Walking through WHQR’s MC Erny Gallery to view local artist Elizabeth Darrow’s variation of works in “Life is But a Dream” invigorates the imagination. Primary colors of crayon-like images make up large-scale oil paintings that depict life scenes: folks walking their dogs, a child giving a solo performance for the first time, or a family picking flowers in front of a picket fence.
“That’s ‘Welcome,’” Darrow says, pointing to purple abstract swirls that are shrubs behind a parent and child who are walking their pets. “The bushes were all background; then it started looking one-note, so I carved out the sky, and attacked the abstract things to make it figurative while keeping the paint work the same.”
Darrow is known for working in abstract expressionism and collage, which just in the last half decade began to merge with figurative work. Colorful, intricate backgrounds pop in rudimentary shapes; it’s apparent the people and even animals have a story to tell.
“There’s something so basic about these drawings,” she says, “so I felt they needed primary colors. They’re innocent in a way . . . except for ‘The Intervention.’”
Darrow points to a long 24”-by-72” piece. Shadowed faces peer down at a frantic gal. Even the cat’s involved in this judgement day. “They’re a sinister little group,” Darrow says wryly, “acting like they care so much.”
The mishmash of abstract and figurative art and oil and collage seems very narrative. Each has its own personality.
The merging of Darrow’s abstract and figurative art came about when she presented “Ceremonial” in a juried show. A powerful, tribal piece was created from many layers of oil and oil pastels, as well as original collage work, in colorful blues and greens, yellows and reds. It was presented as abstract first and foremost.
“It won first prize in a category,” Darrow says. “But the judge told me: ‘I would have given it best in show, but there’s no focus to it—no center.’ So when I got home, that little guy got added in.”
“That little guy” now stands tall in a loin cloth down the center of the 60”-by-36” painting. Surrounding him are tiny animals and ancient relics that could possibly represent a village to which he belongs. “It’s sort of like he is on a peyote trip or something,” Darrow quips. “He just hatched. The oil pastels really illuminate the surface from all the painting underneath.”
Darrow’s “Life is But a Dream” actually contains three shows in one: her figurative-abstract work in oils, the combination of oils and collage, and some of her newest art from 2014, all collage on paper/canvas. Fifty-six works of art will be showcased.
“I love having ‘Being of Two Minds’ here,” she says, referring to a 24”-by-36” display of figurative work, which hangs front and center on a wall of ethereal collages. “In a way I’m of two minds, because this collage work, which is very subtle and dream-like, is completely different from the other work, which is bold and simple.”
Darrow’s collages have a painterly quality even though paint is not involved in their creation. Images swerve and bend, naturally showing themselves as ghostly figures. The artist uses citrus solve on pages of National Geographic magazine to begin her collage process. Interestingly enough, somewhere along the way, National Geographic must have changed inks, so the citrus solve only reacts to certain editions.
“Citrus solve is a cleaning agent you can find at Tidal Creek,” Darrow explains. “Someone told me it’s quite well-known. They even have citrus-solve contests for art.”
Darrow’s process begins when she gets a new magazine: She takes a wide brush and paints the cleaning agent on each page as fast as she can. She covers both sides and lets the pages sit over night. After removing the bind, she peels the pages apart and spreads them out to dry. “Then I harvest the interesting ones, and off I go to Office Depot to make color copies,” she explains. The color copies ensure the works’ preservation; if Darrow used the original magazine pages, it wouldn’t hold up over time.
“That’s little ‘Rory Rorschach,’” she says with a grand smile, as if talking about one of her children.
“They are my children; they’re my little girls and boys,” she continues.
Rory appears from the general fold in the page, not one Darrow’s erected with a brush or from pieces she cuts and creates out of scraps of her art work. The resemblance to the Rorschach ink-blot test is apparent. Each of her 20 smaller collages seem placed in a surreal landscape, whether depicting a church altar, as seen in “Trinity,” or what looks like a Southern belle gracing the grounds of a plantation in “Apart (Late Afternoon).” In many of the collages, smaller bits of hand-created symbols make encore appearances, like a red goose here, a set of twins there or a funky tree.
“They’re like the same actor playing different roles,” the Oberlin college grad states. “I sit on the floor with all these scraps around me, and I start playing with shapes, and the figures come to me.”
In fact, that is how Darrow approaches art in general. Nothing is pressured or pre-ordained. A lot of the work can hang around for years, before she revisits it again. She lets the materials guide her.
“I’ll come back to it and ask: How can I like you more? How can I make you better? I wanna love you. So I add things,” she says. “I don’t press it. You have to start somewhere —each thing you do helps you build on it or discard it. Even in discarding art, you’ve altered things, so you have something new to work on. It’s adding and subtracting; build this equation until something catches your eye.”
In that realm, art isn’t always sanctuary. It’s a process that can be rather stressful in its push and pull. And with a seasoned artist like Darrow willing to allow time—sometimes years even—to help churn out her best work, patience organically evolves into a virtue.
“It may look like I’m patient,” she corrects, “but I suppose it takes more stick-to-itivity. I’m not sure I’m patient; I’m persistent. I never throw anything away. If I don’t like it, I may cover it up, but the texture underneath will influence something new.”
“New” is Darrow’s modus operandi. Since graduating college in 1967, and moving across the country for years before settling in Wilmington in the late ‘70s, she’s worked in many mediums: pen-and-ink, watercolor, photo-realism. “I’ll try something for a while until I feel like I’m repeating myself or have worn it out,” she says. “When you keep trying stuff, art happens. Stuff will hatch.”
“Life is But a Dream” opens Friday, January 23, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., as part of the first Fourth Friday Gallery Walk of 2015. Darrow will be at the opening to discuss her work.
Life is But a Dream: The Work of Elizabeth Darrow
January 23, 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Closing reception: February 27, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
WHQR MC Erny Gallery
254 N. Front Street