In the Studio: Paula Rubino
Paula Rubino brings a broad range of stylistic influence and international experience to bear in her bold and colorful paintings, the creation of which takes place primarily in her Florida and Finland studios. With education in architecture, drawing, painting, etching and print-making, this New Jersey native applies an unconventional approach to the figure while still incorporating several methods and materials from her traditional training. A strong interest in design and a modernist view of color are also apparent in her work, and as such her paintings often appear assemblage-like in their striking arrangement of prints and patterns and in the broken, textural brushwork that bring the fabrics to life. Here the artist talks about the evolution of her eclectic style, explains how she composes her ideas on canvas, and shares how her work with paint, line and color is an opportunity to convey social messages and reflections on the human condition.
AM: You studied both at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy and with Odd Nerdrum in Norway. Can you summarize the most important lessons learned from those educational experiences that still inform your work today?
PR: At the Florence Academy of Art, with the crucial aid of twice daily critiques, I trained my eye by observing life intently: defining light and dark, abstracting shapes, and determining a hierarchy of edges. I developed focus and discipline through vigorous practice and repetition, and I gained a community of lifelong friends.
Odd used the setup as a tool to craft an idea in his head, spent a lot of time examining the painting without the model present, and steadfastly altered whatever was necessary to advance his idea, even if it meant departing from an exact portrayal of the model. This often meant obliterating beautifully developed passages in order to shift them over an inch or two. I came away feeling freer to explore my own vision in whatever imperfect way would propel me. The time spent at both places was invaluable, and gaining a solid foundation in drawing at the FAA prepared me well for observing Odd’s process.
AM: In The Florence Academy of Art’s 25th anniversary book you were included in a section called “Tradition & Diversity,” which showed FAA graduates who had used their traditional training toward the development of diverse styles. Did it always come naturally to you to combine “classical” and “contemporary” sensibilities?
PR: I suppose. As a kid walking around the museums, I never discerned between the two and was equally entranced by Giotto, Rembrandt and Rothko. All of these artists stirred me and continue to inspire me. Plenty of painters in history also blurred these lines. Pontormo comes to mind. Also Alvar Aalto in architecture.
AM: You state on your website that you combine contemporary imagery with classical techniques and materials. How does that actually come to life in your studio, in terms of where each fits in your process?
PR: It varies. Projects emerge from my notebook, tiny sketches in black ink, inspired by anything from an oak to a book recently read, from the lines of a tune, or often current events. I then work from a model, with plenty of time between sittings to determine additional compositional elements, or whether the model could be better arranged. I paint and repaint and use the sketch to stay grounded. The more layers the better, as each layer adds dimension as well as suggests the transience of each day's work. I guess my overall approach is to enter the studio each day wondering what is going to happen, and to leave it at the end of the day with a very simple problem hanging in the air, so that I feel motivated to return.
AM: I understand that you were a lawyer before becoming a professional artist. At what point did you start to feel that painting was something you had to pursue?
PR: I’ve been painting and drawing since childhood, and I studied architecture at university before having a crisis of confidence and changing to public law. Although I felt guilty about the return to art for a long time, I also now accept the transformative possibilities of paint, line and color, as well as the chance to use art to convey social messages and portray the human condition.
AM: You are both a painter and a printmaker, and you also studied etching at one point as well. Where did your interest and training in printmaking originate?
PR: Predictably, from an exhibition of Rembrandt’s etchings in Florence. A far more visceral reaction hit me was when I first saw Donald Sutphin’s press in Florence, a huge, ancient object dominating a tiny room. I instantly wanted to know how to turn that wheel.
AM: I love how your paintings combine painting and design, with colorful fabrics and patterns and bold shapes and silhouettes. Where did your interest in prints and patterns come from? Do you have a design background?
PR: Thank you. Well, the aborted architecture training provided some guidance, along with continual observation of architecture, interiors, fabrics, and nature —botany, marine life, forests, etc. There is a thread of problem-solving that appeals to me, and weaving pattern and color and ideas together is simply fun, often more fun than painting faithfully from life. Even though I enjoy arranging lush patterns, my natural aesthetic is emptiness, and in composing my canvases, the negative spaces and more empty areas help me breathe.
AM: Are you still keeping a studio in both Florida and Finland? What led you to Finland, and what is the art community and market like there for painters?
PR: Yes, a tiny nineteenth-century cottage recycled from logs dating from the 1700s. My husband, Jussi Pöyhönen, led me to Helsinki in 2002, and we have raised our son, Olavi, between Finland and Florida. Most Finns appreciate handicraft, and larger libraries even have a popular program offering local paintings and prints for lease and sale. Even in the small farming town where we live, there is a fully equipped printmaking studio for the public. Also easels, looms, forges, kilns and presses are still present in public schools. I feel very supported by other artists, curators and collectors in Finland.
AM: Can you take us through the process for creating Gleaners?
PR: Gleaning is an ancient social construct where farmers were required to leave some of their harvest behind for the poor. It’s not a new subject for painters and remains an important topic of conversation, figuratively, in today’s world. As far as the actual process for painting it, I began with a sketch in my notebook, set up the model, painted the composition, took more notes, stared at the canvas quite a bit, turned it to the wall for a couple of weeks, modified, and then repeated the process.
AM: Who and what have been some of your top influences in painting, design, and printmaking?
PR: Andrea del Sarto, Audubon, Corot, Vuillard, Balthus, photography of humans doing ordinary activity, Moorish tile, algebra, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Finnish vernacular architecture, Willa Cather, Schubert, any scrap of nature, Tao, the Guardian—all kinds of sources fuel me.
AM: What’s the next ambitious idea or technical challenge you would like to try in your studio?
PR: Monotype. I would like to see what kind of happy accidents emerge putting paint through the press. I would also like to build up paint surface more sculpturally, perhaps employing limestone.