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.