Growing up in a family with five kids and few books in the house, Laurel Bustamante was drawn to a large Bible filled with illustrations that sat on their coffee table.
It contained art by masters like Hieronymus Bosch, a painter famed for his fantastical scenes of the Garden of Eden and apocalyptic, hellish worlds.
His paintings were both beautiful and frightening to Bustamante.
"Hieronymus Bosch was just endlessly fascinating for me because before I could read I was looking at Bosch and I was trying to figure out his worlds," she says. "That provided such an escape route from the cacophony of a large family."
Bosch continues to inspire Bustamante, who creates small paintings of otherworldly scenes filled with mysterious plants, trees and animals.
Her work is on display through Aug. 1 at Hanson Howard Gallery at 89 Oak St. in downtown Ashland as part of the must-see “Supernaturalistic” exhibit. Accompanying Bustamante’s work, Elan Chardin Gombart is showing abstract encaustic paintings, Kelly Brand is displaying portraits and Alexandra Opie’s black and white photographs and tin types capture terrarium and aquarium scenes.
Visitors to the gallery can use a large magnifying glass to study the intricate details of Bustamante’s work.
She says she loves painting on a small scale so the viewer stands up close, goes deep into the painting and spends time with it — letting the distractions of the world melt away. With only one person able to study a painting at a time, it becomes an intimate one-on-one experience.
While the birds, flowers, vines, plants and trees in the miniature worlds seem familiar, Bustamante paints in an imaginative, idiosyncratic style that borrows from Bosch as well as art traditions from around the world.
Shelves in her sunlight-suffused Ashland studio are stocked with books covering American folk painting, Pompeii frescoes, Japanese kimonos, Persian miniature paintings, elaborate Islamic patterns, Chinese embroidery and other influences.
“I’m fascinated with and love plants,” Bustamante says. “But I like to paint them in a stylized — not realistic — way. There’s a poignancy that comes through in the human interpretation of nature. I like to look at different types of stylization throughout history.”
She starts each painting on a wood panel, using broad brushes to create a field of color, or for some of her works, a view of velvety black, star-sprinkled space. Some backgrounds bring to mind a primordial, life-breeding soup, while others resemble images of unimaginably massive nebulae — interstellar clouds of dust and gases — captured by the Hubble space telescope.
Without a specific plan in mind, she then switches to small paintbrushes to add in floating gardens with flora and fauna.
But even the smallest store-bought brushes are not tiny enough. A hairdresser friend with a $400 pair of scissors trims Bustamante’s finest detail brushes until they are only six hairs wide.
“When I’m painting, before long I find myself getting more and more detailed and find myself in another world,” she says. “It’s like I’m totally inhabiting what I’m working on.”
On the practical side, Bustamante sets a timer and paints in 30-minute blocks to avoid hand cramps from painting details. She’ll then go outside for a short break in her garden, looking at plants, insects and birds, before starting again.
People ask her if she uses a magnifying glass while painting, but a pair of drugstore reading glasses is enough to enlarge each scene.
In a fast-paced world, Bustamante says she's disheartened that people don’t spend enough time looking at art to absorb each piece’s nuances and details. She has seen people at museums spending more time reading a description of a painting than actually looking at it.
Viewers who take the time to absorb Bustamante’s exquisitely painted, fascinating miniature worlds will be richly rewarded.
“Once I’m really into a painting, I can’t help but go smaller,” she says. “It’s not because I’m trying to force people to go around with a magnifying lens. I’m trying to force them to slow down.”
For more information about the exhibit, visit hansonhowardgallery.com or call 541-488-2562. Regular gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. To see more of Bustamante's work online, visit laurelbustamante.com.
— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.