Every new work requires her to start over in considering technique. LaCroix — pronounced “la kwa,” the original French way — is a representational artist, working almost exclusively from direct observation for her still lifes, landscapes and figure drawing and paintings. She considers herself a color painter, using vivid hues to achieve expressive content.
“Representational paintings are ancient; the cave paintings were representational,” she says. “I try to reach out and touch the viewers. I hope they will feel [the expressive content], that it will hold their interest, that they’ll find something new each time they view the painting or sculpture.”
Although LaCroix spent more than 30 years as a litigator, these days you can find her in her studio, a small building down the driveway of her 30th Street home, or in her in-home studio gallery space around the corner and up a few steps from her lush garden – another creative endeavor. She has devoted hours each day working in her studio for the past three and a-half years, since her decision to retire from her law career and pursue full-time the passion she discovered in college.
It all started for LaCroix at Northwestern University outside of Chicago, where she studied as an undergraduate. She happened to take an Art History course, and not coming from a family with much of a relationship with fine art, LaCroix was stunned to discover this fascinating field. Living near Chicago afforded her a wealth of opportunities to explore this new sphere through museums, galleries and the Art Institute of Chicago. When she moved to DC to attend law school, she found even more opportunities in the city’s museums, especially since free admission is the only type that fits comfortably in a student’s budget. LaCroix lights up when speaking of that period of discovery.
On the recommendation of a friend, LaCroix finally tried her hand at one of her beloved art forms through the Corcoran’s beginners’ class: “I’ve Never Held a Pencil,” taught by Judi Kauffman. LaCroix then tried other classes at the Corcoran and the Washington Studio School, and studied with sculptors Jean Bartoli and Oscar Garcia. But her main influence and mentor has been painter Stephanie Kay, with whom she studied privately during the final eight years of her law career. So LaCroix progressed in learning the techniques and approaches of representational painting and sculpting: studying form in space, gestures, the interactions of hues, the interplay of lines in space, value, composition and how all these elements allowed her to achieve her intended emotional effect.
Throughout her art career, LaCroix has tried to create works with universal themes and emotional content, and has found herself drawn to works by other artists who have done the same. Some of her favorites are Degas, Manet, Durer, Vermeer and Euan Uglow. She also appreciates Van Gogh’s sense of movement, Matisse’s sense of color and the radical advancements in painting techniques of the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance painters. Each artist gives her something different to absorb and apply.
In the studio gallery in her house, LaCroix speaks at length about a few paintings. The vibrant still life of autumn gourds and vegetables, Stems, is a celebration of the season and its bounty. Says LaCroix: “Fall is my favorite season. All has come to fruition and maximum maturity. It’s a season full of largess, especially October, so I wanted to represent that feeling. I gathered a bunch of October’s bounty and started to pick and choose what would work.”
The end result is a collection of brightly-colored squash, pumpkins, other gourds and deep-hued fruit arranged around an upturned green striped basket, with a single red pear balancing on the basket bottom. The pear LaCroix placed to add an element of tension. “Fall represents an ending, too, and the coming darkness of winter. That’s why the basket is upside down. All that can be gathered has been gathered. The pear shows the tipping point between fall and winter.”
The most striking elements in the painting are two large gourds shaped like swans’ heads with long, curving necks. These gourds dominate the still life and lean gracefully in toward each other, as though in dialogue. LaCroix explains: “I felt they should go in the painting even though it wasn’t their season because in fall birds are migrating and leaving us. The gourds are like Nature’s own representation of birds. They’re something to look at while the birds are gone.”
Flotilla — a still life with a crab, a lobster tail, lemons, mussels, clams and a lone scampi head, comes with an interesting story. The scampi head was from a New Year’s Eve meal LaCroix shared with friends. LaCroix was so taken with the shape of the shrimp head that she asked the wait staff to wrap it for her to take home.
Then, as she painted the still life through the month of January, she retrieved the scampi head, crab, lobster, and other shellfish from the studio refrigerator and restored them every evening, hoping they wouldn’t decay too rapidly. “It really started to smell in here!” LaCroix says with a laugh. All trace of fishy scent is gone from the studio now, but the painting itself is a visual trip to the ocean, with brilliant colors and a sense of fun pervasive, from the cocky positioning of the crab, to the fish-shaped dishes holding the shellfish, to the sand-colored table and sun-colored shape in the background.
