Houston Chronicle Sunday
From caterer to painter, Masterson built art career on abstraction
Her works share space with those of David Adickes in ‘Rooted Renewal’
Marthann Masterson says she’s worked three careers, and then she eases into a story about one of them. She talks about her life before she became an artist.
She was catering an event for President George H.W. Bush that was to be attended by 2,000 people.
“We’d made a mess,” she says. “There was bell pepper all over the floor. These two men walk in talking into their sleeves. One said, ‘Is Ms. Masterson here?’ I said, ‘I’m Ms. Masterson.’ He said they needed all the people out of there so they could sweep the area. And I said, ‘Oh, honey, don’t worry, we’re gonna sweep and mop.’ ”
Masterson’s paintings exude a similar vibe. They stir weighty emotions while also tempering those feelings with streaks of hopefulness and humor.
Connections are easy to find between cooking and painting, as both are creative pursuits. But the environments couldn’t be more different. Masterson found in both a state of organizing chaos into a unified, single thing to be presented to an audience. But in painting, she also found a way to express herself without the buzz that emanates from the harried hive of a kitchen.
Her works are featured in “Rooted Renewal,” a co-exhibit with David Adickes at Bisong
Art Gallery. They’re fascinating in that they contain a brilliant radiance, but they also show an artist framing and containing the chaos. She has some degree of control over the drips of paint that leave trails across her canvases. But preparation is clearly crucial, as her works are meticulously conceived and layered. Even then, there are wobbles and surprises along the way. And sometimes the paint moves past the border of the canvas, leaving a trace outside the rectangle. These rivulets of paint speak to forces sometimes beyond our control.
The genesis of “Rooted Renewal” sprang from its two artists and curator Tammy Dowe, who brought them together at Bisong. Masterson and Adickes are both from this area — Masterson from Houston, Adickes from Huntsville. Both have, over the years, traveled around the world for art, work or both. Both artists have seen their work consumed by fairly famous rock ’n’ roll stars: Elvis Presley bought some of Adickes’ paintings; Masterson fed the Rolling Stones.
Their presence in “Rooted Renewal” underscores the exhibition’s titular expression about two artists from here making art here. But the works by Adickes and Masterson also are about creating art across time, through days good and bad, with an emphasis on the bad after a year without public interactivity.
Their works speak to time and place — that which we share and also time and space as experienced by an individual. Masterson cites Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack as key influences, and one can see the impact of both in her work, though not in an overbearing way. Her mix of structure and chance is startling. Her pieces look one way up close and benefit from a few steps back, where larger patterns fall into focus.
Learning in the kitchen
While Adickes used the GI
Bill to study painting in Paris, Masterson followed a different path for years. She’d painted all her life but never enjoyed formal study.
“I learned to paint in my kitchen, which is not as glamourous a start as David’s,” she says.
In the late-1990s, she sold her catering business. She looked around her house and decided the framed posters of art she’d hung were interesting but not representative of the relationship she wanted to have with visual art.
“I thought surely there’s something better than that,” Masterson says.
She signed up for classes at the Glassell School.
As she’s wont to do, Masterson tells a funny story about those days. She was waiting for a class to start and engaged a man in conversation. She thought he was another aspiring artist. Class began, they entered the classroom, and she took her space at an easel. He did not. Instead, he pulled off his sweater and pants and stood in the middle of a group of painters.
“I was so embarrassed,” she says, laughing now at the memory. “I painted his face and maybe half his chest.”
Of chairs and family
Masterson moved from nude conversationalists to subjects that didn’t talk before class. An early mentor told her to look for narratives in her work. She thought about her childhood in Houston.
Masterson is so outward and engaged it’s difficult to envision her as quiet. But she clearly felt some sort of internal movement that informed some of her first formal works. Having studied at Glassell, she began painting chairs. Just chairs. Empty chairs in different settings.
“They were meant to reflect human behavior,” Masterson says.
She entered one early canvas, “On the Outside,” in 2009 into an international competition and won.
“I thought about that painting a lot,” Masterson says. “There was this overriding feeling I had all my life as a little child. That I was on the outside. So I painted a circle of chairs. At the top was a full, strong chair. And as you went around they diminished until there was nothing left but the shell of a stool.
“If you paint about feelings, people connect to it. I had people come look at that painting and cry. They felt the loneliness I was projecting in the painting. Chairs was all it was. But there was a ballet company in Sarasota (Fla.), they wrote a ballet about my painting. That was my first real outing.”
Soon after, though, she pivoted toward more abstract work. She experimented with letting paint run the length or width of a canvas. She tried a brush, and it didn’t work. She tried using a sponge; no better. Masterson knew what she wanted to achieve, she just couldn’t find the mechanism to execute it. She tried a turkey baster. Again, no.
At that point, she visited a restaurant-supply store in Houston and bought some ketchup bottles. She found her vessel. She loaded them up with paint spread across 1-inch increments on the canvas and sent the oil downward. The finished pieces don’t look like streaks, though. Masterson plots layers and layers of paint, sometimes sending 80 to 100 streaks down the canvas.
“People ask how the lines are so straight,” she says, barely hiding a smile. “It’s just gravity.”