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People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes

August 5, 2005 - February 5, 2006


Husband and wife, artists Donald Saaf and Julia Zanes lived and painted in Mexico, New Orleans, and Nova Scotia before settling in Saxtons River, Vermont, to raise their family. Both artists create colorful narrative images using a technique of layering paint and collage elements. Saaf explores the world of family and town with a folk art flavor, while Zanes presents her characters in a dreamlike world rich with symbols. People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes is curated by Susan Calabria



People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes

by Susan Calabria


Donald Saaf and Julia Zanes met in Boston when they both worked as guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Then Donald stayed in Boston to study art, and Julia went to art school in Chicago. After college, they lived and painted in Mexico, New Orleans, and Nova Scotia, and now are settled in Saxtons River, Vermont, with their two sons. (right: Donald Saaf, Saxon's River, 2003, oil on paper on board, 24 x 32 inches)

Brilliant color, a similar working method, and narrative content link the artists' work. Julia's paintings on board start out with collage and acrylic paint. She uses a variety of sources for collage materials: pieces of gum bichromate prints made by her mother, Hope Zanes, a photographer; her own digital photographs printed on rice paper or printmaking paper; and other decorative papers such as wall coverings, book pages, and wrapping paper. After adhering the collage pieces to the board with acrylic paint, Julia paints on top of the surface with translucent layers of acrylic colors to create the luminosity and details of the finished work. Finally, she adds thin layers of oil paint to make the colors richer and the surface glossy.

Donald's paintings in this exhibit are images that he has reworked for several years. He begins by fastening a piece of rag paper to board with gesso and then paints the image on this slightly pebbly surface. While Julia's layers are very thin, Donald likes to build up paint in thick layers. Obliterating or changing forms with white paint and dark lines, he then adds color. The painting Kitchen is an example of this technique: Donald first painted it as a scene of the Saaf/Zanes family in their kitchen at home, and then transformed it into a picture of the group aboard a boat.

The inspiration for Donald's paintings comes from his family and immediate surroundings -- at home or in his studio in the woods a few miles away. His work has an innocent look, reminiscent of folk art painting in which figures are simplified and may be seen in profile in a landscape or a town, as in his painting Saxtons River. Characters vary from tiny to oversize in the world that Donald creates. Birds and moths become mythical, and exotic animals cavort with children.

Julia's narrative paintings reveal an inner, reflective world in which her stories are influenced by her interests in Indian miniature paintings and other art historical references, color, and decorative elements. The people in her paintings are often women-sometimes queens or winged humans -- and they catch the viewer's eye from a place that seems long ago and part dream. Both Julia's and Donald's paintings contain rivers, flowers and trees, boats and birds. While these things are commonplace where we live in Vermont, they are also symbols containing spiritual significance.

Saaf and Zanes are always working on a variety of artistic pursuits. Currently painting a new series of canvases influenced by the forest outside his studio, Donald has found rocks there to carve when he takes the family dog for a walk. Some of his carvings are exhibited here, as are the books he has illustrated over the past ten years. Donald also plays music with Julia's brother, Dan Zanes, and has created artwork for four of Dan's board book CDs. At her home studio, Julia has several paintings in progress-"good worlds, bad worlds" and others that contain magical people and places. She offers several classes and workshops on her painting techniques, and she has illustrated an edition of The Snow Child. (right: Julia Zanes, Red Boats, 2003, collage, acrylic & oil on board, 34 x 48 inches)


About the author

Susan Calabria is Curator at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 15, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Teta Hilsdon of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center for assistance concerning the publishing of this essay.

Another exhibition, James McGarrell: Themes and Variations, is on display August 5 - October 30, 2005 a the Museum. For almost five decades James McGarrell has been heralded as one of America's major figurative painters. Themes and Variations presents a selection from "Young and Old," a series of major canvases that serve as both portraits and elaborate homages to painters, writers, filmmakers, composers, and poets. The exhibit also includes a suite of monotype drawings accompanied by poems by the distinguished poet Rosanna Warren, and some of McGarrell's smaller works. Click here to view the gallery brochure.

rev. 8/19/05

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