Artists change direction in their work. The artist’s job is to pay attention when they feel led in another direction, so they’re not recreating the same thing over and over. Picasso is a well known example, constantly changing styles and media. If the artist is lucky it’s playful, even fun, and the art produced resonates with other people. I think it’s pretty wonderful when artists can make a living doing what they love in these times.
Longtime Prescott resident and artist Raina Gentry is one who has bravely followed that pull, away from representational work and into abstraction. I visited Raina at her home and we sat in her studio, where I was able to study three paintings in progress on adjacent easels.
Raised in Southern California, Raina was planning to attend a state university when a friend showed her a brochure for Prescott College. Already a rock climber and outdoors person, she soon was off to Prescott to soak up all the richness of PC’s environmental-sciences program. After graduation Raina taught rock climbing there for six years, then enrolled at the University of Arizona for a degree in art focused on painting.
Moving back to Prescott after art school, she worked for two years dividing her focus between faux-finishing and mural work in people’s homes and her painting. At that point she decided to devote her time and energy exclusively to her own work, exploring various media and styles until she came into her Boulder series.
Being a climber and living as she had in the southwest, Raina had always been moved by the colors, shapes and textures of rocks. She produced many paintings and was able to support herself solely from her art. She describes herself as on fire during this period, which lasted nearly ten years, and feels that everything else she is known for came out of that series.
Raina showed her paintings at various local galleries, including the Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery, where she learned that selling affordable prints of her work boosted her income and visibility as an artist. In 2013 she moved to Colorado and spent some time working on her Mountain series, but her connection with Prescott remained strong, and after several years she moved back and has been painting here ever since.
Raina works in acrylics and ink. Spreading colors on glass until she has the palette she wants, she then rolls a stamp onto the paint and transfers it to the panel — she only paints on wood. Some stamps are purchased, but most she has carved herself from silicone sheets. She moves back and forth between brushwork and stamping. Her printmaking experience in art school informs her inclination to layer color and patterns.
Several years ago Raina started feeling a new pull toward abstract work. “I felt I was burning out on what I was doing, and I knew there was this other artist, this other part of me, that I wanted to come out and be expressed. But I didn’t know how to approach abstract work.” A workshop at the Scottsdale Artists’ School set her in motion. Finally feeling that she could move forward, she painted nonstop for five months.
The teacher was just what Raina needed at the time, so she hired her to mentor one-on-one via Zoom for three months. The teacher would critique her work, which helped Raina see things she might have otherwise missed. At first Raina didn’t fully grasp some of the things the teacher said, but she still gleaned what she needed from the mentoring. For an established artist, input from an outside authority isn’t, and shouldn’t, always be accepted wholesale. There is already an inner voice and established leanings that say, “I’ll take this and this, but not that, because it goes against my own sense of direction.”
Focal points, rhythm, color relationships, and trying to avoid makig her pieces too busy are all elements Raina works with in her painting, but she finds it a struggle to keep her footing in this new direction. “I know if I keep working at it like I did early on in my art career, it will happen. Then I can make this abstract work my own.” Her earlier work was easier to understand, with images of animals and nature. She understood and had a methodology for her style. She feels she hasn’t yet found that in her current work, but her conviction that this is the right direction is palpable.
Raina has a very fluid relationship with color. She is constantly drawn to bright colors, which she calls a crutch, but is increasingly using black. She takes photos of her pieces as they develop, and will sometimes share them with buyers. Seeing her pieces on a small screen helps her to see the pieces as a whole differently. In addition, the practice of working on several pieces simultaneously over a period of time is useful. A little break to focus on something else before returning to a piece is very helpful, and the pieces, though different, can inform one another.
We spoke about how all the elements of composition — perspective, balance, focal point, etc. — are as important in abstractions as they are in representational art. “People look at a Rothko or a Pollack or a DeKooning and think it’s so easy, but a successful abstract painting is much more difficult for me than representational painting. You can break the rules if you really understand them, but you need an understanding of composition and these elements to make your work successful.”
You can find Raina Gentry’s work locally at Van Gogh’s Ear on Whiskey Row, West of the Moon gallery in Flagstaff, and the Page Springs Winery in Cornville (which is so worth visiting!). Visit her website at rainagentry.com.