One exhibit you won’t want to miss this month is artist Elaine Fleck’s captivating work on display through Oct. 21, 2017, at Norfolk’s Transit Gallery. Full of robust color, her paintings have a mystical quality, which invites us to reflect. By including everyday items and symbols in her pieces, Elaine reveals a world of mystery, of endless possibilities, that draws us in. The artist uses her own experiences, cultural artifacts, and her home in Roanoke as subjects for her work. Elaine uses fabric as the background for her paintings in order to enhance the natural feel and movement of the piece.
TW: Where do you get themes of your work?
EF: It’s all the things in my house. My dad was an Army Colonel, so he collected things from around the world. I have those things in the house. My husband is Buddhist so we have Buddhist statues. This eclectic mix of things ends up in my paintings.
TW: How do you choose colors?
EF: My base coat is always red. I don’t paint at night. I want natural light. I want it to be bright.
TW: What’s your favorite part of the process?
EF: Laying down fabrics. I like when there’s crashing waves or swirls. I don’t want it to be static.
TW: What do you think about while you’re painting?
EF: I can think of a million reasons not to go to the studio, but once I get synced-down in there, I try not to think.
TW: Tell us about your life.
EF: I was born at Fort Monroe. I’ve lived in Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia, and Germany. I went to high school in Hampton, art school in Richmond. A British boyfriend convinced me to ride a bicycle for three months cross country. It was difficult physically and psychologically, but I saw every square inch, every pebble. It was a great way to enter the West Coast.
I stayed out there ten years and went back to art school. It was liberating because I didn’t like Richmond’s approach to art back then. After finding my own approach, I wanted to come back East, but had to do it in increments. I spent four years in New Mexico before I came back. We chose this area because it was affordable at the time and we liked the mountains.
TW: How did these moves influence your work?
EF: I like cemeteries. I like weird things. When I was in Europe, I loved the human statues. I don’t go for the ordinary scenes. I look for strange things like if something goes wrong when I travel, and it leads to an interesting scene. In the Southwest [of the U.S.] the atmosphere and sun are different. My colors became less muted. Roanoke sits in a mountain valley and reminds me of the mountains in California. There’s a circle of mountains and that western sky. The East coast is more influenced by European abstractionism while the West Coast is more influenced by the Eastern figure drawing. So it isn’t just about what we see, but the cultural influences, too.
TW: Do you feel like your first success was out West?
EF: Out West I was poor. I lived in Taos County, one of the poorest in the country. There’s a lot of artists in town, and somebody said to me, “Oh, just what we need, another artist.” It’s a small town that gets a big tourist trade. I wasn’t painting towards the tourist trade, so I wasn’t going to make any money there. I literally got down to my last two dollars and sixty-seven cents.
TW: What happened then?
EF: That’s when my husband came along. He paid my rent.
TW: Did he like your work?
EF: I guess he liked the whole package. He was seduced by life with an artist, which he came to see later on is not what he thought.
TW: Some of your paintings are fun and lighthearted while others seem to hide a deeper message. Can you explain the inspiration behind these two different types of paintings?
EF: Some are based on specific personal experiences, for example, a love affair that didn’t go well. Others are more unconscious. I’m my father’s daughter, and I would say that my life has been coming out from underneath the patriarchy. I grew up with the military, the Catholic Church, and two older brothers, so I think some of these paintings are about making the man more vulnerable and the woman stronger. Other paintings are animals that I see outside my studio window. The wildlife are always doing crazy things. Right now we’re having the season of albino skunk. If I could put them in a painting, I would.
I also look at what goes on in the neighborhood. In Roanoke everybody knows the “Jesus Saves” sign. It sits on a hill over the river. I passed it for a long time, wanting to do a painting. Finally it hit me. It wouldn’t be enough just to have that on a hill, an ordinary landscape. It had to be this couple [embracing, kissing] under it. The models, friends of mine, were newly married. When I pulled up in the parking lot and she was wearing this mini with these boots, I thought, oh that’s perfect.
TW: Do you usually get ideas from walks?
EF: I don’t know where I get ideas. I don’t feel like my ideas flow well enough. When ideas are forced, it doesn’t work, so I just kind of wait and do other things and roam around.
TW: Thanks for talking to us. I look forward to seeing the albino skunks…
EF: Yes, I’ll need my camera. They come out at night, but they don’t come through every yard.
View Elaine Fleck’s exhibit “A World Away” at the Transit Gallery 2nd floor, HRT Southside Bus Operations Maintenance & Administration Facility Bldg. #4, 509 E. 18th St. in Norfolk.
Gallery hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Ph. 757-664-6854 • www.norfolkarts.net