Artist Profile: Diane Fraser

by Madeleine Peck Wagner
Diane Fraser’s still life paintings seem to stand crystalline clear and stretch into infinity. Paintings of relatively mundane things, Fraser transforms, not with distillation, or fracturing, or even reinterpreting color theory, but with luminous realism.
Her works, devoid of brushstrokes and suffused with golden light, are an open nod to the Dutch and Northern Renaissance masters. Meticulously crafted, the works at first seem simple: a white vase on polished mahogany filled with red berries, a gleaming silver service, lemons and lemonade. But they bear a second look; adroit and technical, the lure of the pieces is in their deceptive faultlessness, and the meditative quiet they exude.
“I am a testament to the fact that a person can be taught to paint,” says Fraser, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for her BFA, and New York Academy of Art for her MFA. Slender and pretty, with a penchant for swearing, the artist is as exuberant as her paintings are restrained, and she opines on subjects ranging from the type of people the Riverside neighborhood seems to attract, to the lack of real world preparations for BFA student.
“It’s not ethical to teach people for three or four years without offering them any sort of guidance or direction. [In so many programs] young art students aren’t taught how to even try to make a living.” Fraser has taught at four colleges, including American Academy of Art in Chicago, and in all of the places she’s taught, she said the only professional practices classes available were the ones she taught.
Though no longer teaching in a collegiate venue, Fraser does offer private classes in her Riverside studio and is working on a suite of documentary painting videos. “It started because I shot all this raw footage of my mentor, Martha Erlebacher, but I didn’t want to botch the editing. [So here in Jacksonville] photographer Michael Carlucci and I recorded me making a painting, and from there I was able to make all the editing mistakes I needed to.” She offers a caveat of the final movie, saying “Painting with Diane Fraser is three hours long,” but for those interested in the style of painting she’s good at, the information is there. After that first video, she and Carlucci have gone on to make two more. Again she is quick to tell the listener that the movies are very specific, only interesting should one have questions about tonal values or glazing with oils.
Ideologically, she’s driven to teach because “everyone should be able to make one beautiful thing in life.” Carefully structuring her studio so that she can teach her students and complete her own work, Fraser has a bank of three black-curtained bays on the western wall of her studio where she sets up various vignettes, adjusts the lighting, and leaves the still life up for as long as it is needed.
When asked, why she paints in such a realistic manner, Fraser replies simply: “a still life tells a story about what just happened, or, what is about to happen; it is the novel-ization of the ordinary. While the technical requirements are about hitting the smallest target…“the more precise the hit, the more impressive the accomplished feat.”
Historically, still lifes can be traced as far back as the paintings on Egyptian tombs, and frescos on Roman villas, but they reached the height of their expression in the seventeenth century works of Dutch masters like Pieter Claesz and Willem Kalf. The images were often of opulent decorative objects reflecting the new Dutch merchant class, though woven into these scenes of new wealth were tiny reminders of mortality: mice, skulls, and fruit beginning to turn.
Though generally without the “mortality reminder,” Fraser wants to “make a picture you can live with,” her works exist solidly within a tradition of elevated everyday items, and technically holds its own.
Fraser understands that her subject and style aren’t for everyone, and says with a gleam in her eye, “A person might like my work or not but it’s highly unlikely that they could do it.”