Picture it: little Wendy Kwasny wearing a men’s button-up shirt backward, as an art smock, while taking art classes in the home of her childhood art teacher. That was the beginning for Kwasny, who would continue to mostly study watercolors with that first teacher, before high school art classes where she was introduced to other media, including acrylics and oil paints.
Today, she’s an award-winning artist whose work has been on display throughout San Diego for more than 25 years, and that work is currently part of the “Nature’s Abundance” exhibition at the Mission Trails Regional Park visitor’s center through Feb. 11.
“I am a huge fan of Mission Trails and hike there regularly. I get a lot of inspiration from nature, especially in the early morning light, and take many photos of interesting plants, bridges, and lighting while I’m hiking,” she says. “I’ve always admired the work they show in the visitor’s center gallery, and I’m honored to finally be among them.”
The show, presented by the Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation, features the work of five local artists — Ray Khalife, Ken Roberts, Amy Schindler, Tara Sood and Kwasny — and the pieces are available for purchase, with a percentage of proceeds going to the foundation.
Kwasny, 45, is the owner of Wendy Kwasny Fine Art and will also begin teaching portraiture at Art on 30th in North Park on Jan. 24. She lives in Spring Valley with her husband and two children, and took some time to talk about her work, her love of nature and the ways that authenticity and honesty inspire her in her work.
Q: What was your process for creating the paintings you have on display in the “Nature’s Abundance” exhibition, from conception to execution?
A: I have eight acrylic paintings on display that vary in size, with the smallest (“Hiker, Dictionary Hill”) being 12 inches by 12 inches, and the largest (“Golden Euphorbia”) being 24 inches by 36 inches. I work from the photographs I take while I’m hiking or exploring in nature. Usually, I’ll be on a hike and see something interesting, and I’ll take several pictures from different perspectives with different compositions in mind. Later, in my studio, I’ll look through the pictures and see which one I find the most visually interesting. I start with an underpainting of one bright solid color and work layers over that until I build up the composition I find interesting or exciting.
Q: What did you want to say through these pieces?
A: I want to express my love of nature, hiking and the outdoors. Whether I’m alone out on the trail, or out adventuring with friends or family, I want to capture a moment and suggest a story to the viewer. I really love the trails I walk every day, and it’s wonderful to explore them and create memories that I can share.
Q: How did you get started painting?
A: I was a pretty hyperactive child, and my kindergarten teacher told my mom that the only time I seemed to hold still was when I was drawing. My astute mother enrolled me in local, private art lessons out of the teacher’s home, which I attended until I entered high school. I mostly studied watercolors, and when I enrolled in high school, I was introduced to many different media. Eventually, I majored in art at San Diego State University and received a Bachelor of Applied Arts, mostly focused on oil portraiture.
What I love about Spring Valley …
We moved to Spring Valley so we could have a little land for our mini farm, with space for an art studio in the back yard. We have half an acre out here, with views of the mountains and a flock of hilarious peacocks that have established themselves in our neighborhood. It’s fairly quiet, it’s walking distance to hiking trails, and a close drive to the coast, desert, or mountains. It’s really the perfect location to be in the city, but feel fairly rural.
Q: Why painting, as opposed to another art form like dance or music?
A: I remember when I was in kindergarten, the school asked me to draw the cover for a pamphlet they were making for the school carnival. I drew a clown on a unicycle, and I was so proud of it. It was something that I got a lot of praise for, and I felt like I was really good at it.
Going back to hyperactivity, painting is something I can hyper focus on and go into a flow state, so it’s very meditative for me. You wouldn’t want to see me try to dance, ha! And, try as I might, music doesn’t come easy to me like it does for my kids.
Q: What led you to focus on portraits, still life and landscapes in your work?
A: My main focus is actually portraits, which is why so many of my nature paintings in the “Nature’s Abundance” exhibit feature figures. I absolutely love painting faces. Every single face is different, and you can capture a personality in an expression. It never gets old. I love painting different ages and ethnicities; everyone is so unique and beautiful.
I like working on still life and landscapes if I feel taken by light or an experience that I want to capture. I almost think of them as another way of doing a portrait. You can tell a story with a twisted path or a teacup. I want to tell stories about people and what makes them who they are. There’s usually a presence in all my paintings; you can imagine who wore those shoes or who walked that path. Where were they going? Why? What are they thinking? It’s exciting.
Q: Part of your bio on your website says that “Painting, and the creative process, really, is part of Wendy. It’s innate in her world view, in her interactions with people and ingrained in her life.” Can you talk about how painting and the creative process inform your world view?
A: I think it’s in the way I see things. I’m always looking at the way light affects someone’s face or how a color is reflected on skin. I’m looking for light and shadow and contrast and interesting negative shapes, and I’m always looking to tell a person’s story with their image.
Q: And how have painting and the creative process influenced your interactions with others?
A: Eventually, if I know you long enough, I’ll most likely do your portrait. I’ve been painting the people in my life for so long now, it’s just a given. I’m lucky that the people who know me are willing to be in my paintings. I will catch candid pictures of my friends and family and incorporate them into my work. Also, in the artist community at Art on 30th (in Ashton Gallery in North Park) we are all inspired by and influenced by each other. Although most of the artists I see regularly are abstract painters, I think we all are fulfilled by the creative energy of each other.
Q: What inspires you in your artwork?
A: I’m inspired by authenticity and honesty. I love painting candid, everyday moments that capture the small joys of life. I appreciate beauty and life in my subjects. And I don’t mean traditional beauty, necessarily, but that raw inner light that makes people/scenery unique individuals.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work?
A: It’s been difficult to consistently make time to work and be dedicated to a daily practice. When you’re a small business owner, you have to be sales, marketing, promotion, production, business management and everything in between. It’s challenging to work every aspect of an artist’s job when all I’d love to focus on is the actual art making.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: I love painting my kids as they grow and capturing their time in a meaningful way. I love sharing my work with others and providing people with what I hope will be a family heirloom, or at least a cherished piece of art they can enjoy for many years to come.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That I’m capable, my work is valuable, and that I can consistently improve and grow as I practice, teach and continue to be a student myself.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: “Do the next right thing.” When I’m overwhelmed or at a crossroads, I remind myself that all I need to do right now is the next right thing. That might be the laundry, or a tough conversation, or answering these questions. Just one right thing at a time. It keeps things simple.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: That I have a beautiful 4-year-old potbellied pig named Petunia, three little dogs, six chickens, a large ball python, and two dwarf hamsters. And, I love to garden.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: My ideal weekend has to start with an early morning hike somewhere close by, followed by lunch at one of my favorite, locally owned restaurants (like The Lunch Box Café & Deli in La Mesa) and an afternoon at home in my art studio, painting.