Judith Belzer has a feel for the natural world
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008
In New England, where Judith Belzer lived and worked as a painter for nine years, the landscape was intimate, always just an arm’s length away. Home was Cornwall, Conn., a town of 1,500, where Belzer and her husband and son lived in a house surrounded by trees, a pond and dairy farms.
When she moved to Berkeley in 2003, Belzer found that the skies are larger, the scope much grander here. “One of the things that struck me is this incredible shift of scale. We feel so much smaller as a person standing in the landscape of the West Coast than on the East Coast.”
Belzer, who is married to the writer and naturalist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”), is an oil painter who makes semiabstract work that captures the moods and textures of nature. Her new show, “The Inner Life of Trees,” opened this month at Room for Painting Room for Paper, a new gallery at 49 Geary St. in San Francisco. It runs through Nov. 8.
The paintings, mostly arranged in multiple panels, not only evoke tree rings and the ridges of bark but also suggest the movement and rhythms of ocean waves and sand. In her notes for the show, Belzer wrote, “Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of crawling along the bark of a tree and then somehow penetrating to the tree’s interior is enticing, even thrilling.”
George Lawson, director of the gallery, praises the “wonderful, radiant imagery” and the fusion of realism and abstraction in Belzer’s work. “Judith seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate the natural world that surrounds us is,” he writes.
The autumn light is soft and the air through her window balmy as Belzer, 52, sits in the basement studio of her home in North Berkeley to talk about painting. “A lot of people look at nature as something remote and romantic, far removed from us,” she says. “But I’ve always been interested in seeing nature as an active force in our experience – not something that’s, you know, saved for a nice day when you decide to go for a walk.”
Belzer walks a lot: in Tilden Park, in the streets surrounding her home. She doesn’t take photographs or draw sketches on her wanderings, but returns to her studio and makes paintings “very much out of my head and my imagination.” When she works she’s always listening – to the radio, to a podcast or more often to a book on tape.
“It’s actually really great for doing visual work. I really don’t understand how the brain works at all, but somehow, by engaging with a narrator, it’s very stimulating to the visual side of my brain. In a funny way, it almost distracts me so I’m not overthinking what I’m doing.”
The world of language is just as important to Belzer as the natural world. She was always an avid reader and in college took a major in English despite her background in art. She’s passionate about fiction – she recently listened to the unabridged “Moby-Dick” on tape – and mentions Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy as novelists for whom the natural world is a vivid presence, like a character in the book.
Belzer, who is young for her age, has the aspect of a woman whose life has unraveled in slow, easy currents, and not in fits and jolts. She met Pollan in 1974, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Bennington College in Vermont. They’ve been together ever since – in Vermont, then Manhattan, then Connecticut and now Berkeley – and were married in 1987. Their son, Isaac, a student at Marin Academy in San Rafael, is 16.
She knows how rare it is to find a soul mate early in life and remain together. “For a while I thought, ‘I’m just way too young to get this seriously involved.’ But now I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t have to go through a lot of what I’ve watched all my friends go through.
“It’s been great. You know, a lot of people who get involved when they’re very young are sort of stuck in the same place as when they met. But I really feel like we’ve managed to grow up together. And he’s a writer and we have lots of things to talk about … different ideas about nature and culture and things like that. I feel very lucky. It’s been a great, very rewarding relationship.”
As she speaks, workers are hammering and sawing upstairs. Pollan’s writing studio, recently demolished because of dry rot, is being rebuilt. It’s only in the past five years, since Pollan took a job as Knight Professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, that his career has taken off. With his best-sellers “The Botany of Desire,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” Pollan has become one of the country’s major voices on agribusiness, nutrition and the ecology of eating.
Being married to a literary celebrity, Belzer says, “is a little challenging for me. I’m really proud of him and I think he does wonderful work. I don’t really like being ‘Mrs. Michael’ that much. … But I pretty much just do my work and try to keep my head down and not get too bothered by that.”
Belzer doesn’t see her nature paintings as political – as an advocate for environmental sensitivity – but she believes passionately that people needs to re-establish “a direct connection to our natural world. Unless we do that, we’re just going to continue living as if it doesn’t matter – as if it’s just always going to be there the way it is now.”
The Inner Life of Trees: Recent paintings by Judith Belzer. Through Nov. 8. Room for Painting Room for Paper, 49 Geary St., San Francisco.