This commissioned piece for Team Diva Real Estate practically painted itself.
Late last year, I heard from my fabulous collector Lisa Picard. She was looking to acquire a painting for a modern getaway spot she’d designed and built in northern California, and had her eye on this one . . .
Alas, this particular midcentury goddess had already found herself a home. So Lisa decided to commission work specifically for her new place. She was drawn to the restfulness and solitude of the lady in her spare-yet-sort-of-busy modernist expanse. Lisa built her country retreat to be a relaxing gathering place for herself and her community of outdoorsy friends. She was looking for art that would embody restfulness, and also the dualistic nature of her work and life: developing dynamic, urban work places in big cities, but feeling equally at home pedaling her bike through rugged mountain terrain.
The commissioned work was destined for the guest room, which is in a separate structure from the main house and connected by a patio. It has a garage door that can open the entire room to the outside. The house epitomizes the California ideal of indoor-outdoor living—which is of course right up my alley! We ultimately decided on two facing paintings: One would capture the reviving solitude of this creative urban dweller’s country place; and the other the communal nature of both work and play. (Of course, at the time we had no idea that solitude would soon become a recurring theme for everyone, and communal bonhomie a fond memory.)
I spent the spring and summer of 2020 developing the imagery for the two concepts. The mid-century ladies whom I normally pilfer from magazines to use in my paintings are models posing as housewives. In my work they often stand in for the viewer; in this case the viewer was a CEO of a large company and her contemporary, active, nature-loving pals. The main character in the solitude/interior piece had to draw them in and feel like a kindred spirit, despite her fifties-housewife trappings.
I spent a lot of time on the geometry and perspective of the interior. As in the painting that inspired it, the space was to be largely defined by a tile floor. For this kind of project, I use a chalk line to draw the receding parallel lines of the floor and walls, anchored by pushpins at the vanishing points. I could geek out for hours about the particulars of perspective (and I have), but I’ll spare the reader that part of the journey. This interior took elements of two houses from a book of Julius Schulman’s photographs.
I swiped this gal from a Culligan ad. The magazine that she’s pretending to read features, not surprisingly, another Culligan ad. Like many of my star players, she’d appeared in a previous painting.
Choosing the fabric is critical; it sets the tone of the painting, and is the one thing (besides the shape) that can’t be changed. The choice is part instinctual, part circumstantial (a model had just scored the brown fabric and gifted it to me). In this case I was focused mostly on the main character’s outfit. I had already decided that the left one would be her top and the right one her pants, and planned to leave some matching curtains in the distance. The one on the right is kind of wacky, and I nearly swiped it for a dress for myself, but the sympathetic vibration between the stripes and the different shades of orange in the two together won out.
The second painting was to be set at night, from the outside looking in, and with multiple characters, perhaps at a party (remember those?) or its aftermath (yes, even more fondly).
This house is also a composite. I usually draw it first, then draw potential characters on separate pieces of paper, so I can pin them up and move them around. Scale is a matter of trial and error: I move a figure up and down on the drawing, to find a believable spot for someone that size. Sometimes they never feel quite right in the space and I have to toss them. Many of these people were cut from the scene.
The shape required me to build three irregular panels, one with five sides.
The phone lady is another recurring character from my past work. Her friend in the chair was someone I’d been wanting to use for years: she had me at the knee socks, but her setting is intriguing, too—a sort of flattened theatrical space. Perhaps the corrugated translucent fiberglass will make its way into some future painting.
I chose more oranges and browns for the fabric, to unite the palette of the two facing works. The brown tiki print would be someone’s groovy swimsuit, and also double as some sixties “primitive” art on the wall.
Both final paintings, and their stunning home, can be viewed on my commissions page.
The themes of house, home, and the American Dream of owning one recur so often in my work, it seems natural that people in the businesses of building selling homes would gravitate to it. For example, one of my earliest collectors and supporters was the late real estate goddess Jan Sewell. Her niece now has possession of the appropriately-titled This is the House You Ordered:
Last year, while I was in the process of scanning old slides and organizing my archives, I posted some older work on Instagram, including this painting:
My friends Kim and Chavi, the dynamos behind Team Diva Real Estate, saw it and wanted it to hang in their own wonderful world. Alas, the painting had been sold in 2009 by a California dealer. I suggested to the gals that they commission something.
Many artists don’t like commissions, but I love them. Maybe it’s because my collectors are such a self-selected group who share my sensibility, and we both understand from the start that it’s my vision they’re after. I’ve never once had someone try to micromanage me as I worked. What would be the fun in that?
What I did do is ask what it was they loved about Wonderful World. They said it was the feeling of abundance and hospitality; the anticipation of sharing one’s home and food with guests who are about to arrive. The fact that it is an abundance of weird, mid-century, overengineered food just makes the people more endearing (you almost forgive them for living in such a pornographically modernist palace.) Which all made sense, given that these gals, in addition to being residential real estate moguls. are enthusiastic and frequent hostesses.
So the food was a given (and I LOVE painting food) but I also intuited that the structure of the piece, which pops the table and the food into the space you’re standing, was also integral to the draw of the piece. I’d made Wonderful World on two attached panels: I covered the top one in a striped fabric and formed the couple’s outfits out if it. The bottom panel I cut by hand to match the curve of a round tablecloth, which as a bonus was trimmed in classic dingleballs. I covered the bottom panel with a piece of the tablecloth, lining up the bottom with the bottom of the panel. The shadow that curves across it is translucent paint, which gives the illusion of the table jutting into the room. The top half of the table is painted to match the tablecloth. This whole construction was an idea I’d been wanting to revisit anyway, so I decided to try something similar for the commission.
I started, as usual, with the house.
I based it loosely on a photo from a Better Homes and Gardens decorating book from the 1960’s, much edited and simplified. (I really just liked the staircase.) Then I had to go looking for the right characters. The short list of potential co-hostesses is on either side of the drawing below. As you can see, I made reversed versions of each gal in order to try them out on both sides.
I drew a couple of them in the right scale and pinned them to the drawing. The one on the left was a keeper, the one on the right not so much. Her bending down so steeply seemed a little weird, and the hand going missing behind the table makes her look like she’s going to lift it with one hand.
The fabric is usually kind of an agonizing choice, especially when I need to choose two of them. I was fairly certain I wanted to use this odd, scallopy Finnish tablecloth I had for the table, but getting them into the right outfits and somehow tying it all together chromatically would be a challenge. I ended up using a piece of the same striped fabric that I had left over from the painting of ten years ago, turned horizontally this time.
Here is the bottom panel turned on its back on the work table. Ten years ago, I’d cut the curve with a small Japanese handsaw, but this time around I used the whole thing as an excuse to buy a jigsaw. (Who knows what other wacky shapes I might want to paint in when I finally move on from circles?)
Here it is a few stages in, when I was ready to start blocking in the food. The final piece can be seen on my commissions page.