Silk Paintings and Textiles Shine at Albany Arts Gallery

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A Bay Area artist has a new collection of her unique silk paintings on display through July.

By Jessica Kwong | Email the author | June 29, 2010

She walked into the Albany Arts Gallery in the early 90s wearing a piece of her artwork—the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague painted on silk—and walked out with a request from the gallery owners to bring more samples for a possible exhibit.

“She saw that I was wearing something unusual and asked if it was hand-painted,” said the artist Natasha Foucault. “I said yes and she said, ‘Why don’t you bring some more?’ I gathered some pieces and she liked them and displayed them right away.”

Nearly two decades after her first exhibit in the United States, Foucault, who moved from Moscow to San Francisco in 1990, is having yet another showing at the gallery on Solano Avenue.

This exhibit, running through July 31, features a multicolor collection of the silk paintings and wearable textiles that first caught the gallery owners’ attention. A rainbow display of colors depict everything from exotic tigers to still lifes, Foucault’s personal favorite.

“Silk is like a prism. It has a multifaceted surface so it reflects the light, and different lighting changes the whole thing,” the 47-year-old artist said. “It’s alive, a pretty magical medium for me.”

While Foucault’s first exhibit signified her discovery of a receptive art scene in Albany and, in turn, America, her present exhibit can be characterized as “recovery.”

“This is important because 16 of my favorite paintings were stolen last summer,” she said, recalling the incident when she stepped into the Hilton Pasadena hotel for a moment and returned to find a box of her artwork gone. “For two or three months I thought I would (paint) and someone would steal it again. Finally I was working hard on new ones and this is my answer to what happened to me.”

Gallery owners Michael and Susan Williams have carried Foucault’s artwork since she first walked in, and said it has “sold very well.”

“I just love how vibrant the colors are. She is a master silk painter,” said Susan Williams, 53, herself a potter.

But Foucault said her journey to becoming an award-winning artist, boasting “Best of show” awards at the 2004 and 2006 “Silk-In Santa Fe” festivals, and second place at the First International Silk Painting Congress in 1998 for Excellence in Silk Painting, has not been natural or easy.

She discovered her love of art at age 12, later than most artists, she said.

During her time as a student at the Moscow Art Academy, she was infected by a needle and got hepatitis B. Exposure to heavy metals from oil painting, ceramics and etching work landed her in the hospital, and doctors said she had only a few hours to live.

Fortunately, Foucault recovered—but not to the extent that it would allow her to continue working with her favorite media at the time. She had no choice but to turn to safer alternatives. She now considers it a blessing.

“Silk wasn’t done very much before. It was more of a decorative media,” she said. “I transferred my knowledge of academic art into silk and got deeply into that.”

Creating a silk painting starts with stretching silk, which is naturally white, and using a glue called “gutta” to define lines and stop colors from bleeding over each other.

A painting takes about eight hours to complete, while wearable art such as capes take about four hours.

“You cannot work slow. It’s important to keep it fresh,” Foucault said, adding that the shorter production time means pieces are less expensive.

Prices for works from her exhibit range from $85 washable scarves and shawls to $850 silk paintings.

Dozens of aficionados as well as people drawn to Foucault’s work for the first time attended the June 19 opening and had the opportunity watch her model the different ways her capes can be worn.

Albany resident Marilyn Sarig, 51, owns four of Foucault’s paintings and said she has been a fan because of “the incredible style: modern, classic, colorful and in good taste.”

Another Albany resident, David Edwards, 24, said meeting Foucault added another dimension to his respect for her artwork.

“She is very gregarious and personable,” he said. “I haven’t bought any of her work but I plan to.”

When Foucault is not on her rooftop studio creating artwork for galleries around the world, she teaches her craft to others.

“There was some resistance because it wasn’t known as an art form and people had doubts, but I made people understand it for 20 years,” she said. “Now it’s more recognized but it’s still not widely known.”

Foucault, who continues to live in San Francisco with her husband and 15-year-old son, said the happiness she derives from silk painting is twofold.

“I always loved how the colors run,” she said. “And it makes me happy when people see it on the wall and find different things every time.”

Community members had the opportunity to speak with Natasha Foucault at the exhibit opening June 19. Albany, CA, June 19, 2010.

Community members had the opportunity to speak with Natasha Foucault at the exhibit opening June 19. Albany, CA, June 19, 2010.  Credit Jessica Kwong