Icons of art

Chico Masters exhibit showcase three extraordinary local painters

The artists, (from left) Dolores Mitchell, Ann Pierce and Claudia Steel at the opening of their new show at the Chico Art Center.

The artists, (from left) Dolores Mitchell, Ann Pierce and Claudia Steel at the opening of their new show at the Chico Art Center.

photo by robert speer

Chico Masters: Works Past and Present shows through Sept. 11 at the Chico Art Center.
Chico Art Center
450 Orange St., suite 6

I’ve seen a lot of terrific exhibits in my three decades of writing about local art, but none better than the show now up at the Chico Art Center.

Appropriately titled Chico Masters: Works Past and Present, it features paintings by three icons of local art, Ann Pierce, Claudia Steel and Dolores Mitchell. They’re all getting on in years—Steel is 97!—but they are still painting, even prodigiously so (all of Mitchell’s 20 pieces were done in the last 12 months, and Steel has two works in the show that were painted this year).

The three women have distinct and very different styles. Thanks to CAC Director Klint Kettell’s excellent mounting of the show, they fit together beautifully, not complementing each other so much as amplifying each other’s uniqueness.

Another interesting aspect of the exhibit are the three time frames they represent. For Steel, the show is a retrospective encompassing her more than 70 years of creating art, with one piece dating from 1945. Pierce’s works are more recent, all from the last decade or so, and, as I mentioned, Mitchell’s are recent.

Pierce is a master watercolorist. “Watercolor,” she writes in her artist’s statement, “is the most versatile of all the painting media,” a statement her pictures uphold brilliantly. They tend to be large renderings of natural environments—she loves the dramatic light and colors of the Southwest—but for her they are really about “the realness of color relationships and intensities, shapes that change and merge, resulting in abstractions of the environment.”

The titular subjects of some of her paintings—the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Chicago at night—are nearly unrecognizable, having been largely subsumed into Pierce’s vivid, impressionistic interplay of shapes and colors. They make no statements, other than to convey her delight in the landscape and the joy she feels in creating these things of beauty.

Like Pierce’s paintings here, Mitchell’s are in a single style and medium. She makes smallish paintings in thickly applied oil paints, called impasto, all in the same intensely colorful style. Her subjects have varied, but in recent years she’d been painting Sacramento Valley agricultural scenes—rice fields, wetlands, orchards with mountains in the background. A couple of years ago, on a trip to San Francisco, she realized she wanted to shift her focus to the city, a place she had always loved.

This exhibit is her first major showing of the San Francisco series. She was glad to have the deadline, she says, because it made her work overtime to get them done. Sometimes she woke at 2 a.m. and started painting.

These pieces differ from the ag scenes in their use of even brighter, more vivid colors and their chopped-up and reassembled San Francisco scenes, as if viewed through a kaleidoscope. There’s a dream-like quality to them, such that images of familiar places—Chinatown, for example—take on an almost hallucinatory aspect.

As might be expected of a retrospective covering seven decades, Steel’s paintings comprise a melange of styles and mediums. Most of them are abstracts, or a combination of figures and abstract shapes and colors, but some of the pieces, like the massive “Train in the Night,” from 1965, have strong expressionist elements. Although there is little that’s realistic about the piece, its shapes and colors evoke the sense of a huge machine barreling through the night.

When I was admiring a small etching from 1969 called “Approaching Storm,” Steel told me about carving it while visiting Santa Barbara. Her husband was in a meeting near the shore, so she took her tools and went to the beach. As the title suggests, a storm was coming in; the waves were rising, the palm trees were swaying, and it looked like rain, but she kept scratching away. She wasn’t about to waste time, storm or no storm.

As this exhibit demonstrates, all three of these women have that kind of passion.