Washington painter Freya Grand hears the call of wild, remote places. In search of nature untamed, she has traveled to the rocky coast of West Ireland, the smoking mouths of volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains and the boundless horizons of Botswana and Namibia. “I return to places that I know will present me with something powerful and maybe startling,” says Grand, who journeys each year to gather raw material for her landscapes.
Whether hiking up mountains veiled in mist or balanced on a rocky rim washed by waves, the painter seeks to portray a world beyond travelogue snapshots of specific sites. As she describes her internal quest, “The forces of the natural world trigger an emotional conversation. It may be about terrifying beauty, unbelievable vastness, darkness or hope. The place is the catalyst.”
Grand’s atmospheric universe is on view in an exhibition of her paintings and drawings, “Freya Grand: Minding the Landscape,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through May 5. The mysterious dynamism of her work leaves interpretations open. “The first time I saw her paintings I was so intrigued,” recalls Kathryn Wat, chief curator at the museum. “Was it real or fantasy? Close up or far away? It’s about her experience and evoking an experience in the viewer.”
On the road, the painter travels light. Slender and fit with close-cropped hair, Grand focuses her thoughtful eyes on any mesmerizing scene that may come along. She carries a small sketchbook, watercolors, a camera and a travel diary to record her impressions. All equipment fits in a backpack, unlike the elaborate provisions of early landscape painters, who arrived with easels and extensive supplies required to complete an oil painting on site. “It sounds like a great idea,” Grand notes, but it’s one she has never attempted.
The real development of her paintings happens after she returns. In her Dupont Circle studio, a long table is spread with sketches torn from a notebook, her travel diary and photos to prompt recollections. “In a sense I’m going back into the journey,” she observes. Pencil in hand, she starts consolidating forms in drawings on paper. The shapes and tones that evolve may suggest ideas from previous trips, or perhaps a poem she has read. “I receive impressions from a lot of sources. Everything gets digested,” says the artist. “Paintings are amalgams of impressions.”
After creating ten or 12 pencil studies, Grand moves to a front room to paint. Tacking up working drawings on a white wall, she glances from these to a blank canvas and begins blocking in large, flat shapes in shades of gray-violet, gray and sienna. With long, muscular strokes in bolder colors, she builds up the surface of the canvas. The fluid images extend around the edges, a surface she leaves exposed. Grand uses only oil paint, which she prefers for its flexibility, applied in thick slabs or thin glazes for subtle development of the surface. And sections of a painting can be reworked over the month it generally takes to complete a large canvas.
The canvases typically measure four by five feet, a size that fills her whole field of vision. “Landscapes like this should be big; you should be able to travel into them,” she explains. Recently, she has worked on small panels, just six- or eight-inches square, condensed versions of her larger canvases.
Grand, who received a degree in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin, decided to take up landscape painting about a decade ago. On a trip to Peru shortly after her father’s death in 2001, the painter relates, “I remember looking at the unbelievably powerful, craggy peaks of Machu Picchu and thinking ‘This is it. This is what I need to do.’” Her father had loved mountains and she had a passion for the outdoors. For two years, she had lived in a cabin without running water or electricity in the woods of British Columbia.
Before turning to landscapes, she built and painted shaped canvases and standing screens that blended images of nature and manmade objects such as walls, fences and architectural fragments. Her earlier work focused on what she calls “emotionally charged interiors” with skewed perspectives, void of people or furniture.
When Grand decided to change direction, she found an immediate affinity for the shapes, forms and weather of the natural world. Clouds drifting against mountains, waves hitting rock—what Grand describes as “the force meeting the object”—she finds infinitely eloquent. “I can see why many artists have spent their lives painting the sea,” she says.
The solitary, primal worlds and grandeur portrayed in Grand’s paintings may seem at odds with the sounds of trucks rumbling and construction crews clanging on the streets outside her studio and near her home, not far away. The artist views it differently. “I live here, but my work doesn’t have to do with where I live,” she says. “It’s carried back with me from other places.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Freya Grand: Minding the Landscape” is on view through May 5 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; nmwa.org. Another exhibition, “Works by Freya Grand,” will run June 19 to July 21 at Gallery Plan B, 1530 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC; galleryplanb.com. For more information about the artist, visit freyagrand.com.