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ABOUT THE ARTIST
Camilla Webster is a museum-collected and widely exhibited fine artist, best-selling author, TED speaker and lecturer. Webster is a New York artist but has been painting in South Florida since 2017, working in acrylic on canvas as she focuses on the essence of nature and the landscapes of Palm Beach, the Florida Keys and the American West.
Webster obtained her Joint Honours MA and BA in Modern History and History of Art from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) in 1995. Since 2013, Webster has exhibited in galleries and given art talks by special invitation in Miami, London, Paris and New York. Since 2010, Webster has lived and worked between Miami, New York and the UK. Webster currently maintains a studio in Palm Beach, Florida.
Her TEDx talk “Art in Front of You,” which focuses on the art of calming down, has garnered thousands of views. Predominantly self-taught, Webster studied in 2013 at The Art Students League of New York under Pat Lipsky and in the summer of 2014 at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and went on to spend the winter of 2014 to summer 2015 in the studio at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City.
Webster explores her ideas through working in acrylic, oils, video and photography. Themes also are informed by her background as a leading veteran journalist and storyteller at Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other international news outlets in finance, global affairs and more. She is co-author with Carol Pepper of the bestselling award-winning book, “The Seven Pearls of Financial Wisdom: A Woman’s Guide to Enjoying Wealth and Power.”
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
Image: A Right to Spring, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 44″ x 76″
Image: Peacock Dust, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 40″
Image: The Point, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 60″
Image: Kintsugi Cool Blue, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″
Webster’s Abridged Dictionary of Narrative Abstraction
By Bruce Helander, Guest Curator
Throughout antiquity, historians often would point to the intuitive creative spirit of humankind and the ongoing benefits that it offered a growing and curious civilization. Other than some very limited sign language produced through hand movements, primitive tribes eventually developed uniquely simple communicative tools that would inspire and inform. Most of the earliest evidence of writing points to Jiahu symbols drawn on tortoise shells dating around 6000 BC. These minimalist drawings were the first painted symbols and likely samples of art that were both combinations of early letter forms and abstracted recognizable symbols, such as a sunrise, and constructed with a few dashes of homemade permanent pigment. Thanks to the invention of clay-based pottery in the Neolithic era, historians have discovered perfectly preserved stone tokens, which were used to record specific amounts of commodities using an early type of pictogram. In reality, these were the first sectional illustrative configurations distantly related to a modern-day cartoon strip.
It is a writer’s journalistic obligation to invent a method of inscription that paints a clear “picture” with words and without using a brush. So, it’s not surprising to learn that artist Camilla Webster, whose work is the focus of an important survey exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art (CSMOA), offers the viewer dreamlike canvases that discourse visually like a travel correspondent’s notebook. Webster, who also is a former professional reporter and award-winning writer and journalist for Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, has quite naturally and elegantly channeled her previous extensive and evocative writing experiences onto a dynamic, painted canvas that speaks its own distinct non-representational language with a universal message. Starting her career at CBS News with the creators of shows like “CBS Sunday Morning” and “60 Minutes,” Webster learned to craft a distinct, comprehensive, advanced plan of action using audio and video to capture the power of nature and world changing events. She brought to the audience the essence of a subject’s often colorful personality and a condensation of information within a restricted amount of time.
For nearly two decades, her experiences in storytelling, documentaries and production grew into a multifaceted language of expression for CBS News, The History Channel and TED, among others. A painter first (Webster has been an active painter since the age of two), she echoes the same imaginative formula, utilizing all this career experience, in assembling her composition that suggests a curious drama as if she were speaking directly to her audience with an invisible microphone.
At an early age, Webster was fascinated by her spiritual connection to the earth and sky, which has continued throughout her life, and as a subliminal point of recollection this connection has
become the major common denominator component of this exhibition. Writing, in its most general terms, especially in artists who pen prose with a twist, is a method of recording and abstracting information that speaks to an audience. In the case of a storyteller or modern commentator the data is first consumed, then digested, often dissected and documented and then finally reorganized into a cohesive group of related sentences. Artists tend to “build” a narrative picture with a similar exercise of organization and proficient experience, and, not surprisingly, with Camilla Webster every image tells a tale.
The concept and record of overlapping ingenious creative people is rich with notable examples such as Leonardo da Vinci, who is the author of the world’s most recognized painting (Mona Lisa) and is the best example of a Renaissance individual who also enjoyed the process of writing (often backwards!). Picasso could “paint” a marvelous picture with colorful poetic language in short sentences that are as remarkably vivid and convincing as his abstracted portraits. Pablo’s obsession with words stemmed largely from his association with Gertrude Stein, “that word-experimentalist par excellence,” who reportedly told Picasso, “Anyone who can paint like you has no business hanging out with other painters!” and advised him to befriend other writers instead. Taking Stein’s advice, Picasso did become friendly with poet, novelist and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and hung around with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and James Joyce, who would gather at Alice B. Toklas’ salon get-togethers in Paris.
Salvador Dalí was another celebrated artist who loved to push his surrealist compositions into quirky bits of storytelling in poetry form that often were absurdist fun. Tom Wolfe, the unofficial “Dean of New Journalism,” took the art world to task from critics to artists in “The Painted Word,” a multi-faceted double play on words and modern painting. Andy Warhol contributed to the literary realm with a novel featuring verbatim transcriptions of conversations, which eventually progressed into him publishing Interview magazine. Edited by Bob Colacello, it became an art world gossip bible, the cover of each issue adorned with a celebrity likeness created by Andy and then later pitched for sale to the subject.
