The Intersection of Plants and People
During her childhood in Kansas City, Dottie Oatman loved to draw, and eventually chose after college to become an art therapist. One of her graduate school instructors turned her on to painting landscapes and still-lifes with watercolors, but it wasn’t until she was a young mother taking a yearlong sabbatical with her family in Mexico that she decided to devote herself to her own art.
“It was really a big change for me and kind of a solidifying change for me in really committing myself to being an artist,” Dottie says, recalling her time spent in San Miguel de Allende, a haven for expatriates and artists amidst a vibrant, Mexican community. “I had really sort of fluctuated with that, thinking my identity was more around being an art therapist and that was my work, up until that time.”
While in Mexico, Oatman, her husband and their two young daughters, now grown, enjoyed the local culture, learned Spanish, and took in the exciting colors of the scenery. Oatman’s work still carries the spark of discovery from that time, often featuring flowers and plants in full, bursting hues, some from subsequent visits to Mexico, others from worldwide trips, and many from fresh flowers she sets in her home studio in Boulder, Colorado.
Inspired by both the ability of Impressionist artists to capture a moment in time through light and dabs of color, Oatman also incorporates in her watercolors the Magical Realism of Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera.
In a commissioned piece for a gardener, Oatman’s shapes and tones take on the look and feel of a children’s picture book, an imaginary place that the viewer might long to disappear into and explore. A gardener shaded by a straw hat collects a basketful of ripened fruits and vegetables. Above is written the client’s favorite saying: “When the World Wearies and Ceases to Satisfy, There is Always the Garden.”
Another work, “The Angel’s Offering,” has that same dreamy feeling, though this time, it’s a still-life. A lake-blue vase of purplish hydrangeas is in the forefront, along with another vase and two, green-leafed tangerines. Peeking around the side of the arrangement is an angel. At first glance, it looks as if a living, winged being were staring straight out of the painting at the viewer. Her model is actually a Mexican sculpture collected by Oatman from her travels, its personality captured by deft brushstrokes.
Moving back to Colorado some 14 years ago was challenging, Oatman says, because, compared with the wide range of colors in Mexico’s landscape, architecture, textiles and festival decorations, “everything looked so blue or brown here, or green and brown.”
“I would say color is one of the things that draws me to painting and just continually excites me about painting,” Oatman explains. “And it’s a little inexplicable because there’s something that painting does that takes me out of my very busy mind, and that just helps settle me. I get totally immersed in this other world and that is just so satisfying to me, playing with color, and really pushing the color.”
For another recent commission, Dottie was asked to paint a woman’s garden so that she could enjoy it year-round, even when the plants were dormant in the autumn and winter. A triptych tells the story of the setting: in the first panel, a garden gate and steps lead down through a blur of flower colors, with raucous red poppies in the foreground. A second panel continues the stone path through cream and pink blooms, then magenta red peonies. In the final panel, there is a place to rest, as more flowers and ferns create a small haven around a stone bench. It’s not just a rendition of the garden, but a story, with a beginning, middle and end.
Though Oatman’s paintings often feature flowers, she finds every one she examines inspiring.
“I don’t really have a certain favorite — I love all of them,” she says. “It’s amazing when you sit and really focus on something as you do when you’re painting it: everything becomes really beautiful.”
Since her stay in Mexico, Oatman has continued to travel the world, sketching and painting everything that catches her eye. She keeps a collection of twenty sketchbooks that represent her many journeys, during which she jots down visual observations at every opportunity — even sleeping travelers on planes become models for her studies. As a guide for painting tours to Spain, Oatman presents each participant with an empty art journal at the beginning of the trip, and she encourages them to fill them with quick impressions.
“People can let go a little bit to risk doing ‘bad paintings,’” she says. “ You know, I don’t consider them bad, but they’re really, really great little sketches and cartoony things and quick things that I think are so wonderful. And in that way they make a whole journal of their trip. It’s really my favorite thing. I love doing that more than anything.”
Oatman’s tours include stops in the cities of Madrid, Seville, and Jerez de la Frontera, where the travelers paint scenes from the horse fair (Feria del Caballo), a circus-like festival of flamenco-costumed participants and dancing steeds.
In addition to heading up painting trips abroad, Oatman teaches watercolor and continues to work with art therapy clients. Oatman’s artwork is shown by Mary Williams Fine Arts in Boulder and at her website, www.dottieoatman.com.
Editor’s Note: All images courtesy of Dottie Oatman, Copyright 2014.