Gabe Fernandez is a Portland area artist who uses oil paint to suspend moments of serenity into beautiful, tranquil scenes dappled with mystery. Born in Idaho, he journeyed to Oregon very young and studied painting at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which led to strong relationships with Portland galleries and eventually Seattle Art Museum’s SAM Gallery and Linda Hodges Gallery, where he’s currently showing. In our interview we discuss creative pivots, pushing past self-imposed limitations, and celebrating the underappreciated aspects of our everyday lives.
You’ve said that painting serene, isolated spaces has always been a refuge from the chaotic world we live in, but that the extreme solitude we experienced during the pandemic had a big impact on your work. I imagine the idea of refuge was somewhat inverted in your mind, can you tell me about your creative response to that shift?
This sudden shift in our world left me somewhat confused about how I viewed the future visions of my work and while preparing for my Portland show in late 2021, I felt I needed to explore a different direction, as these “serene, isolated spaces” did not feel so much like a refuge but a requirement for survival. I gave myself permission to go back to my youth and essentially free-associate the direction of my new body of work. Out of this exploration, I discovered a new serene refuge in depicting special objects that gave me a sense of happiness from my past. This new body of work for the December ’22 show at Linda Hodges is a more intense exploration of these meaningful objects and the associations they carry with us.
And I hear you like to scour thrift stores for these treasures that spark meaningful memories, or are some family heirlooms?
When I search for source material, I am not so much looking for personal and direct memories as much as I am seeking a feeling or emotion that would be more universally shared by others in a variety of forms. Formal elements of color, shape, and texture are on the top of my mind when I am out and about, as we all have specific connections to these elements. Invoking a suggestion of emotion, memory, and mood is what I go for so the viewer may fill in the spaces with their own associations. I don’t think anyone really cares what my connection is to the subject. It is the viewer’s connection that should be most important. I attempt to lay out several paths and the viewer decides where to go, which hopefully causes some ownership in participating in the experience.
Can you tell me about a time that another person’s painting impacted your creative path?
I would have to go back to art school in the ’90s, while at my oil painting teacher Paul Missal’s house for his annual Thanksgiving celebration. There I saw a very simple, oversized painting of his own hand showing every little detail and imperfection of the lines and leathered skin of a painter’s hand. Prominently featured was his thumb, which showed an indentation in the skin from a paintbrush, and I imagined a story of a struggling painter who had been laboring too hard over the concept of what an artist’s struggle is like. I was so moved by the pensive quality of the composition and the perfect harmony and skill that Paul’s eye had for color. I am still very close with Paul and every time I visit with him, I try to glean as much wisdom as humanly possible, mostly because of this painting. This piece really got me fired up to be a lifelong painter!
Is “Pink Pool Slide” from a childhood memory? What can you tell me about how that piece came to be?
As a matter of fact, it sure was a childhood memory. In the small town I grew up in, I only knew of one in-ground pool that sat off the highway about a quarter mile, and we drove by it all the time. All I could remember about it was seeing this faint Pink Pool Slide and was fascinated by how unique it was alone in a field. It reminded me of television shows about California. Evidently, it belonged to a family that coached little league, and we would hear stories from our friends who were on the team about swimming in this pool and how magical the experience was. I never got this vision out of my mind, so I had to paint it.
So your subjects are from lived memories as well as idealized visualizations?
My subjects might start from lived memories but hopefully, I am able to use them as a jump-off point to create an environment where it turns into a kind of shared idealized visualization. So, I guess to answer your question: Yes.
Now that the world is returning to a somewhat predictable level of discord and chaos, do you feel your work may shift again or are you firmly in this new groove?
I have very much enjoyed having this recent opportunity to explore different subject matters in painting. Gallery artists sometimes feel type-casted and expected to stay in their lane, and this can be a challenge as an artist to keep things fresh. This latest body of work very much helped in confronting some of my less-honed skills and learning the ability to conquer fears I have been avoiding as a painter in my previous work. My hope moving forward is to continue to explore the serenity of the idea of “Quiet Stillness” but bring my newfound skills in pensive observation and technical skills to make fresh, new work.
Favorite movie, album, or book?
In relation to painting, one of my favorite filmmakers is from my neck of the woods in Portland—Gus Van Sant. His film My Own Private Idaho from the 1990s, to me, is a purely visual masterpiece in understating and celebrating the marginalized and underappreciated aspects of our everyday lives. It seems to me Van Sant probably is a painter at heart and speaks the language fluently. At least as a young artist, this is what I brought to the film and it stuck with me ever since.
Next goal on the horizon?
In addition to continuing to explore the pop culture objects from this latest body of work, I am going to also explore a new body of work focused on neighborhood night scenes. This will allow me to continue to grow as a painter through confronting my fears and insecurities by attempting to master this very complex lighting and mood casting as it relates to the peacefulness of solitude. I will be required to conquer a whole new pile of fears and skills to grow from. I am very excited about it all!!
Gabe Fernandez’s work is hanging at Linda Hodges Gallery through December 30. He will host an artist talk on Saturday, December 17 at noon.