Julia Sutliff loves to paint outdoors. This is plain to see in the freshness and energy of her small oil paintings of land and sea on view at the Adkins Arboretum Visitor’s Center through Nov. 21. The public is invited to a reception to meet the artist on Saturday, Oct. 18 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Many of these scenes were painted outdoors in just a few hours at places Sutliff found near her Cockeysville home. Brushed with quick strokes of color, they capture fleeting moments of sun and shade. Sutliff explained that the paintings are “my experience of a certain moment.”
Although the area north of Baltimore is largely developed, she seeks out the remaining pockets of nature. Often she will suddenly see an area of overlooked natural beauty. Then, she said, “I have to just stop by the side of the road or take photos from a parking lot.”
Sutliff earned master’s degrees in English and teaching and went on to teach English, but some art classes that she took at Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art made her realize that painting is her real love, particularly painting directly from nature.
There is an immediacy about Sutliff’s work that instantly transports the viewer to sunny meadows glimpsed through trees and to windswept beaches. In this, her second show at the Arboretum, her trees are festive with autumn color. Standing as gracefully as dancers, their trunks and branches hold their leaves lightly, so that you can almost feel the moving air and shifting light.
These paintings often hold the promise of hidden places and vistas waiting to be discovered. In “Trees above Lake,” a double-trunked tree stands at the edge of an abandoned quarry. It is a scene within a scene, as clouds and enigmatic dark trees reflect in the bright blue water.
Sutliff said, “I love looking through the leaves into the quarry, especially in the fall. The reflection of the leaves is so beautiful. There’s that intense blue that you can only see from up above on the cliffs. There aren’t that many wider scenes around here that aren’t developed. You have to look through a small viewfinder.”
While she loves the intimacy of these forgotten places, she is also interested in the challenge offered by painting more expansive scenes. In recent visits to Cape Henlopen and the Outer Banks with her husband and young son, she began to work on seascapes.
There is a very different feeling in these paintings than in her landscapes. The seascapes show wide views, with a strong sense of weather and change. Sutliff has a masterly way of painting water, keeping her brushstrokes simple, but capturing the feel of waves flattening under the wind or rising to make deep shadows under the foam of their curling edges.
Sand, sea and sky take on many different moods in these scenes. Brilliant light bursts from behind huge clouds in “Before Sunrise,” while a hint of a building at the edge of “Rainswept Beach” promises a refuge from the cold gray sea. In “Shoreline Patterns,” the tide creeps up the beach where it has already half-erased footprints softened by the wind and tire tracks of a vehicle that crossed the sand when the water was low.
Considering these traces of the human presence, it doesn’t take long to notice that while Sutliff’s paintings celebrate nature, they are even more about our need to experience these natural places. The inviting intimacy of her wooded scenes, as well as the actual footprints and tire tracks in the seascapes, are evidence of this.
Also telling is the realization that, however strong the human presence is, nature is primary in shaping every scene. Tides and storms wear at the beaches; grasses and trees soften the edges of the quarry as they reclaim the abandoned land.
“It’s trying to take it back,” Sutliff said. “Now it actually serves the wildlife.”
This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, supported in part by the Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through Nov. 21 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or firstname.lastname@example.org for gallery hours.
Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature and gardening. Through its Campaign to Build a Green Legacy, the Arboretum will build a new LEED-certified Arboretum Center and entranceway to broaden educational offerings and research initiatives promoting best practices in conservation and land stewardship. For additional information about Arboretum programs, visit www.adkinsarboretum.org or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.