What appears to be the work of three people in separate areas of the Steynberg Gallery is all by one artist: Nancy Stromberg Sowaal.
Although she is 80 years old, this isn’t a retrospective for the Grover Beach artist.
“It’s really my first show,” Sowaal said. “I’ve never shown my paintings before,” save for a student exhibit 60 years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the De Young Art Museum.
From Alameda, she was attending the College of Arts and Craft in the Bay Area, and after a five-month trip hitchhiking around Europe, returned to earn her degree.
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After marrying and moving to New York, Sowaal put her love of art and painting to work for 37 years by teaching art to children. Shortly before she retired, her bottled-up creativity poured out.
Her series of four large works, “Young Woman Looking Out,” shows a seated figure, sometimes blonde, sometimes brunette, in the same pose on the same deck, with variations in colors and details.
“It carried over that feeling I had in college with Richard Diebenkorn,” said Sowaal. Diebenkorn, a figurative painter during that period who later achieved worldwide acclaim with his geometric abstract expressionism work, was her teacher and mentor.
Through his instruction, she learned to carefully observe the subject matter, Sowaal said — “how light plays on it, the depth and the angles” — along with a crucial ingredient: “how you feel about it, how it moves you.”
In addition to her figurative work, some her offerings are dominated by dominoes, with the tiles often floating above the surfaces and off of the tables.
Sowaal intends no symbolism in these paintings.
“I just kind of became fascinated with shapes of dominoes,” she said. “I love the dots and the shadows.”
Other paintings show her view through windows and doors to her garden.
“I was interested in the shapes and colors, then they become movement and space,” Sowaal said.
Many include the words “looking out” in the titles, and for the artist, they represent an unknown element: “looking out to see what’s on the other side of the door, the mystery and the beauty.”
A postcard of Henri Matisse’s works she’d placed on a mirror inspired her compositions of kimono-clad geishas, then sparked her to use mirrors and reflections in other work.
More recently, Sowaal has been rendering surreal paintings of colorful boxes. Containers whirl around against a dark-blue sky over a stagnant green pond, or tumble across mountains, all triggered by her observation of the cartons accumulated in her garage. For her they symbolize the abundance of stuff that humans collect.
During her career, Sowaal knew she’d eventually paint again, so she kept her skills honed.
“All those years that I taught, I also took drawing,” she said.
After a brief stint in Oregon, Sowaal and her husband, Jack, built a home in Grover Beach in 1998. Sowaal has yet to get involved with the local art scene. Painting, not exhibiting, is her goal, and she’s content to stay home with her husband, tend her garden — and paint.