Range of styles
The third-floor lounge at the Nevada Legislature was filling up with lobbyists, legislators, and other familiar figures in the building. Paula Saponaro was back.
For many years, Saponaro paid for her life as a painter by working at the Nevada Legislature as an assistant to a series of lawmakers—Stephanie Tyler, Mike Schneider, Bernice Martin Mathews, Justin Jones. She would work at the legislature for six months, then paint for the next year and a half. For a quarter-century or so, it kept her going as an artist.
She arrived in Nevada in the 1980s. She had grown up outside Detroit and came west looking for a new home. “I kind of investigated the West and traveled around for a couple of months and fell in love with Northern Nevada,” she said.
Those 18-month art periods were spent in different locales, so she saw a lot of the state. One period, for family reasons, was spent in Clark County. More colorfully, and likely more productively, she spent several years living in the forgotten town of Sutro, among its remains around the mouth of the famous tunnel. Now she lives in Carson City.
For years, at each legislature she hung her paintings in the office of whichever legislator she worked for, and I always stopped in to see the year’s lot. So when she returned to the building to do a show and lecture in the legislative lounge this year, I was taken aback to see some of the pieces. She had always displayed landscapes in the offices, paintings that were somewhat impressionistic. But at the show, there were cityscapes and they were much more stylized. It was like someone you’d heard speaking with a Spanish accent for years suddenly turning up with an English accent.
“I do work in a variety of styles,” she said. “The cityscapes reflect iconic Reno buildings that are no longer with us. I did this in a historic record of sorts. And the style that the buildings are in are a much higher graphic style than a fine art style. But I work in a variety of mediums and I work with a variety of subjects, and my style kind of changes with those subjects. I really don’t confine myself that much.”
Lobbyist Bobbie Gang wandered among the easels. “I have a piece of hers hanging in my living room from—I don’t know—1989? … It’s in our dining room, and it’s got a spotlight on it.” That piece is a portrait of a woman.
Lobbyist Paula Berkley said a Saponaro work is not just a painting. “It’s a feeling.”
One piece certainly fit that description for me, and I suspect it would for any long-time Renoite. The poignant scene is of a stretch of Lake Street when it still had some of the multicultural joy that city leaders considered blight—Italian, African, Basque and Chinese businesses, mostly restaurants and music venues (“Paradise lost,” RN&R, Nov. 16, 2006). On the side of one building was a painted ad for the gorgeous and glorious Overland Hotel one block to the west. Every structure in the painting is now gone. So is the Overland.
Saponaro is now turning her attention to Carson City, which she suspects is about to undergo changes that will alter its look. She has been searching for photos of one structure that is already gone—the Penguin Drive-In that once graced the main street of the capital. It’s another memory that will benefit from her brush.