Imagined Interiors: Through her vignettes of interiors and gardens, Marilyn Sommer seeks beauty from the commonplace

By Meg McConahey, The Press Democrat
Published: Friday, April 3, 2009

Through the window, spring unfolds with a single fruiting tree, its barren white branches dotted with tiny green buds set against a cornflower blue sky.

This little scene of domestic tranquility is Marilyn’s World, where a common table setting or a grouping of comfy chairs with an overstuffed chintz sofa beckon you to sit down and claim a contemplative moment. It’s a world that Sebastopol artist Marilyn Sommer re-imagines from real life and then emboldens on canvas with brash strokes and fevered colors.

Her seductive still lifes, interior and garden vignettes and landscapes are reminiscent of artists Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh. They follow the seasons, from the tulips of spring to the fruit of summer, to the jewel-tones of autumn and a farm table dressed in the deep greens and red berries of winter.

Whether it is, as she says, “the curve of a table, the light falling across a room or the seeds of a papaya fruit,” Sommer seeks to lift out the beauty from the commonplace.

“It’s a comment that a lot of people will make, if they like my work: ‘It makes me smile. It makes me happy. I’ve always painted like that,’” she says.

But it is also driven by her own yearning to be in the places she paints, a feeling that is infectiously felt by many who regard her dynamic explosion of shapes and colors.

“I think for me, it’s a way of going to a nice place,” she reflects, “ a place that I find beautiful and happy.”

You would assume the painter behind these audacious canvases, nine of which define the decor of the chic BLT Market at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park South in New York, would be an unbridled and emotional force of nature. But Sommer, a petite, unassuming and soft-spoken former medical social worker, is anything but. She spills her passions through paint.

“Her work has a wonderful sense of style and whimsy about it and the colors are really bold and wonderful,” said Michael Bagley, the exclusive designer of all of the restaurants in Chef Laurent Tourondel’s BLT empire.

It was Tourondel himself who selected Sommer to provide the massive canvases of larger-than-life heirloom tomatoes and fruit to telegraph a fresh-from-the-farmhouse-table message in the middle of New York City.

“When I first saw Marilyn’s work at the Mondavi Winery in Napa, I was struck by the vibrant colors and textures that made the fruits and vegetables depicted seem to jump off the canvas,” Tourondel wrote at the time the restaurant opened in 2007. “The golden persimmons, ruby tomatoes and deep-hued juicy figs are a natural extension of my vision for the restaurant.”

So bewitched was he by the artist whose style is clearly influenced by the Post-Impressionist and Expressionist painters of his native France, he kept two paintings for himself.

Sommer believes the crimsons, fuchsias, purples and deep pinks in which she is now immersed are both a reaction to the arid urban neighborhood of her childhood and an homage to the natural beauty of Sonoma County, where she has lived for more than 30 years.

“I grew up in Boston and my parents didn’t have a car, so I didn’t see a lot of the surroundings, the suburbs of western Massachusetts and all the beautiful parts of New England,” says Sommer, who nonetheless conjures up charming New England snow and skating scenes in her landscape series. “So to me it was very drab. I lived in a brick apartment building. I think I really missed color or else I didn’t know I missed color until I came here and began discovering more and more color and how it can be used.”

Although she says she always painted from very early childhood, she studied psychology in college and earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Even while working as a social worker at large medical centers in New York and later California she continued to paint, picking up the occasional art class at the Boston Center for Adult Education and then Santa Rosa Junior College.

She is, however, largely self taught, poring over books filled with the paintings not just of Matisse and Van Gogh but Pierre Bonnard, whose open window settings and festive garden tables celebrate the sensuous.

Helping her stay focused and disciplined is the ongoing painting salon she hosts in her studio. Once a week a group of fellow painters gather in her paint-splattered studio, “turn on the music and coffee pot” and paint from early morning to late afternoon.

