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Artist Liz Maxwell invokes nature, math, flight

on November 25, 2008


A few times a year, Liz Maxwell drives from her home in Rockridge up to Calistoga, in the Napa Valley.  For the past 40 years, she has walked the scenic little town for inspiration.  She’ll bring a point-and-shoot camera and snap everything around her.  “It might be a cracked road, moss growing on rock, or the patterns that are left on a wall from dead ivy leaves, they all give me ideas,” she says.  But sometimes she doesn’t need to go anywhere at all.  She simply starts drawing.

Maxwell, 72, sometimes has a million ideas swirling around in her head, and she finds joy in unleashing them onto the canvas.  They are her own conceptions–lasting imprints of her thoughts and feelings on the universe. Vincent Van Gogh once said the only time he felt alive was when he was painting.  Georges Rouault felt that painting was a way to forget about life.  Maxwell echoes their sentiments. “Art is my world,” she says.

In December, Maxwell is inviting the public into her world as part of the annual Rockridge holiday open studios.  From $3.50 greeting cards to her largest and fanciest paintings, priced at $6000, a large variety of work will be on display at her home at 5808 Chabot Road on December 6 and 7, from 11 to 5pm.  There will also be food and refreshments available.  Four other Rockridge artists will be hosting their work at their respective homes during the month.

Open studios is a way for several artists to showcase their work around the same time.  “There’s strength in numbers,” Maxwell says.

Tucked away on the corner of two quiet streets, her Craftsman-style home is unassuming, aside from two waist-high paper-maché statues, one of a saxophonist and the other of a small boy regarding him, that welcome visitors near the door. She is a slight woman with striking deep-set eyes, and her smile is warm and honest.

Inside, the wooden walls add warmth, and the furniture is elegant yet comfortable.  And, naturally, paintings, many in oil, line the walls.  One large rectangular mural contains several smaller painted rectangles of varying sizes, dimension, and colors.  Another painting depicts the cosmos, a series of elliptical galaxies and glimmering stars set on a black backdrop.  What appears to be a computer-designed image of some celestial body figures prominently in the corner.  “It’s based on one of Einstein’s theories,” Maxwell explains.  In the kitchen, another large piece reveals geometrical shapes and objects and long drawn-out equations that are puzzling to a liberal arts graduate.

Downstairs, in her guest room, Maxwell points to a painting of two stars super-imposed on each other, one with five sides and the other with six.  She explains something about the sum of each star’s angles–something that a high school geometry teacher would probably understand, and find amusing.  Then she darts out of the room and comes back with a notebook with a problem set she’s been working on, with a proof in it she likes. Later, she notes how the mathematical constant e can be explained in several different ways.

She’s a math junkie, in other words, and it infuses her art.   “My parents told me that ever since I was six years old, I loved art and math,” Maxwell says.  She graduated with a degree in Statistics from UC Berkeley, and worked as a statistician for the Forest Service until she took an early retirement option at 50.  “Reagan wanted to downsize government jobs, so I decided to take the pension offer and leave,” she says.  “It was a lousy offer.” But it gave her the time to do what she loved.

Nearly 22 years into supposed retirement, Maxwell is still an artist and a math tutor.  A few days a week, she tutors children from grade school to high school at a variety of levels.  The rest of her time is spent coloring the canvas.

Much of Maxwell’s work is done in her two studios in the backyard–petite white cottages with horizontal sidings, sea-green doors, and window accents.  Inside the larger studio, various pieces hang on the walls, while stacks of others lean upright against work desks.  Drawings in various stages of completion are strewn across her work station, along with paint bottles and finishing tools.  Maxwell is getting a little work done as she’s talking.  She stands almost perfectly still, her small hands meticulously applying finish to a piece painted on a small block of wood.  Then she’s quiet for a moment, brushing a clear coat onto the block, concentrating.

Maxwell began taking art classes when she was 40. As a single mother of three, she attended summer and night courses at what was then the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC).  Over the next ten years, she dabbled in all media, from sculpture to oil to watercolor.  She was particularly fond of painting figurative pieces, especially of musicians and dancers, the first because her son is a musician and the other because she loves jazz dance.

The decision to begin selling her work, she says, was straightforward.  “Well, the first thing was that my work was piling up in my house,” she said.  “And, of course, you wonder if other people like your work too.”

Selling one’s art, though, requires an entirely different skill set.  “These are things an artist doesn’t naturally think about at first,” she said.  “There’s the whole business aspect to it.”  In her late forties, she took a class at Fort Mason, in San Francisco, called Business for the Visual Artist.  She learned how to file her taxes, how to write a resume, and how to solicit herself.  She joined Pro Arts, a non-profit organization in Oakland that helps artists sell their work.  She sold many of her earliest pieces at their open studios, which are events that host and solicit the work of several artists.

Today, Maxwell’s reputation has grown.  Her works are featured in several exhibitions and galleries, including the SFMOMA Artist’s Gallery at Fort Mason, and she has won a slew of awards from juried competitions across the country.  She has even had a contract with a model home staging company.

But exposure does not happen on its own.  Back in the living room, Maxwell brings out a booklet of her latest collection of work, up-close portraits of wings inspired both by animals and her imagination. Each intricate part of a feather has been painstakingly rendered, sometimes dozens of times over, to create a single airborne limb.  Some pieces took months to complete.  Now it’s time to get them out there.  She’s sending her booklets to galleries, hoping they will showcase her latest creations as a one or two-person exhibition.  The booklets cost $13 each to produce, Maxwell says, but she’s learned to invest in herself.  “Marketing should be half of your time, and it’s the worst part,” Maxwell says.  “I could work in my studio all day if I could but it doesn’t work that way.”

In preparation for her holiday open studio, Maxwell is sending out postcard invitations.  With the economy in a slump, artwork is feeling the pinch.  “I know that the big auction houses are not selling that well,” she says. She’s not quite sure how much the economy will affect her future art sales yet.  But she’s prepared to sell her work for more modest prices this year.  The back of her postcard reads: “Paintings, prints, small inexpensive items.  All 20th Century work reduced in price.”  As a way of attracting people who might buy smaller gifts, she began setting artwork onto those pieces of wood she coated earlier in the studio.  “My friends and I were deciding how much to sell these pieces for,” she says.  “We don’t know what people will pay for them.”

But despite the financial concerns, money-making is not always the priority for Maxwell.  She has resisted a few avenues to profit in the past.  “I don’t care for doing commissioned work very much,” she said.  “I’ve done maybe one or two.  But you never know what the person wants exactly.  Sometimes they don’t like what you’ve done.  I like to just create something, and if they like it, they can buy it.”

And with her varied artistic endeavors, sometimes invoking nature, math, or the abstract in her work, let alone her wide range of mediums, from monotype to clay, Maxwell says variety is not normally the best way to go.  “For name recognition by the galleries and people, you normally should stick to one kind of theme,” she said.  “But I just like to do a lot of different things.”||||||||||||||||||


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