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