Sommer’s interiors may seem static, but through color and form she makes the scene dynamic. Even furnishings and objects evoke a subtle motion. Furniture is whimsically distorted and out of perspective; a set of teapots appear to be dancing. Ordinary scenes of home that may otherwise pass out of memory become something to immortalize. Interior vignettes of sofas, and provencal-style table settings by windows or against brightly wallpapered backgrounds are empty of people, inviting you into the canvas.

Like Matisse, she uses “line” to outline images that already are popping from the canvas with their exploding shades of magenta and chartreuse.

Sommer, married to an engineer and the mother of one grown son, peruses magazines, the landscape around her and the places she visits for scenes of inspiration. For 25 years she has been involved with Servas, a group founded after World War II to promote peace through cultural exchange. Through it she has made many friends in Europe, particularly France, who have taken her to those places that become the inspiration for her paintings, the bounteous tables of fruit and wine, the windows peeking out onto landscapes that informed the Impressionists.

Her works may be featured at the Galleria of the San Francisco Design Center, but Sommer’s own stone home is geared strictly for down-home country comfort, with a surfeit of big couches and chairs and wall-to-wall shelves.

It is unlike the dreamy places she visits in her canvas world. “I’m into being comfortable,” she says with a smile. “I have to live here.”

You can also read this article on the Press Democrat website, or download a copy of the print version as a pdf.

BLT Market and the Art of Seasonality

New York, NY – September 2007 – To a chef’s palate, nature’s bounty is as bold and colorful in flavor as nature’s beauty is to an artist working with a palette of paint. That might explain the immediate affinity Chef Laurent Tourondel felt for artist Marilyn Sommer, who he commissioned to create the majestic paintings that will line the walls of Tourondel’s newest dining destination, BLT Market. The paintings are a two-dimensional representation in oil-on-canvas of the fresh, seasonal farmers’ market ingredients that adorn the menu.

“When I first saw Marilyn’s work at the Mondavi Winery in Napa, I was struck by the vibrant colors and textures that made the fruits and vegetables depicted seem to jump off the canvas. The paintings displayed at BLT Market of golden persimmons, ruby tomatoes and deep-hued juicy figs are a natural extension of my vision for the restaurant,” says Tourondel. He was so taken with the artwork that he later purchased two paintings for his home.

Sommer uses her ability to play contrasting colors against each other in order to create the movement within each painting. Her work is heavily influenced by the power and emotion of colors, recalling the styles of artists Chaim Soutine and Vincent Van Gough, as well as Post Impressionist and Expressionist periods.

Sommer was featured as a Robert Mondavi guest artist in 2001 at Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, CA. She also exhibits at The Petaluma Arts Council, Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and the Arts Council of Sonoma County. Her work is currently on display at the following California locations: Holiday Inn Express, The Rose & Thorn and Patty James Cooking School in Sebastopol, All Seasons Bistro in Calistoga, Copperfield’s of Santa Rosa. Sommer’s artwork has also been featured on the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau Map, as well as on the label of Michael Mondavi's Folio Wine Company's new release, I'm Rosé Cabernet Sauvignon. She is currently a featured artist at the San Francisco Design Center as well.

“Shared times at the table are many of our sweetest remembrances. My artwork attempts to convey this sentiment at BLT Market.  I am thrilled to be part of this artistic collaboration, and hope my painted images both enhance and whet the appetite.  Painting what is most beautiful comes from my reaction to the power and emotion of the subject matter, color and composition.  Spreading the paint is as joyous now as when I was a child.  Bon appétit!” 

Just as Tourondel’s menu takes its cue from the bounty of the season, so do Sommer’s vivid paintings.

Media Contact: Jennifer Baum / Jennifer Russo Bullfrog & Baum, 212-255-6717

Cooking Up Art:Color As The Main Ingredient

Artist Marilyn Sommer s ingredient-focused tableaux adorning the walls of BLT Market not only help bring the menu to life, but her colorful artwork also sets the tone for the restaurant s seasonally inspired dishes.

