FOCUS: Sally Robertson // A 30 Year Retrospective
Bolinas Museum is excited to present its first online FOCUS feature highlighting a selection of the lush and sensual watercolors of Sally Robertson whose solo exhibition in Bolinas Museum’s Main Gallery ran May 8 – August 15, 2021, and was curated by Barbara Janeff. A Bolinas Museum tradition that began in the early 1990s, FOCUS exhibitions generally take place once a year and feature a living coastal Marin artist with a mature, well-established body of work.
Sally Robertson’s masterful watercolor paintings conjure the feel of a delicate petal, the scent of sweet fragrance, or the sound of koi splashing in her beautifully curated Bolinas garden. In our time of shortened attention spans and visual overload, to focus on a small view of nature, and then slowly render it in the challenging medium of watercolor, is rare. To create art from this process is magical and exceptional. Sally does this daily in her Bolinas home where her lyrical garden and art evolved together for over forty years.
Sally Robertson, September Roses with Smoke Bush Foliage, 2019, watercolor on paper, Bolinas Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Steve Starkey and Olivia Erschen, 2020.1.1.
Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are. —Alfred Austin, The Garden That I Love, 1905
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, Sally Robertson was always the class artist. Attending UC Santa Barbara during the Pop Art era, she found the aesthetics of soup cans and Brillo boxes could not entice her into being a full-time artist, and switched to the History of Art, later earning a Masters Degree at UC Berkeley. Even then, late 19th-century art nouveau resonated with her, a style sensuous and decorative with an emphasis on floral motifs. With this background, Sally joined a gallery on Union Street in San Francisco, which evolved into Thackrey & Robertson, major dealers in works of art on paper from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Traveling widely for her gallery, she had the opportunity to see originals of her most revered watercolor painters, including Charles Demuth, Charles Renee Mackintosh, and Joseph Raffael. After moving to Bolinas in 1978, while still working at the gallery, she began to cultivate her property and joined Strybing Arboretum (now the San Francisco Botanical Garden). Somewhat intimidated by her first-hand knowledge of great watercolors, she was enticed to enroll in a six-week course, “Watercolor in the Spring Garden,” at the Arboretum in 1986. There she learned just enough technique to become obsessed with watercolor and never looked back. She went on to have three solo shows (1996, 2003, 2007) at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at the Arboretum.
Her garden in Bolinas started as a 100 by 100-foot parcel. Practically wild, she has stewarded this piece of earth into a magnificent garden by adding neighboring lots to become an almost acre plot. Inspired in part by gardens of Province, it features shaped shrubs that punctuate garden spaces defined by meandering pathways. Plants are chosen both as part of the palette of the garden and as potential subjects for her watercolor work. Her spacious downstairs studio opens into this magical Eden replete with a large koi pond.
During her career as an art dealer, both her painting and gardening were evolving together in a symbiotic way. After the gallery closed in 1995, Sally became a full-time artist, gardener, and teacher. (Full disclosure: I was a student on two of her Art Trek trips to France and Tahiti.) In 1994 her friend Mary Nisbet, of California Orchids, Bolinas, introduced her to the world of orchids. The “strange beauty of orchids” resonated as subjects and offered a new visual vocabulary. For 20 years, from 1996 to 2015, Sally designed the posters for the Pacific Orchid Exposition in San Francisco and exhibited her work there. The graphic technique of flowers bursting out of their backgrounds, first used for a poster in 1997, was to become a signature part of her painting. Her orchid paintings were featured in “The Artistry of Orchids” exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 2000.
Sally sees her garden as a palette and her telling credo of “a painting in every petal” reminds us of her rich symbiosis with her garden. This exhibition follows her work from early studies to the fully realized watercolors of later years.
—Barbara Janeff, Curator
Sally Robertson, Opium Poppies, 2016, 30 x 22 inches. Collection of Kathy Williams.
Click images for more information and video clips.
My watercolor paintings have developed over the decades, inspired by flowers near and far, from my own garden on the Northern California coast to Monet’s Giverny, to gardens of the South Pacific. Sometimes it is the morning light on a dewdrop which evokes a painting, other times a serene still life. I try to search out the most telling and revelatory aspects of my subjects, always pushing the limits of the descriptive power of watercolor. Although my work is characterized by a strong sense of realism, I have a reverence for the poetic quality of watercolor, and believe that watercolor applied wet into wet has a spontaneous life of its own and an exuberance that reflects nature most powerfully. My challenge and my goal is bringing together the clear eye of a gardener and the magic vision of an artist.
Sally Robertson in Bolinas Museum’s Main Gallery during her solo exhibition FOCUS: Sally Robertson: A 30 Year Retrospective, July 2021