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A Houston artist’s pandemic paintings capture a crazy year’s emotions

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 12/9/2020 By Molly Glentzer, Staff writer

Houston artist Gail Siptak retreated to her home studio when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began. It is not exaggerating too much to say she still has not emerged.

Siptak has room to produce oil paintings, and often does. But because she couldn’t get her feelings down fast enough this year for oil paintings to dry, she turned to gouache, another medium for which she is famous. She can finish a gouache painting in days rather than weeks and usually keeps about three going at once, she says. “So I am filtering like a fish breathing through its gills.”

Since March 10, she has produced more than 90 small goauches on handmade paper reflecting the social, political and environmental storms that have kept people reeling from one moment to the next in 2020. Siptak grew up near San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., and watching the mountains she loves destroyed by a record wildfire season got her more than anything. “Everything was on fire,” she says. “The only way to get calm about it was to express it.”

But even on days when politics and equality stir her imagination, her subjects are not overt. “I paint not so much what is happening but how it affects people,” she says.

Her canvas is handmade paper created across the U.S. and in England. Buying it helps to support other artists.

Siptak also likes the uneven edges and the way handmade paper holds gouache, allowing her to layer the opaque, chalky paint. “You can go back into it and make marks in a way you would on oil or acrylic that’s dry,” she explains. The effects resemble what people called “body color” in the Middle Ages, when the artists mixed pigment and egg yolks to paint manuscripts.

Because handmade paper tends to be smallish and not a standard size, Siptak often combines multiple sheets and sometimes adds collage elements cut from older gouaches. This gives many of the paintings their irregular shapes. Some of them resemble hanging kimonos.

Even if you didn’t know Siptak came of age in California during the 1960s and ’70s, you might guess it from the homespun sensibility of these paintings, which often depict people and animals within swirling universes of stars and suns. Fish and water feature prominently, too. Their spirituality calls to mind Byzantine icons, but Siptak finds her church in the grandeur of the natural world.

Her folksy figures can appear vulnerable and lonely in their churning worlds, but they rarely look hopeless. Sometimes they even look content. She imagines a place where empathy and essential goodness prevail. Her paintings are intimate meditations on cycles of life as much as tumult and disaster.

Art dealer Franny Koelsch, who is selling Siptak’s work, thinks customers are responding to the artist’s deft mix of honesty, sincerity and humor. “Whimsy and comfort just seem to be resonating right now,” Koelsch says. “Gail paints all the time, but you can feel how she dove in during the pandemic, and you can see how art has been a haven for her.”

Siptak’s “Missives From Lockdown” paintings are $400, unframed, in varying sizes (the largest is about 11-by-17 inches); available through Koelsh Haus, 1020 Peden; 713-862-5744, koelschgallery.com.

molly.glentzer@chron.com

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