By Myles Ludwig
To enter Rosemary Otto’s world is to enter a universe of metaphor and fantasy where deer/dear people sprout antlers, fly through surrealist landscapes and find themselves as naked as Adam and Eve entwined in the bare branches of trees.
Pieces of it are currently on display at the new Box Gallery on Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach through Aug. 30.
Otto is a painter of dreamscapes. Her work is engaging and questioning. There’s a bit of Henry Darger in her paintings, a bit of Chagall, a bit of Jacob Lawrence, a smidgen of Grandma Moses. It is a primitive approach, seemingly naïve, almost outsider in style, but when all is said and done, it is pure Rosemary.
I know Rosemary. She unfailingly attends the weekly writing group I lead at the Mid-County Senior Center in crafting a memoir. But Rosemary rarely writes. Instead, she quietly sits in class and paints watercolor after watercolor, inventing scenes and characters that seem to spring fully formed from her fertile imagination.
Rosemary without a brush in hand is unthinkable.
“She even paints at lunch,” notes Marina Sanchez, who is an accompished poet and also a member of the group, as well as a volunteer teacher at the center.
Rosemary rarely talks about her work. and has only once movingly written about her life, though she has written about her creative process and often writes letters to political officials suggesting wonderful ideas for incorporating art in the community, like her suggestion for establishing a museum of the imagination.
“People ask me what my paintings mean,” she says. “I have a favorite picture. It is fraught with meaning, though it is not very complex.
“I often paint white unicorns with ultramarine skies and a tree with various things in it, with flowers growing in the foreground. I read somewhere that the unicorn symbolizes fidelity in marriage. People like this picture a lot, however many times I paint it.
“These small pictures are all collages. The large ones are all oils. The small oil painted collages are all fanciful. People say I have a good imagination, but this artwork seems to me to be paintings or drawings as a child would make them naturally.
“I do not like to explain the meanings of the pictures. I want people to ‘decipher’ them themselves maybe with help. Each painting usually is different than the others, although I do make copies of the small ones sometimes.
“I saw Grandma Moses’ paint brushes at her show at the Society of the Four Arts. They were awful! How could she paint such lovely pictures with them?
“I love for someone to take me shopping for art supplies. I feel all friendly and fuzzy then.
“My etchings and engravings are another thing besides my paintings. I have no etching press, and the ones I was using at the Norton Galleries all disappeared.
“There is meaning in those prints too, though not usually in color. The little mermaid in the ‘Surfing Boats’ engraving has a crown of stars and a secret word in her hair.”
Thanks to Arlene Spagna, another member of the writing group, you can hear a 30-minute interview with her on the Agewyz podcast. According to the podcast, the 78-year-old is self-taught and her work is both a form of creative expression and has helped in her recovery from mental illness (she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19).
German-born, she lives in the house where she was raised: her great-grandmother’s house in Lake Worth, where she paints. She talks about the box of crayons that sparked her interest in art as a child, her mother’s influence, how she manages from day to day and why living in a nursing home is worse than being in a mental hospital.
As she says about her current series, Invisible Women, “they are the question you want to ask.”
Rosemary Otto: The Invisible Women is on display at the Box Gallery, 811 Belvedere Road, through Aug. 30. For more information, call 786-521-1199. More of Otto’s work can be found online here.