This coming weekend, May 14-16, the annual Oxford Fine Art Show will take place at the Oxford Community Center. The event, in its 37th year, will feature 50 artists juried into the exhibition and sale. The selected artists are from as far as Cayman Island to as close as the Eastern Shore.
As customary, a Featured Artist and their work is selected, which appears in posters, advertisements, brochures, etc. This year that artist is the locally renowned Sheryl Southwick, a teaching artist for the Academy Art Museum and Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center. Her featured work is called A View from the Porch.
An artist since childhood, Southwick was raised by creatively inclined parents, who fostered her desire to learn everything from carpentry to sewing to music. She realized the power of art when in high school, a teacher taught the class to work in every style for one subject. “We would take, for instance, a bell pepper,” said Southwick, “and we had to paint it, draw it, make collages, or sculptures. It forced me to think extremely creatively in a very open way.”
Southwick earned a BFA in painting and drawing from Louisiana State University and then studied with Milton Resnick, Mary Vernon, Leon Berkowicz, and others. She also spent a year in Paris immersing herself in the works of painter Pierre Bonnard, whom she considers her most significant influence.
Southwick began to gain notoriety through her collage interpretations of landscapes and abstracts, created by distressing and coloring paper before tearing it into strips and making it the palette. The process gives the artwork a paint-like quality or creates, as described by a Baton Rouge gallery, ‘paper mosaics.’
In March of 2020, with the stay-at-home order, Southwick began to spend more time painting. “We were inside because of the pandemic, and I was in this house that reminded me of the interiors that were painted by Pierre Bonnard, the painter that I just love. So, this became my ‘Bonnardian summer.” It was also the beginning of her series: ‘Other People’s Places,’ which can be seen at the show this weekend.
The series is captivating, probably because there is a certain familiarity to them. Southwick says, “I think that my paintings of interiors are comforting for people to see, especially because it’s things that everybody has in their house. Things like cats, lamps, tables. And when they’re painted, it’s very compelling.”
Compelling enough, of course, that one of them was chosen as the featured work by Juror Stewart Burgess White. Oxford Fine Arts chairwoman Karen Walbridge recalls the selection process. “Stewart chose her because of her style. He felt like you were actually in her work itself. He just liked the feel of it.”
That’s also the feeling that Southwick would like others to experience. “I want my painting,” she says, “to be very beckoning. You want to get up close because sometimes you can’t tell from a distance what’s going on. If I see a painting from across the room, I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, well, look, I can see the whole thing from here.’ I don’t want it to be just a bunch of big bright colors screaming at me. There will be a lot of colors in my paintings, but they won’t scream at you. They’re quiet colors, but they’re very rich. And if you get up close, there might be intensity as well.”
If you spend any time with Southwick, you’ll soon learn that color is what defines her as an artist. She studied it; she works in it; she thinks about it. A great deal. She says, “My work is that of a lot of color knowledge and spontaneity. But it’s a light touch. It’s not overworked. I want color to sing, but sing in the right keys.”
She’s not kidding. It’s so important to her that lack of color makes her uncomfortable. “I was in a church one time,” says Southwick, “that was so plain, and the walls were so white–no paintings, no stained glass. It was distracting to me, a white room with nothing at all.”
But there is also a positive side to this type of anxiety. “You will hear from other artists who say they’re scared of the white canvas because they don’t know what they’re going to do with it. To me, it’s an invitation to put a dot on it, to make a mark, to make that connection outside of yourself.”
Nowadays, Southwick is finding inspiration from a new muse. She’s staying at a place by a creek with lots of trees. “I like looking at things that are very active and in a quiet way. So, the ground of the forest is full of leaves, sticks, dirt, and the grass creeping up here and there. And all that together is like a tapestry to me. So, I’m painting pictures of what looks like trees, but they’re also evolving into other portrayals that are slightly more abstract.”
You’ll have to wait to see the forest and the trees. For now, you can experience the tapestries of the rooms that Southwick has painted and which you can own.
Sheryl Southwick will demonstrate how she modulates the color areas of an oil painting from 10 am-11 am on Sunday, May 16th at OCC.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.