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Sat, April 04

Kolb exhibit an introspective retrospective

Sedona artist Joella Jean Mahoney looks as slight and delicate as a bird, and with her gracious, soft manner you can almost believe that she is. That is, until you see the power of her artistic vision ­ purposeful explosions of dazzling color applied to vast canvases that dwarf the diminutive painter.

A five-decade retrospective of Mahoney's art opened at Kolb Studio last week, showcasing more than 30 works that reflect a vision of Southwestern landscape that one critic described as "relentless."

"I want to share with the viewer an experience of place, not just a picture of it," she explains. "The experience of a place is way beyond picture-making."

Her first artistic endeavors were carried out in mud on windows when she was two years old and she has pursued her craft with purpose ever since. University of LaVerne Art Instructor Morneen Kamiki Bratt describes her as a post-modern expressionist "who builds on the painterly example of Giotto, Rembrandt, and O'Keeffe." Mahoney has described herself as a semi-realist.

Experience is the foundation for her subjects. The paintings in the Kolb exhibit were inspired by hikes and river trips in canyon country, where she paints smaller studies that prepare her for what she will do in the studio.

"I never work from photographs," she said. "I rely on my visual memory of a place when I paint these big paintings."

She does no preliminary drawing, saying "it might get in the way of my process." It takes her about three months to do a big painting, during which she works out the imagery and eliminates the clichés. The show also includes a few works done in the span of an hour or two in a process of what she terms "making lickity split decisions." It also features an intricate work called "The Canyon," which took two years to complete.

"I had to work out the complex design through visual memory," she said. "It was problem-solving but a geologist friend said, 'I give you an A. You got most of the layers right.'"

Even in abstract, it's not uncommon for her work to evoke a sense of recognition for those who view it.

Mahoney explores themes by series, with the Kolb exhibit providing a cross section that explores the spiritual, natural and cultural. All art, she said, is abstract, autobiographical and political.

"Even the most realistic photographic painting is still an abstract," she said. "That means we made it up out of our consciousness. My paintings are inventions of experiences I have had."


For example, her Inner Canyon series is also a metaphor for the inner life ­ "The inner realm of reflection and introspection." Waterfalls or shafts of light indicate a way out, back into the everyday world. In her distinctive Rush to Meaning series, energetic directional lines indicate purpose and the linear nature of the journey through time and space.

Many of her paintings represent a bird's-eye view.

"I love to create from a heightened perspective," she said. "I love living in that world, soaring in the imagination."

Her most political is the Lake Powell series, which contrasts themes of peace and beauty in placid blue water and far-reaching pastel landscape and of bitterness and conflict at how "progress" buried the exquisitely carved sandstone of Glen Canyon. After she had painted what she considered "the definitive picture of Lake Powell," and wondered where she would go from there, a friend asked, "What did Lake Powell cover up."

"The beauty of Glen Canyon has been ruined by Lake Powell," she said. "This is a metaphor for the error of the 19th and 20th century political thinking."

While this show focuses on her landscape themes, she has explored ideas in other themes as well, including sunflowers and the human form.

"I paint horses and my dogs and flowers and everything, but I've just become known for this kind of stuff," she said. "I call myself an American painter. Not a Southwestern painter. Not a Sedona painter. I'm far beyond the Southwestern cliché painter."

First look

It's true, however, that the Southwest is her passionate love, and it was immediate. She arrived in Flagstaff in 1951, to attend Arizona State Teachers College (now Northern Arizona University). She says of her experience stepping off the train: "It was dawn. The stars overhead were like lanterns, the sky was crystalline and in the distance the mountains were like cardboard cutouts. The sun came up and turned the scene into Technicolor. I saw a landscape that matched how I felt inside, and I stepped into my future."

Flagstaff also offered a rare opportunity for women in the early 50s.

"I came to this dinky college in 1951, and I had woman professors, PhD professors in chemistry, in psychology, in literature, education. My girlfriends who went to UCLA in the same time, they never had one woman professor. So look at the mentoring I got," she said.

She was attending college to become a teacher, a desire that was as firmly entrenched as her drive toward art-making. In fact, when given the opportunity early on to devote herself entirely to art, she passed.

Dual careers

"I wanted to be a teacher," she said. "Being a career artist didn't even enter my mind. I always made art. I was always a teacher."

She graduated in 1955 with a bachelor's in fine arts. She has a master's of fine arts in painting and drawing from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. She taught at the high school and college level and is currently Professor of Art Emerita at the University of LaVerne in California. Meanwhile, she painted, showed and sold art. Her work became known internationally through her involvement as an exhibiting artist in the U.S. State Department's Art in the Embassies Program.

"I'm lucky," she said. "I had a mother who gave me a vision to self-actualize. Men's art sells for double what women's art sells for, but here I am, right? I've gotten to do what I really want to do, and I didn't notice if there was anyone in the way. I've been able to do my work, and it's a blessing. I'm grateful."


Among her other achievements, she was listed in "Women Artists of the West, 1840-1970," University of Oklahoma Press and established the Joella Jean Mahoney Endowed Scholarship in Painting at the University of La Verne in La Verne, Calif. Her awards include Outstanding Alumnae Award for her painting from NAU; Achievement in Art, Painting, from Scripps College Fine Arts Foundation in Claremont, Calif., and Manhattan Arts International 20th Anniversary Competition Artists Award.

She is represented by Arte-Misia Gallery ( in Sedona and the Red Stone Gallery ( on the Web.

Gallery tours

While she believes her bold works speak for themselves, she clearly delights being a conduit to bring viewers deeper into her paintings. She hosted two gallery tours last week and plans to offer more during the show's run. Grand Canyon Association will have details as dates are scheduled. The exhibit is open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., through Feb. 18.

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