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Artist draws on outdoor beauty, mystery

Posted Sep 24, 2016 at 12:01 AM

Updated Sep 24, 2016 at 5:28 PM

John Alexander was puzzling over orchids on a recent morning in the Eaton Fine Art sculpture garden in West Palm Beach.

Blue jays and grackles chattered above the drone of unseen traffic. A soft breeze riffled the palms. Alexander’s easel stood in dappled sunlight, so close to the greenery it was almost part of it.

“What’s amazing about orchids is that they are the most bizarre-looking things,” he said. “The colors don’t make sense. They’re so bright and intense and artificial-looking, yet they are a profound example of nature at its finest.”

Alexander was using a stretch of free time between a solo show at a New Orleans gallery and an exhibition at The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas to spend a few weeks challenging himself with a new environment and refreshing his store of imagery.

Gallery owner Tim Eaton, who has exhibited his work several times, came up with the idea to display the drawings and paintings in the gallery as they are made, along with other recent works.

Alexander, 69, has lived in New York for many years. But he’s from Beaumont, Texas, and still speaks with a Texas drawl.

He has painted a lot of nature subjects — birds, fish, flowers, bayous and fields. He’s even been a resident artist at Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France. But he often says every nature scene he paints ends up looking like eastern Texas.

‘On the edge’

Much of his art, especially his satirical figurative paintings, has a sharp edge. Anger over the degradation of the environment that he first witnessed in Texas is a driving force in his work.

“His work is always on the edge,” said Ruth Appelhof, executive director of the Guild Hall of East Hampton. “Is it a metaphor or reality?” The Guild Hall awarded Alexander, who has a summer home in Amagansett, with a lifetime achievement award in 2013.

There’s nothing like painting outdoors, Alexander said. “When you’re immersed in the landscape, when you can hear the birds and smell the soil, it produces a different kind of painting.” That’s what made the Hudson River School’s landscapes so extraordinary, he said.

But he’s never painted orchids before. Today he’s decided to simply draw so that he can work on composition without the distraction of color.

For him, a successful painting must have beauty, mystery and tension. “Look at the orchids,” he said, waving toward a painting packed with flowers. “There is mystery and beauty, but where is the tension?”

His paintings usually end up being an amalgam of memory, observation and imagination.

Observation key

Observation is important. A few years ago he was in the Everglades when he spotted five baby owls lined up on a branch. He whipped out his pad and pencil and drew them.

Back at his studio in New York, he created a painting, changing the owls to adults and the time of day to night. “It got all shifted, as it often does,” he said. “But, if you don’t put yourself in the position to see that stuff, you’re never going to get the idea.”

He’s not sure where his immersion in orchids will take him. “I can see all kinds of things happening,” he said. “I can see a 6- to 8-foot painting coming out like the hanging gardens of Babylon with all these orchids.”

After all, he said, there are plenty of orchids in New York City.

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