“If you keep going down the end of Sherman, there’s a nice park with good walking trails. There’s actually three parks around here. There’s canoe-putting off of Wheeler that you can put in to Cherokee Lake and go up the Yahara. It’s a really nice place to canoe. You go just a little bit up the river, but there’s no houses. You don’t feel like you’re in the city anymore.”
I’m sitting with Deb Gottschalk in her kitchen, watching the house finches vacillate between the multiple feeders in her backyard. Living on the outskirts of Madison, she has built a life that enables her to spend all her time in rich, natural places or making art. Half of our time together is spent discussing the marsh near her home and the rocks she has collected during trips up north and brought home to polish. Art is clearly a part of Deb, but in a way that honors her connection to natural spaces. The affinities are indivisible.
Deb has been painting since childhood in Waterloo, a small town built on a marsh near Madison. “My mother was a very creative person. She did a lot of art. Taught adult vocational classes in flowering arranging and crafts. And she also painted. So when I was a kid, I always got paints, and it seemed like a natural thing to always do for as long as I can remember.” She recounts how when her mother would sit down to paint, she would give her an extra tray of paints and some paper. It was a way to keep Deb, a curious kid, well-behaved. “Keep ‘em quiet, here have some paints,” she fondly conveys her mother’s reasoning.
By the time she entered high school, Deb had embraced painting. Nurtured further by a highly engaged, multimedium art teacher in high school, she went on to pursue a Bachelors of Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, graduating in 1984. It was at Whitewater that Deb began to investigate her ideology of art. She had started to differentiate herself from the philosophy of art she was provided. “When you’re in college, you’re taught that your art has to have ideas. You have to be conveying a message. And I always felt figures and people would be more conducive to doing that. But I realized that’s not what I really wanted to do. I just really wanted to capture landscape or capture a beautiful image. That is what I wanted to say. That is what I wanted to do. It took a lot of time to figure that out. To find it.”
Deb’s self-discovery did not stop at finding what she loved to depict and why she wanted to depict it. While she had painted from childhood on, Deb was not entirely set in her painting. Even through the early 2000s, she was working with a variety of mediums. Nonetheless, by 2005, Deb had come to terms with her deep appreciation of oil paints, one that had been cultivating for decades. “I had tried other things. I’d do some drawing. Generally don’t finish them—just some practice. I’d tried watercolors, acrylic, pastels, and other things, but I always come back to painting. I get about halfway through something in pastels and just wish I was doing it in oils because then I could get the exact color I want or the exact feel I want. Painting with something else just doesn’t feel quite adequate.”
The exactness that Deb refers to when she describes her fondness for oil paints is absolutely visible in her work. Though Deb’s expertise is broad in landscape painting, her current passion is in skies and the objects reflected in bodies of water. The nuance inherent in her work on skies and water is astounding, with the slightest variances in shade required for realistic depiction. The necessity for precision carries further for Deb, as her latest work features scenes of muted color palettes, necessitating clear focus on shadow and light. Works such as Geometry, Retention, and Like a Bell embody this phenomenon; each of these shows us the skeletons of winter and spring trees captured only in reflection of foreshortened pools of water.
The trees, skies, and waters Deb chooses are the mechanism that pushes her work forward. These outdoor excursions, whether to Cherokee Lake or Lake Superior, make up the vast majority of Deb’s time. From the excursions themselves to discussing them afterwards, from savoring objects collected to documenting landscapes witnessed through digital photography for later painting, this artist has given herself to these spaces. She has entered quietly into an agreement with the land, a cycle where she is given to and then gives back. Deb, pensive and deliberate, takes her time in explaining the relationship to me. “When you see that image, or that pattern, or that sky—to hold the memory of how wonderful that is. It’s such a momentary thing. You want to remember that was there. That beauty is around us even just out the window, out the door, down the street.”
Deb Gottschalk’s work can be found at Abel Contemporary Gallery (abelcontemporary.com ).
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.