Tania Dibbs finds space to paint
January 2, 2009
ASPEN ” The career of local painter Tania Dibbs is a testament to the notion that being an artist requires more than creative skills. The job also requires resourcefulness, and a willingness to put up with far less-than-perfect surroundings in which to do one’s work.
When Dibbs, a native of the northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C., moved to Aspen, in the late ’80s, her first studio was an unheated barn on East Cooper Avenue. She had to cut out pieces of the wall to let in sufficient light. A few years later she traded her labor for the use of an ancient Woody Creek cabin. The space had no electricity; Dibbs ran a power cord from the house next door, without permission. When the neighbor, the late TV newsman Ed Bradley, learned of the situation, he gave his approval, and became a friend, supporter and collector of Dibbs.
In 1998, Dibbs bought her current residence, in Basalt, a purchase that stretched her to the financial limits, leaving no funds to add a studio to the home. Soon after, however, she landed a Recognition Award from the sate of Colorado. She used the several thousand dollar prize to buy lumber; she and a friend, the late Cory Brettman, built Dibbs’ Blue Sky Studio off the garage.
Since mid-December, Dibbs has been occupying more luxurious and professional digs, at 414 E. Hyman Ave. The space is smack-dab in the middle of the pedestrian mall, on street level. The multilevel space is on the north side of Hyman ” or as the flier for her current show boasts, it’s on the “sunny side of the mall.” Meaning that the cozy corner by the entrance, where Dibbs has set up her easel and oils, gets a good amount of light.
The new studio/gallery ” brighter, neater, bigger and far more accessible than past locations ” may be taken as an indication that Dibbs, at 43, has arrived at a certain comfort level. But she points out that the spot, which had previously housed a leather goods shop, isn’t as ideal as it appears.
“The ceilings are really low ” you adjust the light bulbs by reaching up. You turn on the lights with the circuit breaker,” she said. “There’s no bathroom” ” a feature shared by the first three studios she occupied in the Roaring Fork Valley. “It’s a funky space. It’s got an artsy feel.”
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And the space is most likely temporary. Dibbs’ current show, 107 Days, reflects the length of her lease. (She does have an option to take on a month-to-month tenancy on day 108, in early spring.)
“That’s an apt title. It captures the ‘project’ quality of it,” said Dibbs. “And I think that’s what captures people, not just the artwork. It’s kind of in contrast to what Aspen has become, and people just love that. Everyone comments on how cool it is that it’s something happening, something productive, something local. When I moved here, things were more funky.”
The way 107 Days came into being is a turning back of the hands of time. The space was found for Dibbs by Bob Langley, who was also Dibbs’ first landlord two decades ago. “He was the only real estate agent who continued to call me back. He stayed on it,” said Dibbs. Langley was thrilled enough to land the space for his former tenant that he waived his fee for the deal. Other friends have helped paint, loaned furniture, created signs and “baby-sit” the gallery, as she put it.
Dibbs notes that while the experience recalls “old Aspen,” it also may be a sign of things to come: “I never would have gotten this place if the economy were going good, of course,” she said, musing about the possibility that other local, lower-cost operations may follow her lead in these lean financial times.
For Dibbs, the experience is not simply plopping down into a desirable, turn-key location, but creating the opportunity in a process that is nearly as hands-on and creative as making an oil painting. “I love diving into new projects,” said the statuesque Dibbs, who for 10 years worked a day job as a ski instructor. “I have a koi fountain pond that I built ” mixed the cement, did the plumbing. I built a pizza oven in my backyard, which meant researching and learning about the cement and the insulation. It felt like my project. It’s not the same as paying a mason to build it. It’s that I love the whole project experience. You can get the thing a thousand degrees on the inside, and touch the outside and it’s not even warm.
“This has been the same kind of experience ” finding a not-so-great-looking space, fixing it up and turning it into an elegant space. It’s not just the result; it’s the experience. I feel it’s not just about the work, but about the project.”
Dibbs has shown her work in Aspen before ” not in her very own space, but in one-person exhibitions at respected galleries like Barney Wyckoff and Jill Vickers, both now gone, and the Elliott Yeary Gallery, across the mall from her present space. So while Dibbs gushes enthusiasm about the 107 Days project, a more radical change of late has been in the art itself.
For years, Dibbs based her paintings on what she saw with her eye ” landscapes that were a signature mixture of terrain and sky. And she could hardly envision doing things any other way. “When you’re doing a landscape, you get your idea and you execute it,” she said, essentially describing her artistic methodology.
Those works, based in realism, established Dibbs. She has shown her work in New York, Delaware and Tennessee. But it was only fairly recently that she achieved what she considers a level of artistic proficiency ” and soon after, it became time to look beyond the horizon.
“It became very boring,” she said. “Once I got good at it, it wasn’t fulfilling anymore. When I turned the corner, I just did three or four more paintings, and that was it. It lost its fascination. I get bored really easily.”
But Dibbs gets inspired just as easily, and in 2007 she headed down a new visual path. Though there are unmistakable links to her older work, it is simultaneously a drastic change in how she approaches a canvas. She no longer looks at the land and sky and makes an interpretation of what she sees; it is more of a real-time conversation between her creative mind and the paint.
“Now, I put down some layers and some marks and I don’t know where I’m going,” she said. “I have to spend a little time looking at it, and seeing where it’s going. See what it gives you back. So there’s a constant dialogue through the whole process. And that’s not there when you have a concrete landscape. That constant dialogue ” it truly is exciting. It makes me feel not stagnant.”
Some of what’s coming out is connected to the past. The predominant colors in the new work are aqua, blue and green ” a reflection of her interest in water, speculates Dibbs, who studied biology and printmaking at the University of Virginia. “Lifescape,” she says, is “like a pool, like the beginning of life, a petri dish. But there’s also the macro thing: It’s a landscape. You stand back and it makes up a world.”
The gold marks in “Life Force,” she says, stem from her koi pond. But they also suggest stars or planets. “So is it a close-up?” she wonders. “Are you looking through a microscope or a telescope? You don’t know.
“I love that ambiguity, and I used to hate it. Some are purely abstractions now. Some are rooted in a landscape, but not about a particular place. It’s amazing to me that I’ve gone in that direction ” more abstraction, less realism.”
Several works, like “Beginning,” suggest activity on a cellular level. In those pieces, Dibbs has introduced another material ” gold-leaf paper, which adds a reflective glow. “There wasn’t much room for that in realistic painting,” she says.
Dibbs says that the new artistic direction comes out of personal development. There is less planning, less control, and more spontaneity.
“You don’t have to have too much control; you don’t have to have all the answers,” she said. “Here, you let things happen a little more. That happens with a level of maturity. You don’t have to know where things are going. That’s a pretty big shift. I get to let things drip, have accidents show, find the good in them. Rather than saying, ‘Oh no ” mistake!’ Now I just start with nothing in particular. I just start.”
Painting in the middle of the downtown Aspen, and showing the work almost immediately, plays right into that act of letting go. Letting the public in on the process has necessarily made Dibbs loosen her hold on her art.
“I’ve always been kind of isolated, which makes you project your own preferences more,” she said. “When you’re in a place like this, people might be attracted to a certain palette, and then you see it in a different way. That frees you up ” I realize my opinion, my mind-set, isn’t the only one. It makes you remember that it’s just art, and anything is OK.”