An interview with WheelHouse Artist Gretchen Treitz on the occasion of the Life in Light Stephen Brown exhibition at WheelHouse Art, September 16 – October 22, 2022.
Daniel Pfalzgraf, October 2022
About a year ago, I began doing interviews with WheelHouse Artists leading up to, or during, the opening receptions of their exhibitions. Following this new tradition, Gretchen Treitz and I planned on doing a live interview for folks who attended the reception for Life in Light on September 23, 2022. Fate, however, had other plans as Gretchen woke up with an unshakable case of laryngitis that morning. We tried postponing the interview to record and share it online. Alas, sometimes even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Thankfully, however, email still works, so we were able to complete our interview, albeit in written form.
Not long after I took over B. Deemer Gallery, Gretchen called looking for help shipping a large body of work to Lincoln, NE. That work was for a Stephen Brown retrospective at the Elder Gallery at Nebraska Wesleyan University titled The Aching Beauty of it All, curated by his former student, David Gracie. She was fortunate enough to get the school to take care of the logistics of moving that amount of work, back and forth, so she didn’t have to pay me to pack and ship over 70 pieces to Nebraska (lol). Most, if not all, of the pieces in Life in Light were, in fact, included in that exhibition.
Later, she shared Stephen’s work with me, wanting to know if I’d be interested in exhibiting his work here. As I am sure you can all see, that was an easy decision. I am very drawn to work that displays a high regard for material and technique. Artist Philip Pearlstein categorized Stephen’s work as being a part of a “New Realism” movement. It’s realism, but it still very much captures and values the artist’s hand, with textured surfaces and visible brush strokes delineating this movement from the Photo, Super, and Hyper-realists of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to have worked with and exhibited work by Steven Assael in Atlanta and again at the green building gallery here in Louisville. The affinity I developed with Assael’s work really played into my immediate attraction to Brown’s work as there were significant connections between the two artists’ work. In fact, both Steven and Stephen were represented at the highly regarded Forum Gallery.
Daniel Pfalzgraf: Can you begin by sharing a brief history of Stephen and yourself?
Gretchen Treitz: We met while we were in graduate school at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. We both went there because it was the only university in all of New York City with an illustrious faculty dedicated to realist work (Philip Pearlstein, Lennart Anderson, Bob Henry, Allan D’Arcangelo, Lois Dodd, Gabriel Laderman, Altoon Sultan, Lee Bontecou (not to mention former prestigious faculty such as Louise Bourgeois, Jimmy Ernst, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others.) With such a rich history, it had a wonderful reputation for attracting students from around the country (Stephen from Colorado, me Louisville). I was told to go there by Alex Katz and Janet Fish, whom I had studied with in Ohio; Stephen of course was told by Alice Neel whom he studied with at Skowhegan.
DP: I’ve been fortunate enough to have never been in a serious relationship with another artist. Did you find that to be challenging? Was there ever competition in your careers or for resources or a clash of artistic personalities? Or did the fact you were both artists offer more insight/understanding into what each other was going through and help you work through things?
GT: Yes, you are lucky to have never been in a relationship with another artist! Of course it was challenging! We artists have big egos! We both really respected each other’s unique expressions, and it started in graduate school when we both won the painting scholarship awarded to second year students. Also, since I worked in watercolor, and he in oil, there was no competition in terms of approach, or concept for that matter. Also, we each had our own renovated barn for studios, so space was not a concern. Our only issue was time; we artists are also very selfish in terms of allotment, and with a family, mine was usually subdivided. On the other hand, we were each other’s best critic. We totally trusted the other’s opinion, even if it meant discarding or starting over. Even during a period of abstraction, he could clearly detect an off color or composition of mine. Sometimes I hesitated with my honesty to him, bracing myself for a shriek, or worse, plunging him into one of his depressions. It was intense, to say the least, but at the same time very vital to both of us.
DP: Can you tell us about Stephen’s working process? Sometimes he worked and reworked his paintings over the course of months and years, correct?
