Patty St. Louis started her art career working mainly with the theme of balanced stones, a signature of her work
by Mary Corbin / Photos by Lance Yamamoto – June 2019
Life in the Bay Area got off to a shaky start for Patty St. Louis. Quite literally, that is. Hailing from a big Irish Catholic family in Bristol, Conn. — she has 86 first cousins — St. Louis arrived in Oakland at age 23 just three days after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Feeling aftershocks for days while staying with friends who lived in a warehouse on Peralta Street that was being used as a morgue for the victims of the freeway collapse, St. Louis thought, “Welcome to California!”
The morning she packed up all her belongings to move to Berkeley, the Oakland hills fire broke out. St. Louis vowed never to make any big moves again. But in 2009 she moved to Alameda so her kids could go to school there, making the move sans natural disaster this time. She kept an art space at Bridgeside Studios on Blanding Avenue during that time but currently lives on the West End and works out of her garage studio now.
A natural mathematician, St. Louis didn’t discover art until college at UConn, realizing “the true stuff of life can only be found through creativity.” St. Louis received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and began working almost exclusively with the theme of balanced stones, a signature of her work. A big fan of Bill Dan, master rock balancer from San Francisco, St. Louis is also influenced by Sterling Gregory, a young master balancer and artist from Ohio. They have become great friends through conversations on the art of rock balancing and the art they create inspired by it.
St. Louis has worked almost exclusively on this subject for 30 years. Her stone portraits are anthropomorphic, reflective of traditional figure drawing by highlighting the features of stacked stones that are similar to the human figure – equally erect, vertebral, and ephemeral. When asked why she maintains the singular focus, she replied, “Because it lends itself so easily to a vast array of duality and conundrum. It is simultaneously about gravity and support, stillness and chaos, human and nature, figure and ground, portrait and landscape.”
Photographing her subjects is a stand-alone art as well as a stepping-stone to her paintings. Working primarily in acrylic on canvas, she captures forms simply, using a technique she has fine-tuned, building dry charcoal on top of the paint, and creating a strong line that can be seen from afar, even as the color layers recede. The palette she selects creates complex neutral tones by blending colors that live on opposite sides of the color wheel.
Did the earth movement that introduced St. Louis to the Bay Area inadvertently plant a seed to explore this balance and stability of the Earth’s most basic component? “My life has been a series of major shakeups, balances, and topples,” she said, citing the death of her sister at age 14 and a traumatic physical injury that slows her down at times. “I am always creatively rebuilding in the aftermath without expectation of permanence,” St. Louis said.
The artists that influence her are both near and far. She is a big fan of Giacometti and said she nearly fainted in front of a Rembrandt once at the Metropolitan. She also enjoys the stylized work of San Francisco artist Barry McGee and the late Keith Haring. “My favorite local artist is Julia Marchand, featured in Alameda Magazine in 2017. She has been a source of support and inspiration since our early days together at SF City College,” St. Louis said.
St. Louis is more intrigued by the nature that cracks through the urban landscape than wide-open natural spaces. And in her work, she strives to erase the dichotomy of human vs. nature and promote a sense of belonging and responsibility to our natural environment. She is an urban farmer, a steward of a wetland on the Oakland waterfront, a yogini, a mom to two teenagers, and an assistant/companion to an elderly gentleman who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. And many locals know her as the former program director of Bike Walk Alameda. “Caring for our environment is self-care and caring for ourselves promotes the well-being of our environment,” she said.
Patty St. Louis exhibits at the Inkblot Gallery and the Frank Bette Center for the Arts in Alameda. She participated in the Llano Earth Art Festival in March 2018 and 2019. For more information, visit PattyStLouis.com.