Art People: Greta Svalberg | painter

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014

Late on a Friday afternoon, a woman with a gaggle of young children in tow stopped into the A.P.E. Gallery on Northampton’s Main Street to look at an exhibit of works by artists John Moloney, Sam Gaskin and Greta Svalberg.

A little girl, a dark-haired, saucer-eyed sprite in a sundress, approached one of Svalberg’s rice paintings and — drawn perhaps by the rich blue colors or the bumpy texture of the painted rice glued to canvas — did what came naturally: She reached up to touch.

Svalberg, in the midst of an interview, watched the scene unfold — and did what came naturally to her. She got up, walked across the gallery floor, lifted her painting off the wall, and crouched to meet the girl at eye level. She let her touch the painting, and then talked with her for a few minutes about how she combines paint and grains to make a picture.

Afterwards, Svalberg conceded with a wry laugh at herself that she probably shouldn’t encourage kids to do that all the time — paintings aren’t toys, after all. But she gets that art is, as she puts it, a “wow, I’m alive!” experience. If that makes a child want to touch it, Svalberg wasn’t going to say no.

Her non-rice paintings also exude an energy that draws the viewer in. “July,” for example, captures the joy of children running through a spray of water thrown from a sprinkler. A photo of that quintessential summer scene that she happened upon in a 1980s lawn care book sparked the idea, she said, “to bring it into the realm of painting.”

Svalberg does most of her painting in her Easthampton studio. Painting, she says, slows the experience of life at full tilt “into something that’s contemplative.” She works at a methodical pace, she says, but makes no claim that long hours equate with success. Laboring too much, for too long can be counter-productive: Working on “July,” she recalls, “I was considering ruining it in any number of ways. I have to know when to slap the brush out of my hand and walk away.”

Svalberg, 29, has loved the interplay of color, texture, abstract form, and energy ever since she made drawings of fireworks lighting up the sky, a sight that fascinated her as a child. As a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, she noticed that in her academic classes she was always pulled to create something visual. “Every time I got an assignment that interested me, I would end up doing a painting about it,” she said. That impulse led her to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and then to the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts.

Svalberg, who settled in Northampton last year, says she finds the Valley a nurturing, collaborative setting that’s conducive to productivity. She’s also found outlets for teaching art, as she has in the past. She’s currently teaching a class in watercolors at the Northampton Senior Center, where her students, she says, are an interesting group.

“Older people around here are not exactly the most stodgy people,” she said. “They’re pretty cool.”

— Suzanne Wilson

“New Work” by John Moloney, Sam Gaskin and Greta Svalberg is on view at A.P.E. Gallery, 126 Main St., Northampton, through Aug. 17. Arts Night Out reception, Aug. 8, 5 to 8 p.m.


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