GT: Consistently, I could hear his sander late in the night, even if I had declared one of his paintings finished. Every painting reveals his process of sanding, scraping, and refining, trying to bring to perfection the richness and depth he pursued. As in the old master techniques, he would build up the surface with glazing, layering, varnishing, and scumbling, only to sand out an area and change it to a different color!
He definitely did not fall into a “system”, it was an active process of addition and subtraction. It was laborious and obsessive, and exhausting. I believe some of that stemmed from a lack of confidence. In any case, his subject was more the act of painting than mere representation. If you look closely at some of his paintings, there is a faint whisper of a portrait or animal underneath a still life or landscape!
DP: Do you know how he would choose his subjects? Particularly his portraits. Do you know why he chose some of his models? Did they sit for hours for him, or did he ever photograph them to reference later?
GT: Early in his career, he painted portraits from life. Yes, hours and hours would be demanded of the sitter. He started a portrait of me in a pink ski sweater in the winter on the top floor of our apartment, and by mid August I would be falling asleep, suffering from the heat of summer and that wool sweater! A full length portrait of me demanded that I have my weight slightly on one foot; try doing that for hours and hours! Later in his career, he painted from life and reference photos. Portraits were of family, students, friends, and neighbors, chosen by his relationship to them. He painted many portraits of his father, none of his mother!
[STEPHEN BROWN Left: Rushton in Red Shirt, Oil on panel, 13 x 8 1/2 inches. Right: Hannah 2004, Oil on panel, 10 1/2 x 7 3/4 inches]
Many, many of our son, only one of our daughter! It’s fair to say that he cared deeply for the people he painted. Like Pearlstein said, his portraits were “tightly wound, charged, and ready to explode.” (that would describe me when he, once again, got cadmium red on the white carpet!)
DP: His landscapes he painted in situ or at least he painted studies to work from in the studio later, is that correct? Working en plein air, there are so many mitigating circumstances you must work with: access to a space to get a desired view, carrying your materials on location, the time of day and how the light changes over the course of time you’re working on something, environmental concerns when it’s extreme heat or cold or wet. Do you have any good stories about any of the landscape locations in this exhibition? Did the speed at which he painted vary when he worked in his studio vs. outside of his studio?
GT: Before we had children, we camped and painted outdoors in his native Colorado and other western Rockies states (we had the summers off from teaching). We would have a morning painting going, take the afternoon off by fly fishing, then resume an evening painting. Yes, all en plein air. Really, the only “outdoor” concerns we encountered affected my watercolors; a bird pooped on one, and in another, I couldn’t manipulate the frozen surface! We would stay at each site for several days or a week, however long it would take to finish. We both had French easels to set up each time.
[STEPHEN BROWN, Pawnee Buttes, 2003-2004, Oil on panel, 5 1/2 x 15 inches]
The painting “Pawnee Buttes” is a massive butte about an hour or so from his hometown, on the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies. We and the kids hiked all the way around, stepping over boulders, snakes, and becoming dehydrated, all for the sake of Stephen getting just the right “angle” to paint this broad panoramic view. It really encapsulates his balance of merging brilliant light and color. Artists that informed his landscapes were Inness and Corot.
DP: The onions, the pears, doorknobs, even you and your son show up frequently over many years. What do you think drove Stephen to revisit subjects repeatedly? Was it a means to track a progression in his work or how he studied the subjects? Or was it as simple as just a pure love for the subject, wanting to spend the time looking at it again and again?
GT: While on a sabbatical in southern France, we visited Cezanne’s studio and saw an arrangement of withered apples placed on a table. Stephen was so inspired by this imperfect fruit that he began to leave his own pears or onions in his studio, for days or weeks. I think he looked for the soul of his subjects, whether they be single objects, a portrait, or even a landscape. (Vermeer was another artist that influenced his light, bulging energy, and colorful shadows.) I think all of his subjects reflect his own frank determination and strength as he battled health issues. Most of his paintings show the anguish and struggle of the human condition, a catharsis of healing.
DP: Let’s hear more about your work now. Tell us about your Kentucky State Champion Series.
