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Red Velvet Cake
Acrylic and oil on panel
6 x 6 inches
Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., New York City
Many of the themes and strategies that characterize Beth Sistrunk’s art today spring from her childhood in the coal-mining and farming region near the village of Beallsville in southeastern Ohio. Her mother’s modest farm, and the adjacent dairy farm owned by her uncle, provided a wealth of experiences for Sistrunk and her brother as they were growing up—from tending rabbits and ducks to helping out with the dairy farm to building a tree house. The natural beauty of the area offered an inviting environment for exploration as well as an abundant resource for developing a powerful imaginative life.
From the outset, Sistrunk used her imagination in a range of creative activities. Writing, music, baking, art, and design all captured her attention, resulting in short stories, paintings, drawings, and the design of everything from small wooden boats to doll clothes to dream houses.
At school, Sistrunk’s natural curiosity expanded. She was involved with the Girl Scouts, 4-H Club, and forestry camp. And she played trumpet in the marching band. By the time she graduated in 1997, she was ready to set out for Wheeling Jesuit University in nearby West Virginia on a choir and academic scholarship. There, she found herself drawn to science courses, although she also realized that the jobs associated with those subjects held little appeal for her. By her junior year, Sistrunk switched her primary focus to graphic design, assuming that she would be able to utilize her drawing and design skills in a career that would also engage her interest.
In 1998, Sistrunk also began a serious study of painting at the Oglebay Institute in Wheeling. Although she had drawn and painted on her own since childhood, this was her first formal education in the medium. When asked about the course, Sistrunk still laughs as she recalls an unexpected turn of events during one of the classes; a visitor to the gallery adjacent to the art studio caught sight of her work and expressed an immediate interest in purchasing her painting.
In spite of such an auspicious beginning to her art career, Sistrunk’s life was significantly disrupted at the end of her junior year at the university when a drunk driver totaled her parked car. This left her without the resources she needed to continue her studies. Ultimately, she decided to seek out an art school that was more affordable and moved to Pennsylvania to study at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. With the assistance of an Ohio Regents scholarship, she was able to attend classes in Pittsburgh for a very reasonable fee. Throughout these years, she continued to develop her painting skills, initially with an emphasis on the use of acrylic paint.
By 2001, however, Sistrunk was ready for a change. Remembering how much she’d enjoyed Florida during a performance tour she’d made with her college choir, she began to look for jobs there. A tip about a position with a financial services firm in Sarasota piqued her interest, and she was soon settled into a new home in a new state. When the Sarasota branch of her firm closed in 2002, she moved to Naples, Florida to take a position at another financial firm. With her usual acuity, she quickly mastered the subject, obtained the necessary licensing for supervising financial transactions compliance and eventually became the assistant vice-president and operations manager at Wachovia Securities.
Meanwhile, Sistrunk set another goal for her future. With her love of science, she returned to college to take night classes in preparation for medical school. Although working a high-pressure job during the day and attending classes at night meant that her life was extraordinarily full, she did not fail to notice a colleague named Earl who had expressed a decided interest in spending time with her. They began dating in earnest in the summer of 2007 and were married about two years later in 2009.
The newlyweds had scant time to enjoy married life before they had to face a serious illness that left Sistrunk debilitated and increasingly frail. The cause was the pernicious off-gassing from the Chinese-manufactured drywall in their home. Exposure to this environmental toxin left Sistrunk in pain and often bedridden. And it left her with more than enough time to contemplate what she most wanted to do with her life. “Of all the things I hadn’t accomplished in life before I fell ill at age 30, not pursuing my art was my biggest regret” she notes.
And so, she began to study painting in every way that she could. Because her time at the easel was constrained by her physical energy and ability to hold the brush, Sistrunk thought carefully about the placement of each brushstroke, making sure that she understood exactly how, where and why it should be painted in a particular way. This process also deepened her capacity for the careful analysis and execution that remains a hallmark of her work today.
In 2010, she set out to study oil painting techniques in the time-honored tradition of copying from the masters. For Sistrunk, this meant an intense examination of the work of William Bouguereau. The following year, she began her professional work with a series of sea-inspired still life’s in oil; living near the beach, it was a natural focus for her new work.
By 2013, she had regained enough strength to paint for two to three hours each day. This encouraged her to begin implementing a long-cherished goal of creating a large figure painting in the style of Elizabeth Gardner and William Bouguereau. As she was increasingly able to get around with the aid of a wheelchair, she and Earl began to visit nearby museums whose collections contained work by these artists. The decision proved to be fortuitous. Sistrunk’s figure paintings (one seven feet tall, the other seven feet wide) would serve as a key transition in her life and career.
The height of the canvases that Sistrunk hoped to paint required that she be able to reach the top of the easel during the limited times when she was able to stand independently. With the same ingenuity that drove her to design her childhood treehouse, she converted aerobic steps into adjustable stairs that helped move her to the top of the painting. More importantly, by the time she had finished both pieces, she was able to stand, walk and paint for much longer periods. As she comments, “Those paintings got me out of the chair. Flatlands hiking became possible again and so did baking, cooking for my husband and short travel excursions.” Equally important, she was able to accept portrait commissions and continue to develop her skill at figural painting.
With continuing improvement in her physical strength, Sistrunk determined to further her art education through private lessons with the contemporary realist artist, Douglas Flynt in 2014. Under his tutelage, she focused on painting technique as well as lighting. In addition, her personal study of art history during these years expanded her horizons to include an appreciation of the work of John William Waterhouse, J. A. D. Ingres, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Alphonse Mucha.
This was followed by a series of what the artist calls “floating flower petals” in which intensely colored petals float serenely around female figures over a muted tonal back-ground on multiple stacked translucent acrylic panels.
Sistrunk’s current focus is a series of images called Candyland. “I wanted to bring the joy and fun back to painting, not just for myself, but for others to experience as well; just like a good dessert shared at a dinner table with friends or family.” These works include everything from dessert-plate-sized paintings called “The Zero Calories Series” to larger figure paintings of young women wandering through a fantasy world made of candy, cupcakes and ice cream towers. In the larger figural works, a close inspection reveals tiny clothed animal characters as well as quotes from the artist’s favorite works of fiction. For the “Zero Calories Series”, Sistrunk handcrafts brightly colored, glistening pulled-sugar lollipops and pairs them with their respective nostalgic desserts. These little paintings are the “Zero Calorie” alternative to satisfying your sweet tooth.
She is concurrently expanding this imaginary world with the creation of a new series called the Cupcake Carousel. Here, a menagerie of hand-sculpted carousel animals depicting fairy tale scenes are mounted on a delicious cupcake platform. These small paintings and sculptures are inspired by the beauty and nostalgia of historic French carousels. Ornately dressed horses, rabbits, unicorns and swans inhabit this dream carnival carousel from Candyland. Looking forward, Sistrunk plans to continue exploring the geography of Candyland, adding new dimensions—and possibly other types of media—to the mix.