Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
When I visit the encaustic paintings at City Gallery’s latest exhibition, I have a feeling that I have seen them before. Their stretching shapes and screams of color suggest a purity to ordinary visual experience otherwise obscured–their object of representation is nothing directly observable, but they nonetheless capture essential features of motion. The longer I look, the farther I am sucked into layers of dancing light.
Roberta Friedman, a local artist whose work has been showcased in New Haven for more than 40 years, sits down with me during a heavy Sunday rainstorm to discuss her exhibition. She tells me that it is a memorial for her sister, who recently died of metastatic kidney cancer, and that all proceeds will go directly towards kidney care. Two of her friends pay a visit to the exhibition and eventually join us. She introduces them to each other. She walks us all through her art, her process, and her philosophy.
Each piece, Friedman explains, is made with either hot or cold wax. Hot wax pieces involve a special type of printmaking where she draws a monotype onto a hot place with melting, pigmented wax. Then, she presses paper onto the plate’s surface. She uses various papers—tissue, sheer paper with a colored board behind it, or a unique type of paper with flex in it. Each print is one-of-a-kind. By the time the paper is painted with wax, the wax monotype has already been irrevocably smudged.
The cold wax technique is different. For these pieces, Friedman works with a mixture of wax and oil paint. Though sometimes she paints directly from the tube, she seems to have a particular affinity for her work made with vibrant oil pigment sticks. “And I named these pieces juicy because that’s how I feel about them,” she says. “They’re juicy, they’re gorgeous, they’re beautiful colors.”
When I ask about artistic process, she tells me that hers is “very haphazard” and involves little premeditation. “Usually my process starts with saying, okay, what colors are moving me today?” That guiding question might explain why her paintings feel so natural. In following the colors themselves, Friedman accesses a kind of inarticulable, higher aesthetic order.
Friedman’s love for color drives her to experiment. In some pieces, she tries to bring out the imperfection of her surfaces by rewarming warm wax and spraying water onto its spots. She follows up with an oil pigment stick to outline the marks. In others, she moves the wax away with a tool and layers long rolls of rice paper to enhance airiness.
I ask her what other mediums she’s worked with, and Friedman tells me about her background in watercolor. She’s also worked in oils, acrylic, pen and ink, graphite. She adds: “Judy and I have taken a wonderful class together in abstract art using acrylic paint.” Judy nods.
Friedman eventually stops her answer because, as she puts it, “there is something you should probably know about me. ” She says that, before joining City Gallery, she practiced as a divorce lawyer for about 30 years. “So I haven’t always worked as an artist, but I’ve never stopped being an artist. And if you’re going to talk to young people about life’s trajectory, I think that’s a really important message. I have always loved art. I have always done art.”
Friedman discusses how some people will only focus their attention on one thing at a time, sometimes only one thing for their whole life. Her sister, she remembers, was a talented pen-and-ink artist but took a break from art when she became a lawyer. It was only in her retirement that Friedman’s sister started taking art classes again. “It was wonderful to see,” she says. “She was loving it.”
But for Friedman, choosing between passions was not viable—a balance between art and law was often essential to her happiness. She has not taken big breaks. In fact, watercolor sustained her throughout her law career. It is practical when you don’t have much time, she explains to me, because the paint doesn’t dry out.
With this in mind, I asked her what role she sees art playing in daily life. “Well, I don’t know that you could live for a minute without having art in your life,” she answers. “You walk down the street and you look at the trees blooming, you look at the leaves turning…” She pauses. “I mean, it’s just giving yourself an awareness of the spring, of watching the beautiful greens as the buds come out. You don’t have to have a particular talent to appreciate beauty or something different.” I figure that not all art must aim toward greatness, but that sometimes the best art is completely ordinary, shared between friends, or bound to a particular moment in time.
When I ask Friedman if she thinks art is spiritual, she says that of course it is. “I mean, I find looking at color and my sweeps of color very spiritual” Then she turns to her friend Judy—also a member of City Gallery. “I look at her work and I know that she is gazing out at the water that she sees from her studio window. And she’s totally communing on a spiritual basis with what’s going to get on that canvas that she’s painting.”
Friedman’s work is propelled by color, intertwined with ordinary life, and grounded by friendship and family. I think to myself that her model of artistic life might be sort of perfect. But Friedman has already moved on. “Almost over?” she asks. “I want to visit with my friend, that’s all.”
I exchange a few thank you’s, close my notebook, and walk back to campus in the rain. On my walk, I try to listen to Friedman’s advice and notice the leaves turning in glistening rain.
City Gallery is located at 994 State Street and is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 12-4PM.