It s easy to see where Marilyn Sommer pulls her inspiration from: the seductive hues of vibrant summer vegetables, the healthy coloring of a steaming bowl of soup, or the rich, warm tones of a seasonal daube. All of these colors embellish our appetite for food, for creativity, for the arts in general.

Sommer s oil paintings are bursting with color; much like a just overripe tomato splits its seams to reveal its red, raw Żesh, unabashed. She pulls together compositions largely through her ability of playing one color against another, as a chef does with his ingredients, where infusion of Żavor or color and juxtaposition of texture come into play.

InŻuenced largely by the paintings of the Impressionist, Post- Impressionist, and Expressionist periods, Marilyn Sommer notes the works of Soutine, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Bonnard in particular. Her versatile portfolio spans still lifes, landscapes, Żgurative works, and interiors.

Commissioned by Chef Laurent Tourondel, who studied her works before formulating ideas for BLT Market, Sommer provided artwork based on the exact speciŻcations of the restaurant s setting.

There is a beauty and truth in the presence of food, which I Żnd very appealing to paint in my honest reaction to what I am feeling and seeing. Also, shared times at the table are among many of our sweetest remembrances.

And sweet they are, as she fondly reminisces about her Aunt Minnie s unforgettable sour cream coffee cake:  I can still smell and picture the foods, and have painted some of them from my memories as a child around the holidays with my extended family. More recent food associations involve family times as well as wonderful get-togethers and potlucks with friends.  My son, husband, and I just tried to replicate my Grandma Chloť s goulash. What fun!

 I feel the seasons intensely, she continues.  It is a combination of my Żve senses as well as something indeterminate. Having had the opportunity in my life to experience four distinct seasons according to the places in which I have lived, I enjoy aspects of them all and take pleasure in painting season-speciŻc ingredients: strawberries in the spring, watermelon in the summer, all kinds of gourds, pumpkins, and squash in autumn, and persimmons in the winter.

While Sommer has a Żower and vegetable garden and fruit trees that, at times, provide produce and landscape as models, she is ultimately inspired by all of nature in general and speciŻc seasonal produce. In fact, her work is as varied and seasonal as the menu at BLT Market.

While she enjoys eating out  My favorite item on the BLT Market menu is the seven-pepper-crusted grass-fed New York strip steak  Sommer is particularly fond of cooking with family and friends.  Cooking is a wonderful way to share in the learning process, and to relish the results with the people I love. My favorite meal is dinner, and a perfect menu would include lobster bisque soup, prime rib with fresh vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes, salad greens with fresh garden tomatoes in a balsamic vinaigrette, and chocolate fudge cake for dessert, with milk!

-BLT Living Magazine, Summer 2008

Other Reviews:

"The interior is bright and cheerful, due in large measure to local artist Marilyn Sommer's loose and luscious paintings of tables laden with dishes and food."

-Jeff Cox (restaurant review of Cucina Paradiso - Los Angeles, CA)

"Marilyn's paintings explode with vibrancy and luminosity and texture."

-Margrit Mondavi, Robert Mondavi Winery [One of Marilyn Sommer’s works is on the new wine label “I’m Rose Cabernet Sauvingon” being released by Michael and Isabel Mondavi’s winery, Folio Winemakers. ]

"Marilyn's paintings are delightful. The color play and quick strokes of her paint bring an energetic vibrancy to both her landscapes and still lifes. The adept combination of line and color gives her paintings a feeling of airiness and light. Her use of slightly skewed perspectives is reminiscent of Henri Matisse. There is a cheery atmosphere in all of Marilyn's work that uplifts the spirit."

-Franklin Gallery, Santa Rosa, CA

"Marilyn Sommer's paintings make people happy. It's that simple, they make a room. They are a love affair with color, perspective, composition, especially with color. They set a mood. Hanging several of Sommer's pieces ups the ante. The room has energy. Good art elevates the viewer, and in this, it needs to be seen. Every gallery that displays this artwork provides a service. People deserve to immerse themselves in pleasure."

-Laurie Stoelting, author of "Light on the Mountain: Mt. Tamalpais, a Poet's View"