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Q&A with Award Winner Holly Masri

Capitola Halloween, pastel by Holly Masri. Winner of the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award.
Capitola Halloween, pastel by Holly Masri. Winner of the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award.

The painting that won the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award for pastel this month has a dark mood and palette, which caught juror Joann Moser’s eye — the liberal use of black challenges the viewer’s expectations about pastel as a colorful medium, she said.

Capitola Halloween, by Holly Masri, was painted based on an old photograph that the artist just couldn’t get away from. We asked Holly to tell us more about her process, the medium of pastel, and the role of photography as a painter’s tool. It’s all in our Q&A, below.

Join us for the opening reception for this exhibit and Nick Xhiku’s “Structural Elements” tonight, September 12, at 6:30!

What was the inspiration for this piece? What made you return to this scene after so many years?
Holly Masri: This was one of those photographs that continually tugged at me, telling me that it really needed to be a painting! I lived above this restaurant/bar, called Margaritaville, in Capitola Village, CA, for a year and a half after I graduated from college. I’ve never been a bar person, and I’d never experienced anything like Capitola Village or Margaritaville. It’s a place where every day, practically everyone you see is on holiday. They’re just there to have a good time. It’s a great place for people-watching, which is something I tend to do anyway. And that evening, Halloween of 1986, I happened to be walking by that doorway and to have my camera with me. The view inside was so exotic, strange and arresting, that I just instinctively took the picture. That photograph followed me around, asking to be painted, for the next 20-odd years. I finally got around to doing it!

What was your goal with Capitola Halloween?
I felt that it was one of those scenes that we see but don’t actually look at, that’s really quite beautiful and strange. A window into another world. I enjoy the ambiance of places … these environments we create that encourage various moods. The lighting, the silhouettes, the reflections on the balloons and the trailing ribbons, and the neon and stained glass, both of which I love … just so much visual stimulation. The people and their silhouettes are all we have to go on to try and learn about them. But I found as I painted the figures, that each one told me things I hadn’t known, about who they might be, and why they might have been there.

Capitola Halloween (detail)
Capitola Halloween (detail)

What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished piece?
There’s some variation, of course, but I think most of my paintings start in one of two ways. Sometimes a rough concept comes to me — it might be a dream image, or something from fairy tales or mythology that resonates with me. Or it might be a visual metaphor. So, in the case of a “concept” piece, I do some sketches, and work out my ideas.

The other way paintings tend to get started is when I’m inspired by something visually. I get in moods where I see things more vividly, and I take more and better pictures. Sometimes I snap a picture that just begs to be made into a painting. Usually it’s something that strikes me as beautiful, moving, or full of some truth, and I want to get closer to it or experience it more deeply. Painting is a way of doing that.

When I photograph something, it’s because I noticed it and felt it was important in some way.  Photography is an important tool for me. It makes paintings possible that wouldn’t be otherwise.

Koi Race, oil on panel by Holly Masri.
Koi Race, oil on panel by Holly Masri.

Why are you a painter?
I think I’m an artist first, a painter second. I’m a painter because it’s the best way I’ve found to bring my inner vision into the world. Maybe there’s a better way that I have yet to find. I love many creative forms. If I were more outgoing or more technical, I would love to find a way to combine poetry, theater, music, images, and colored light into my work. But, painting is simply the most effective soul-expressing medium I’ve found. And I feel like I’m just getting started!

As someone who also works with other media, how do you decide a project should be pastel as opposed to, say, oil?
Sometimes it’s hard to decide on a medium, sometimes it’s easy. When I want to do an underwater painting, like the ones I’ve done of koi, or like the big aquarium painting I just finished, I tend to go for oil, because I can do transparent glazes. Glazes are a great way to get that sense of depth and brilliance of color. I think the medium lends itself naturally to certain subjects. Pastel is great for textures, and “chunky” light. I like to make my own pastel surfaces, and do underpaintings, so I can build colors and textures over another. But there are still a lot of subjects where I deliberate, back and forth, trying to visualize doing the painting in one medium or another.

What are you working on now?
Oh, I’ve got a ton of ideas. I want to do a series involving the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. Last spring, we went down there one day and it was the first time I’d ever seen the trees in bloom. It was an incredibly gorgeous day, and all the people walking around seemed to be so happy, to be caught up in the beauty, and to have forgotten all their everyday fears and concerns. It was magical. I walked around, snapping pictures, in a totally ecstatic state, and a number of them came out very well. One reminds me a little of the Seurat painting of La Grande Jatte. There’s something about the light, and all the people out in the sunshine, enjoying themselves.

I’m currently working on one piece of tourists at the Jefferson Memorial, and another of a child being carried on her grandfather’s shoulders at the Climate Rally on the National Mall. I have really struggled with that one. But I love the child’s expression so much. I’ll just have to keep trying till I get it right!

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