Gloria Blades is sitting in the basement of her home. It is a comfortably furnished room, an area that has been dedicated to her painting. The bright color of its decor is an essence that transfers to her palette. Her new oil and wax paintings loom large, leaning against every wall and surface, regarding the room like a tribunal. Blades is preparing for her solo exhibition at Main Art Gallery in April. At least 10 paintings are ready, while some others already have been culled from the group. She says she is not a last minute person. "I need to work steadily without pressure [and] try to concentrate on pleasing myself so I'm not afraid to follow hunches or take risks," she explains.
In the small room to the left, behind a wall of German Expressionist prints, is the official operating room. A painting on an easel awaits further contemplation and paint application by the artist. Some might readily accept the painting as complete as it stands, but Blades is compulsive in her love of layer and complexity, of putting something on canvas and then hiding it ... so there is more work ahead. "I would have to call myself pretty obsessive," she confesses as she stands before the unfinished painting. Meanwhile, in the room to the right, a giant fiberglass fish a piece for 1708 Gallery's "Go Fish" project patiently awaits his turn. "That project will have to wait until this show is ready," she says, as she flicks off the light.
Blades says she got into painting " because I thought it would be fun." She admits that she never imagined it would be so much work, so demanding, so draining. And yet, so fulfilling.
Blades began to seriously study painting in 1982 when she entered Virginia Commonwealth University's painting and printmaking school. She was 50. Before then, she had been involved with craft through textiles, running a small stitchery supply shop in Washington state. When she and her husband, Charlie, moved to Richmond, her focus changed as she was introduced to a completely new understanding of creative expression. "It was an exciting time, being back in school, having the support of wonderful professors like Barbara Tisserat, Lester Van Winkle and especially Al Schantz, who I miss terribly," she says. "He was my mentor."
If her upcoming exhibition's title "One's Own Room" bears a slight resemblance to Virginia Woolf's famous novel "A Room of One's Own," it is not a coincidence. Much of the inspiration for this recent series of paintings came from Blades' sense of personal affinity with Woolf's story. Both the story and the paintings ruminate obliquely on the purpose and meaning of the objects that surround and comfort us. "Before I begin one of these paintings I ask myself what a special room provides, what makes it a nourishing or dysfunctional environment? ... My possessions provoke unpredictable interaction between things and ideas for me."
Few objects in Blades' paintings actually function as specific symbols. They often inadvertently become part of the scene because they were random bystanders, forgotten acquisitions that exist most intensely in the subconscious. As the artist conveys her sense of her space, perceived acutely at different times, some of these accessories just surface and ultimately become the subject of the work. This advance and retreat of awareness of a confined space which has personal history and was assembled to nourish the soul yet which ends up sheltering all manner of emotional and material stuff is what Blades' paintings consider.
"I sometimes find myself fighting evil demons when I paint," she says. "They enter my thinking and inhibit the flow of the piece. I have to use my intellect [to capture them]."
Making a series of work that explores a particular direction or theme is the industry standard for preparing a solo exhibition. It is also an approach that comes naturally to Blades, as she tends to focus for at least a year on any subject that engages her. "The momentum of one work carries me to the next until the subject is exhausted," she says. What is most difficult for Blades is realizing the finite point in a process that is most notoriously infinite for her. "I will continue returning to paintings, even when a fresh one is on the easel even after the earlier ones have been framed!" she says, with a laugh.
But there is a deadline ahead, one that will initiate a public airing of all that has occurred so privately. Yet, for all of its challenge to peace of mind, a solo show is what an artist ultimately strives for. This is when the work is formalized by frames and lifted from stacks along the floor to a good viewing height; when the halogen lights are directed carefully to summon nuance that was possibly never before observed. It is an opportunity for the paintings to begin to murmur among themselves more than ever before. This is also when the opinions of gallery directors, curators, critics and the public start imposing on the solitary process. Gloria Blades is almost ready. Just a little more paint here and
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