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CLASS OF ’59

Color-conscious

 

(Top) Dark Sea, oil on canvas, 2000; (above) Studio Westward View, oil on canvas, 1999-2000. Courtesy Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Osborne FA’59 once kept a studio in a former funeral home. Looking at the color-saturated canvases that define the painter’s latest work, you can see why this wasn’t a good match.
   
“I didn’t like it,” she recalls during a visit to her current studio, in Philadelphia’s Old City, one October morning. “It was too dark and gloomy.” This space, however, is anything but. Sun pours through four skylights, illuminating 20 years of spattered paint on the blue wooden floors, which her Cairn terrier-mutt, Jasper, romps across. The colorful stripes of the dog’s plush dumbbell toy echo a stunning motif that runs through many of her paintings—both wide and skinny bands of rainbow colors that seem to represent, in turns, book spines, paint cans—and the artist herself. Osborne laughs when she realizes that even the fuzzy striped sweater-vest she happens to be wearing this morning matches her canvases.
   
These paintings were part of her fall exhibition, Vantage, held at Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Edward J. Sozanski praised Osborne for her “Dionysian commitment to vibrant, saturated color” as well as her “superb Apollonian sense of order and placement.”
   
As a child growing up in Lansdale, Pa., Osborne loved to draw and paint. Her mother was taking classes at Penn and became friends with many of her instructors. One of them, the late philosophy professor Dr. Louis W. Flaccus, took a special interest in the young artist, buying her supplies and critiquing her work.
   
She found additional role models at Saturday classes at the University of the Arts and at Friends Central School before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Osborne came to Penn to round out her education at a relative’s urging. (Both her mother and father had died of separate illnesses by the time she was 12.) “I had mixed feelings about it,” she confesses, “because all I wanted to do was paint.” (She did meet her current husband, the Hon. Ronald P. Wertheim W’54 L’57, who was then editing Penn’s Law Review, on campus. They dated for about six months before going their separate ways and marrying other people. Then Wertheim, a judge in Washington, D.C., came back to Philadelphia in 1987 for his 30th-year Law School Reunion and called her up to go to lunch. They were both getting divorced. After this meeting they began dating each other again and married in 1991. Osborne’s daughter from her earlier marriage, Audrey Osborne Cooper C’94, graduated from Penn soon afterward; she’s now attending art school.)
   
Upon her return from a Fulbright scholarship trip to Paris after graduation, Osborne took a job as an assistant art teacher at Friends Central. “I didn’t like working with kids who weren’t really in love with painting. I found it frustrating to try to discipline them,” she says. “I was always cleaning up messes.” In 1963, she became the third woman to join the faculty at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she still teaches one day a week. Osborne has also served as a visiting professor at Penn.
   
Early in her career, she worked with a more muted palette. Then in the 1970s, a student of hers at the Academy was pouring acrylic in the manner of the Color Field painters. Osborne gave it a try. “That did change my palette,” she says. “I started using much more intense color and layering color.” Throughout the 1980s she worked primarily with watercolors; she then decided she missed the weight and texture of oils and returned to that medium.
   
As the exhibition catalogue states, the interiors in Vantage form “an extended, but oblique self portrait of the artist.” They also demonstrate in interesting ways the transition between reality and unreality.
   
In “View Bridge,” vertical blocks of color—suggesting an artist’s canvas—stand near a doorway looking out to a distant bridge over water. “This did sort of symbolize me,” Osborne says. “I was standing right here,” she gestures to a window at one end of her long studio with a view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, “looking out to the outside.
   
“I think the artist is always very much aware of their own space and their inner thoughts and how they relate to the world,” Osborne says. “Because they spend so much time alone—they’re so solitary, most artists —and you can get a little skewed that way. Teaching is a kind of relief” from the seclusion of the studio, she adds, though “sometimes it’s frustrating to have to stop working.”
   
In “Studio Westward View,” a branch with three persimmons rests on a table in the foreground by a colorful piece of cloth. The trio of fruit are repeated in a veiled painting that hangs in the background. To the right, a window with a cityscape view could be just that—or the image on another canvas. Osborne frequently incorporates paintings within her paintings, sometimes paying tribute to artist friends, living and dead, with miniature representations of their works tucked into her own.
   
Another series of works in Vantage, her landscapes and seascapes, convey a hypnotic calm with colorful, undulating strokes created by combing paint across the canvas with a large, stiff brush.
   
The Locks Gallery’s Douglas Schaller describes Osborne as a gifted colorist who fluidly crosses the boundaries of representational, figurative and abstract art. Osborne says she sees herself moving further away from a literal representation of space. “Yes, I may want to take the table out next time,” she says, studying “Studio Westward View.” “I might just do that.”


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