The local painter's passion for national parks shines through in her new exhibit ‘Spirit of America.’
Judy Saltzman’s creative refuge used to be out in the middle of the ocean aboard her beloved sailboat. She grew up on the water, and after experiencing everything from racing to teaching sailing lessons, she felt most at home when there wasn’t solid ground beneath her feet.
Lately, however, Saltzman has turned back to the shore — and sometimes far from it — for her inspiration. The watercolor painter’s latest exhibit at Art Center Sarasota, “Spirit of America,” was born out of a desire to show visitors how beautiful the U.S. landscape is — and how important it is to save it.
“I’m in awe that nature can even create this,” Saltzman said of her reaction to national parks. “To see things millions of years old that have stood the test of time is humbling to say the least.”
So when she and her husband visited Providence Canyon in Georgia a couple years ago, the way the light reflected off the landform’s walls stuck with her. She knew she had to recreate this inspiring scene via watercolor, but life got in the way.
“I was moved by the geological structure of the land — the valleys, the gorges and the 150-feet drops,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do a painting of that and somehow capture it, but as many paintings, you think of it then put it in your bank of memories.”
It remained in that bank until she received an unusual prize for winning the 2017 National Watercolor Society competition. She was awarded the Daniel Smith Award, the prize for which is approximately 50-some tubes of Daniel Smith PrimaTek extra fine watercolor paints.
At first, Saltzman didn’t know what to make of this substitute to a cash prize. But she’d never used this type of paint before, so she made the best of the situation and went home to get her hands dirty.
“They’re different than anything I’ve ever used,” she said. “This granulation and sparkle and other properties — you don’t find in anything else. They’re very unique. Then a lightbulb went off. I had the perfect medium.”
STROKE OF GENIUS
It just made sense, Saltzman said. What better way to depict the natural intricacies of Providence Canyon than a paint line made with amethyst, bloodstone and other mineral pigments?
The result was a three-panel piece aimed at both accurately and creatively representing the beauty of Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.” Saltzman was pleased and decided she had to do more. She began to research the U.S. national parks and learned about the issues the conserved landscapes are facing, from the effects of climate change to invasive insect infestations. She said she was horrified to see how many are in bad shape and how underfunded many of them are.
“I thought I’d really like to capture them on watercolor,” Saltzman said. “To preserve what are really our national treasures.”
She gave herself a little over a year to work and submitted a solo exhibition proposal to Art Center Sarasota. She was vying for a spot in a secondary gallery deeper into the building but was pleasantly surprised to be awarded a show in Gallery 1.
Visitors can experience the exhibit, the result of several research trips to breathtaking landforms out West, such as Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, for the next month as part of Art Center Sarasota’s “Parts Unknown” exhibit cycle.
Saltzman is known as a successful melder of realism and impressionism, but her art has changed since she started 10 years ago.
“I think, initially, I painted very light values, then I grew to be a little bolder and more playful,” she said. “Then I started using things like photographs to make it edgy. And now I’m playing in the realm of abstract.”
She works from both photos and memories to create an experience that could be equated to time travel. She paints series like “Spirit of America” for herself, so she can relive moments she felt at peace in nature.
Saltzman is quick to note that she’s not a plein air artist, but during her travels for this series, she took careful note of her surroundings similar to how artists of that genre would. The difference between she and such painters is that Saltzman loves to capture a single moment in time, such as when the light is hitting a jagged bluff just so, and she can only do that by photographing said moment literally with a camera and figuratively in her memory.
After a great deal of trial and error, she has started integrating more advanced techniques, such as masking fluid, into her works. Everything she tries, she has learned in a workshop or art class of some sort, and in the process, Saltzman said, she’s learned the value of planning a difficult piece.
“If you like a piece you’re doing, but it’s not working out, just draw it, and do it again,” she said. “It’s not brain surgery.”
This particular series taught her a great deal about granulation, the mixing of colors and utilizing layering to create depth of field, Saltzman said, but she enjoys watercolors in general because she has yet to stop learning from them. They’re giving her a voice she never had before.
PRESERVING A LEGACY
Asked why the great outdoors speaks to her, Saltzman has a hard time finding the words. But then she begins to recount several personal experiences at Native American ceremonies.
“Our real American heritage calls you at a time like that,” she said. “You can imagine what it was like to live in this part of the world, these sacred places.”
She hopes to offer “Spirit of America” viewers a similarly emotional experience.
“I hope it inspires them to go see these places for themselves,” she said. “I want to bring them there or to take them back to that place. This is a magnificent country, and we need to preserve it.”