Like the enchanting beauty of the Channel Islands, which reveal layer after layer of wonder the more time you spend studying your surroundings, Nicole Strasburg’s paintings are breathtaking at first glance and infinitely more complicated and engaging the longer you look at them.
The artist herself is similarly captivating, her friendly smile and quick wit offering a first impression that belies the “excruciatingly shy” child she says she once was. Today, Strasburg is a confident artist and a practical businesswoman who has come to terms with the fact that talking to people about her work and her life is the price she pays to make her living doing what she loves.
Although she paints landscapes primarily — focused studies of land, sky and sea pared down to their most organic shapes — Strasburg is most at home in her studio, which is conveniently just a few steps away from the Noleta home she shares with her husband, Bill Marazita, a sergeant with the Santa Barbara Police Department, and their two border collies.
Strasburg visually records her outdoor inspiration with sketches and photographs while out on walks with her dogs, or in the case of her current exhibition (on view at Sullivan Goss, 7 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara, through Jan. 29), multiple overnight stays on the islands.
Then it’s back to the studio, where, “it’s about breaking all of those images down into a really beautiful composition,” she explained. “It’s less about this is the island on this day at this time — all of that kind of comes through the color and the composition — but first and foremost it’s about a really dynamic composition, and that’s the kind of more abstract part of my landscapes.”
“My whole philosophy is you just jump in the river and hope the current takes you somewhere,” Strasburg said.
Unlike many landscape artists who paint what they see as they see it, Strasburg is a dedicated studio painter.
“I find that when I actually paint in plein air I make these really traditional kind of staid, boring compositions, and they are much more exciting when it’s me reinterpreting how excited I was by what I was looking at,” she said. “You want to be reminded of that moment when you catch your breath.”
“I definitely spend a lot of time in my studio,” she said. “I always joke that I think my husband built me that studio so he would always know where I was, because he knows that’s where I’m going to spend most of my time.”
Strasburg once dreamed of being an engineer.
Her parents drove her to UCLA for an Air Force interview. Military officials thought her grades were great but asked her to retake her SATs before they’d grant her admission.
“I just said ‘no’ and then UCSB offered me a fellowship in the arts,” she laughed.
Strasburg gives some credit for this artistic twist in her fate to “a fantastic high school art teacher who really pushed all of us to do advanced placement. Anybody he saw who had any inkling of talent he kind of pushed us in that direction. ... Audie Love at Dos Pueblos is the reason I’m an artist today.”
She smiled, “And he still comes to my art openings; we’re still in touch. He’s very sweet. I always give him tons of kudos.”
In addition to her fine art, Strasburg has a rubber stamp company called Two-Dog Stampede, which started when she wanted to create wrapping paper last Christmas, as a tribute to her border collies, Princess Skye and Ms. Molly. She then carved all different breeds of dogs and is now working on a series of stamps with the Channel Islands and its wildlife.
“It is just a nice break from the painting, because I think it’s more left-brain than right-brain,” she said.
When she’s not painting, Strasburg also enjoys printmaking.
“It’s also art, but I think it gets me back into the mathematics, because the actual making of the image is just 10 percent of the whole process,” she explained. “You make the image and then you’ve got to deal with ink and paper and transferring it to the etching plate, and it kind of slows you down.
“Painting is more instant gratification; you’re just making your mark. With printmaking, it’s backward so you have to think how it is going to print on the page and if you’re doing multiple layers ... Printmaking gets me back to drawing and really looking at the composition and what I am doing. It slows me down tof gear up for whatever might be coming next.”
In addition to local representation by Sullivan Goss— her current show, “Island - Valleys - Home,” is her fifth solo show there — Strasburg also has work on display at galleries in Carmel, Santa Monica, Solana Beach and Puerto Vallarta, as well as in the Sundance Catalog and as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) art rental and sales gallery.
Strasburg credits some of her success to skills she learned from Women’s Economic Ventures.
“It really focuses you,” she said. “It was really narrowing it down and working at it, and figuring out what my niche was as a landscape painter in this town of landscape painters. For me, what was enlightening was understanding that I needed to get out of this little pond and have my work out in the world, and that’s when people started looking at me.
“My dad always would profess a king has no honor in his own court,” she laughed. “Think bigger, think bigger. You’ve got to keep your head down and stop paying attention to what everybody else is doing, and then you start attracting interest.”
And as for her shyness, “I’m pretty good one-on-one these days,” she said. “When I have to talk to a bunch of people, like at an opening or an event, I get worked up about it, prepare for it and then I get over it and know that it’s just part of my job.”
Nicole Strasburg’s show, “Islands - Valleys - Home,” is currently on view at Sullivan Goss, 7 E. Anapamu St., through Jan. 29. The artist will be at the gallery from 5 to 8 p.m. Jan. 5 for the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization’s 1st Thursday festivities.
Strasburg’s work is also on view at the Wilding Art Museum, 2928 San Marcos Ave. in Los Olivos, through Jan. 31. The show is Island Encounters: The Art & Conservation of the Channel Islands, Group Exhibition.