By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
The Bankers Hill neighborhood has been known for many things over the years, from its first, affluent residents in the 1890s to its lush landscapes and canyon trails to one of the nation’s first AIDS hospices, in the historical Truax House. Today, it enjoys the serendipity of being home to the top two winners of the San Diego Watercolor Society’s March Member’s exhibit, a competitive juried show.
Brent Foster’s “The Russian Artist” won first place, and Bonnie Woods’ “In a Purple Mist” took second.
Watercolor painting is technically challenging. Its transparent nature can make the medium much less forgiving than others — mistakes cannot be hidden under an additional layer of paint — so winning in such a competitive venue is all the more rewarding. But both artists are seasoned and accomplished, and both have been painting since childhood, with lots of maternal encouragement.
In a recent interview with San Diego Uptown News, Foster, with her pixie-ish persona and personality, drew a timeline of her artistic training.
“My mother kept a painting I did when I was two-and-a-half,” she said. “It’s just part of my life.”
Foster attended the studio arts program at Scripps College, studied with landscape artist Millard Sheets, and was pursuing a master of fine arts degree in medieval architectural art on a Fulbright scholarship, when her advisor died — and no one else would take her on. Out of funding, Foster made her way to New York and, from 1957 to 1960, pursued her studies at the Art Students League, with a multitude of artists painting their way to fame. Foster eventually returned to California and taught in public schools, incorporating art in her academic classes. Upon retiring in 2003, she moved to Bankers Hill.
“I love it — it’s wonderful,” Foster said of her neighborhood. “I’m so glad I stumbled into it. It’s like being in the country. I have a studio that I love. Large sliding doors open onto a ravine. I started taking classes here. There’s so much going on for watercolors, so many good teachers and the climate, and the society is wonderful. It’s really watercolor heaven here.”
As inspiring as her location might be for plein air — or outdoor — painting, Foster also embraces portraiture. Her winning painting, “The Russian Artist,” was influenced by a fellow artist who sat for a group with which she regularly paints.
“He had a wonderful face,” Foster said. “He projected a lot of humor, a lot of pain.”
Foster’s painterly colleague, Bonnie Woods, also has a gift for capturing the subtleties of emotion — a wistful expression or a bemused shrug of a shoulder, as in her second-place painting, “In a Purple Mist.”
Woods, a Signature status member of the watercolor society and of the Western Federation of Watercolorists, studied art at the universities of Houston, Oklahoma and California, San Diego. Her work celebrates the female.
“I have a passion for it,” she said. “I also draw regularly with a group — we have live models every week. I take a lot of my inspiration from live models. Maybe 60 or 70 percent comes from my imagination. I love to draw women. I’m fascinated by the human figure.
“There’s another thing that’s always interested me,” Woods continued, “the women of the street, the idea that a woman can do anything, do whatever they can to make a living. I find the costumes fascinating, the women fascinating. I have a series called ‘Showgirls, Strippers and Streetwalkers.’ My goodness, the outfits, the tattoos, the hairstyles, the colors — I walk down the street and it’s hard for me to concentrate, because I want to take pictures of them.”
Woods’ eye lands on subjects who are not always lighthearted.
“Some of the faces are a little on the more somber side,” Woods explained. “My paintings make people stop and think. They’re impressed by the expressions. To me, the most vital thing is the attitude — of sassiness or pain or they’re thinking back about something. At the very deepest level, I have to say that I was so inspired by my mother, but she was bigger than life. We’re from Texas, and she was a big, big personality. I looked at her from afar and worshipped who she was. She died early — I don’t think I really got to know who she truly was — but I think her talent is coming through me and telling me some stories.”
Whether stories from the past, silent pain or the beauty of local landscapes, artistic inspiration abounds in Bankers Hill.
Woods’ work can be viewed at Ashton Gallery, 4434 30th St., and online at bonniewoods.com. For more information about the San Diego Watercolor Society, visit sdws.org. The society’s gallery is located in Liberty Station at 2825 Dewey Road, San Diego.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog, “Excuse Me, I’m Writing,” and has been published by Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voice of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.