by Linda Dautreuil, photos by Candra George
JULIE SILVER SURROUNDS herself with art. In a light-filled room, she overlooks manicured gardens accenting the architecture of Pio Lyons and contemporary sculptures by Arthur Silverman, Steve Martin and other noted Louisiana artists. Indoors, the collection of “high and low” or whatever strikes her as “art filled with soul,” is interspersed with her own sculptures and paintings from various stages in her life and artistic career.
Her philosophy has always been “when I sold one, I bought one.” The result has been the accumulation of an impressive range of artwork. As intriguing as such a strategy may be, the collection also reveals her interest in the artist as model in contemporary art. The figurative painting by Blake Boyd is one of several images by painters and photographers whose works include Silvers as model. Others are more specific in keeping with contemporary portraits and include images of Silvers and her family or Silvers’ photographs of her daughter, Taylor. The integration of Silvers as collector, maker and model fascinates.
Developing skills in the visual arts early in life is common for many artists, even those who may not have formal instruction. Observation, a desire to make things, imaginative expression, creative problem solving and exposure to the visual arts provide a good start. Julie Silvers was raised in in a home where her mother, Susan Wittenberg, actively pursued studio life as an abstract painter in New Orleans. Julie attributes her awareness and love of contemporary visual arts to the many hours she spent watching her mother work. A large painting by Wittenberg, one of many throughout the Silvers home, provides a focal point in the sitting room adjacent to the spacious foyer. Natural light animates the bright colors and atmospheric qualities of the abstract expressionist forms and shapes populating the canvas surface. Silvers describes a special appreciation for the accomplishments of her mother as an artist. “She worked very hard and participated in numerous exhibitions in New Orleans and various places in Louisiana and Mississippi. Her dedication extended beyond the studio. I remember not only watching her paint, but I also remember helping her transport and install her paintings in venues around the city. As a young person, I am not sure I fully appreciated why she worked so diligently.”
What Silvers always knew was that she loved all forms of art and especially crafts when she was a student attending Isidore Newman School. “I loved to doodle on paper, in books, even on clothing and fabrics. I was especially interested in the nude and the female form. Abstract Expressionism represented another generation. In some ways I wanted to be myself, not a copy of my mother. I considered being a lawyer, then changed course and graduated from Tulane with an undergraduate degree in social sciences, and later, an MSA in social work, all totally different career paths from the arts. By the ’80s, however, I was entranced with Pop Art. I suspected a change was on the way.”
Continuing the tour of the Silvers collection reveals an artist intensely interested in the visual arts as an intrinsic part of her everyday life. Approaching her indoor studio, the experience is an eclectic blending of works by established as well as lesser-known artists whose works were purchased from galleries, art markets, interior designers and individuals from Louisiana, other cities around the country and Europe. All were selected with a discerning eye and a fondness for “art with meaning.” “There is no background art here,” she says with a smile. “I like to feel a connection to the work—my own as well as the artwork in the collection. I like work that has vitality—open, almost primitive and childlike in application.”
Silvers’ studio is spacious but not pristine. It is a fully functional working space that is obviously in operation, with ample views of the outdoors and a small courtyard for breaks during the workday. A large kiln is easily accessible and expected in the workspace of an artist whose ceramic figurative sculpture, abstract fine/functional vessels and large- and small-scale totems appeal to a broad audience. Her process working with clay evolved over a 30-year period, coinciding with a decision to pursue sculpture and painting with a serious intent to exhibit. “Making art requires opening up to experience. I don’t have a formal background in art. I learned my skills through observations of art, the figure and nature. I took a few classes and workshops along the way, but I have always had a strong feeling about the kind of work I like and the kind of work I want to make. I follow my intuition. I use whatever is available, because there is beauty to be explored in so many ordinary things.”
It is not surprising that Silvers loves to travel, and she admits it is essential in her process. “When you travel, you learn and grow,” she says. I am influenced by a world view that includes what is going on not only in painting and sculpture but also in fashion and music. I travel to New York several times a year. I am receptive to the feeling of creative energy I experience there, and I feel recharged when I return.”
Whereas sculptures and many functional vessels by Silvers do not rely on color, it is the neutrality of the white or black clay that emphasizes the form, textures and patterning characteristic of her style. Her paintings and her recent works in ceramics have many qualities in common, but the light, whimsical color palette she uses in a two-dimensional format adds a different flavor to organic shapes and repeating patterns brightly rendered.
It was after Hurricane Katrina that Silvers began making paintings with the idea of exploring her early figurative doodles and embracing the example set by her mother. The response to these pieces was overwhelming. She recalls that she was discovered by a Houston Gallery while unloading a collection of paintings for an exhibition in Texas. “A person I never met before asked to see the works as I pulled them out of my car. As a result of that chance encounter, I exhibited and sold them all. More recently, my work has been exhibited in Laura Rathe Fine Art Houston and at my first New York exhibition, hosted by Ezair Gallery. Over the years, I have been affiliated with several galleries in New Orleans. In 2015, I decided to take the next step. During White Linen Night, I hosted the grand opening of my first gallery, which was on Julia Street, Julie Silvers Art.” The premier reception gave full rein to the intensity of Silvers’ vision. The gallery was filled with art, music and fashion. “The crowds were huge that evening,” she recalls. “It was a great feeling to be a part of that energy.”
Then came another opportunity, one that clarified her goals in a way she had not considered. Silvers received an invitation to exhibit in the Southern Style Show House and to be a featured speaker among a select group of artists and designers in the Southern Style Now Festival. In her presentation, she described entering a new phase in her life and career. “I spoke of discovering a sense of myself through my work and of gaining confidence as opportunities presented themselves. I decided to invest in myself. I devised a plan, a marketing strategy, opened my gallery and I maintain a steady work ethic in my studio. I realize my love of all forms of art is my strength. I ignore negative ideas separating craft and fine art, and I use all of my skills in making paintings and sculptures. Many women commented that hearing my story empowered them to move forward with their ideas. That was very gratifying for me.”
Today, Silvers’ gallery is located on Magazine Street. Bringing her artwork onto the six-mile-long stretch between the Garden District and Uptown has been a dream come true. “This move has been great for me. The excitement on Magazine is palpable—so many wonderful artists, restaurants and shops—it feels right. It feels like I am home.”
Silvers work is exhibited at Julie Silvers Art, 3714 Magazine Street, New Orleans. More information may be found at juliesilvers.com.