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Wednesday, 07 June 2006 00:00

Scenes of redemption: Gallery 86 in Waynesville features paintings by Luke Allsbrook

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By Michael Beadle

Luke Allsbrook has a voice as soothing as his paintings.

He explains his craft with the calm of someone who has spent hours in solitary reflection, emerging from nature with gifted insights. Whether it’s a vast stretch of beach, a mountain pasture or glowing houselights in a suburban home, there’s an invisible breeze hushing peripheral noise as you enter his world of oil paintings.

Not yet 35 years old and already packing an impressive worldly résumé that includes a stint as Tour Artist with Prince Charles of England and exhibits in three foreign countries, Allsbrook stands humbly before his giant canvases now on display at Gallery 86 in downtown Waynesville. The Haywood County Arts Council’s gallery is showing Allsbrook’s work through June 24.

For a young talent born in Chapel Hill, raised in Augusta, Ga., and educated in Indiana, Italy and New York City, Allsbrook appears right at home in Haywood County, a Waynesville resident for the past two years along with his wife and three children. He’s exhibited artwork in Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, France and Italy and also has paintings with the Forbes Collection.

In this latest exhibit, a mix of early and recent work, nature scenes from Normandy and North Carolina’s Topsail Island hang alongside treescapes of Haywood County’s Bethel and Ratliff Cove. There are beach houses and huge temple pillars, angels in flight and children at play. A two-story house at dusk glows with a magical wonder, entrancing the viewer to peer into bay windows and a garage. So much of his work seems to say, “Here, enjoy, rest awhile.”

Allsbrook categorizes his work into two parts — the smaller, plein air paintings, where he’ll go into nature and do quick journal-like sketches, and the larger, bolder canvases drawn from memory that capture people in realistic settings.

“I try to let nature be my guide,” Allsbrook says. The best ideas come like a gift. A painting might begin with a question as simple as, “If I could create any painting in the world, what would it be?”

The plein air, or “open air,” sketches are in the tradition of Impressionist painters who were among the first to leave the studio, go outdoors, and use natural lighting to paint what they saw. These sketches, Allsbrook explains, build a kind of vocabulary for his larger work. Without the shorter, quicker pieces, he would not be able to compose the larger, more dynamic ones.

Take “Vacation Baptism,” for example, a beach scene (born of many plein air sketches), which harkens back to childhood summer days with his family. In the back of a beach house, one man bends over, burdened by a tub of water. In the foreground, a young boy walks between vibrantly colorful towels swaying on the line. A larger pool of water rests near him. Curtains billow in the breeze in the upper window of the house. In this perspective — not quite God-like, but raised maybe 10 feet off the ground — we glimpse the ocean shore in the distance. A peaceful scene at the beach, or is there more than meets the eye?

Notice the clothesline in the shape of a cross, the trinity of clouds above the house, and, of course, the title “Vacation Baptism.” Allsbrook says he intended to show a young boy just beginning his walk of faith while an adult confronts the challenge of continuing that faith. The ocean and two water buckets offer ever-present symbols of redemption.

“My faith is definitely important to me,” he says. “I think it comes out in my work.”

While some artists shy away from such interpretations, Allsbrook gladly welcomes them.

“I think it’s the artist’s job to convey meaning,” he says, adding that a lot of interpretation in contemporary art gets lost because it appears so open-ended and ambiguous.

In “Vacation, Morning in the Garden,” another beach scene features a rich blend of symbolism and a careful study of light. Initially, he was intrigued by the dance of light and shadow on the back side of a beach house. Then it progressed into an intimate Garden of Eden scene with a shady tree looming over two children, a boy and a girl. The boy draws chalk art that includes a serpent in a circle while the girl eats from a box of cookie crackers (apple-flavored, perhaps?). Again, there’s a cross as a clothesline pole and an ocean shore in the distance. The children lie between bright sun and shadow. A leafless snaky vine protrudes on the right side of the tree. Allsbrook may intentionally use these symbols of Christianity, but he adds, “You can’t force the subject matter onto the viewer.”

When seeking a little extra inspiration, he likes to turn to books rather than art museums. His favorite authors include E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Allsbrook credits a supportive family and friends for his success. He began oil painting as a fourth-grader taking art lessons from Edward Rice in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., and still uses the same palette of colors he first learned from Rice. Earning fine arts degrees from Indiana University and New York Academy of Art, Allsbrook also traveled and painted in Cortona, Italy and Normandy in France. A British artist he’d met in Normandy later recommended Allsbrook to be the official Tour Artist for Prince Charles and his wife Camilla on their five-day West Coast tour through Marin County in California in November last year. Allsbrook painted a series of scenes for wherever Prince Charles would visit.

“He was visiting organic farms, so that was convenient for me as far as subject matter,” Allsbrook said. “Sometimes I only had 20 minutes to paint a scene.”

Using a portable painting box, he could set up and pack up easily — though it was a bit tricky painting in a suit and tie. Because of the sensitivity of the royal family, details of the trip are kept quite secretive, but Allsbrook found the Prince, a fellow painter, kind and friendly. When it was over, Allsbrook turned over all of his paintings to Prince Charles for His Royal Highness’s personal collection.

Though Allsbrook has taught art classes as an adjunct professor at the New York Academy, the University of Georgia’s Overseas Program in Cortona, Italy, William Paterson University in New Jersey, and most recently at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, he devotes most of his time to painting. At this point in his career, he’s focused on capturing scenes of Western North Carolina on the canvas.

Look for more of Luke Allsbrook’s work at www.lukeallsbrook.net.

The Haywood County Arts Council will exhibit Luke Allsbrook’s paintings at Gallery 86 until June 24. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about Gallery 86 or if you are interested in volunteering with the Haywood County Arts Council, call 828.452.0593.

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