“It was so, so cold that January,” LaCroix says. “I felt like I needed a little bit of the Caribbean.”
Next, LaCroix shows me Saturday Morning, a painting of a young woman seated in a brilliantly-colored, Harlequin-patterned wing chair. One of the woman’s knees is bent sharply and her foot tucked beside her thigh; the other leg stretches forward with her foot planted on a small stool. One hand is hidden behind the bent leg and one is visible beside her on the chair, very large, strong and substantial.
Through the window over the woman’s shoulder is an ambiguous scene; perhaps the sun is rising in a splash of orange or perhaps a storm is gathering and threatening to block out the light. The emotion in the painting LaCroix drew from the atmosphere the model herself created: a dichotomy of safety and danger, certainty and uncertainty. In response to that mood, LaCroix positioned the model in a comfortable and comforting chair, snuggling her in and incorporating opulent drapes and carpeting as a way to offer protection and a sense of her hope that the model would be richly rewarded, after facing whatever obstacles appear in her life.
“I don’t go into a painting with a full sense of the direction,” LaCroix says. “Emotions emerge as I paint and what happens between the model and me, what we talk about, influences the direction.” She adds: “When I paint a figure, I feel a connection with the model. It’s what I see when looking at their skin. I try to settle into them and their mood; I try to do them justice. They’re very real people to me and I try to honor them for being willing to give me a chance to know them and paint them.”
Living and working in Forest Hills is definitely beneficial to her new career in art, LaCroix believes, and in more ways than the obvious. She moved to the neighborhood in 1986 and bought a house from Elizabeth Boyd, who was a portrait painter and used one of the bedrooms as a studio. “Some people were put off because of the paint splotches on the floor, but I didn’t mind,” LaCroix says, with a twinkle in her eyes. Was it fate that she bought an artist’s house and eventually became a full-time artist herself? She loves to think it’s a possibility, perhaps a confluence of artistic energies.
LaCroix has added onto the house and garden substantially over the years, the most recent addition being her beautiful, spacious, tile-floored studio gallery space where she displays all her finished oil landscapes, portraits, still lifes, figure paintings, charcoals, ink and graphite drawings, silver point drawings and bronze and wax figure sculptures. LaCroix feels lucky to have such space to devote to her art in her own home, since she can be in her studio and painting moments after leaving her porch door. She doesn’t need to worry about parking or feeding meters and any items she requires for a still life or a figure painting’s environment can be brought down from her house quickly and easily.
Living in Forest Hills also brings the benefits of easy access to all the art galleries, activities and cultural events DC has to offer, all in a place where nature surrounds her. The neighborhood is also safe and convenient for models to access by Metro or bus when coming to pose.
Currently, LaCroix is working on a new painting and a new concept, a multi-figure painting. She is interested in the visual interplay between two figures and finds a stimulating challenge in capturing the differing but harmonious energies of the models. “It helps that they’re friends and can interact,” she says. If you visit LaCroix’s studio while she’s working on this painting, she’ll gladly show you the environment where the models sit, on an Oriental rug, one on and one leaning against a striped ottoman and both in front of an opulent black Chinese folding screen with mother-of-pearl figures. If you request to see the painting itself, though, LaCroix will have to politely refuse.
“I tend not to show works in progress,” she says, citing the vulnerability and changeability involved in the process of making each piece of art. She prefers to keep the input loop between herself and the models closed until each piece is complete and ready for the world.
LaCroix recently hosted a spring solo showing in her studio gallery and hopes to have another public showing at the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014. In the meantime, friends, neighbors, fans, art lovers and collectors can contact her for private appointments via email. She keeps her schedule very flexible to allow for appointments most any time of the day. She hopes to soon have a website for her art up and running, although “the best way to view art is in person,” she says.
To set up an appointment for a private art viewing with Deborah LaCroix, contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images in this article are copyrighted and reproduced with the permission of Deborah LaCroix.