Rite of Spring, Works by Baltimore Artist Ruth Pettus, on View at Adkins Arboretum

Luminous color is the first thing you see in Baltimore artist Ruth Pettus’s show of abstract landscapes. On view at Adkins Arboretum’s Visitor’s Center, her exhibit of oil pastel drawings on paper, Rite of Spring, is full of atmospheric fields of orange, gold and spring green. There will be a reception to meet the artist on Sat., April 23, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Oil pastel is primarily a drawing medium, but Pettus uses vegetable-based oil as a solvent to break the color down into painterly washes. Textures made by drawing with sticks of oil pastel mingle with the fluid glazes of color as she layers subtle modulations from yellow to gold to pinkish orange with overlays of earthy browns or turquoise blue.

“I used to work with oil pastels a lot when I was 18 to 20,” she said, “then I rediscovered it as a very effective technique.”

While visiting her sister in Cyprus, a sprained ankle kept Pettus from joining in her family’s sightseeing activities. She had brought sets of oil pastels as presents for her nieces and nephews, and she began to draw with them herself.

“In 2003, my three-dimensional work was selected to go to St. Petersburg with a group from School 33 Art Center in Baltimore,” Pettus explained. “I have a brother living on the west coast of Ireland and a sister living on Cyprus, so I was able to spend the whole summer away from Baltimore.”

Orange tinged with rust and gold radiates through mossy green shadows in “Dance of Insects,” one of Pettus’s larger oil pastels at 22” square. The pure beauty of this glowing color is reminiscent of Washington Color School paintings, and Pettus did study at the Corcoran School of Art in the mid-1970s when the Color School influence was still strong. But though this work has the luminosity and simplicity of Color School painting, its hand-rubbed surface seems scarred and timeworn. It has an intimate quality that is emphasized and animated by a few seemingly off-hand marks that sweep and dance across the stains of color.

Born in New Zealand to American and British parents, Pettus spent her childhood in London and Australia. She studied at the University of Sydney for a year before moving to Washington. After attending the Corcoran School, she moved to Baltimore. She now spends part of the year in Spain and teaches a weeklong painting class in the medieval Castilian town of Chinchón each summer.

Pettus also creates sculpture and larger paintings in acrylic, but these oil pastels were inspired by landscapes, often those encountered on her travels. Several are named for the places where they were created—Cyprus, Ireland or Amsterdam—but because they are abstract, they speak less about specific scenes than about a momentary balance between sensation and timelessness. Filled with color and a sense of movement, they are like daydreams brimming with light, joy and possibility.

This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through May 27 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or info@adkinsarboretum.org for gallery hours.