Meet the Artists: the art of duos, unique prints and nature-ware

Meet the Artists

This is the fifth in a weekly series of articles on the artists you can visit during this year’s Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour on Nov. 6-7, sponsored by the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC).

Artists: Barbara Matteo and James Serbert, Patricia Underwood, Merrill Strange.

Tour dates: Nov. 6-7

Tickets/info: 540-675-3193 or www.raac.org.

Much of Barbara Matteo Serbert’s life is about duos. She and her husband live on two coasts, splitting their time between Rappahannock and Monterey, California. She has a “balanced ballot” of dogs — Truman and Dewey. And her newest work is an innovative combination of two mediums: fine art and photography.

This body of work grew out a new collaboration with her husband James Serbert, who is also an artist. “I was creating colored drawings of birds in Monterey, when Jim discovered a way to superimpose them on photographs,” said Matteo.

Art for Matteo has been a journey. Literally. She was working as an associate curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., when her life changed drastically. This was due to a special exhibit at that museum titled, “The Painted Sketch,” which featured the sketches of the Hudson River Valley School painters. These turn-of-the-century painters would explore the wilderness, sketching landscapes en plein air (on site). These sketches would later be turned into large-scale oil paintings at their studios.

Barbara Matteo Serbert with her dog, Truman, on one of her Sea to Shining Sea road trips.

“I knew I wanted to do the same thing, ”said Matteo, who had a degree in art but had never painted seriously. “I bought an RV, loaded up my easel and dog, and set out to paint landscapes in all fifty states,” said Matteo. She accomplished her goal in four years and seven separate treks, some lasting as long as three months. Her Web site, barbaramatteo.com, chronicles this journey and shows the painting she did in each state for her series, “From Sea to Shining Sea.”

Now a “duo” with husband Jim Serbert, both artists will show their work on the Studio & Gallery tour. His medium is large-scale pigment prints, as well as smaller works of photography-based collages. Describing himself as primarily self-taught, Serbert became enamored of photography while serving in Vietnam. Since then he has taken that medium in a new direction, one which is often Zen-inspired in its abstraction.

If you want to know what inspires an abstract artist, talk to Patricia Underwood. Although she has a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in printmaking, her works are not those of your ordinary printmaker. Working from the 27-inch etching press in her studio, her prints provide the backdrop for more complex mixed-media compositions that explore both cultural and spiritual realms. Unlike many printmakers who work in editions, Underwood works in small batches of “variable editions” because each print is changed once it is off the press by the addition of paint, wax or paper.

Patricia Underwood in her printmaking studio. Photo by Charlotte Taylor.

These series, or editions, range widely in subject matter. Her 1998 “Bimbos and Goddesses” series explored the cultural contradictions regarding beauty. In these, she juxtaposes ancient symbols of femininity with pop images of movie stars and models. A particularly heart-breaking series is the one she created to commemorate the nine children in Afghanistan who were killed by a U.S. Air Force plane crash.

Her “Lullaby” series uses graphic images to depict songs that were sung to comfort children in many cultures. These grew out of musical “marks” or symbols she would draw when she went to concerts. “I studied Japanese in college, and loved that the symbols for the language both communicated and were beautiful in and of themselves,” says Underwood, noting that music creates symbols in her mind.

And unlike many artists who count nature as their inspiration, Underwood’s muses stem from an ancient world of anthropological sculptures and icons. These she fuses into abstract works, using a wide variety of mixed media which can include such unlikely materials as bathroom caulk and roofing paper. Her current series is built on cave pictographs she found in Aruba, made by the Arawak Indians, which she turns into small, mixed-media works.

Merrill Strange evokes insect anatomy in her studio. Photo by Charlotte Taylor.

Merrill Strange comes by her art naturally, in more ways than one. First, her painting focuses on the insects, fish, fowl and flowers. These she paints on ceramics, with work ranging from custom dinnerware to gallery pieces. Second, art is in her genes. Both her grandmother and mother, who was a friend of Andrew Wyeth, were artists. Her sister is also an artist.

Born in Rappahannock, Strange (nee Parrish) studied graphic art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She found her chosen medium painting on “green ware,” which is unfinished pre-formed ceramics, after trying many things.

“I started out painting on tiles,” says Strange, noting that many of her early mistakes now constitute the floor of her greenhouse. Today, her work is both an artistic outlet and an almost-full-time job. She and an artistic assistant, Donna Ross, have their hands full keeping galleries and two shops in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Nantucket, Mass., stocked with her ceramics.

When asked if she ever painted people, she replies, “Never” — but notes that as an art teacher in Warrenton and Orange County she would have her students do portraits of each other. Instead, she says, her inspiration comes from books of exotic insects, birds, and fish. “You have to be particularly careful with fish,” she said, noting with humor that fishermen really know their species.

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