Artist Kathy Odom paints life into buildings, sites of the past

Harold DuckettArts 865, Feature

There is an interesting exhibit of new work by Knoxville painter Kathy Odom at The District Gallery in Bearden.


Odom paints en plein air, which means that she paints outdoors, looking at her subject, from start to finish while she sits or stands there. En plein air is a French term that simply means outdoors. Most Americans with any visual art literacy recognize the great paintings of Claude Monet, especially his water lily paintings, that are en plein air work.

Before the mid-19th century, no one thought of painting outdoors. Portraits, allegorical historical paintings and religious icons were the primary focus of painting from the Middle Ages into the 19th century. Leonardo da Vinci sometimes took years to complete a painting. He may have taken as long as 14 years before he decided that his “Mona Lisa” was finished.

Odom’s work is directly focused on capturing the image she sees, not in creating a dreamy, fairy-tale state found in the work of the popular collectibles-market paintings of Thomas Kinkaid, who also painted en plein air.

Although Odom paints a site as she sees it, her work has emotional content. In her artist statement written for the show, she notes that “‘remembering’ is a definitive word in my life.”

When she returned to painting after many years of a work-life in other fields, “I resurrected my joy of capturing the nostalgia of people and place through art,” she also wrote. “When looking at the history of the East Tennessee landscape, particularly the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where I love to paint ‘plein air,’ I realize what a privilege and responsibility it is to recapture the forgotten.”

But what Odom captures in her work isn’t just an image of some past usefulness, some ghost of an activity that used to take place in her scene. The actual way she applies the paint to her canvas surface gives the image a kind of stateliness and continuing strength.

“All Grown Up,” 2018, oil on canvas, 18″ x 36.”

In “All Grown Up,” for instance, composition is a group of barns and sheds that seem to be in the process of letting nature reclaim the space they occupy; a group of abandoned buildings doing nothing but waiting their turn to fall down.

But the way Odom applies the paint to the canvas surface, with the broad face of the brush so that the paint is laid down in confident strokes, the buildings have a solidity they wouldn’t have if the paint were applied with the narrow edge of the brush in pencil-like lines.

They are images more of having completed the task they were created for and have now become something else, in much the same way that Odom reinvented herself when she finished her first career and returned to painting.

“Wrapped in Gold,” 2018, oil on canvas, 12” x 16”

In direct terms, “Wrapped in Gold” can be described as just another abandoned building that’s past its usefulness, except this time it’s a house that once accommodated the life of a family.

Nature is again encroaching on it. Young trees, in their fall foliage glory, have sprung up too close to the sunlit house. But this isn’t a painting of a structure left in the past. The young saplings don’t cast their shadows on the walls as if to say, “This is my time. You have been left for dead.”

In capturing this scene, Odom used her brush to quickly sketch the trunks of the trees, then filled in the house in the spaces between the branches, with more quick strokes with the broad face of her brush. The roof area is almost abstract in its character. The clapboard siding is just more rapid horizontal strokes. The whole process of this application gives the house a sense of activity, of things happening. One can imagine what the lives of the people who lived here were like. The story this painting tells is that this was a place where children played and ran around. It was not a house of quiet, sedentary people.

In all of Odom’s paintings in this show, the very way she went about capturing the image on the canvas tells part of the picture’s story. Collectively, they are a captivating, complex narrative.

The District Gallery is at 5113 Kingston Pike in Bearden. The show runs through Jan. 5. More information can be found here.

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