Artist Yoko Ono was only nineteen when she published a book of instructional poetry titled “Grapefruit,” and she considered language a part of her inventive palette. Jenny Holzer turned writing into fine art by literally putting words and sentences onto canvas while Jack Pierson scripted works of art by gathering found commercial sign letters and formed them into short pronouncements. David Byrne, an artist/musician who got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design, began by putting descriptive words into melodies that became a hybrid benchmark for “art rock” contemporary music. Christopher Wool’s sensational exhibition of word paintings at the Guggenheim Museum transferred verses in letters into high art. One of Ed Ruscha’s best known conceptual pieces was titled “Eating my Words,” where he spooned edible letters into
his mouth. Later, he presented a series depicting words such as “Splash” and “Flies” that spelled out what directly related to the painted shapes.
Richard Prince’s joke paintings consist of one-liners that come off as a stand-up comedian’s cue cards, often with a prankster’s hilarious fable. Barbara Kruger transferred minimal announcements like “I Shop Therefore I Am” into some of the most renowned word paintings in contemporary chronicles. There are many more examples of writers who also became artists (or vice versa), or contemporary artists that simply used text as their signature art. But nevertheless, it’s imperative to unite the two distinct approaches to conversing through words and images. Various artists today, including Webster, are adding art history, literature and poetry into their mix as added incentive for their message. By merging their professional disciplines and achievements with existing natural chronicling skills and then transferring them with pigment onto canvas, the results offer a compelling storied sentence structure applied with a painter’s brush and linked by hand to a journalist’s mindset.
Painter Camilla Webster, who enjoyed a successful career as a multi-talented professional correspondent, has cleverly merged her instinctive talents as a reporter, environmental observer, wordsmith and proficient artist, and now incorporates her appropriate experiences as a storyteller around the globe into her true love of narrative picture-making. Like a seamless expressive sentence from Hemingway recounting a colorful sunset in Key West, Webster (who has a family home in Key Largo and not surprisingly is familiar with impressive sunsets) subscribes to the mindset of fashioning a magical depiction of a memorable place and time, like a classic Edward Hopper scene that deliberately captures the essence of a distinctive moment. Her titles can be purposely ambiguous clues, specific locations or even related to childhood recollections. It’s clear from the informative survey show at the Coral Springs Museum of Art that Webster resourcefully employs her previous unique reporting talents and knowledge of art history to initiate the framework for her painting. She presents a visual typewriter of sorts that offers the visitor a delightful graphic, word by visual word, often filled with mystery and intrigue reduced to a frozen instant that seems unforgettable, like a classic short story.
Webster’s survey exhibition of paintings and watercolors in the city of Coral Springs is a pictorial documentary of sorts, augmented by the loan of works from generous private collectors and museum acquisitions as well as the curator’s selection of recent studio paintings. It is safe to say that all of Webster’s artwork in this show is solidly based on her unusual past pursuit of constant observation and reportage, which she has carried over successfully from newsprint and news videos to the exciting canvases on view. Like ancient scrolls depicting an anecdote in both hieroglyphics and hand-painted illustrations, Webster has joined the art of commentary without a spoken word fused with a fascinating knack for explanatory personal artwork. This unusual artistic hybrid no doubt will continue to become an evolving signature
style for years to come, with the mighty blue sky as her limit and the perpetual motion of our emerald green planet as her inspiration.
For a museum exhibition on this scale it would be a challenge to describe each work in detail, so as the guest curator for this show it is more practical to select a few of my preferences, as I am familiar with the development of the works as well as the overall imagery.
A favorite of mine is titled “A Right to Spring,” where the textured white canvas becomes a de facto dance floor for four distinctive stems in full bloom. As the flowers twist and turn, some of the leaves drift into the air, adding to the breezy ambulatory character of the composition. The setting is a rich mix of textured color reflecting the relationship to the blossoms. If you squint hard and use your imagination the flowered foursome could become an animated quartet with a fresh scent.
Two paintings, “Kintsugi Sherbet” and “Kintsugi Peach,” are both examples of the ocean’s edge as it recedes from the sand dunes and the natural patterns of the salt-tolerant vegetation that continues inland. These are harmonic reflections that magically support mighty cloud formations, which recall a distant spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe producing a handsome backdrop for the natural splendor of the earth below. You can almost imagine Webster, during an earlier magazine assignment, standing on the coastline, microphone in hand, determined to describe the magnificence of a Florida Keys sunset.
Another memorable piece in the CSMOA exhibition is “The Point,” which the artist describes as an exercise in seeing and re-creating a moment in time. The power poles line up like descending soldiers, adding a clever, downward, conclusive perspective while giving it an illusion of distance that portrays a believable foreground and background. The array is reminiscent of the minimal gestures that Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney have integrated successfully into their works.
As one becomes acquainted with Camilla Webster’s painterly, stimulating storytelling style, another imaginative independent optical language becomes apparent after a diligent examination of her exhibition. It is ironic that it might have taken Webster the better part of an hour to deliver a curious and exciting documentary for The History Channel, such as “Inside Baghdad” on the art and architecture of that ancient civilization, but she can now allow us a shorter but careful inspection of a painting to form an intellectual opinion and “decode” her forthright aesthetic “painted word” at first glance. So, you could consider this splendid survey a type of bestselling art book of imagery separated into multiple strategic chapters, such as abstracted landscapes or billowing cloudscapes, which the viewer is persuaded to “page through.” And like all bestsellers, this is indeed a “good read” that no doubt will be remembered (and quoted) for years to come.
—Bruce Helander is an artist and curator who writes for numerous publications, including The Huffington Post. He is a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs of Rhode Island School of Design and member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. His work is in the permanent collections of over fifty museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His most recent books are “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.) and “Hunt Slonem: Bunnies” (Glitterati Press).