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[whitespace] Donna Larsen
Michael Amsler

Line of Vision: Painter and teacher Donna Larsen strives for color and balance in her minimalist abstract works.

Painter Donna Larsen is striving for a kinder, gentler canvas

By Gretchen Giles

T URNABOUT, after all, is fair play, and those artists who have had their work considered, weighed, accepted, or rejected by two prominent local art professionals now have a chance to learn what these powerful women see when they stand alone in their own studios looking at the expanse of a blank canvas in their other guise as painters.

Gay Shelton, director of the innovative California Museum of Art, and Donna Larsen, a full-time faculty member who teaches art and acts as director of the well-regarded Two Dog Gallery on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus, reveal these visions when they exhibit together as "Two Women Painters," opening Jan. 23 at the Cultural Arts Council's SoFo Gallery.

Larsen, found in her Healdsburg home during the end of the college's winter break, anticipates response from her colleagues but doesn't expect her beginning students to immediately grasp the long, abstract colorations of her work.

"They think it should be images that they can recognize," she says, pouring out tea in the white light of her home studio. "They want cups and saucers and images that make sense in terms of daily life. I think that if I said to them, 'I'm painting in metaphors, trying to paint something which is completely simple,' they wouldn't be sure what to make of that."

Neither woman exhibits with much regularity in the county. As with most working people, finding the time to create is an artistic effort all of its own. Shelton ends her 10-hour work days by trading her power suits for sweats in order to paint at night in the cold garage under the Monte Rio home she shares with artist Alv Wilenius; Larsen arrives back from a full week in the classroom to a husband and a young son for evening and weekend painting that leaves little time to concentrate on simplicity and metaphors.

"I didn't have the energy to do it all," Larsen admits cheerfully. "I had to find a place with doing the work that was going to make it worthwhile for me, and I decided that I wasn't going to exhibit as a gallery artist because it's such pressure and I wasn't sure that I could take that pressure.

"I have times," she says slowly, "when everything I touch turns to sawdust, when I feel like ruminating, and I have other times when I paint a lot. I think that the most important thing for me was to accept that my life was going to be a life where I had children, and that I was going to be in the classroom because I like young people.

"I used to be a young person," she laughs, "not anymore--but I like them. But then I wasn't going to be able to maintain a relationship showing with a gallery. And I had to make a choice. And I think that the choice has been good for me, because I did get, in my own way, things done."

Getting things done is paramount as an instructor, but Larsen sometimes wonders if her students understand the trade-offs of a fully adult working life.

"I think that it's important to maintain an attitude of clarity toward your work if you are teaching students," she says, "and I think that doing your work and having confidence in the art-making process is something that the students need to feel about you. But then," she smiles, "they always ask you where your gallery is. They want you to be economically feasible; they want you to have all the signs of success--selling.

"I think that the work is important to me, but I'm not sure that it's important to everyone else," Larsen says honestly. "I hope that every once in a while, I do a painting that speaks to someone. I think that they are signposts along the road, and I'm not really interested in them after I've done them. I don't really care about them. Once in a while, I'll go back and look at a painting and think, 'That's still really true.' That's what I'm looking for more and more: for something that's true and is a truth that doesn't change.

"Doing the work can bring me joy, not disappointment, because the joy comes from making something that feels true, and not from whether or not someone likes it enough to buy it."

LARSEN, who says that she made works that were "big and dark, angry," when she was a young woman, puts her efforts into recording the truth in the most basic distillations of color, painting long cool canvases of hued blocks that intersect horizontally, fooling the eye and creating new colors all of their own."What I'm interested in with these," Larsen says, standing before a collection of five linked canvases that play blue and red off each other in a river's unstoppable flow, "has to do with the amount of the color, the boundary where two things meet, and seeing if I can get a kind of shimmer at that point of energy. It makes the paintings difficult to look at. If you look at these, they will drive you completely nuts because this blue has more red in it than that blue, and it appears to have a more aggressive quality at this boundary than this blue has.

"I'm trying to balance in color; it all seems to be in the balance," she muses. "I want these paintings not to be turbulent, but to be soothing in a way, reminders of the basic things in life. A mood, a time, and a kindness or gracefulness. I want my paintings to be about something larger.

"I want them to be about the way an ocean moves. The spaces," Larsen smiles enigmatically, "between things."


Two Women Painters opens with a reception on Friday, Jan. 23, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the SoFo Gallery, and runs through March 6. Larsen and Shelton speak about their work on Friday, Feb. 6, at 6 p.m. SoFo Gallery, 602 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. 579-ARTS.

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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