Pleasanton art exhibit pays homage to firefighters
By Lou Fancher
Courage and color are not the first subjects that spring to mind when recalling a devastating wildfire, like the one that took place on Mount Diablo in 2014.
But an intimate, 12-piece exhibit open through April 4 in the hallways and lobby of Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center pays homage to the bold heroics of the firefighters who battle blazing infernos and the beauty of a scorched landscape's recovery.
Five large-scale paintings by Saratoga-based artist Vincent Liu and seven works by plein-air watercolor painter Robin Purcell of Danville find a suitable home in the building that once housed firefighters serving the community.
"I had always been interested in having an exhibition honoring our firefighters," says Julie Finegan, curator and Visual and Literary Arts Coordinator for the City of Pleasanton.
Finegan says people often speak of sliding down the pole when they were young children on field trips to the Firehouse and occasionally, firefighter crews return to reminisce about the department's history. Recognizing that the building holds fond memories and realizing the simultaneous parallels and diversities between a figurative artist (Liu) and a landscape artist (Purcell), Finegan organized the exhibit around a central theme she believed would captivate local audiences. Liu said he jumped at the opportunity to expand his firefighter paintings to a series.
"I was working on another series I call "behind the scenes." I like to discover people working in society and making small contributions, like a cook in a restaurant. Courage is a branch out of that," he said.
Liu grew up in a family of artists in Taiwan, including a grand uncle, Liu Haisu, a pioneering 20th century Chinese artist. Studying software engineering and choosing the more predictable career of a high-tech entrepreneur, he said startup companies, network security and modern Internet infrastructures consumed his time. Retiring in 2005, his engineering mindset and a latent urge to make art melded into a singular focus.
"I like to ask, 'Why?' " he said. "Why is a painting beautiful or a sculpture intriguing?"
Finding his answer with an artistic style at the midpoint between hyper-realism and abstraction, Liu prefers subtlety to overtly realistic depictions he said are better left to photography. Instead, paintings that allow a viewer's imagination to roam, "broken stuff blended together" in his sculptures and an overarching fascination with the visual "story" his brushes describe are elements that satisfy his current passions.
"I live for the second chance now. Art is something I wake up every day and want to do. I'm exploring how far I can go," Liu said.
Purcell, perhaps driven by a similar lust for renewal and discovery, has been drawn to the singed pine trees, blackened chaparral, dead-gray grass, remnants of exploded manzanitas and stripped-to-tan firebreaks and tree trunks left behind by the fire on Mount Diablo.
But you might never know from the 12 pieces in the exhibit that this seemingly dour list of a changed topography is the foundation for her series of paintings. With enhanced coloration that Purcell said comes from her background as a flower painter and from "staring for hours and hours at a landscape," the paintings burst with vibrant terra cotta orange-pinks, magentas, cerulean and azure blues, deep violets, mustard yellows and minty greens.
"I never met a curve I didn't like," Purcell said, about her work's wavelike impression. "At one point, I painted realistically and came home with taupe and muddy brown pieces, but that wasn't how being out in the field made me feel."
Gradually, Purcell found a midpoint of her own: paintings that are instantly recognizable as to location but convey the joy and glorious inspiration she draws from a landscape.
"Nature is chaotic," she said. "The Bay Area is defined by earthquakes, and that organizes the greens, the underbrush, the trees. I constantly see paintings all around."
Purcell said her recent trips up the mountain have revealed that root systems survive, meaning the "dead black sticks" that were burnt chaparral on the mountain are now two-thirds green. Scarlet fire poppies hiding in remote corners and other "first-generation" plants that grow only after a fire, she said, offer a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an outdoor painter.