Inside the Booth: Dana Bustamente and Becca Schlaff
By Lawrence Cosentino
Meet two of the artists at this weekend's East Lansing Art Festival
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 windows.
“They recycle everything there,” she said. “I was inspired by that.”
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 unsatisfying.
“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 trout.
“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” moment.
“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 said.
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 textile design.
“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.”