Strokes of genius

Russian artist rediscovers brush after years as graphic designer

By Kevin Williams
Camera Staff Writer

Sometimes Olga Plam forgets life still goes on outside the still life she is painting. She often finds herself lost in the moment, brush and canvas drawing her into another world.

Only when it gets dark, and the lines on her piece begin to blur, does she realize she hasn't moved for hours.

"I am glad that the sun goes down," Plam jokes, a deep Russian accent coloring her words.

Last month, Plam's painting, "Orchids," appeared on the cover of Southwest Art magazine, a prestigious publication based in Houston. She is the first Colorado artist ever featured on the magazine's front.

"I was so happy I couldn't believe it was really happening," Plam says of the honor.

Inside the magazine, two more of Plam's paintings were highlighted as part of a series: "Realism Today, The Still Life." Both pieces demonstrate Plam's expertise with oil paint. Her technique, she says, is rooted in the realist tradition of the "old masters" like Rembrandt, who were the first to paint the atmosphere around their subjects using light and shadow.

Plam sits comfortably in her Boulder studio as she describes her passion, an almost finished floral painting resting on the easel in front of her. In the big picture, painting isn't everything, she says, but it's close.

"The process of painting makes me very happy. I cannot even say how important it is; I just paint every day. It's my life."

It wasn't always that way though.

Born in Russia in the late '30s, Plam used to paint and draw as a child at the urging of her mother. But after she graduated from the Stroganoff School of Art in Moscow, she pursued a career in graphic design, before returning to the school as an associate professor. When she moved to Boulder in 1976, she fell back into graphic design to put food on the table. For a long time, she couldn't afford thoughts of painting.

It wasn't until 1992, through a stroke of luck and a secure pocketbook, that Plam started to paint once more. The catalyst was Bob Venosa, an artist who worked in "fantastic realism."

"At that time, I had the fear of pristine, white, clean canvas," she admits. "It was frightening to put the first paint on it. Bob very gently took me back into painting."

Not long after she met David A. Leffel, a master of still life and portraiture. She brushed up on her skills under his tutelage, perfecting the realist style which infuses her work today.

In the 10 years since she's started painting again, Plam has won numerous awards for her work and has joined the Oil Painters of America and American Women Artists Association.

Looking almost regal, glasses held in one hand, Plam points to the picture she is currently working on, explaining the nuances of her trade.

"The most important thing in the still life is the light. The light has a movement ... the shadows, the darkness, it stays. Where the strongest light falls on the subject, the subject almost dissolves."

And the light, she says, is created by the contrast of colors. The extensive palette at her disposal allows her to experiment with her creativity.

"I think that probably the still life, as a genre, has the most available color to the painter," she says. "A portrait cannot have as many colors ... even a landscape. (And) I'm very much attracted to the colors."

Every piece Plam does is a challenge, she says, taking anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. And it's not only the painting itself, but the way the still life is initially arranged. She has to have the right balance of composition and color, a process that's not as easy as one might think.

"Sometimes I spend two days, and I'm exhausted because it doesn't come right," she says. "When you are disappointed hour after hour, it's very tiring."

But when it all comes together, the feeling is one that almost defies words, she says. And that, ultimately, is her inspiration.

When a stroke of paint is applied just right, followed by another stroke that goes exactly with the first, the piece almost seems to shape itself, guided by some deeper insight.

"Beautiful art gives you such an incredible, uplifting excitement," she says.

Becky Roser of Boulder owns five of Plam's paintings.

"I love what she does with color and light," Roser says. "I think she just puts a lot of her soul and her own beauty into these paintings."

Plam's husband, Misha, would agree, playfully saying she puts so much of herself into it that she often doesn't know when to stop. But he loves her work.

"A lot of artists have talent, but talent without taste is a tragic event," he says, as Olga, ever humble, shrinks away from the praise.

But she does likes to share her work with her husband and with the community as a whole. Anytime she sees something that strikes a chord in her, she wants to preserve it on canvas so others can experience the feeling.

"You see the beautiful things and it's inspiring," she says. "You want to make them permanent."

Olga Plam is represented by out-of-state galleries but takes part in Open Studios during the fall. You can see her work in her Boulder studio by appointment (303) 527-1030.


Boulder Daily Camera

January 10, 2002