(Above: Margaret Prentice’s new series of paintings expresses the beauty of wetlands, just as she sees them, in all seasons and many locations)
By Randi Bjornstad
Each painting in Margaret Prentice’s new show at the White Lotus Gallery has one thing in common — an almost reverential depiction of water — that taken together lead naturally to the title of the exhibit, “Wetlands: New Paintings by Margaret Prentice.”
“I grew up in Indiana, where we didn’t have much water,” Prentice said. “So when I came to Oregon, it was wonderful to discover the the coast and all the rivers and streams and lakes.”
So delightful, in fact, that Prentice decided to make her home on the west side of the Fern Ridge reservoir, “and I bought a kayak — I love to paddle through the grasses and wander around and see the edges from the water side,” she said.
Given her affinity for water, from rain puddles to the Delta Ponds to the ocean, choosing the subject for her latest series of paintings became a rather simple decision.
“I almost always work in a series — I like to find a big subject and then explore it in different seasons and situations,” Prentice said. “I started the ‘Wetlands’ series last August, and it includes scenes from the Delta Ponds and the Finley Wildlife Refuge that show how different they are in summer and winter.”
The winter renderings of the Delta Ponds show the water level way up and the trees bare, “but I especially like the ones of the ponds in the summer when the water is lower and there are lots of little islands,” she said.
“When I was growing up in Indiana, I was always fascinated by the storm clouds that would come up and change the sky and the light so quickly,” she said. “I started painting that series one January, and I painted it until June.”
In both cases, “Part of the fun in painting in series like these is the hunt,” Prentice said. “You go out on different days, and the weather at the same spot will be completely different, and that makes the paintings completely different.”
What seems most odd, based on the quiet authority of her work, is that Prentice has been painting in earnest only since 2010, when she retired from the University of Oregon, where she taught printmaking, in particular intaglio and woodcut, for 26 years.
The switch came in part because she wanted to downsize and no longer had room for her bulky printing equipment, but also because she always had enjoyed doing sketches and watercolors of places she had traveled so she could experience her memories of them more deeply.
She also enjoys the challenge of transferring her memory of a place to the canvas, making it as realistic as possible through the use of paint.
“I take a lot of photographs of places I want to paint, and part of the process that I really enjoy is studying the photos and seeing the opportunity for paintings with different composition and light,” Prentice said. “A photograph has certain properties, and a canvas has different properties — it is a challenge to crop a photo down to what I want to fit on the canvas, and I want people to be able to go to that very spot and recognize the same view.”
That decision can take days, and then comes the actual translation of the picture from photograph to painting, where Prentice aims to keep the details as authentic as possible.
“I might leave out a little branch on a log, but I don’t delete anything important,” she said. “I want to include whatever it was that made me stop and at that particular spot and take that photograph in the first place.”
Perfecting her painting technique has been both challenging and exhilarating, Prentice acknowledged.
“I like the surface of the canvas to be very even, without any thick paint, because I want the viewer to be able to go into the space and feel the same atmosphere and quality of light that I saw originally,” she said. “To do that, some things like water have to be painted wet into wet, to get the softness and blending into the reflections. But things like branches and grasses need more crispness, so they have to be painted wet on dry.”
Prentice earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona in printmaking, and then did her master’s of fine arts at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
She chose printmaking largely because of two master printmakers then teaching at Arizona. One was Andrew Rush, who started the printmaking department there. The other was a visiting professor, the internationally renowned Sidney Chafetz, who made his career at Ohio State University; Chafetz died in 2013 at age 90.
“When you’re an undergraduate and interested in art, you tend to take a bit of everything — jewelry, sculpture, painting, printmaking — but the printmaking teachers were the ones who really influenced me,” Prentice recalled.
Chafetz would work on his own woodcuts along with the students, “and he would tell stories about the images he was creating, and the students could see how much he loved what he was doing — and that being an artist could, and should, be fun,” she said.
Wetlands: New paintings by Margaret Prentice
When: Through May 20
Where: White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette St. in downtown Eugene
Gallery Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Information: Telephone 541-345-3276; email email@example.com; website wlotus.com