First of all, what exactly are KY State Champion trees?
Why did you decide to do the series?
And how have you found these particular trees?
GT: When I first moved back from New England to KY ten years ago, I was painting abstract watercolors, fully preoccupied with color, composition and a spiritual light. I suppose it was the dramatic relocation of body, soul and mind that had me gravitate to former landscape painting. I had always painted the old maple trees we tapped for syrup, on our property in Massachusetts. They were at least two hundred years old, and massive. I was drawn to the lush trees here in Kentucky, and found I had a longer season to enjoy painting outside! Not all champions in Kentucky are basketball teams! KY trees have their fair share of national titles! A Champion tree means it is the largest specimen of that particular species of trees, either in the state, or in the country. I have worked with the Division of Forestry to locate these beauties. These enormous trees for me are a metaphor for strength, perseverance, and life. They personify a perfect being in adversity. I use nature to search for the divine, and trees for me are a symbol of hope.
DP: Any more Champions that you’re still wanting to paint?
GT: Yes, of course! There are many that are on private land that I wish to have access! I am working on a State Champion Cucumber tree, and a Shagbark Hickory.
DP: I’d like to point out a couple of details in your work, and I encourage anyone here to check these out, too. I really love the delicate representation of the power lines in the Swamp Chestnut Oak piece. The back and forth of using positive/drawn lines and negative/white space to represent them stretching across the picture plane is such a subtly dynamic way of capturing them. Also, I am really drawn to the Trees and Pond, Routt Road, due in large part again to the back and forth of the positive/additive representation of the dense trees, and the subtle, light of the paper shining through with the pond.
[GRETCHEN TREITZ Left: Detail Swamp Chestnut Oak, Silver leaf and watercolor on paper, 8 x 8 inches. Right: Trees and Pond, Routt Road , Watercolor on paper, 4 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches]
Can you tell us about your journey as a watercolorist?
What other mediums have you worked with over the years?
How do you think those mediums inform how you work now?
GT: I do like to play around with positive/negative space. I think that derives from my earlier abstract work, and love for artists like Kandinsky, Augusta Vincent Tack, and the flat Asian landscape screens. My paintings are not about representation, but more about the friction between medium, subject and life; similar to Stephen I guess, in that my work creates transcendence.
I began painting in oils in graduate school, but my professors encouraged me to pursue watercolors as they said my wc studies for the oils were better! I’m so glad they did, as now I can see that I love using the white of the paper to create a lighter color rather than mixing in white that I would inevitably botch. After that, I won a New York CAPS grant in watercolor, and I never looked back.
DP: Tell us about how you began using silver leaf?
GT: I had a dream one night where everything was white around a very large tree. There were also Latin words written on the branches. I immediately sketched this when I woke up, and it evolved into a series of white trees with silverleaf backgrounds. Like so many other artists in the past, searching for the divine in nature is one of my goals. Silver leaf, white gold leaf, and aluminum leaf all have a certain purity about them. I use them to also represent the fragility of a tree’s soul and presence. So hopefully there is a play between permanence and a whisper of the ephemeral.
[GRETCHEN TREITZ, Study for Light on Broken Places, 2014. Silver leaf on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches.]
DP: How do you think or feel about whatever medium you use at any given moment? Do you select the medium based more on aesthetic reasons, or are there other factors they play into their meaning for you?
GT: As stated above, I use the play between metal leafs, white paper, and watercolor for various experiments, enjoying the process. Of course there is the age-old use of light and dark to represent good and evil; the mystical creative process, like Paul Klee once likened it to “the inner life of the artist to the trunk and roots of a tree, and the outward expression to the tree’s crown”.
DP: Final question. Are there any practices you picked up from Stephen that have influenced your work with landscapes? Or any instances where you taught Stephen a thing or two?
GT: From Stephen, I think I learned to paint through my doubts. He was constantly saying to me “just paint watercolors”; don’t try to impress people with your teaching resume! “just paint, don’t teach”
From me, I think he learned about the spiritual aspects of painting; that there is a place where we can find a rest in a higher abode.