Ashland artist Rebecca Gabriel poses in her studio next to her large-scale painting

Majoring in art during the late 1960s and early 1970s when abstraction still ruled was hard for anyone with a realist bent.

"Being able to draw was a minus," recalled Ashland artist Rebecca Gabriel, who has spent her 35-year career focused on realism. "But it was good for me because I feel very informed by contemporary sensibilities. I don't feel like my realism is provincial. I feel conscious of it, and not like it's an anachronism."

Still, it took Gabriel years to feel comfortable doing realism. For six years during graduate school and beyond, she did highly realistic paintings of eroded crosswalk lines, emphasizing their flat, two-dimensional character. The paintings sold well, which would have convinced most artists to continue working in that vein.

But Gabriel had also done works in which she looked down at her own body &

sometimes clothed and sometimes partially nude &

and painted her breasts, stomach and thighs.

It wasn't until her grandmother died that she was able to meld deeply personal imagery with the flat planes of modernism.

Her grandmother left her a wooden toy of a doll looking out the window of a little house. She placed the toy on top of red and blue patterning.

"I had this epiphany. I knew I had to paint it," Gabriel said. "I never looked back after that. So much of what I paint has to deal with what comforts me and what helps me deal with difficult situations and grief. It comforted me to paint that heirloom."

It's worth a trip to the Rogue Gallery Art Center in Medford just to admire the beauty of this painting and ponder its emotional significance. The gallery is hosting a 35-year retrospective of Gabriel's work from Friday through March 29.

With its vivid red background and dramatic shadows, "Little Woman" grabs the eye. But look closely at how Gabriel has captured light bouncing off the side of the wooden house, creating a glowing pool in the midst of a dark shadow cast by objects to the right.

On one side of the piece, she painted a cork bulletin board with a card from her mother and a letter from her son's school. In the upper left corner is a clock from her sister.

Other paintings in the exhibit reveal Gabriel's explorations of significant events in her personal life as well as world history.

A still life with a cow skull, wedding dress and nude woman draped in Asian fabric pays homage to a friend diagnosed with breast cancer while still in her 30s.

In a second work, Gabriel memorializes her friend by painting her face on a breast. Two roses symbolize her young son and daughter.

A Gabriel self-portrait has black-and-white swirling patterns in the background that are actually abstracted images from photos of Holocaust victims.

For the retrospective exhibit, Havurah Shir Haddash is loaning a 12-foot Gabriel painting that normally hangs in the Ashland synagogue. It depicts twisting, spreading tree roots sinking into the soil. Delicate shoots of new grass spring up from the shelter of the roots.

Many of her pieces are self-portraits, but in recent years, Gabriel has begun to use live models to create large-scale but still intimate paintings.

"I love working with models. Using myself is so limiting. I'm not Frida Kahlo," she laughed.

In "Lovers (After Picasso)," a man and a woman embrace in front of elaborately patterned blue wallpaper.

The life-size painting "Raina" brings together many signature Gabriel elements. A nearly nude woman who's pale skin contrasts with the silky sheen of a red blouse. A flattened, two-dimensional effect created by the intricate designs of an oriental rug. Symbols such as purple flowers in a vase are used to represent spring and three multi-colored leaves reference fall.

Looking back at years of work, Gabriel said she feels that she has come full circle, only with an added sense of maturity. She went from joyful self-discovery in the paintings in which she looked down upon her own body, to dealing with the dark aspects of grief and loss.

"Then with the introduction of models, I have found my way back to happiness, but with depth and dimension and an understanding for others and how we are connected," she said.

The Rogue Gallery Art Center is located at 40 S.

Bartlett St., Medford. An opening reception is scheduled from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .