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Artistic Trio Makes it 'Big'

A wash of red runs down the canvas and easel as the artist conjures the abstract image in his mind's eye.

A few steps away, a couch where models recline stamps the studio with a literal face.

Across the parking lot, bronze angels take flight from the upper stories of a cluttered garage.

Step into their Talent Studio, and humanity's mental, temporal and spiritual aspects seem to converge, say three artists whose divergent styles are gaining recognition locally and around the state.

"It maybe fills out the different aspects of our psyches," says artist Gabriel Mark Lipper.

Lipper worked for four years in proximity with Kevin Christman and Clifford Wilton before collaborating on a milestone Portland exhibit in July. Titled "Inside Out," the artist-designed show at the city's Goldsmith Blocks intended to identify "connecting threads" between the trio's seemingly diverse works, Lipper says.

"When I saw the space, I knew I was gonna need my colleagues," he says.

None of the artists had previously exhibited in Portland, although all frequently show at Ashland galleries. July's venue on Northwest Fifth Street gave them the chance to display larger pieces than those typically seen in the Rogue Valley, in an airy space that allowed ample room between each.

"I feel so fortunate right now ... that things are going so big," says Christman.

Anchoring the show was "Transmutation," Christman's twice-lifesize female figure rendered in acrylic plastic and suspended from the ceiling. The sculpture's mold lay in pieces on the floor like a fractured egg. The woman's fetal position represents a "birthing out," Christman says.

"Going inward is the theme."

Exhibit viewers could go further inward, into the mind of Wilton, where red and black zig-zags, like saw blades, gnash toward the center of one canvas. Like many of Wilton's paintings, the piece incorporates oil pastel, outlining shapes the artist hopes to emphasize but drawn purposely askew. At age 80, Wilton has long since learned it's fine to color outside the lines.

"You see I have more fun than a kid in a sand box."

Wilton retired 18 years ago from a career in advertising and graphic design to paint full-time. He arrived in Ashland in 2000 via Aspen, Colo., and started auditing art courses at Southern Oregon University.

"I loved it there," he says. "The environment was terrific."

Wilton studied painting at SOU for two and a half years before renting studio space in Talent. Lipper found him there and proposed moving to a bigger facility with Christman and landscape artist Phyllis Towbridge.

"We're very affected by what each other is thinking," says Christman. "I think it's pushed all of us to go larger and with more risk."

His monumental sculptures outgrowing the studio, Christman relocated earlier this year to a nearby garage, where he enlarges sculptures for other artists and builds molds for them, not unlike a subcontractor's work. It's this "art handling" that allows Christman, 44, to fund his vision, including the installation of a bronze angel titled "Alchemy of Light."

The project touched off debate in 2007 around sidewalk advertising in Ashland when Christman proposed installing his sculpture in front of the downtown shop Soundpeace. Christman says he expects the angel, on loan to the city, will finally have a home at Soundpeace within the year.

"Alchemy of Light" is a product of the "huge shift" in Christman's work that followed his move to Ashland a decade ago from Santa Fe, N.M., where his art was "very stormy." Southern Oregon's environment caused him, Christman says, to look past humanity's failings and ask "where's the transformation; where's the beauty?"

The natural world has furnished much of that beauty, evident in Christman's landscapes painted outdoors in oil and then overlaid in the studio with geometric shapes. Typical of his style, a mural in the Rogue Valley Manor's new dining facility depicts an expansive view of the valley, a massive madrone tree outlined against the Siskiyou Mountains.

"I treat the geometry almost like it's the important thing, and the landscape is supporting," Christman says.

Also known locally as a muralist, Lipper, 34, has focused more recently on the human figure, painting portraits in oil and teaching portraiture with the aid of live models weekly at Talent Studio. For July's show, Lipper set up work space in the Goldsmith Blocks gallery, allowing visitors to observe and giving rise to new work that portrays metropolitan life.

"All of this traffic and noise inspired me to go in a different direction," Lipper says.

The two-dozen pieces he selected for "Inside Out" represent his darker works, including bar scenes and other contemporary subjects bearing titles borrowed from Greek mythology. The effect is reminiscent of Parisian cafes in the 1920s and '30s, Lipper says.

"It's very rich and decadent."

A vibrant palette and lavish brush strokes characterize much of Lipper's work, which lately has been an exercise in "undoing" his artistic training, he says. An Ashland native, Lipper studied at Ashland Academy of Art for two years with master Semyon Bilmes. Lipper briefly taught painting at the Academy, which also employed Christman as a faculty member. The two had previously met at an Ashland exhibit where Lipper admired Christman's work. The friendship led to traveling together, including a 2003 trip to Tuscany that produced more than two-dozen pre-sold canvases.

"That was part of our bonding," Christman laughs.

Returning to Ashland, the partnership remained strong and attracted Wilton, who offers an artistic counterpoint to Lipper and Christman.

"Clifford's work is so cerebral," Lipper says.

"We were interacting and in each other's studios, so it was kind of just the next step," Christman says. "We said, 'Why not avoid all the traffic and move in together?' "

The studio at 714 S. Pacific Highway usually is open to the public only by invitation, Wilton says. Wilton and Christman both are represented at Ashland's Bohemia Gallery, 552 A St. Lipper's work can be seen at Elan Guest Suites Gallery, 245 W. Main St., Jacksonville.

'The Bachanalia' oil on panel by Gabriel Mark Lipper