By Jenny Neyman
Lifelong learning is a valuable approach no matter the subject, but, perhaps, none so much as in art.
The evolution of artwork is as old as cave paintings and stone artifacts, and is constantly expanding. There are endless mediums, styles, techniques and materials to learn, invent, refine and redefine. And an artists’ personal inspiration and need for expression ceases only with their existence. Until then, there’s something to learn at any stage in an artist’s development, from the first time holding a brush to their first career retrospective show, and every point in between and beyond.
Sherri Sather is closer to the latter end of that spectrum. She doesn’t need to take an art class as a med student would an anatomy course. She already is an established artist, experienced in various mediums and successful in showing her work — she’s even had work purchased through the Rasmuson Foundation Art Acquisition Fund. But she learned long ago that there’s always more to learn, evidenced by two of her pieces hanging in a Kenai Peninsula College student art show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center this month.
“It gives you different perspectives, which is really good, and I think just about anybody could benefit from an art class, whether they’re just beginners or not,” Sather said.
Sather, who moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1971, has been taking art classes periodically for years, since her first spark in art class at Kenai Central High School. Some classes have been at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while most were at Kenai Peninsula College.
The general idea of an art class is technique. Learn to paint, draw, sculpt, shoot photos, make batik, work with encaustics, or what have you. And that’s certainly part of it, especially in beginner classes. But for Sather, the appeal isn’t so much learning new skills as being challenged to put her skills to new and different use.
“I’ve been taking classes off and on my whole life. It has been really instrumental in me getting my voice in my painting,” she said.
Left to her own devices, she’d still paint, but maybe not as often or as much as if she’s completing assignments for a class.
“Life generally doesn’t support the artists. There’s always other things that you feel like you should be doing, so it’s good to get in an environment where art is important enough to actually spend your time doing it and being happy with it,” she said.
And she likely wouldn’t enforce upon herself the assignments she’d get in a class. The two pieces in the KPC show were both assigned topics from an advanced painting class she took last spring. One assignment was to paint a still life from a moose skull or a mannequin’s torso, or both. She chose to combine the two in “Watching Godiva” with the skull elongating into more of a horse shape, and the feminine mannequin rendered in graceful and regal brush strokes. She was thinking of Lady Godiva as she painted, the 11th-century noblewoman who purportedly rode naked through the streets to protest an oppressive tax imposed by her husband.
Her other piece, “Crossing the Ocean of My Heart” was from a self-portrait assignment.
She has been struggling with the death of her husband, and the portrait became a conduit for that emotion. It’s a subdued piece, eyes closed, face seemingly lost in some other experience, with thick coat lapels morphing into a heart organ.
“It was my husband’s coat. Whenever I put it on it just feels like it’s him hugging me. That’s kind of the feeling I was going for,” she said.
Except she wasn’t intending to represent that feeling at first.
“I think it expresses more of the feeling than I really want to do sometimes. But I think sometimes that’s what art is for, really, is to help us deal with things we can’t express verbally,” she said.
Both pieces are done in acrylic, which is not a medium in which she’d had an interest. But the advanced painting class was the last to be taught by retiring art professor Celia Anderson, and Sather knew the value of not only trying new artistic experiences, but of trying them with an experienced instructor.
“She was so great at critiques because she makes you feel good about it, and she informs you about what would work better and just other alternate ideas. She definitely had it figured out,” Sather said. “And new perspectives and critiques are really helpful.
“And I enjoyed working with acrylics. I never knew I enjoyed acrylics until working with them with that class,” she said.
Sather usually paints in watercolors, but now has a new means with which to render expression.
“It’s a matter of technique and learning how to do it and focusing on it long enough to learn it. But the true art really comes from the heart, so it’s combining the techniques and whatever your soul is telling you to do,” she said.
A good class should help a student do both.
“We’re really lucky to have the college there for that, for all ages,” she said.
The KPC show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center has a range of paining, photography, encaustics, mixed media and sculpture. Some work is by recognized artists in the community, such as Sather, Sandra Sterling and Brandi Kerley, and others are from students who are newer to having their work on display. The interaction, alone, is refreshing, Sather said.
“I feel like a lot of my generation of people are leaving in one way or another, so it’s good to see it keeps going, keeps growing, there’s still more people,” she said. “There are a lot of young artists coming up that are really amazing. We’ve got a lot of talent in the area.”
The show is on display until Feb. 28 at the Kenai Fine Arts Center on Cook Avenue in Old Town Kenai, across from the Oilers Bingo Hall.