Art exhibition explores pastel, a misunderstood medium

A piece of pastel artwork comes together with delicacy and focus.

Artists use pigments of every possible hue, starting with dark and transitioning to light. Layers of color on the paper add depth to landscapes, portraits or still-lifes.

But while the name may bring to mind soft, hazy colors, works created with pastel can be bold and daring, evoking a wide range of emotions.

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“The colors are so vibrant. People think pastels, and they think soft colors. But they don’t have to be. They can be anything at all,” said Mary Ann Davis, a southside Indianapolis artist who works in pastels.

The community will have a chance to see the breadth of possibility during the latest show at the Southside Art League gallery. “Passionate About Pastel” is a collaborative exhibition featuring 10 of the area’s best artists working in the medium.

Showcasing a wide variety of styles and approaches, the artists will help shine a spotlight on pastel, which is often misunderstood.

“Some people think it’s not anything more than colored chalk, that they painted with as children,” said Bev Mathis, a southside artist who is featured in the show. “But it’s more than that. You can do so much with it.

Pastel is a medium consisting of powdered pigment held together with some kind of binder. Because it is pure pigments, the colors produced by pastels are more natural than other mediums, such as oil paint or watercolor.

Properly preserved, pastel artwork can last an incredibly long time — a fact that many people misconstrue.

“A lot of people think it’s not going to last. But I think pastel is the most archival of the three. Oil paint can crack over the centuries. Watercolors can fade,” Mathis said. “But you look at some of the pastels that have survived all this time, and they’re just like they were when they were made. No deterioration, no fading.”

Clearing up those false ideas about pastels is partially what inspired this show, Mathis said.

“Passionate About Pastel” is a new approach for the Southside Art League. Outside of their major National Abstract Art Exhibition in October, and another show at the holidays, most the gallery’s focus is on a single artist each month.

But organizers decided to take a different approach as they planned for September’s show.

“I wanted to get different media for the whole year, so they’re not all the same. I noticed we had no pastels or anything unusual,” Mathis said. “So we tried to get three or four of us who were exhibiting pastels. Once we got to thinking, we started adding people, and it grew.”

The 10 artists featured in the show come from a wide range of backgrounds and approaches. John Manicke is a 91-year-old Greenwood resident who specializes in portraits. Mark Millis of Bargersville is rather new to the art world, choosing to pursue a more serious art education after an accident left him limited on the types of activities he could do.

Beth Lau retired as an English professor at California State University, Long Beach, and credits an art class by fellow artist Donna Shortt in stoking her interest in pastel. Shortt herself travels to capture a sense of place, mood, atmosphere and light in her art.

Greenwood resident Sonja Lehman is the director of the IUPUI Herron Art Library and works in a wide variety of media. Pastels have been a counterbalance for Marianne Hamilton, who has devoted most of her life to teaching science and precision.

Janice Lindboe raised her family in Martinsville, working and volunteering while putting art out of her mind. She rekindled her interest in art while in her 60s. Corrine Hull relishes painting landscapes, from the Lake Michigan shores to the deserts of New Mexico.

Each artist has a different story, but at the same time, appreciates the value that pastels offer.

“I want people to take away that it is truly an art form. It’s not drawing, it’s painting,” Davis said.

Davis, an Indianapolis painter, has been working in art for most of her life. Her mother encouraged her as an artist, and there was always paint, paper and other supplies available to express their creativity.

Her interest in pastel came while in college, when she was studying printmaking. She transitioned to painting, and met some friends who were using pastel.

“The pastel came a lot more naturally than oil or watercolors,” she said. “I like them because they’re quick; if you get interrupted and walk away for a couple hours, you can come back and your paints aren’t all dried out.”

Davis is a renowned en plein air painter, relishing the chance to paint a landscape or other subject on location. Her art celebrates nature, emphasizing color and atmosphere — which pastel is well-suited for.

“A friend of mine says I’m a ‘painter of fluff,’ because I like to do the clouds and the trees and the rolling hills,” she said. “I love all of the colors in the fields, and playing with that color.”

