In her paintings Austin artist Valerie Fowler transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar, rendering landscapes and scenes of nature as some liminal other world.
Measuring five feet by six feet, the painting “She Will Have her Way With You” is arguably the cornerstone of Fowler’s solo show at Cloud Tree Studios.
At the exhibition’s opening Fowler tells me that with its vivid yellow sky and its twisting oak tree in vibrant orange shades, the landscape is actually a scene from the Montopolis neighborhood, southeast of downtown. The bulbous yellow shapes in the picture’s background represent the Austin skyline.
Fowler tells me that she paints from nature, sometimes using photos she’s taken but more often using the remembered image, the recollection of familiar natural spots she sees around her South Austin neighborhood, in the city’s parks and green spaces, or even her yard.
“Then I let the paint take over,” she says.
So does her imagination. Color, form, scale and line seem in constant motion in Fowler’s pictures. Plants, vines and trees dance and snake. Tiny flora from the undergrowth become large.
Fowler paints in oil leaving little trace of her brushwork, the surface of her paintings smooth, producing a strange calm.
On an overcast day in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, Fowler began painting the skies in her pictures yellow. Then she started to infuse the yellow with red “which has an alarming quality, like a warning,” she writes in her introduction to her exhibition.
She had decided against blue skies at time — the calming familiarity of blue wasn’t apropos a world shutdown by a deadly virus. The series of work she produced since then signals a distinct but subtle change for Fowler. “It felt like knees buckling or a slight tremor underfoot. Subtle, but permanent, like aging. A tipping point.”
Fowler is the daughter of the late Bob Fowler, a celebrated Texas artist known for his exuberant, twisted metal sculpture, often of animals. His monumental “African Elephant” stands at the entrance to the Houston Zoo.
Cloud Tree Studios and Gallery is in a Quonset hut on East Fifth Street, one of several moved from the former Bergstrom Air Force Base after WWII. Artist Brian David Johnson remodeled the corrugated steel building to include several artist studios and a nicely laid out gallery. He named the place Cloud Tree for the large live oak nearby that floats out over the street. The tree stands in defiance of the rapid urbanization taking place around it.
I ask Fowler if she sees her latest body of work as a cautionary tale, a record of and warning about further human-caused climate change.
“The earth gives me hope all the time,” she tells me. “But we need to pay attention.”
Valerie Fowler will give a gallery talk at 2 p.m. March 6. “Earth Shift: She Will Have Her Way With You” continues through March 13, at Cloud Tree Studios & Gallery, 3411 E. Fifth St. cloudtreestudiosandgallery.com