Barbara Lyman has decided to throw away her brushes. Because she hates to clean them, she has traded in her sable and hog bristles for the palette knife. Her change in tools is matched by the dramatic stylistic change evident in her new body of work, on exhibit at Provo’s Terra Nova Gallery beginning April 6th.
Lyman is well known for what she calls her “altar pieces.” These works were all about structure and passages, compression and keeping delicate flowers and traditional art images in well defined and strictly organized spaces, all elegantly framed by the fine carpentry of her husband, Paul. Painting these images gave Lyman anxiety, but they were well received and won many awards and honors (they are in the permanent collection at the Springville Museum of Art and the St. George Museum of Art) so she continued with them. Lyman’s new exhibit, simply titled Trees, marks a distinct shift for the artist. Lyman is a part of the growing trend in Utah County, noted in my review of the UVSC faculty show in February, obsessed by trees. Lyman executes her trees in thick paint applied with a palette knife, a stylistic move that breaks the boundaries of her restrained altarpieces.
The natural world informs Lyman’s new work, which I was able to preview recently with several other artists. In these new works, Barbara Lyman is loosening up and moving on as she presents simple tree structures that are dynamic and responsive to unstructured light. The trees push to the edges and often refuse to fit within the restraint of the panels. Light gleams with abandon through the branches, and still each tree remains secure and open reaching for a new type of revelation.
“First Light” is a small but compelling painting in high value and minimal color representing a single tree to the right of center that rattles in the wind. The branches fight against the restrictions of thickly painted sky that insists on holding them securely to the canvas like glue. Some of the other artists previewing these new works thought the painting was out of balance, but for me the asymmetrical tension arrested my attention. The strong light secured and stilled the nervous branches long enough for me to recognize that Lyman works with more than just paint in her paintings.
In “Dusk,” three dark trees stand against a deep blue sky that turns a deep green at the horizon. The artist said, “This is a painting of the time of night when everything turns a deep cobalt blue.” The group of artists discussed whether or not the colors worked in the painting. I’ve seen that time of night and wondered about how to paint it and Lyman successfully captures it on canvas.
Lyman likes her paintings to come into being on the canvas. She talks about going on a journey with her paintings, watching them change and evolve as she, a “surprised helper,” works on them. “Along with the frustration and seemingly endless work of being an artist comes the elation of painting a work that finally says, ‘This is me—this is who I really am inside!’” she says on her website. “My paintings have finally tapped the inner well of my soul, and it is a relief to find beauty there.”
Part of the reason for the beauty of Lyman’s new work is her freedom with color, shown in her surprising color palette. Lyman wonders about color, questions it, toys with it, revs it up and then pushes it slightly back with a delicate color glaze mixed into her personal recipe for hand processed medium using rabbit skin glue.
Trees is Lyman’s first solo show at Terra Nova Gallery. When Barbara came in recently to have gallery owner David Hawkinson take photos of her work, he saw the changes and liked what she was doing. He thought these new pieces might have an even broader appeal than her previous work, which seemed quite academic to him. Hawkinson has watched Lyman’s work through the years and can appreciate the change her new work indicates. “Barbara has done her altar pieces, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but now she has loosened up a whole lot,” Hawkinson told me. “Her trees have color with an emphasis on texture similar to her altar pieces but there is not the tight restraint, geometric and architectural imagery; these pieces are different. I enjoy the color and texture in these new pieces. I know it looks spontaneous, but she labors and works very diligently on them. There is vibrance, and it has a life.”
For me, when I saw Lyman’s new body of work I thought, “She’s captured it.” I’ve seen that stand of trees along the roadside in that very light. I wouldn’t believe it even if I had painted it. A photograph wouldn’t do it justice. But Lyman took a chance and found it.
When I spoke with Hawkinson, he reminded me that the Downtown Provo Gallery Stroll’s Art Chase will be on Lyman’s opening night. You can pick up a card at Terra Nova Gallery, one of the other galleries or at different merchants all around the area. Begin at any of the following locations: Anderson Gallery at the Academy Square Library (550 N. University Ave.), Terra Nova Gallery, Coleman Studios, Utah County Gallery, Freedom Gallery, or Gallery OneTen (see page 10). If you hit all six galleries and get your card stamped you can turn your card in at any gallery to be entered in a drawing to win some great prizes. In the process, enjoy the fine art at each gallery as well as live music and free refreshments. More information on the art chase is available here.
Elizabeth Matthews , a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, graduated from Brigham Young University in 2006 with a BFA in Painting and an English minor.