At left, painter Becca Schlaff at work in her East Lansing studio.
Thursday, May 19 — A college semester in Kenya brought East Lansing artist Dana
Bustamante’s pen to life — along with her watercolors, oils and anything else
that was lying around.
One of seven Emerging Artists in the 2011 East Lansing Art
Festival, Bustamante found the subject of everyday life in Kenya more important
than the medium.
She experimented with many media, including oils,
watercolors, pen and ink and recycled surfaces, like cupboard doors and
“They recycle everything there,” she said. “I was inspired
The pace of life in Kenya fascinated her.
“There’s a feeling of community, comfort and interaction
between people that is a little bit lacking here,” she said. “People would just
sit around, talk to each other, basically just hang out together.”
The most spectacular product of her trip is “Swahili Old Town,”
a mixed media, 4-by-17-foot panorama. It doesn’t look crowded, but it’s filled
with more than 50 figures, caught in the midst of ordinary bustle.
But most of her sketches are small vignettes.
If her pen-and-ink style recalls the rustic etchings of Rembrandt,
it’s no coincidence. She has a print of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Fat Man”
hanging at home.
“That’s definitely something that’s influenced me,” she
said. “I lean toward that when I’m doing sketches of people.”
A native of East Lansing, she knows the art festival well.
The Emerging Artists program sets aside booths for artists who have never
exhibited at a juried show.
“I’ve been going to the festival my entire life, and it’s
really fun now that I’m going to be a part of it,” she said.
Give some people a trout and they’ll reach for a knife, a
fork and a lemon wedge.
When East Lansing painter Becca Schlaff saw a brown trout
and a rainbow trout for the first time, her life changed.
“I never realized how beautiful these fish were,” Schlaff
said. “This is real? I was blown away.”
Schlaff’s expansive, semi-abstract riffs on the colors and
forms of fish landed her a return invitation to the East Lansing Art Festival
this year after being named an Emerging Artist in 2010.
Schlaff grew up in rural Pinckney, on the Huron River. She
was fascinated by animals, and started sketching horses as a young girl.
“I’ve always been an artist, but was pushed in different
directions,” she said. “I went to Michigan State University in pre-vet, bounced around, did business
for a year, just trying to figure it out.”
She did pet portraits, including horses, but found the work
“I would spend hours on them,” she said. “I could capture
what I was looking at, but there was no emotion to the work.”
Two years ago, Brian Bielecki, owner of Nomad Anglers in
Okemos, showed Schlaff the fateful fish. Bielecki is a fly fisherman and
college friend of Schlaff’s.
All at once, a more expressive, open-ended way of painting
from nature opened up. Schlaff was deeply moved by the colors and textures in
the skin and scales. Perhaps just as importantly, she didn’t know why.
Mysteries almost always kick art up a notch.
“As an artist, it’s great to have a question for yourself,”
she said. “Why do I react that way? From that first picture to now, I still see
pictures now and gasp and get excited.”
Her first painting, for Bielecki’s shop, was the brown
“It zoomed in on the skin, the colors and spots,” she said.
“It was pretty abstract.”
People began to notice.
“I would get phone calls from fishermen,” she said.
Anglers appreciated her accuracy, but Schlaff got a bigger
kick out of showing her work to “normal” people and waiting for the “a-ha”
“It makes somebody stop and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m looking at
a fish,’” she said.
For Schlaff, the reaction is a lot more fun than hearing
“wow, it looks just like a photograph” for the umpteenth time.
“It’s important to take that step back and think, ‘Wow, this
is in our world, and it’s important that we recognize this beauty,’” Schlaff
In addition to the Finnish painters, German abstract
expressionist Gerhard Richter is an inspiration.
“His paintings kill me – squeezy bands of paint, drips,”
Schlaff said. “Maybe it’s me, but I see the river, water,
and that drippy effect.”
Now that Schlaff’s fish fantasia are in demand, she doesn’t
miss the pet and horse portraits at all.
“I can draw photo-realistic images, but when it comes to the
topic of nature, I feel so passionate about it,” she said. “Through the
abstract mechanism of painting, that emotion comes out.”
In fact, the abstract-fish theme seems to weave together
every strand in Schlaff’s life, from her river-loving youth in Pinckney to her
love of drawing and painting and even her degree from MSU in apparel and
“It’s the trifecta of awesomeness!” she said. “We all get
where we’re supposed to be somehow.”
There’s only one catch: big passions require big canvases.“I paint pretty big,” she said. “I have one
that’s 3 feet by 5 feet, and one that’s 4 feet by 4 feet. But I live in East
Lansing, so it’s nice that I can do a couple of trips.”