When Dacia Xu, director of Qualia Contemporary Art Gallery, began to plan the last exhibition of 2022, she wanted a display that would offer visitors a respite from the pandemic, politics and inflation. In her words, "to bring pure joy, peace and strength to my viewers."
To that end, she selected works by two disparate artists: Venerable Shi De, a nun who lives in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, and Joe Ferriso, a native New Yorker who now lives and works in Sea Ranch, a small community on the Sonoma County coast. Their paintings, unique and contrasting viewpoints on how interactions with nature can result in inner peace and wisdom, comprise "Solace," on view until Feb. 10.
At first glance, the art works in this show could not be more dissimilar. Ferriso uses house paint on plywood to create his sturdy, solid landscapes. Shi De uses mixed media (calligraphy, watercolor, ink and seal carvings) in her ethereal paintings, many of which take the form of scrolls.
"I personally liked the strong contrasts. Both of their works are about finding quiet moments, inner peace and sharing the joy of life with others. The feeling of personal contentment, tranquility and joy transcends the divide between Eastern and Western art," Xu said.
Ferriso, who earned a graduate degree in fine arts from Stanford in 2018, is an adjunct lecturer in art at Sonoma State University. Upon moving to Sea Ranch, a planned community famous for its remote setting and timber-framed structures, Ferriso found himself completely absorbed and inspired by the solitude and quiet of this coastside community, as well as its distinctive architecture. "The Sea Ranch is a sculpture garden of large and small wooden boxes filled with people thinking, living and creating in an otherwise sparsely inhabited stretch of coastline," Ferriso said.
During his daily walks Ferriso is constantly drawing. "These simple notational drawings become the framework for my paintings," he said. As there are no synthetic materials allowed in Sea Ranch, the homes become naturally weathered over time, with the idea that the architecture becomes one with the landscape. This could present a problem for an artist, as the prevailing colors are gray and earth tones. Ferriso has found a way around this, he said, "adding bold, electric colors to these homes imparts a lively energy to the architectural forms and asks the question: 'what visions and emotions fill these spaces?'"
One thing that did not change for Ferriso after leaving San Francisco for the coast was his working method. He uses house paint, often cast off by friends or stores, and works on plywood, also recycled. Plywood is a perfect substrate because it is stable, flat and durable, he noted. The house paints are easy to remix and achieve the matte finish that is optimal for absorbing, but not reflecting, light.
Ferriso's paintings have specific titles, like "Annapolis Trail" and "Condo One," but they are not literal depictions of the structures at Sea Ranch. Using hand-drawn lines, the artist has captured a general feeling of architecture but, for the most part, these paintings are celebrations of the formal qualities of art: line, color, form and shape.
Ferriso said that he was greatly influenced by Josef Albers' "interaction of color" exercises. (Interaction of Color was a highly influential handbook that examined color theory through principles such as color intensity, temperature and relativity — how a color is perceived as lighter or darker, depending on what color is next to it.)
Even though Ferriso records the naturally occurring palette of the ocean, forest and sunsets, he likes each painting to be a "color event." This happens when the push and pull between warm and cool colors results in a visual sensation of pulsing color. In "Condo One," for example, we can make out the rooflines that are set against a swath of blue sea, but pops of neon orange and blue depicting windows catch the eye, both because of contrast and the unexpectedness of such colors.
There is a quiet tranquility to these paintings, a result of simple geometric shapes combined with a soothing palette of soft colors that create an architectural study that is by no means representational but appealing nonetheless. Ferriso confirmed that living at Sea Ranch has had a great impact on his work. "It is a place I can hear myself think and create time to document and share thoughts in paint," he said.
While the work of Joe Ferriso is firmly rooted in the tangible, corporeal world, the delicate paintings by Venerable Shi De find their inspiration in the spiritual realm. Shi De, who does not speak English, provided information about her art to Xu, who translated it for this story. Shi De was jolted, literally, out of the solitude of monastic life after an earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999. She decided to return to making art, "blending the serenity and joy from the practice of Chan Buddhism in her work."
Shi De titles her work with such descriptions as "Joyfulness Abounds" and "Dharma Everywhere," and these titles appear as pen-and-ink calligraphy in her paintings. Her landscapes are executed in a sketchy, impressionistic manner and capture forests, houses and lakes with simple washes of color. In several pieces, a small painting is framed in the center of a scroll. In "Thriving in Winter," the coolness of the wintry landscape is heightened by the harmoniously colored and intricately embossed teal scroll.
Shi De is, like Ferriso, inspired by her immediate surroundings. "Four Seasons" captures the changing natural scene, with tiny, multi-colored figures seated in the center. Xu said that De's figures are always seated, reflecting the time she and fellow nuns spend in meditation.
In addition to watercolor and calligraphy, most of Shi De's work includes seal carvings.
She carves these rudimentary depictions of animals in stone, which are then inked and pressed onto the watercolor. A small display case holds examples of the stones. Xu said that Shi De's work has a "child-like simplicity" in which technique is not as important as "naturalness, freedom and connectedness."
Shi De wrote a short statement about her working method, describing how she begins with knife or brush but, "in that moment, I am completely unaware of external things. My whole body, speech, mind and environment become one, blending inner and outer elements, mutual cause and effect."
As we emerge from a prolonged period of isolation caused by the pandemic and begin to embrace more social interactions, it is worthwhile to consider how artists like Ferriso and Shi De have found clarity and purpose in relative solitude. Ultimately, however, Xu said that for both artists, "It is about connecting first to the world around them, from landscape, architecture, shape, color to community; and then through these connections viewers can find a path to their inner self. The focus of the show is to encourage viewers to enjoy the peacefulness of the artists' work, to slow down in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and to connect with themselves."
"Solace" runs through Feb. 10 at Qualia Contemporary Art, 328 University Ave., Palo Alto. qualiacontemporaryart.com.