Davis’ work has been included in two “Painting Indiana” books as well as many art publications. For her, being in “Passionate About Pastel” is an opportunity to educate the public and help them understand more about the medium.

“When people look at pastels when they’re under glass, they don’t think they’re very permanent. But in truth, pastels have the least amount of binder of any artistic medium. The pastel color that the artist put down when they did it is as true as it is later,” she said. “I want people to understand they’re a lot more permanent.”

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Mary Ann Davis of Indianapolis enjoys the challenge of painting on location and has a reputation as one of Indiana’s premier en plein air painters. Her art celebrates nature, emphasizing color and atmosphere, and has been included in two Painting Indiana books and many art publications. She enjoys teaching as well as exhibiting.

Marianne Hamilton has devoted most of her life to teaching science, which is precise. It is a search for answers in a methodical fashion. In art she has found the freedom to observe the world in her own way. Pastels, in particular, allows her to plunge forward, make mistakes, and re-do. Most of all, art is her happy place to create any world she desires, while living in Indianapolis.

Corrine Hull never tires of painting varied Hoosier landscapes, from the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan, to the Indiana prairie, and to the hills of Southern Indiana. Traveling from her home in Indianapolis to sites such as New Mexico and Maine are equally enjoyable. She is drawn to pastels for two reasons: First is her love of color, and second is her passion for drawing. And painting with pastels is more immediate than using a brush.

Beth Lau is a retired English professor at California State University Long Beach who now resides in Bloomington. After 35 years of teaching, she wanted to revive a longtime interest in art. She credits Donna Shortt’s mentoring pastel class at SALI helpful in reactivating the artistic component of her brain. She also discovered that still life is her favorite genre.

Sonja Lehman has earned many degrees and certifications in the arts, and is now director of the IUPUI Herron Art Library. She works in a wide variety of media as a practicing artist from her studio at the Art Sanctuary in Martinsville, as wells as her home in Greenwood. Her current focus is on relief and letterpress printing, papermaking, and the book arts.

Janice Lindboe worked, volunteered, and raised her family in Martinsville. She rekindled her interest in art in her 60s. Pastel painting has given her the opportunity to meet other generous and talented people who have encouraged and helped her develop new skills. She hopes that looking art her art work reminds others of a time or place that makes them happy.

John Manicke is an accomplished portrait artist who lives in Indianapolis. He developed his painting skills at such places as the Indianapolis Art Center and has more than fifty years of painting experience. He has won many awards including a Best of Show at the Indiana State Fair. He is a spry 91 years old, and keeps active by going to ballroom dancing sessions in Greenwood.

Beverly S. Mathis of Greenwood is a Herron School of Art grad who taught middle school art. While raising her family she just dabbled in art until she learned watercolor painting from David Tipton at SALI. Now she is a professional artist/teacher/exhibitor. Painting with watercolor is her first love, but pastel is an exciting change of technique because the colors are opaque and so vibrant. Her work hangs in the Brown County Art Gallery, as well as SALI.

Mark Millis of Bargersville is an emerging artist who began painting seriously after a career in education. A lifelong “doodler” and art collector, he began taking art lessons at SALI after a serious accident left him bored. He loves the challenge of complex landscapes with architectural elements. Using oil or pastels in an impressionistic style, he looks for the contrasting light and shadows. He enjoys painting at en plein air events, where he has won awards.

Donna Shortt of Indianapolis is equally accomplished in both oil and pastel. She travels all over the USA in all seasons, and even to France, with the goal of capturing a sense of place, mood, atmosphere and light. She also paints still life in her Indianapolis home studio where she can control the light. She enjoys art competitions and has won countless local and national awards. She was part of the Painting Indiana III book. Many of her paintings are in permanent collections.

— Information from the Southside Art League

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"Passionate About Pastel"

What: An exhibition featuring pastel artwork from 10 area artists

Where: Southside Art League Off Broadway Gallery, 299 E. Broadway, Greenwood

When: Through Sept. 30

Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.