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“Color is an adventure,” says artist John Blee.

Sweeping strokes heighten the sense of motion in Blee’s recent paintings, including energetic "Bodhi’s Garden."

"Sonnet 15."

"Night Orchard."

Floating forms dissolve in the 30-square-inch "Ghazal Bagh."

Blee blends lush violets, oranges and blues in his 58-square-inch Orchard Cluster, part of a series based on the poet Rilke’s Vergers, meaning orchards.

Visual Poetry

In his sumptuous, colorful paintings, John Blee draws on a lifelong journey in the arts

Eager for spring winds to chase away lingering traces of dark winter? Impatient for a blast of ravishing color? Then pause and revel in the jubilant harmonies of John Blee’s paintings.

Through his prismatic lens, impressions of spring’s balmy breezes or summer’s intense light beckon. Misty lavenders drift by. Ultramarine pools ripple along. High-energy colors build on and charge each other. Rectangles, bolting from the surface, are not simply rectangles. On closer inspection, one is a loosely constructed block of lines and slabs, a luscious batter of aubergine, mauve and teal, rising on chartreuse, blue and pink strokes. All unite in compositions of unexpected complexity and depth.

“Color is an adventure,” says the artist, sitting in the living room of his home in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, pondering the paintings around him. “When you use a new combination of colors, it’s like going to another territory, a territory you don’t know.”

Blee has experienced faraway lands. Growing up in India and Pakistan for nine of his formative years, he absorbed the lessons of brilliant, saturated colors that stand up in the glaring sun. “There is something about India,” observes the artist. “It’s not just the light. It’s also the culture that has this extraordinary relation to color.” He recalls with delight an occasion in the ’60s, when family friends mistook one of his early artworks—painted when he was 12—for that of an Indian artist. At the time, Blee’s father worked at the American Embassy in Delhi.

During those years, the budding artist frequented that city’s National Museum, looking at exotic Chola bronzes and exquisite Indian miniatures. “What affected me most was Indian art from 1,500 years ago, going to the caves of Ellora and Elephanta near Mumbai,” he remembers, referring to those ruins of elaborate, stone-cut artworks. He also visited Delhi’s Museum of Modern Art and learned about Hinduism and Buddhism embodied in the works. “Part of Indian philosophy is a deeply spiritual energy; sensuality and sacred are linked,” he says, making the same connection in his own transcendent work.

That art happens at home. Canvases underway lean against walls in the dining room—shared with two colorful parrots—or in a studio upstairs. Using quick-drying acrylics, the artist applies one or two, or as many as 30 layers, often squeezing paint straight from the tube. He generally builds up separate hues on the canvas, rather than mixing them in advance. Though he paints one or two hours every day, his concentration doesn’t end there. “I’m always thinking about my work or judging it,” he says. “That’s as much part of the painting as painting is.” Those critical thoughts may prompt him to work on pictures over many months, or go back in to polish earlier work hanging on the walls. “I think something has to live in more than just one moment,” he notes.

Recently, Blee’s painting has taken a fresh turn. Looser, freer strokes sweep up and across five- and six-foot-tall canvases, evoking natural forms as well as his roots in the subtropics. “In the process of painting, if you’re open, sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” he relates. “It’s like part of your soul opens up in a different way. I think it’s a matter of continually renewing.”

Blee compares the structure of his paintings to poetry, which he calls “very central to me.” At 16, he started reading the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke—an early influence—before fully understanding their meaning. Now, he explains, “Transformation is basic to Rilke’s idea of art and existence. We change. We go deeper. It’s a struggle, but there is also pleasure and magic in transformation. Those ideas stay with me every day.”

In her poem Song, Hilda Morley, a 20th-century poet and friend of Blee’s, beautifully references his “making paintings in which I wander as in the landscapes of my dreaming.”

Inspired also by Western painters, the artist singles out J.M.W. Turner’s imaginative colorations, Pierre Bonnard’s intimate interiors and especially abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, a mentor and friend, recognized for her pioneering technique of spontaneously applying thinned paint to unprimed canvases, adopted later by color-field painters.

Blee met Frankenthaler while he was an undergraduate at Maryland Institute College of Art, then again when he attended graduate school at Hunter College in New York. He wrote his master’s thesis on Frankenthaler’s seminal art, and visited her New York home, bringing along his own work. “When I first met Helen, I was dazzled,” he remembers. “She liked me and liked my work. That was an amazing affirmation—to have the person you admire most appreciate your art.”

He asked Frankenthaler how she chose colors. “She said it was like choosing a word in a poem,” the painter recalls. “That hit it on the head for me.” Drawing on his own experience decades later, he observes. “It’s something inside of you that you kind of go for. You bring it into being for others.”

Blee’s art is on view by appointment at the offices of Moody Graham/Teass Warren in DC through May 18, and at Cross MacKenzie Gallery in Hillsboro, Virginia, from May 24 to June 30. For appointments, email [email protected]. Visit johnblee.com.

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