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On the grid, but out of the box

Artist Sharon Strauss in her studio. Strauss, one of the artists showing at this weekend’s first-ever Bainbridge Art Expo, has drawn since childhood and took up the paintbrush in 1998 as a means to expand and explore the world of color.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Artist Sharon Strauss in her studio. Strauss, one of the artists showing at this weekend’s first-ever Bainbridge Art Expo, has drawn since childhood and took up the paintbrush in 1998 as a means to expand and explore the world of color.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Sharon Strauss’ big canvases highlight the upcoming Art Expo.

Sharon Strauss’ work is both ethereal and tough.

The delicate traceries of organic shapes and calligraphic markings seem to float over and merge with layers of white oil paint. The underlying composition of the paintings, however, is the grid.

The Bainbridge painter works to build her organic forms on that geometric field. Strauss makes her roughly circular shapes by literally drawing in pencil on the wet paint.

“Circles appear in my paintings over and over again,” Strauss said. “I’ve been intrigued with the circle and the square, circle being female, square being male.”

Strauss’ works are on exhibit for the 2007 Bainbridge Island Art Expo, opening this weekend with works from 40 visual artists and 15 musical groups.

For Strauss, the chance to hang new works is an exciting prospect. An artist who works on canvases as large as 6 feet by 8 feet, she rarely has a chance to see works hung together in one space.

The Art Expo will feature several of her paintings, and next spring she will have a solo show at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts

Strauss’ work draws strength from generations of modernism. Most recently, she was “hugely inspired” by a San Francisco retrospective of works by Brice Marden, a minimalist painter who, in the mid-1990s, had turned toward a more fluid abstraction.

“I saw his grid pieces and thought that would be a way for me to begin again,” she said. “I use the grid because I wanted to get back to basics. I’m pretty focused on composition.”

Strauss works in horizon-oriented format, while other paintings are vertical. In both, she uses subtle distinctions in a wide-ranging palette of whites to create depth of field. Occasionally, she literally cuts the composition into squares and reassembles them to make the finished painting like a grid-based puzzle.

Several works feature constructions that appear to be overlapping petals or leaves. In other paintings, the ovoid shapes are tiny, hooking together in long strands that invoke cellular structure.

“I can’t get away from using nature,” Strauss said. “I think it’s just a response to the environment I live in. I’ve tried to escape it and I can’t. It’s impossible for me and so I’ve just given in to it. So I use it in every possible way I can.”

Strauss’ titles reflect her preoccupation with nature and pay homage to other artists and friends. One piece takes its title from a Robert Frost poem, “Where Bird and Flower Were One.” Another, “Birdsong,” is taken from a Grateful Dead cut, and also honors a friend, the late island vocalist Toby Schneider.

Despite the seeming spontaneity of the inscribed pencil markings, Strauss develops a painting through many sketches – painting on paper, or using ink and graphite.

“My process is that I draw, do a lot of drawing first,” Strauss said. “Then I take those drawings and I turn them into paintings. I try to inspire myself that way.”

Since childhood, drawing has been important.

“I drew a lot as a kid,” she said. “I’ve always drawn. It was a way to figure things out. To open my mind up, to get into a creative place. I just got curious about painting. I wanted to take the next step. I wanted color, and I wanted more freedom.”

Strauss began painting in 1998. From 2001-06, she closed her house appraisal business to paint full-time. Then she took a year off from painting while she focused on family life and reopened her company. Now re-energized, she has turned again to visual art.

“At this point in the process I’m just doing a lot of drawing to see which direction I’m going to go in,” she said.

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Exponents of art

The first annual Bainbridge Island Art Expo runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 4-5 at the historic farmhouse at 13398 Manzanita Road. Local art organizations and visual artists will gather together to share information, sell art, enjoy music and entertainment and participate in a juried exhibit. The event is free. For complete information, see www.ArtExpoBI.com.

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