Right before July Fourth weekend, there was an ad in the newspaper by West Tisbury artist Marie-Louise Rouff. It said that in honor of her 90th birthday, and with gratitude for working as an artist for more than 50 years, she was donating 50 percent of her art sales between July 1 and Labor Day to the Island Food Pantry.
I asked her where the idea came from. She said that a colleague from California began donating to a similar organization in her own community. Marie-Louise said, “When I saw that, I said ‘Perfect. I can do that here.’” She is also a wonderful gardener, and feels that food is a basic need. She called her friend Leslie Gray, who is involved with the Food Pantry, and it all proceeded quickly from there.
I visited Marie-Louise to see her, her paintings, and to have a conversation for this article. Walking into her studio is like walking into an explosion of color that surrounds you. It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from the paintings that line the wall, are stacked along the floor, tucked into a bin, sit on her easel, and lie across her worktable. The studio is small, so paintings are hung close together, almost obscuring the walls. It is quite an experience to find oneself totally immersed in brilliant red and ochre, in blue and green.
The work currently on view is a compilation of paintings large and small, on panels or on paper. There are also monotypes and drawings, some framed, some just matted and wrapped, lined up in the aforementioned bin. It is somewhat of a retrospective. The first thing to catch my eye was a pair of oils on paper, “Pear Tree I and II,” done in 1989, depicting the well-branched tree that filled the backyard of her then-home in St. Louis. They lay on Marie-Louise’s work table beside another set of paintings, also oils on paper, wildly colored and patterned still lifes, part of a series called “Hello Henri,” after Henri Matisse, one of her artistic mentors. You will see the reference in their design and richly patterned surfaces.
Marie-Louise has loved making art ever since she was a small child. Her talented and creative father taught her, but these were the pre–World War II years, and talented, creative artists had to be practical. Her father had a civil service job, and when it came time for Marie-Louise to go off to school, she too made a practical choice to study medicine. It was not for her. Instead, she decided to study languages, having grown up speaking four — Luxembourgish, German, French, and English.
She went to Ireland to teach French. It was there she met an Englishman, whom she married in 1951. She moved with him to his tea plantation in India, where she fell in love with the colors that were hot, clashing, and vibrant, colors she was raised to think of as garish and vulgar. She said, “I saw them looking amazing together. It freed me up from all restrictions in my relation to color.” The light, too, inspired her; it was so bright, and cast hard shadows. ”That experience of painting in the hard glare of the sun taught me a lot about the painting process. I would start a painting, and by the time I had mixed the colors, the light would change, the shadows would shift, what I was painting was no longer the same. I was not painting the landscape I was looking at. I was painting it as I remembered it. I was painting my reaction to the landscape, rather than what was in front of me.”
The marriage ended, and Marie-Louise returned to Europe. She took a job in Paris, where she also attended the newly established Institute for Interpretation and Translation, part of the University of Paris. After earning her interpreter’s diploma, she worked as a translator in Paris and eventually in New York City, where she moved in 1958. Then MIddlebury College in Vermont offered her a chance to continue her studies and to teach French literature. She moved to St. Louis to raise her two young sons after her time in Vermont, and began painting again. She enrolled in the Art School at Washington University there, and began her 50-year journey as a full-time painter.
Coming to the Vineyard in the early 1990s, Marie-Louise began exploring the Island and stopping to paint plein air landscapes as a scene attracted her. She explored galleries as well, and began showing some of her small landscapes. She met other artists and made friendships that survived winters back in St. Louis and California, and flourished after she and her partner, Paul Levine, moved to the Island year-round in 2009. She began exhibiting her work at the Shaw Cramer Gallery, and opened her studio/gallery when Shaw Cramer closed in 2015.
There was a brief flirtation with figurative imagery. Richard Diebenkorn was another artist who Marie-Louise greatly admired. She showed me “Richard’s Girl,” a painting from 2012. The relationship to Diebenkorn was obvious. Marie-Louise knew it, and admitted that it influenced her decision to stick with landscape and abstraction.
During the winters she and Paul lived in California, Marie-Louise made monotypes and chine-collé at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, where Diebenkorn also made prints. She said that making monotypes completely freed her from using concrete subjects. Monotypes held the element of serendipity; going through the press could soften, change, cause the ink to flatten and combine with whatever color was next to it. She found it exhilarating, and wanted that freshness and unpredictability to be part of her painting process, as well.
By this time, her paintings were totally abstract, although still related to her observations of the natural world. “I am surrounded by trees,” she said, a reference to the woods surrounding her studio that translate into verticals in her paintings. This is not unusual; many abstract artists speak of elements of their environments as being important to their visual language. “My paintings are about construction from bits of visual memory,” she said. “My work is still about the landscape of a personal kind.”
One could argue that even the representational paintings of apples, lemons, pears still are more about abstract qualities than about the actual subject. Color, repetition of geometric shapes and shadow shapes, brushmarks describing edges that are solid or softened. Cover part of the painting with your hand and see what’s left. Abstraction.
Beautiful built-up surfaces that seem at first a large expanse of one or maybe two colors invite the viewer to study them more closely. One, “High Square,” has a rectangle of shimmering light across the top third of the painting. There are other areas where that mysterious light subtly breaks through, and colored marks and slashes intrude into the overall yellowness.
I believe that paintings should give up their secrets slowly upon reflection and observation. Take the time to look carefully at these paintings. Your efforts will be richly rewarded.
Visitors are asked to call 508 693-2072 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment and directions to her studio. Masks and gloves will be required.