During The Pandemic: A Conversation with Christy Gunnels

Pictured above: Harvesting the Oysters, oil on panel, 12x24”

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

Pictured: Christy Gunnels

Oil painter and colorist Christy Gunnels’ stunning bird portraits are so vivid and realistic, you expect their subjects to break in to song as you examine their details and rich color. In fact, while Christy was speaking with me from her Wareham studio, I could hear bird song coming from her window. Uniquely situated next to a saltwater marsh fed by Buzzards Bay, her studio is a place where Christy has been able to observe nature throughout this pandemic.  Her subject matter is extensive, but focused on the beauty and the fragility of nature. “I want the color from my images to hold my audience, even if just for a moment, and get them to consider their place in the natural world”.  Christy was honored to be accepted as an artist member by Co|So in the Fall of 2019 and has felt very supported by the organization “thanks to their outreach and availability, exposure to a new audience, and connection to other artist members”.

Although I wonder why anyone would want to wander far from this gorgeous view, I learn that Christy and her husband are avid travelers. As both artist and (recently retired) art teacher and administrator, Christy has arranged her life so she can travel for 2 months at a time with sketchbook and camera in hand. She and her husband spent February exploring Rome.  In March, they travelled to Florence where the effect of the pandemic became obvious when they got to the Uffizi and found “hardly anyone in the galleries”. Under normal circumstances this would have been fantastic, but the silence in the galleries was eerie and foreboding. Soon afterwards the Italian government shut down all public spaces.  Plans to tour Bologna, Siena and Portugal were canceled when the border was abruptly closed.  The happy consequence was that they were able to return to Rome for a couple of weeks while making arrangements to return to the U.S.

Since then, Christy has worked in her home studio on subjects that include landscapes, florals and birds. “I set aside three hours each afternoon to paint”. My working method utilizes a lot of glazing.  This transparent layering requires drying time. So I work on “multiple boards, working on a landscape while I am painting the birds and florals”.  I approach a landscape in a larger format with a looser and faster method.  This is a respite from what tends to be “tight and controlled in my other work.” She strives to “not look illustrative, to remain fresh and creative.” She works exclusively in oils. “There is nothing like mixing a color you want.  The richness and variety of oil color and the ability to both layer with transparency and to work wet into wet is an advantage for me.”  She uses watercolor brushes because of their pliability

Pictured: Hydrangea, oil on panel, 8x8”

In her series that she has entered in Co|So’s Small Works: Rhythm and Hues show, Christy has added a touch of whimsy placing the bird as “artist model, perched on a paintbrush”.

 Pictured: Painting, The Northern Cardinal, oil on panel, 10x10”

Pictured: Painting, The Eastern Bluebird, oil on panel, 10x10"

For her bird paintings, Christy works from thousands of photos she has taken herself, mainly from around her home. She looks for the position of a head, the tilt of the body, the gleam in an eye, the play of light on feathers that can reveal personality and expression not always apparent to the casual observer. She shows a familiarity akin to a birder when naming her models; names like “NutHatch, Eastern Bluebird, Waxwing”, fly off her tongue.

In another painting from a bird series, Christy has overlaid a narrative link to Greek Mythology showing: the Goldfinch admiring his reflection in a puddle (like Narcissus).

Pictured: He Looked and Fell In love With Himself, oil on panel, 10x8"

 

For Co|So’s Summer Members Show: Summer Reflections Christy chose to paint a landscape of an Arkansas bayou that flows near her childhood home.

 Pictured: Bayou Dorcheat, oil on panel, 18x24.5”

Christy was determined to be an artist her entire life. Her first mentor at age 14 was Marjorie Chamberlain who taught her figure drawing, art history and provided her with a space to regularly work in. Her college advisor convinced her she needed a teaching certificate for a back up profession; so she became a certified art teacher and moved to Massachusetts where she taught art at Wareham High School for 35 years. Throughout those years she took art classes part time. A color theory course with Sig Haines (Swain School of Design), who taught her the pure science of color, completely changed her way of painting.  Mid career she was fortunate to enter the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard St. Stephens. One of her mentors there was Regina Granne, who taught her “that in order to fully comprehend a subject it was necessary to draw it and to find form through structure and not contour.” The Bard MFA enabled her to develop as an artist and be promoted to Department Head (Fine Arts K-12).  All this time she continued to paint and look for gallery representation but was told “they wanted full time working artists with a body of work (not teachers)”. So she had small shows in local venues and did private commissions.  Now that she is retired, she can devote herself to painting, developing a body of work and entering juried shows.

 

Her advice to young artists: “Always work, everyday; even if you can go to your workspace for only 20 minutes. It will keep your creative juices flowing.  Also, find a way to get involved with other artists, as they will inspire you, challenge your creativity and encourage your work.”