The Cherokee may have named this area “the Land of the Sky,” but take a look at the horizon in any given direction around here, and the mountain peaks are stealing the show. While she’s made Asheville home for over a decade, painter Dawn Rentz is still a flatlander at heart, and her new paintings evoke the wide, expansive skies of the Midwest and all the possibilities they represent.
Rentz has developed a reputation for imaginative, yet earthy landscapes that combine block printing, botanical imagery and strong fields of color. But recently, she’s taken her work in new directions, playing with nothing less than the balance between earth and sky. The land may be for doers, but the sky is for dreamers, and Rentz’s new works have a looser, dreamy quality. By scaling back the horizon line and letting the sky dominate, she avoids defining the meaning for the viewer, and provides a jumping off point for a personal experience and interpretation of the work.
Working primarily on wooden board, Rentz starts with an acrylic base, then works up the surface with oil stick (and occasionally tube oils), manipulating the paint with cloths rather than brushes. The result is a textured surface that allows for a broad spectrum of light and dark, hints of color below the surface.
“People have a really emotional response to Dawn’s work,” says Jordan Ahlers of Blue Spiral 1, the Asheville gallery that represents Rentz’s work. “They convey an essential human connection to the landscape.”
Originally a textile designer, Rentz studied fiber arts at Savannah College of Art and Design before moving to Asheville. After coming to town, she worked at Barley’s—the restaurant owned by her husband Jimmy—and created her own line of hand-printed home furnishing fabrics and accessories. The next step on that track would have been to start a production line of fabric, but that would have requiring giving up much of the creative part of the process that she most enjoyed. She turned to painting instead.
Although Rentz had done painting and mixed media work “on the side” while in art school, focusing on it exclusively was a completely new direction. In her early works on board and paper, “there was a strong pattern influence,” she says. Her landscapes were often compared to quilts, she says, because of the ordered divisions of pattern and color. She continued to use textile-style block prints (cut into rubber so they would work on board), adding them to landscape elements for unexpected texture. During that time, she worked out of a studio in the River Arts District, where she had great mentors in fellow District painters Betty Clark, Marie Hudson and Barbara Fisher, who she credits with helping to develop her painting career.
After her son Gabriel was born (daughter Madeline came along later), she moved to a home studio, and the botanical imagery she had always included in her work came to the forefront. Spindly vines and giant sunflowers dwarfed the hills behind them, creating landscapes that were both familiar and surreal. After traveling to the Caribbean, she was so inspired by some of the outsized-vegetation in the area that she created a line of paintings that was just botanicals, but eventually returned to the landscapes that have long been her artistic home base.
Switching artistic focus from the structure of the land to the loose, ever-changing nature of the sky was like “a deep breath out,” says Rentz. It’s a homecoming, in a way;
The “big skies, rolling hills, and farmland” of her childhood in rural Wisconsin have never ceased to inspire her, says Rentz, and her new work comes closer than ever to evoking the feel of them, although her works are not site-specific. While the botanicals are still part of the landscape, they’ve receded into the minimal foreground and taken on more of the structure that she’s shed elsewhere in her work. She’s using block prints to create them now, rather than the free form techniques she’s used in the past.
Along with expansive skies comes more expansive work: Rentz recently created a commission that consisted two 4 1/2 x 8-foot panels, one of which was almost entirely sky. She’s enjoying her new direction and the freedom it has brought. “There’s more passion coming across,” she says of her new paintings.
While Rentz keeps photographs of spectacular skies on her studio wall, she doesn’t try to recreate them: they’re there to inspire, invoke and remind her of all the possibilities that exist on a distant horizon line.