Linda Stoudt knows the inside of a squash isn't blood red. But during her father's 10-year battle with Alzheimer's, the Montana artist found herself painting several images that hinted at human anatomy and its lurking fragility. The sliced-open squash she painted in 1997 shows an otherwise fairly realistic image of white seeds surrounded by the gleam of a bright orange shell. But inside, a velvety red color gleams with elegant unnaturalness.
"I was experimenting with growing squash during one point while my father was really ill," she says. "I had been flying back and forth to see my parents and I didn't realize that I was painting the interior of it blood red until I looked at it and said, 'That's not the color.'" She laughs despite how clearly painful the experience was for her. "It was really hard for me to step back and see that it was about my father until I was done with the painting."
Other paintings on the wall of her Stevensville studio shimmer in vibrant blues and reds with tubular, organ-like structures. Most pictures—unlike the squash—are fairly abstract. But you still get a sense of familiar objects. Stoudt, however, doesn't seem interested in confining her images to one thing.
"People look at it and think it's very female looking," she says, pointing to one oval shaped image with orange, blue and red petals. "To me, it could be a cross section of a vertebrae. I think of drawings in Gray's Anatomy of the blue and red veins, that kind of reference."
Stoudt, 61, and her husband, Bill, moved to Stevensville 17 years ago from southern New Jersey. She has painted for as long as she can remember, but it wasn't until the couple arrived in Montana that she got to plant expansive gardens with brightly colored fruits and vegetables—something that began to inform her art more and more.
"I'm always fascinated by those beautiful juices that come out of the surface of the vegetable," she says. "I think that's why I like glossy paint, too—that kind of freshness that tells you the vital juices are still coming out."
Over the years Stoudt started working with different textures. She'd paint on cardboard and would peel back the surface in parts of the picture to expose the ribs of the cardboard underneath, giving the painting a three-dimensional look. A few years ago she started working on sandpaper, which would give the paint a pocketed look and richer appearance. Pencil on sandpaper adds a complex tangibility that wouldn't appear otherwise.
"A lot of people are fascinated by the fact that it's sandpaper," she says, "but it's just a means for an image. It's not a gimmick or anything like that."
Stoudt's current 42-piece exhibit, Works on Paper, at the Frame Shop in Hamilton includes a series of sandpaper drawings that almost, but not quite, look like various phases of the moon. The orbs seem to come off the page because of the paper's texture. They sparkle a little, too, as sandpaper does. This series, Stoudt says, has to do with the degeneration of the eye—some look like the blur of an aged dog's eye, and others are sharply alert. She won't say much more. Like many abstract artists, she prefers the viewer come to their own conclusions regarding the picture's "meaning."
One thing that's true of both sandpaper and cardboard, says Stoudt, is that neither of them is archival. Cardboard has acid in it and disintegrates over the years, and color on sandpaper fades and washes off easily. That's not always a bad thing. Stoudt had one piece that no matter how much she worked on it, it just wasn't coming together for her.
"I had a heck of a time getting the image to behave because it's a very fragile surface," she says, "but you can actually wash it out if you just put it in a turpentine bath." After washing it and starting all over, Stoudt got it to her liking, but one thing was missing. "I didn't have a title for it," she says, grinning. "I said to myself, 'Well I just resurrected the sucker. 'Lazarus.'"
But it's not just getting to start over that makes the non-archival aspect of her medium a good thing. What Stoudt really likes about it is more philosophical. The fact that her art is transient, that it disappears, makes it meaningful to her. Now, after her father's death, it's an aspect of her art, she says, that she enjoys: making beautiful things that won't be around forever.
"My father's illness was Alzheimer's, so I guess an underlying theme of my work is memory," she says. "And this comes back to food again. There are simple things, very mundane things you have to do such as washing vegetables as an everyday task. But then seeing a leaf with the sunlight piercing through it, that kind of translucence at the kitchen sink, you want to capture that moment, remember it."
It also comes down to not worrying about preserving her art as much as making her life an art, she says. And food—which has its own expiration date—and Italian cooking, in particular, is one of those life passions that appear to fit well with her art philosophy.
"I think it has to do with beauty," she says. "The Italians know how to do things beautifully. Whatever they do they do it with a grace and it makes you want to do it well, too. That's very important in all aspects of my life."
Linda Stoudt's Works on Paper runs through Thursday, Aug. 27, at the Frame Shop in Hamilton.