opens Sept. 4th
20 Years, An Artist’s Evolution is a mid-career retrospective of works on canvas and mylar exploring cultural diversity, color, and artistic traditions by Montreal and Vermont-based painter, Stephanie Bush.
The retrospective of works by Stephanie Bush now showing at West Branch represents 20 years of exploration. In her early paintings she explored the tension between expectation and frustration, support and restraint, travel and home. From there, she moved on to the human figure and self-portraiture, examining the subversion of traditional women’s work and feminism’s reclamation of those past values. Most recently her paintings represent the notion of safe harbor in inhospitable environments, namely the harsh winters of Vermont.
“This body of work is a testament to my desire to evolve and challenge myself,” Bush said. “One of the most surprising things is how the work evolves and comes to mean even more than I’d intended.” The Splendor paintings in this West Branch exhibition are packed with meaning. Three large oil paintings show life-size women surrounded by layers of fabric; billowing, shining, trailing, engulfing the figure. These paintings clearly show Bush’s fascination with textiles and the figure. “The multiple layers of fabric allude to properties of adornment, seduction, camouflage, comfort, restriction, and vanity,” she said.
In these paintings, Bush’s fabrics are silky and sheer, coarse and furry, stamped with block prints or the weaves of embroidery and brocade. All this fabric surrounds and flows away from the women, creating a wind-swept world of color and mystery. Bush explains, “These wrapped figures tap into the history of labor through the lenses of culture, class, race, and gender. The figure floats in her surroundings, buoyant, despite the layers of fabric that envelop her. The layers billow rather than weigh her down. She floats.”
Rich white and cream textiles cocoon the woman in Splendor in White. “The lack of color in the fabric is the connection to a barren landscape,” Bush said. “The jagged crevice below the figure could be threatening except that the figure effortlessly floats safely above it. The large canvas creates a kind of theatrical stage; my dream-space.” The playful painting, Splendor in Cherry & Lime, is charged with color, while Splendor in Purple is more subdued and contemplative.
Earlier work in the show is represented by her two Mosaic paintings; Mosaic (Bound) and Mosaic (Harmony), both oil on mylar, painted when her father was dying. “Around this time,” she said, “I saw a group of early Brazilian Pentecostal statues at the Guggenheim in New York. Through them my fascination with tchotchkes, ceremony, tradition, and labor reawakened. Sacks full of unknown objects sewn into her dress weigh down the figure in Harmony. Encircling her neck is her means to freedom: hundreds of rusty old keys, metaphors for breaking free. Instead, she is entranced by the sounds of a shell she holds to her ear. She is the agent of her own captivity.”
Next came her Boatyard series. Moving to Shelburne, Vermont after living in Montreal and New York City, she would walk through the boatyard in nearby Charlotte. “Something about the way the boats floated rang true to the duck-out-of-water feeling I had then,” she said. “Here were tremendously heavy objects that under the right conditions could float, carrying us away with them. But in the boatyard, they had nowhere to go.”
Stephanie Bush likes to take long walks, usually with her camera in hand. Out of fifty shots, she might find one useable image for a painting. Once she’s chosen the image, she selects what size she wants the painting to be, builds the stretchers, stretches and primes the canvas, makes the necessary adjustments to the image and then starts painting. “I work very slowly and meticulously with an array of brush sizes. More often then not, I end up using the smallest brush I can find for much of the painting,” she said.
The most recent paintings in the West Branch show are from her Winter series. Living in Vermont, she was captivated by the overwhelming presence of nature at its most beautiful, with the snow becoming a kind of foil and goad to action. “I followed the winter, in each painting, through its cold yet peaceful space and into its mysterious dark nooks. I like exploring the muffling tendencies of deep and heavy snow,” she said. These winterscapes, with their contrast of deep greens and browns within the white starkness, are elegant and realistic, inviting the viewer into those dark spaces.
Every artist has her challenges and Stephanie Bush is no exception. She has young children, a tight budget and limited childcare. However, she has a studio at Shelburne Pond Studios not far from her home and spends all the time she can painting. “I’ve been there for 5 years and value the supportive and vibrant community the studio has to offer. It’s a converted dairy barn so it gets wicked cold in the winter. This past winter my oil paints actually froze a few times! But when I get into the studio, I’ve never been more focused in all my life.”