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NICOLE STRASBURG , Westward Ho!, 2021 for article in Lum Art Zine

“This is my church, my heart,” Nicole Strasburg says of her painting studio, adding, “I’m not a very good plein-air painter, I have no focus for painting when I’m out in the open air.”  

Near the ocean, facing east to catch the morning sunrise, Strasburg and her husband have built a tidy freestanding studio. It’s small, yet big enough to fit a large wall for display, counters, storage, islands on rollers, easels and tons of inspiration – including the memories and sensations she brings in from the outside, plein-air world. 

Those sensations and memories – there’s a lot of them – get translated to paint in this space. Studies and cut-up copies of paintings on paper; her own source photographs; works small and large, finished and unfinished, some done in gouache, some in oil; etchings and woodblock prints – all generously lit by skylights. A screened entry door is hinged so dogs can freely get in and out. Amazingly, there’s not a trace of paint on the carpeted floor.

The space where Strasburg works is very organized and orderly: a ledger penciled in of inventory by date; a long list of possible titles; a thumbnail mockup of her current show. “Guest artists” appear in nooks and crannies, a collection of small, quirky inspirational favorites. Made of tar from the La Brea Tar Pits, a James Griffith drawing; a delicate Nina Warner landscape; Teressa Zapeda’s seventeen color prints of a friendly dog’s face; an assemblage by Dug Uyesaka – a tiny bowling scene – that happily reminds her of her mother.

Last year, Strasburg was painting with darker values, scenes from in and around a mountain retreat. In the studio, there’s a full-blown batch of those paintings waiting for a show sometime in the future.

Among them, images of stately pines and afternoon cumulus clouds billowing upward over mountains. While the mountains have provided a needed distraction from the realities closer to home, the tangled underbrush and deep canopies of trees reflected in the work is unsettling. “Lost and Found” she calls it.

Even with the soothing effects of quiet crisp air, wind in the pines, a place to let the dogs run free, some of life’s burdens weighed.

Recent requests for water images have shifted Strasburg’s focus. “I turned from the trees … I took down the other paintings while I was making these, and it felt right to continue.” With her creative attention turned to the sea, she met with her gallerist at Sullivan Goss Gallery. They both agreed ocean as subject would work for a new exhibit.

In the studio, long unframed horizontal and square formats on birch push out from the wall plane, with sharp, clean, unpainted edges. Without frames they are objects that spread the horizon and unseen vistas off the edges, left and right, top and bottom. 

No limits, no constraints: “… not windows, landscapes …,” she says. “It felt really good to have the vast horizon and ocean in my studio again.”

Using birch as a support came years ago when Strasburg couldn’t afford much in materials. A cabinet maker friend gave her scraps. Painting on the rigid surface was similar to the etching and woodcuts she loves to work with. Until recently, she had a press in the studio. The mark-making motion of the hand is similar to printmaking techniques, she says. She scrapes, wipes and reworks the hard surface – which is hard to do on canvas.

There was something bugging her about color, though, or lack of it. “If I was going to do an entire show of water, I needed to expand my idea of seascape and stretch my palette.” During the winter Strasburg experimented, mixing up samples, looking for new color opportunities.   

The body of work in her current show moves into abstraction. Some pieces no longer include the wet sand with the viewer facing directly south. In some, as in Minus Tide Meditation, the tide washes over. The boundary of the shallows defined by the thin, dark, green oxide line of swell is placed smack in the middle of the painting.

Beyond the horizon, with all its mysteries, suggestions and implications, lies the vast open ocean. Gretel Ehrlich, author of The Solace of Open Spaces, once in an off-handed way, mentioned the next land of any kind in that direction was over 7,000 miles away.   

“These paintings can be great harbingers of what’s to come, bridges to where I want to go next,” Strasburg says.

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