Gail Ramsey Wharton: A Woman of Mystery

gail ramsey olympia artistBy Alec Clayton

If you can judge an artist by her art, you’d have to say that Gail Ramsey Wharton is obsessed with the macabre; you’d have to deduce that she loves a good mystery, especially if it’s tinged with a bit of black humor.

For example, here are quotes from reviews I wrote of her shows. First from The Feminist Art Exhibition at Tacoma Community College in March of 2009:

“…in her Apple from Interior Series the subject is Eve eating the apple, the biblical story that has forever cast women in the role of temptresses and the font of all evil, and which demonstrates just how frightened men are of women. Wharton’s Eve is a surrealistic temptress with her oversized head and bright red apple within a black-and-white image.

Or from an exhibition at South Puget Sound Community College a year earlier:

“Wharton does fascinating acrylic, collage and charcoal portraits and interiors that seem to be a strange marriage of 16th century Dutch painting and Romare Bearden collages. It’s Alice in Wonderland meets Max Ernst. She presents a suite of portraits with odd distortions of facial features. They look just real enough to be unsettling. Collaged eyes and noses are mismatched — too large or too small or out of balance. The woman in Woman with Cherry has a large nose as seen in profile, but her face is pictured in three-quarter view. Very much like some Picasso portraits. And the disturbing image in Woman with Blue Hands is a woman with one eye much larger than the other and puppet hands, blue of course, with wooden sticks for arms.

The intriguing thing about her figures is the balance she strikes between realism and surrealism. They are eerie, verging on horrific. And the tortured, crumpled, rubbed and scratched surfaces enliven the images.”

gail ramsey olympia artistHer latest series of collages involve altering old master paintings taken from an old art history text book. She copies the images, paints into them and collages in words and bits of other images to change the meaning, often with cleverly used puns. For instance, she has given Fra Angelico’s 15th century fresco The Annunciation a new title: The Pronunciation, to show Mary and the angel arguing over the pronunciation of tomāto-tomäto; and she has changed Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus into The Birth of Venus of Willendorf. Instead of the idealized goddess beauty on the seashell Wharton pictures the paleolithic statue of a fecund woman which is thought to be one of the oldest statues in existence.

Wharton had been interested in art since childhood but did not take it up seriously until after her husband died and she retired. She was a counselor working primarily with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients at a time when that was rare. She retired from counseling in about 1988 moved back to her hometown of Berkley and started making art and teaching at a local art supply store. In 2001 she moved to Lacey where she taught painting and collage at South Puget Sound Community College and taught a few workshops at the now defunct Back Door Gallery.

The first artwork to have a powerful influence on her was the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights which she discovered at the age of 10. She says now of that experience, “I thought there is more here than I can understand right away.” That, she says, is what she has always liked in a work of art — something that’s not completely explained, a work that leaves something to the imagination. As I talked to her in her Lacey home recently she kept referring back to a sense of mystery as a driving force in art, and Bosch came up repeatedly in our conversation. A large copy of his Garden of Earthly Delights still graces her studio wall.

gail ramsey olympia artist“I like the old artists,” she said. Other artists who influenced her from early on were Pierre dela Francesca and Joseph Cornell, and later the photographer Diane Arbus (she showed me one of her early collages in which she used an appropriated Arbus image to create a portrait of her mother).

She admits to a fascination with the darker side of life and showed me a painting she did that was “so dark and disturbing I’ve never shown it anywhere. It’s creepy.” It was a self-portrait with collaged eyes of different sizes and her own hair glued on. She said works such as that one which she never intends to show may be her best because they are pure.


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