Painting in place of a place, an on view exhibition at Shaw’s artist-run Foundry Gallery, features two newcomers to the space, Courtney Applequist and Sheila Blake. Both called D.C. home before moving just outside of the District to Montgomery County. Their combined body of work includes paintings of the District from the 1980s to present day that document how the city has changed.
The installation is a collection of paintings that depict everyday images and scenes with oil on linen and canvas, from a swimming pool to houses to a local dance school. Many of them are large works, with some of the biggest measuring 48 inches by 60 inches and 54 inches by 40 inches. Blake’s paintings are grounded and realistic, while Applequist’s are more layered and somewhat abstract. The two styles complement one another, and since both frequently feature the Washington area, their work almost serves as a photo album of the region. Both artists say they are deeply connected to and influenced by their communities.
At the exhibition’s opening reception in early February, Applequist, Blake, and their colleagues spoke of how they find inspiration, especially during a time that is increasingly challenging for artists.
“It’s really hard to make fine art that’s not propaganda, and that’s not what I’m trying to do,” Applequist says of addressing societal issues. “I’m not trying to make posters. I want to make beautiful paintings but if they can lend themselves to a bigger conversation that helps someone who is struggling against these big systems that I think have really not served us at all, I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about [that].”
In addition to the paintings featured in Painting in place of a place, Applequist is working on a series of paintings about local farming, in keeping with her passion for supporting small local businesses.
Some of her paintings are set in D.C., at a Metro station or a construction site. The locations of others are purposely left ambiguous, she says, “leaving a little bit for any of you to interject your story into it.” This sentiment matches Applequist’s painting style, which is full of slightly obscured objects.
“I wouldn’t have associated her images with Washington because they’re more universal,” notes Kate Samworth, an artist and illustrator based in Takoma Park who was at the opening reception.
In her discussion at the gallery, Applequist shared how her art making is a process of layering paintings to capture moments. “It seems like any of these paintings don’t actually get good until there are about four paintings underneath them,” Applequist says. “There’s a lot of struggle and scraping and adding.” That, she says, is where she finds authenticity.
Applequist, 43, has formal interior design training, and started out in the District working in that field before transitioning to fine art. She lived in Petworth from 2003 to 2015, then moved just outside of the city to Montgomery County to raise her kids.
Yet D.C. and its constant evolution continue to inspire her artwork. “There’s tension in change,” Applequist explains. “Even when it’s a daylily growing up through the sidewalk—there is struggle to live.” She sees the struggles and the living in everyone walking down the sidewalk, and how that common ground unites diverse groups.
Applequist says that while collaborating with Blake, who is 80 years old, the pair learned to understand each other through art and become peers. “The art has gotten rid of” separation based on age, she says.
Blake is aware that she comes from a different time. Instead of being influenced by how many likes her artwork gets on Instagram, Blake says she works on her paintings without wondering if they’ll be popular, or even sell.
Along with painting, Blake co-hosts a bi-weekly radio show on a low-power radio station in Takoma Park called Art as Experience, which provides information about the art world to get its listeners interested in participating.
In contrast to Applequist’s artwork, Blake’s paintings are more straightforward in both their execution and sense of place. Pieces that cite Takoma Park street names, like “Purple House on Carroll” and “Pink House on Lincoln,” make it clear that her paintings are set in the greater Washington area.
“I recognize Sheila’s work because I live in the same neighborhood,” Samworth says. “And so it’s fun to see all these houses I’ve walked by a million times and see the changes in the neighborhood and see the paintings reflecting some of those changes.”
Blake moved to D.C. from North Carolina, where she was teaching at Duke University, because her husband got a job at NASA. They arrived here in the 1980s and lived near Howard University. Blake remembers the duality she experienced living there. In her artwork, she depicts picturesque alleys and showcases backyard gardens maintained by people who had lived in the area for years. “But it was exactly at the time that the crack epidemic hit,” she recalls. “I also saw the whole deal, all the drug trade and everything.”
Her husband supported her while she focused on art. Many of Blake’s earlier paintings capture Howard University and its surrounding neighborhood. She has since moved to Takoma Park, which she says reminds her of her childhood.
“Since I came to Takoma Park all my paintings are paintings of here, of the houses, the yards, the weeds, the trees because they have such an evocative feeling,” Blake says. “And I feel that in Washington, too. Because even though there’s a lot of the new stuff there is also a lot of the old Washington and I love to see that.”
The title of Applequist and Blake’s show Painting in place of a place is inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain.”
Blake’s husband came up with the exhibition’s title, she says, while noting that in her paintings “a lot of it is invented, but the feeling of the place is there.”
“You can walk around in that world,” Blake says. “You can visit in it and really just take it in and feel that feeling of being there. You can walk on the porch and peer in the window.”
Blake’s nostalgic artwork is not immune to current issues like Takoma Park real estate, even if it’s not intentionally speaking to them. “Somebody saw this painting and they said, ‘Oh, where is that house?’” Blake says. “I said ‘Well, it’s on Carroll and Flower,’ and they go, ‘Well, I wonder how much they want for it.’”
She laughs. “It’s a painting!”
The District’s rental market was different when Foundry member artist Joyce Wellman moved here from her hometown of New York City in 1981. “When I came here rent was $235 and I paid $250 for the whole year to work at WD Printmaking Workshop with Percy Martin,” she says.
The city’s rapid development and increasing rent forced Wellman out of her artist’s studio and into her basement, which she fashioned into a workplace that she calls “the studio down under.”
Another Foundry member, artist Matthew Malone, credits some of his success to his time in the Brookland Artspace Lofts, a complex of affordable housing units for artists. “I was living there for 10 years,” he says. “What that allowed me to do was make work that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. It allowed me this—my practice growing—which is a struggle here in D.C. for a lot of people.”
Since most artists don’t experience wild success throughout their entire careers, Wellman notes the importance of having a place like Foundry Gallery where what she calls “everyday artists” can sustainably work and exhibit, and everyday people can purchase art.
Along with struggle, there is hope for artists: At the exhibition’s opening reception, a red dot was placed on the label of one of Applequist’s paintings, indicating that it had sold. The artist says the painting cost $5,500.
Painting in place of a place is on view to March 1 at Foundry Gallery, 2118 8th St. NW. (202) 232-0203. foundrygallery.org.
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