Written By Brett Levine
Photography by Beau Gustafson
For artist Patty B. Driscoll, finding her way to realist painting wasn’t the easiest path. “I actually started art, in part, through studying with Anne Arrasmith at 21st Street Studios when I was young,” she explains. “Even then, Anne was a mentor who encouraged me to express myself creatively—and who helped me fall in love with Birmingham.”
That aspiration led Driscoll to Skidmore College, then to the California College of the Arts just as it found itself at the height of conceptualism. “I never really felt any expressive limits until I first found myself in college,” Driscoll begins, “and by the time I found myself working in the textiles department at CCA I was testing the limits of what it meant to be a painter—literally wondering what it actually meant to paint.”
All these questions led Driscoll to put down her palette and head in an entirely different direction: to culinary school, where she developed an incredible mastery for cake decorating. “I decided to go to the Culinary Academy in San Francisco,” she laughs, but the results were no laughing matter. Four- and five-tier creations embellished with hand-laid designs that perfectly mirrored hand-stitched lace were simply part of a day’s work. “I suppose you could say I like digging in to the details. I usually think of myself as being a pretty loose thinker, but when it comes to creating, and making art, I’m incredibly controlled.”
Controlled she is. Her light-filled studio brims with studies in distinct states of creation. Simply understanding how she creates her current work—we’ll get there in a moment—is an exercise in restraint.
She had basically stopped putting brush to surface until she had an opportunity to take a painting class with renowned artist Mark Carder. Best known for having painted portraits of presidents, Carder’s still life works are sublime. “I’d basically spent most of my painting career thinking about the idea of making work—literally weaving paintings, for example—and when I went to learn from Mark it took me to a different kind of thematic place.” This place was one where composition was crucial, and where the ability to represent meant taking the variables out of the equation. “I wear black when I paint now,” Driscoll smiles, “so I don’t reflect in the composition. I focus a really narrow gaze on little moments of family, of legacy, and of passing things on.” But within all this, she recognizes the larger, more universal issues. “I think one of the great gifts of still life as a genre can be capturing a moment much like you’re catching a butterfly.”
Even more important is how engaged Driscoll is with the actual practice of painting, and how it meshes with larger issues of concern. “I love the fact that historically still life painting was considered a ‘low’ style of painting. It was one of the few studio practices women could have. So when I do a work like Lydia’s Purple,” she says, gesturing to a delicate work depicting a silver vessel, foregrounded by a purple flower, “I can reference ideas of women’s history, of family, and of experience at the same time.”
What matters most in the end though is how incredibly skillfully Driscoll handles her media. Whether working in multiples making prints that explore the history of Bonwit-Teller, or meticulously painting small sections of a solitary work in her studio every single day, Driscoll proves that it is skill plus commitment that makes excellence emerge. A belief in her abilities, and a passion for expression, were at the beginning of the journey; a desire to examine ideas formed its center; and a commitment to achieving at the highest levels reflected its manifestations. The ability to continue to learn, and to develop, keeps her moving forward. And there, on small canvases, and in intimate prints, Driscoll makes magic emerge every single day.