Artist Cynthia Debolt is in good company as a painter of the landscape, engaging in a time-honored and respected tradition. Though the Romans and Greeks adorned their villas with wall paintings of nature, it was during the Renaissance that the landscape emerged as a compelling subject matter to artists.
According to one theorist, the appeal of the landscape may go back much farther in human history, with notions about the landscape being hard-wired in us, lodged deeply in our primordial memory. Geographer Jay Appleton suggests that our modern enjoyment for landscape is based on the kinds of environments that helped our species flourish and evolve. In his “habitat theory” he states, “that aesthetic pleasure in landscape derives from the observer experiencing an environment favorable to the satisfaction of his biological needs.”
This may explain why so many people who view Cynthia’s landscape paintings find them so pleasing. Perhaps her canvases, through their combined references to open space, fields and bodies of water as well as trees and foliage, touch a place inside our primitive psyche that feels abundant with opportunities for safe haven and sustenance – a tree to climb provides safety and a possible meal of leaves and an open field offers a view of potential predators and food sources.
Cynthia chuckles when people tell her how restful they find her oil paintings. For the artist, there is nothing relaxing about making them: she is solving problems with shape and color, value and line that engage her mind in a most demanding effort. “For me, each painting is a puzzle in which to work something out. With each one, I don’t know how it’s going to go when I start. I guess I’m comfortable tolerating ambiguity.”
Her creative process begins with photographs that she has taken of landscapes that appeal to her. There might be some tiny part of a landscape that she wants to use in a painting so the photographs are mounted on her easel during the initial stage of a painting’s development. At many times in the painting process, the canvas and the photos are turned upside down and sideways, allowing for a distanced or objective way of seeing the composition on the canvas. While this method helps Cynthia to create more abstract depictions of the landscape, it is also a solid technique for creating well-balanced and dynamic compositions. “These are not real places that I am painting, they are imagined. I am using the landscape as an arrangement of specific shapes and colors. Sometimes there is no reference to the photograph left in the finished painting.”
Her penchant for abstracting the landscape is understandable when one considers the mixture of influences in her background. Raised in a small rural town in Michigan, the broad expanses of land and groves of trees that surrounded her childhood home were balanced by frequent trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the mid-1960s she was introduced to Abstract Expressionism through a painting professor. She recalls, “He was a great teacher. Though my interests in painting were very different from his, he helped me recognized what was important to me and I respected that in him.”
Though her painting style bears little resemblance to the energetic ‘action painting’ of the “AB EX” painters like Jackson Pollock, it does reveal a contemplative aspect more akin to the ‘color field painting’ of Mark Rothko, one of her favorite artists.
What Cynthia does share with the Abstract Expressionists is a philosophical perspective about the role of art in restoring our world, through liberating us from worn out concerns and helping to refocus our priorities. She reflects, “It seems that with everything we all do, we just keep getting busier. Our heads are jammed full of something every minute. With my paintings I set out, on a philosophical level, to give some visual hint to the viewer, and to myself, about how to simplify our lives and get down to the essentials.”
From this truth-seeking attitude, Cynthia chooses the canvas as her ‘place’ in which to practice simplicity, and through landscape features, where open fields meet the forest’s edge, invites us, the viewer, to consider where we ‘locate’ themselves in this busy world.