New exhibit spotlights a maturing painter |

New exhibit spotlights a maturing painter

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

The latest work by Tori Mitas-Campisi naturally features dogs. Over her relatively short career as a painter, the Basaltine has become closely associated with canine images ” cartoonlike depictions of man’s best friends cast in a lighthearted mode. There have been the mostly self-explanatory “The Reclining Nude” and “Dog on a Wire,” as well as “The Abduction” ” a dog on skateboard being abducted by an alien creature. (“That’s my New Mexico roots,” said Mitas-Campisi, a product of Albuquerque.) The canine creations have spun into a sidelight career, painting commissioned portraits of people’s pets and people with their pets.

But the dogs in three of Mitas-Campisi’s new works bear little relation to their earlier cousins. In “Time Out,” the dog accompanies a man on a beach. But the dog isn’t pulling down his owner’s bathing suit. Only their backs are visible. The lighting, like the overall ambiance, is moody and contemplative. Mitas-Campisi is a sunny sort of person, given to bright clothing and chattiness. It is easy to see the artist in virtually all of her previous work. But “Time Out” reveals a new side of her and came from a different sort of place.

“I was looking through old photographs. It was quiet. I’d had a pretty blustery day, with four kids, a lot of car-pooling,” said Mitas-Campisi, a 41-year-old whose brood of four includes 8-year-old twins, a 6-year-old, and a 3-and-a-half-year-old named Tyger, who displayed fabulous behavior as his mother was being interviewed. “I felt like I needed a quiet moment. And I went there.”

To viewers who see the recent work ” Mitas-Campisi’s new show, Dogs Allowed in Chairs, opens at LivAspenArt at Aspen Highlands on Saturday, Sept. 1 ” it will look like an abrupt shift. And, to be sure, what is turning up on the canvas these days represents a sharp turn. But to the artist, the maturation of the work is the product of four years of work, four years of painting. The results are dramatically different, but they haven’t come out of nowhere.

“You don’t get there without all the practice beforehand, without training,” she said, as her new puppy, a puggle ” a pug-and-beagle mix ” slept in a portable bed in the gallery. “You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it doesn’t just happen. It’s everything that went before it.

“Sometimes a painting takes a lifetime. And sometimes you don’t know where it comes from.” With “Time Out” and now two more pieces that alter the course her art is taking, “I thought, ‘This is different. Where is it going?’ You kind of get glazed over.”

Before Mitas-Campisi began painting, it seems as if she was laying the groundwork for her career. Early in life she had taken up the craft of her mother and grandmother, both master quilters. Her years in college, at the University of New Mexico, involved a drastic change in direction; she studied international relations and envisioned herself in a high-powered, big-city job. But after a few years in Aspen in the early 1990s, when she met her husband, Mark Campisi, the couple relocated to Taos. While Mark opened the town’s first Domino’s pizza franchise, Mitas-Campisi entered the town’s art-heavy culture.

She befriended an artist, Dede Mathieu, who worked as an assistant to the well-known Taos painter Jim Wagner. Mitas-Campisi and Mathieu formed a business making painted furniture for children, and then incorporated a pottery line aimed at the local restaurants.

“It was hand-built pots, fun and funny, very folk and playful. Very much like the dog paintings,” she said. “But being a potter is hard work. It’s time-consuming. It’s a labor of love, and I didn’t necessarily have all the love.”

Regarding the process, she particularly found fault with the advance planning that goes with pottery. “I didn’t like that you couldn’t change things,” she said. “You had to design and stick with it. It was pure commitment, which I have a problem with.”

Moving back to Aspen, in 1998, Mitas-Campisi traded crafts for kids. Painting was partly an accommodation to her last pregnancy, and an accident of the calendar. Tyger was set to be a winter baby, and Mitas-Campisi went looking for something to do that winter instead of skiing. She enrolled in a Colorado Mountain College painting course.

“I painted with a great group of girls,” she said. “We all started together, and it was a riot, a really fun process with really creative people who liked to chat and paint. I like to talk when I paint.”

She also likes to change direction midstream, which made painting more pleasurable than making pots. “On the noncommittal level ” it’s so malleable,” she said of painting. “There are no mistakes. You can always move something and create another piece of history in your paintings.”

Mitas-Campisi connected her own history ” sewing ” to her early paintings. Sewing, she said, “is still a huge influence. I love textures. And I love patterns. That’s what I love about oil painting. You can get a lot of texture and depth.”

For subject matter, Mitas-Campisi began with landscapes. But she bumped up against how crowded the field was with more experienced artists, and went looking for something she could make her own. While in the middle of what she called a particularly mediocre landscape, she painted a dog into it.

“It was one of those moments ” I loved it,” she said. “It was fresh, different, it had a lot of history to it. And it got a lot of response. So I did a whole series of dogs.”

Something about finding her artistic vision must have radiated from her. Around the time when she began doing the dog series, Mitas-Campisi was chatting with Olivia Daane, whose daughter was in ballet class with Mitas-Campisi’s. Daane was in the midst of opening a gallery and working studio at Aspen Highlands, and Mitas-Campisi caught her eye.

“I asked her in here because I liked her clothes,” said Daane (now married, and going by the last name Reische). “I saw her colors and said, ‘You should paint.’ And she said, ‘Well, actually, I do.'”

Mitas-Campisi was, in fact, looking for studio space. “Instead of yoga to get away from the kids, I was going to paint as my little treat,” she said.

For more than a year, Mitas-Campisi has shared space in Resiche’s gallery, LivAspenArt. Over that year, she has worked feverishly and, not by coincidence, she thinks, seen her vision expand. The recent work is richer emotionally and opens up new possibilities ” even in the cartoonish paintings.

“I think I’m getting better at what I do ” even the funny stuff,” she said. “I’m more comfortable, more confident. And with that comes other things that you want to do.”

Dogs, she assures, aren’t about to leave her palette. “Even if it’s a secret, hidden somewhere, it’ll always have a dog in there somewhere. It keeps me a little more focused. That’s my signature,” she said. “I like fun and playful. I like color. I’m not going to be the artist who cuts her ear off.”