In a classic Sharon Bronzan painting you find a woman alone in a wilderness booby-trapped with daggered cactuses. She doesn’t look away but stares unflinchingly into danger. When she relaxes her hold on strict logic, her life-saving guardians appear: a lion, an alligator, a Joshua tree.
Bronzan specializes in peril and its antidotes in myth and folklore. Given her expertise, it’s as if the artist has been rehearsing for this moment–the pandemic crisis–all of her life.
Migrating from her home in Portland, Oregon to the California desert each spring, Bronzan stays in the former Marjorie Main (the actress who played Ma Kettle) home in the Deepwell neighborhood of Palm Springs. She was initiated into the desert as a child by her Croatian grandparents and an uncle who took her out tracking tortoises.
Later trips to Mexico instilled in her a love of the art and literature of Magic Realism. Agaves, prickly pear and palm trees abound in her paintings, where Mexican folk imagery meets imaginary landscapes.
Bronzan grew up in San Jose and earned a B.S. in painting and an M.S. in art education from the University of Oregon. She taught at Portland Community College for more than 25 years. She has exhibited widely in Oregon but remains an underground discovery here in the desert, the source of so much of her inspiration.
When we caught up by telephone recently, Bronzan was at home in southwest Portland. Her state had just declared a lockdown and the artist was sheltering with her husband, Greg, and their English Springer Spaniel, Frida.
AJ: You normally would be here in Palm Springs at this time of year. What would you be doing?
SB: We were very lucky early on to find a house in Deepwell, where we’ve been staying for 15 years. It’s nice to be able to paint outside when we’re there, setting up underneath the patio awnings. I am not a plein air painter. I will make drawings and will write about what I’ve seen when I’m out and about, but I think I must love comfort too much.
When we’re in the desert, Greg and I try to see everything we’ve been told about, heard about, read about. As a consequence, we do a lot of sightseeing at places like Salvation Mountain and Bombay Beach.
The first time I went to Palm Springs, I knew it was a place I would be returning to. I feel a real affinity for the desert. My father’s parents were born in Croatia and they immigrated to Tehachapi. The desert floor comes right up to the Tehachapi mountains. When we would go visit my grandmother (my grandfather had passed away) my father and my uncle would take us out into the desert.
My father’s family were very large, strong, loud people. My grandmother’s house was quite small. It was kind of like that children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are [laughter]. When my aunts and uncles would get together they were just really loud, so leaving the house and going to the desert was wonderful.
This would not be acceptable today because times have changed so much but in those days we would actually go out looking for tortoises. Over time we took home five of them. They had a very nice life.
Did you name them?
You can tell how old we were by their names. There was Oscar and Herman–Herman was quite large. And then there was Pokey and Lumpy and Winky.
How did you get interested in desert plants?
I went to graduate school at the University of Oregon. When I graduated it was the beginning of the teacher crunch and there weren’t a lot of jobs available so I worked at a plant nursery for a year. I just developed a real affinity for plants and learned more about them. In my paintings, the spiky plants can be a threat, but they’re also protective. I see them as real survivors, out there in that landscape. I just have great respect for them.
Coral makes an appearance in a lot of my paintings because of its historical and mythological role as a protector. There’s even a coral cactus. If you look at old paintings from south of the border you’ll see children wearing coral necklaces or bracelets as protection. I guess we all should be wearing coral right now.
In your painting Dreamer, is that a yucca the woman is lying on?
It’s kind of my surrealistic view of a Joshua tree, which is in the yucca family.
This seems like an obvious question, but regarding the figure in these paintings–is it you?
You know, people have asked me that. I assume that it is, but I don’t consciously try to paint a portrait of myself. And certainly the age of the woman is not my age. If it is me–and I’m not really sure about that–then it’s a much younger me.
The age of the woman seems to be consistent. I think that has a lot to do with the viewer being able to project themselves into the painting, and I know that won’t happen for everybody. I see the figure as being pretty neutral.
It’s most important to me that I tell the story, whatever the story is. Sometimes I don’t know the story until I’m halfway through the painting, sometimes not even until the painting is completed. But there’s a point at which the painting feels right. It’s important that it feels right even more than that it looks right. It’s…a moment.
I would guess most artists don’t think about the viewer a lot, do they?
I don’t know. I’m just not sure about that. I taught for 27 years, actually 30 years, and so teaching is just kind of a part of me.
The paintings are teachings in a way.
So let’s talk about danger. How did danger get to be a theme for you?
For the True Myth catalogue [a 2019 show at the Augen Gallery in Portland], a number of the ideas came out of that time a couple of years ago when the Me Too movement was in the press and all of a sudden it became an important issue in the United States. There have been women who’ve been in dangerous situations with men forever, but all of a sudden it was in the news, and I had a feeling that really influenced me.
A young woman referred to my show as “an army of women” and it really rang true to me. Yes I had this army of women and I put them in as many dangerous situations as I could. But they were with animals and not men. In fact, there are no men in the paintings.
One woman rides a zebra that is known to be untamable. A couple of the women are either sleeping on or sleeping next to animals that could hurt them.
The first painting I did like this was the woman on the alligator (Body Guard). I tried to figure out what animal she was going to be standing on. It was like: Is this animal dangerous enough? And the alligator won the prize. And then she has a little protection because she has the coral cape on. The coral cape and the headdress protect her.
Do you generally see the world as dangerous or chaotic?
I don’t think I’ve thought about it as much as in the last 3-1/2 yrs. I couldn’t kind of relax with the political situation. It’s just felt like we’re on the edge of a cliff or something and I had no idea, of course, that the coronavirus was coming.
Today, with this danger all around us, do your own paintings comfort you when you look at them?
They do comfort me, yes. And that was part of my thinking behind the making of them. Like the woman sleeping on the bull’s back. This is where Magic Realism comes in. The bull would not allow you to sleep on his back, but somehow this is a very sweet bull. The animals are helpers. The lion also isn’t necessarily an animal you would want to curl up next to, but in this case he is.
When it comes to your interest in Magical Realism, what are your inspirations?
For many years before we started going to Palm Springs, Greg and I spent time in Mexico. Just being in the country of Mexico is like being in a magical realist state. So many things there are so contradictory and so impossible. You’d be walking down the street and someone would be coming toward you with parrots all over them. Mexico was a different place 25-30 years ago.
I was also influenced by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. Their stories in one way don’t make sense but in some ways make more sense than if the story was told in a straight line.
We’d all like to recognize the magic in the world at a time like this. How did you develop that way of seeing?
Both sets of my grandparents were born in Europe. There were the Croatian grandparents and the Swedish grandparents. Both sets told old stories. The religious stories I grew up with and the Sunday school stories are part of my own mythology. Wherever there was a story there was an attraction for me.
My Croatian grandmother didn’t speak English. I remember going to her house in Tehachapi, this small house probably built in 1890. She was a devout Catholic and there were enormous dioramas of Jesus and the saints and I was just fascinated by those. There was something magically real about going to her house. It was very different from suburban San Jose.
Why are the women’s faces in your paintings always impassive?
The neutral face allows the viewer to identify with the figure. If I had a big smiley face or a sad face, I’d be tweaking with the emotions of the person who is looking at the painting.
The viewer could be me, too.
The landscapes are also neutral. In the painting of a woman flying in the air with a bull (Toro Tango), there’s a stillness in that. She has her eyes closed. The stillness just kind of makes the world stop and everything is quiet–and I think probably safe, as well.
Sharon Bronzan is represented by the Augen Gallery in Portland, Oregon: https://www.augengallery.com/artists/artists/bronzan/