Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Nurtured by nature

Work part of Israel-Ohio 'Common Ground' exhibit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Valerie Shesko at work in her "place of escape" at Off the Avenue Studios in Northside.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
| ZOOM |
        Valerie Shesko pulls on a pair of surgical gloves and prepares to operate. She selects some tubes of paint — yellow, white, orange and ochre — and squeezes a small lump of color on a clean palette.

        A white canvas, already stretched, is selected and put on the floor. She chooses a 1-inch bristle brush and pushes it around the palette, picking up a mixture of yellow and orange.

        Then, crouching over the canvas, she spreads the white canvas with flame-colored streaks, swiftly scrubbing the surface as if she were scouring a frying pan. She pauses only to load the brush with a different blend of colors.

        “What I do at this point hardly matters,” she says. “It will all come together later on.”

        Her studio is a wedge-shaped corner room on the second floor of a building called Off the Avenue Studios on Knowlton Avenue in Northside. Among the other tenants are glass sculptor Margot Gottoff and painter Eushang Khang. The Zen Meditation Center is there, too.

        Ms. Shesko is one of six Ohio artists selected to show with six Israeli artists in Common Ground: Contemporary Landscapes from Israel and Ohio,an Ohio Arts Council exhibition at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus. The show will move to Cincinnati's Weston Gallery in November and to Jerusalem in the spring.

        She paints with oils. They blend and streak with a beauty that only oils can give.

        “I was painting in acrylic, because I'm allergic to turpentine. But now they make water based oils, so I can paint in oils again, and there's no paint smell in the studio,” Ms. Shesko says.

Place of escape
        She arrives at her studio at 10 a.m., after dropping off her 8-year-old daughter at day camp.

        “This is my place of escape from all the details and problems of real life,” says Ms. Shesko, who lives with her husband and daughter in Wyoming. “And my paintings are places of escape for me, too. When I'm here I'm in my own space, both physical space and creative space.

        “But it's not easy. It's hard work. When you're painting you are facing your deepest concerns.”

        She stops painting and looks at the freshly started canvas, which she sets on the large table that fills the middle of the room.

        “When I travel, I take lots of photographs, but I seldom look at them. I work more from my memories of places.

        “We've just spent three weeks in Maine and it has suffered from the drought like every place else in the East, so I'm thinking about the dry earth and yellow grasses.”

        Other canvases, each with hazy films of bright colors, hang on the walls. She picks up a small painting.

        “I don't think it's finished. It feels a bit easy. I don't have much here that's finished. I just sent 21 paintings off to a solo show in North Carolina.”

Personal meditations
        The curators of the Common Ground exhibition wrote that Ms. Shesko's “evocative landscapes of the mind reveal her personal meditations, transformed into gestural, atmospheric memories of nature that merge abstraction and representation.”

        “I grew up in Brooklyn,” she says. “I didn't see a mountain until I was 10. We went to New Hampshire and I saw this mountain, and I was just blown away.”

        So she paints landscapes of woods and fields and rivers, places still unspoiled.

        “I'm not painting pictures to hang above your couch, although it's fine if they wind up there. I want to paint something that connects people with nature. It's about healing and feeling.

        “There is this place that I used to pass. It was a very pretty field, and I liked to look at it. I went by one day and there was a strip mall there. My paintings are about loss, about what we're doing to our environment.

        “Twice in the past 10 years I've had the opportunity to live in Ireland for a year, and I made a lot of paintings based on my Irish experiences. But it's the same. They're tearing everything up there, too. You can't escape. There's no Eden.”

        She looks at the one nearly finished painting in the room; a blue path winding between black trees.

        “It's a kind of journey on a dead end path,” she says. “You get to the end, and that's all there is.”

        But stacked against the wall are more new stretched, white canvases, promising more journeys to take and more unspoiled places to explore.

        Common Ground, Riffe Gallery, Columbus, through Oct. 16, (614) 644-9624; Weston Gallery, Aronoff Center, Nov. 19-Jan. 22. Valerie Shesko's paintings also can be seen at Bittners in the Kenwood Galleria, 8110 Montgomery Road.


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