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The Colors of the Mind by Paul Smart

Woodstock's Kleinert shows psychiatrist-turned painter Darla Bjork's encaustics

Darla Bjork's abstract paintings, currently involving encaustic waxes on wooden boards, are all about a process of exploration, of freeing something deep within her. She says that when she starts a series of new works, she tends to keep to smaller pieces, and then grow larger in size as her brush strokes - the inner painter she's always seeking to let loose - seek more freedom.

Since starting to work with encaustics, Bjork's been feeling as though she's made a breakthrough with her art. She likes the elements of digging and scraping that the new media allows her, she can really get deeply into a painting now, instead of redoing only its surface, as most traditional means. She can work with layers: On one recent piece, she points out a strip of blue beneath a surface of splotchy brush strokes. That's where she started. It lends the piece a ballast, a sense of depth, that some of her older pieces are missing.

Bjork, who will have a pair of paintings, a recent diptych, in the new 7 x 14 show opening at the Kleinert James Arts Center in Woodstock this Friday, came to her art in a roundabout way. Yet it is that journey that fuels its deepest parts.

Born and raised into a Scandinavian family in Minnesota, Bjork speaks about her mother 'meticulous landscapes' and her own need to rebel against her parent by not going anywhere near art for years. She became a doctor - a psychiatrist with a full career working in mental institutions. Eventually, she found herself drawn to work in New York City, and there decided, on a whim, to try a sculpture class where the teacher now her life partner suggested that she take up painting. "Nancy was right," she says of that decision. "I just fell in love with paint and colors."

Bjork's early works reflected her day jobs at the time. They're angry, tortured faces that catch the viewer off-guard with their primal power, small and raw - an observer's view of an insider's angst. "I guess I found a way of releasing some of what was building up inside of me from my work in the hospitals, " Bjork says now, matter-of-factly. She adds that she didn't stop painting faces until she retired from her position as clinical director at South Beach Hospital and set 'up a private practice for herself - and a second home, with her partner up in Woodstock.

"I didn't know what I was doing when I moved to the abstracts." Bjork admits, almost gleefully. "I just loved the freedom of it - not having to think about having things resemble other things. I could spend hours painting."

She still does that, out of small studios upstate and in lower Manhattan, where Bjork tries to spend time with her art on a daily basis. She notes how the Woodstock locale has produced paintings with a horizontal character to them - like landscapes - while those she is doing this winter in the City are more amorphous, almost like peeling walls. "I've learned a great deal from the way in which light filters through the trees," she says. "I'm always aware of the light when I paint."

As with many in her field of abstraction, I ask Darla how she knows when enough is enough, when to call a painting done. She describes the process where she is working on it flat down, with the heated encaustics, or sometimes now upon an easel, moving the piece to the wall and back until it feels right. That process can take anywhere from days to less than an hour, depending on elements out of her control.

Does she have an idea what she wants to create before starting to work? Not really Bjork says. She may start with a color or a brush stroke - or not. "In the end, it's all about endless learning: I spent for too many years in school. With abstraction, you're learning as you go along, and there's no end to what can happen."

She pauses a moment. Then her two selves seem to conjoin in front of me. "As a psychiatrist, I've often thought about Rothko's suicide and wondered whether it was because he didn't know how to move on from where he'd gotten," she says. "I see artists who seem to have gotten stuck doing one painting. I feel the opposite, especially now with the encaustics added to what I do. I love the ability to move on."

Does Bjork have any ideas about the art world's commercial side? She sighs and we move on.

What about any second thoughts, created by her shift from doctor to painter? "If I'd know what I could get from all this back then, I would have started much earlier and foregone everything else," she says. "I would have loved to be a painter like Agnes Martin, quietly working on what I did for decades."

Ulster Publishing, March 2, 2006
all images ©2004 - 2006 Darla Bjork