The late January afternoon was a study in contrasts.
We practically ran into Kenise Barnes Fine Art to escape the biting wind — and were immediately warmed by the luminosity of the Jackie Battenfield works on display. In a moment, we were swept into a world of not only branches, buds and blooms but also of shimmering light — and color, such intriguing color.
That the paintings carried evocative names ranging from “Tickled Pink” to “Under A Cloud,” “Coral Fling” to “Sing Song,” “Blue Wash” to “Rowdy Fall” only added to the splendor.
These paintings were, fittingly, what had brought us to the Larchmont gallery, where Battenfield’s solo show, “One Fine Day,” was underway.
Then-gallery manager Lani Holloway shared that Battenfield was one of the gallery’s artists that “people really respond to.”
“You really get that depth in person,” Holloway, now associate director, observed of the work’s effect.
Fast forward to early April and we are again at the gallery, this time sitting at a conference table opposite Battenfield herself, the artist having come up from her Brooklyn studio to discuss her work with WAG.
The paintings, we find out, are certainly about light and form and color — but also about the very branches and buds.
“Look up — that’s what these are about,” Battenfield says of her paintings. “My job is to reanimate and make us look at trees differently.”
What she’s doing now is rooted in her earlier days, though her path was not direct.
To this day, she says, her work elicits “powerful memories for me.”
Battenfield grew up north of Pittsburgh, what she describes as on the “edges of suburbia.”
“It was a kind of crazy, raucous house,” one surrounded by fallow fields and forests, she says. “You could get lost in them if you wanted to.”
And Battenfield, then a “voracious reader,” would often do just that, taking a book and disappearing, she says with a laugh, “in order to escape my family — and my chores.”
She would spend time reading, which gave her the chance to “imagine other worlds.”
“I can remember my back against a tree, book in hand.”
It would be a while before she found her true calling, which came during her student days at Pennsylvania State University.
“I was always creative but I didn’t become an art major until my junior year in college,” Battenfield says. “I tried everything else and nothing seemed to fit.”
A boyfriend suggested she pursue her creativity in art and, she says, “It was just like rockets went off in my head.” She would go on to earn an MFA in Visual Art from Syracuse University.
While Battenfield says that her early paintings were often abstract, “they had a landscape orientation” as well. Though she says she loves design and color, she still found herself less than thrilled with her direction.
“I got bored. I didn’t know how I was making one decision over another.”
A trip to Japan, where she had the chance to exhibit, was pivotal.
“Talking about your work for three weeks, you get really tired of it,” she says with another laugh. “When I came back, something had changed.”
A silent meditation retreat in the Berkshires — a week-plus that found her observing a huge elm tree — was another turning point.
Watching that tree for hours a day, she noticed subtle — and eventually dramatic — changes as it came into full bloom.
“I started photographing trees, painting in a different way.”
And, as they say, she hasn’t looked back, now having worked with tree imagery for some 15 years.
A COLORFUL APPROACH
Battenfield’s distinctive acrylic-on-Mylar work provides a technical challenge in itself, as she works from reference photographs to draw the images onto large sheets of translucent Mylar before adding the paint.
“Color is the hardest part for me in a painting,” Battenfield says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen with the paint until it dries.”
But there is a precision that cannot be denied.
“Each leaf gets painted individually, and it becomes its own little abstraction… The interpretation comes with how I’ve chosen to crop the image and the colors I’ll choose.”
After all, she must give nature — and its individuality — its due. As she says, there is never going to be another leaf exactly the same.
“Never has been, never will be. For me, it’s cosmic.”
Battenfield works all year, though not surprisingly spring and fall provide optimum time in the field. She talks of dogwoods and magnolias, cherry blossoms and London planes.
“I love blossoming trees, anything that has kind of a big, gesture-y bloom”
Battenfield, though, is not trained in botany. Her work, she says, develops “just by observation.”
And that comes often. She will reference Storm King Art Center in Orange County, the Tuileries Garden in Paris and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where she was headed the next day.
“There’s no garden that I don’t love,” she says.
Inspiration, though, also comes through the everyday.
“We live on streets with trees,” says Battenfield, who’s been known to step into the middle of a street to take a photograph — or even “lay down on the sidewalk.
“I’m attracted by the way the branch is gesturing,” she says.
IN FULL BLOOM
These days, with her children grown, Battenfield has plenty of time to paint.
She says some of her recent work has given her particular satisfaction, from her public art commissions creating work for the New York University Langone Medical Center’s radiation treatment suite and for the MTA through its Arts & Design program, with her work featured permanently in the Avenue P elevated subway station of the F line in Brooklyn.
In addition to Kenise Barnes Fine Art, where Battenfield is one of more than 50 contemporary artists the gallery represents, she is represented by galleries in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and her work is part of more than 1,000 collections worldwide, including the New York Public Library, the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey and the United States Embassy Collections in numerous countries.
Back in Larchmont, namesake gallery director Kenise Barnes joins the conversation, saying Battenfield’s work not only “feels very fresh” but also exemplifies what she thinks a work of art should be.
“The painting has to be generous,” Barnes says. “It has to continue to give you something every time you look at it.”
A sign of continuing support, Barnes will include Battenfield’s work in the opening show of Kenise Barnes Fine Art in Kent, a second gallery set to open May 11 in Litchfield County.
Reflecting for a moment on where she is today, Battenfield notes that developing her signature style was a lifelong process.
“I couldn’t do it a minute before I did it,” says Battenfield, who is truly savoring the work, far from ready to move on.
“Not yet, I’m so full of ideas.”