February 9, 2016
FEATURE | At Home with Renate Dollinger - Part I
Jessika, one of our gallery assistants, recently visited renowned folk artist Renate Dollinger. She shares the experience here.
Walking into her Bothell apartment, I find the artist seated in a comfortable chair below a large painting of The Parting of the Red Sea, as described in the book of Exodus. This exuberant piece is one of the many original paintings which adorn the walls of Dollinger’s home.
Each brushstroke on the canvas comes to life as the epic story unfolds of how the Jews of the Old Testament escaped Egyptian slavery. It feels appropriate to meet Dollinger as she sits below such a work in her own home. The vibrant sense of a living tale, her bold use of colors and textured brushwork, as well as the whimsically and frenetically contorted figures are all hallmarks of Dollinger’s vivacious body of work. As I get to know this remarkable woman over the next few hours, I realize more and more that many of the qualities that make her work so enchanting to viewers are personality traits that shine through in her interactions.
We settle down to talk about her artistic career and she takes me on a tour of her Bothell, WA apartment. First, we enter her studio, with a workspace bearing the beginnings of a new shtetl painting. The walls are adorned with small works that she refers to as “Memories” - small paintings that depict visions of a past life in Eastern Europe.
Dollinger proudly explains the content of each painting and states, “People love them. Because they are small ... and they tell a story- you almost don’t need the painting.” To her, the story is just as important as the image. Surveying her work, I begin to feel that I've been in this world before - that these characters are memories from my own life and that the stories told on canvas are my own beloved stories. Dollinger’s explanation for where these paintings come from is certainly unusual, but does possibly provide an insight as to why a foreign, lost world can suddenly feel so personal. She is pleased when viewers unfamiliar with the world of the shtetl buy this type of artwork, because it gives her a chance to share another way of life with her fans. Dollinger describes how these subjects became a part of her repertoire:
If they fall in love with one of the Jewish things, I always feel good about it because they can learn something too. They can figure out there are people who live differently. You know? And that makes me feel better, that I can do that, because I didn’t used to be this way.
I used to just paint landscapes. And then there was a woman that came in my life when I was 43, which is half a life ago, and she said, “The Master said, ‘It is now time for you to paint what you promised to paint.’” I thought she was nuts. I had a gallery in Palo Alto and she kept telling me about that. And I said, “Who’s the Master?” But she wouldn’t tell me. And then she said, “The Master said you’re not going to sell any more in the gallery here.” And so I - I didn’t! It was a little gallery. We closed the gallery and I went home and I was depressed. I was thinking my life was over at 43.
And so I was standing there at the table and she called on the telephone. Her name was Dixie. She said, “This is Dixie.” I said, “Where are you?” She said, “In San Jose.” I said, “What do you do for a living?” I thought she made sandwiches in a sandwich shop. She said, “I am the head of the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose.” I said, “Really?? And what do you show there?” She said, “Old religious things of Egypt. And tombs,” she said.
I said, “Really? So who told you what to do with me?” “The Master said you will become very well known, but you have to paint the world that you used to know in your former life.” I said, “My what?” She said, “You lived before, the Master said. In a little town - which is called a shtetl - and there, your mother sold vegetables in the market and you sat under the table … and you drew the people that walked by, with a stick. And a rabbi used to come by and step on it. He said, “You’re not supposed to do that.” And my mother used to say, “See? You made the Rabbi mad.” And this went on until one day, the people that went to Church on Good Friday got mad at the Jews and they came and burned half the town down. And so I died. Then I was 15. And when I died, the very first thing I did was go over to the other side - you know, you go there - and I asked to see somebody in charge. (laughs) And so they showed me to some angel or other, and they said, “What can I do for you?” And I said, “How come you gave me talent and I was not allowed to use it?” And they thought about it and they said, “That’s right. You have a point right there. We’ll figure out something.”
I didn’t know when I was talking to Dixie; she told me about that. I had no memory. None whatsoever. She said that apparently they called me in, asked me if I was willing to paint it on the time when I’m half my life, 43 or 44 was it. And I said, “Then paint it for the rest of my life if they give me back the memories of what I saw of that world in Eastern Europe, I don’t know, 100 years before.” And so I said, “OK.” And I said, “I didn’t sign anything,did I?” “No, you just said, ‘Yes, I will.’” And I painted it ever since.
Those great big shtetls that I have done, and I have a whole book of them here I can show you, I’ve done over 44 years. And they’re all over the United States, they really are. That’s why you get a phone call from New York, “Where is Renate?”
Renate Dollinger lives in Bothell, WA and shows her work at Tsuga Fine Art & Framing. Come by the gallery to view her many framed original works as well as her limited edition etchings.