Sacramento painter Brooke Walker-Knoblich’s black canvas concerto

On a journey for artistic vision, one Sacramento painter creates portraits of local musicians

Musicians of Midtown will open with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. today at Gallery 2110 (2110 K Street). A Second Saturday reception will be held Saturday, February 11, from 6 to 9 p.m. The exhibition runs through March 2.

Gallery 2110

2110 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 476-5500

It’s a few minutes past 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and Brooke Walker-Knoblich enters a sunny room, takes off her robe and sits naked on a stool. For the next four hours, inside this Carmichael art studio, five local artists practice painting her nude figure. It’s a ritual: Every week for more than a year now, the 29-year-old—herself a painter—has modeled for this private group.

And it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. During this weekly custom, the young artist also learns from the artists painting her, a distinguished group that includes veterans such as Fred Dalkey, Jian Wang and Pat Mahony. They meet regularly at Mahony’s studio to discuss ideas and learn from each other—all while Walker-Knoblich poses and listens, gaining insight along the journey to discover her own artistic voice.

The latest product of that journey, an exhibition of works called The Musicians of Midtown, opens with a reception at 6 p.m. today at Gallery 2110. The exhibition, as the name implies, features portraits of local music mainstays such as Ricky Berger, Musical Charis, Sister Crayon and the Nibblers.

This series of expressionistic paintings and sketches, in development for a year now, also marks a new direction for the artist, and it’s a concept that came out of both a need for a fresh creative inspiration and a life-long admiration of music.

Previously, Walker-Knoblich says, her early career was less focused. In the wake of her 2007 Sacramento exhibition debut, she tried to organize a different show every Second Saturday but found that in the ensuing years, she spent most of her time trying to market an assortment of exhibitions instead of focusing on her craft.

“It became a real strain on me creatively, where I just wasn’t painting, and I was spending all this time on the business aspect of it,” she says, chatting during a recent interview in her cluttered Midtown studio.

“With this series, I finally came to a point where I was like, ‘You know what? I just need to paint … [and] be out in the community listening to these bands, sketching, meeting people and not be worried about a show in three weeks.’”

So in January 2011, she essentially stopped showing her works, instead focusing energy on The Musicians of Midtown. That decision, she says now, helped her blossom into a more complete painter.

For example, using only black canvases for this series, she says, changed her approach to color.

In the paintings, splashes of color hint at the mood and timbre of sounds at a show. Blurred lighting and instruments depict movement, like a visceral glimpse of a raucous show at the downtown nightclub, Old Ironsides.

Putting herself out there in the community also opened up a new direction in Walker-Knoblich’s life. After meeting at a party, she began dating one of the musicians she painted for the series: Marcus Cortez, lead singer of Black Tar Caviar.

Cortez says Walker-Knoblich’s work captures the essence of music.

“Each [painting] has its own particular flavor. Some of them are very abstract and some are more photo-realistic,” he says. “The pure raw emotion of it is so rock ’n’ roll. It’s so in the moment.”

Developing such a style of artistic expression took a lifetime of practice.

Walker-Knoblich grew up in Nevada City obsessed with crayons. When she was just a toddler, her parents noticed her filling up numerous coloring books, so they decided to send the budding artist to a Waldorf school. That environment, she says, was filled with art, creative thinking and good teachers. After high school, she studied at the University of California San Diego, where she would eventually complete a bachelor’s degree in studio art.

Halfway into her studies, however, Walker-Knoblich says she noticed a certain problem with the program.

“No one knew how to paint,” she explains.

“The UC system really isn’t craft-based; it was all theoretical and criticism,” she continues. “You could talk about a piece of art and the cultural context it was in and how it was feeding off of other people, but there [weren’t] actually any classes on how to blend color, value changes, composition, or things like that.”

This became even more evident when Walker-Knoblich spent her junior year studying abroad in Paris, France. There, she enrolled in a yearlong session of serious painting-focused classes. She also studied the classics at museums such as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, learning the fundamentals of painting by copying museum masterpieces.

Back in San Diego, she finished her bachelor’s degree in 2005. Then, after graduation, the artist discovered that school had also never taught her about the marketing aspect of her chosen profession.

“You might be able to sell 10 pieces in a month, and the next month you might not sell anything,” she says. “The stability of [life as an artist] is the biggest challenge. Not having this regular paycheck that you can count on … creates a lot of stress.”

So in 2006, she moved to Sacramento to live rent free; her boyfriend at the time had a house in Gold River. There, she focused on practicing and perfecting the style of painting she learned in France, classical realism. She also built large bodies of work that now cover nearly every wall of her current studio in Midtown, where she’s lived since 2008—a less “creatively stifling” area than Gold River, she says.

Additionally, like many aspiring artists, Walker-Knoblich began supporting her career by working a number of part-time jobs. Now, a 12-hour shift one day per week at her parents’ medical practice pays the rent, while a teaching job, numerous modeling gigs and personal commissioned portraits bring in additional income.

During the 2010 holiday season, she took that modeling job for Mahony’s private painting group.

“There are exceedingly few artists who can make a living on their own,” says Mahony. “I really admire that Brooke is achieving her dream. It is a struggle. She works many different jobs, and then tries to get to her work when she can.”

Though she took the job for extra income, Walker-Knoblich also transcended her role there as a mere model. After the artists discovered their subject was, herself, an accomplished painter, her relationship with the group became more symbiotic.

Each week, she and the others share and critique art, discuss shows and chat about issues affecting in the community. It is, she says, a collective learning experience, helping everyone’s creative-growth process.

An exhibition of the artists’ paintings of Walker-Knoblich—which includes a self-portrait—will eventually be released this March at the Sacramento Temporary Contemporary Gallery. It’s titled Six Artists and a Model.

“She was able to give us advice about her own poses and she would bring work that she was working on,” says Mahony. “We’ve seen the [Musicians of Midtown] pieces. … I think it’s commendable [work]. … We’re all learning and growing as a group.”

One surefire way to never stop learning and progressing, says Walker-Knoblich, is to buckle down, sacrifice other plans, and just practice.

“I’ve heard it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at anything, whether it’s art or chess,” she says.

“Muscle memory, hand-eye coordination: It’s just a matter of constantly doing something, just like playing a musical instrument. … How do you expect to progress if you haven’t worked at it?”