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Sketch Pad

Brenna Romer
Sticking it out
by Kathy Anderson

rowing up as a military brat, Brenna Romer lived in eight states and attended 12 different schools. Her post-brat journey included stops in Minnesota, Michigan, California and Arizona. But for the last year and a half, the 27-year-old has lived in Portland, where she paints and works -- doing "a little bit of everything" in the marketing department of an e-messaging company.

Work that hangs together
Painting is Brenna Romer's way of expressing the experience of being alive.

"As a language, paint has the ability to address ideas that words simply can't," she said.

"Paris" is an acrylic painting. The five below are in oil.

"I try to talk about communication and emotion -- how the most important things are impossible to speak about directly, that they are simply too big, and how we are all connected and depressingly separate at the same time.

"I'm trying to capture a way to communicate miscommunication and dislocation. Weird, huh?"

Brenna's first Portland show was at the Doors Gallery in May -- she sold two paintings.

"It's very exciting," she said, "but all I can think about is what I'm going to do next. My big goal is to complete a body of work that hangs together."

A long list of artists influence Brenna: Alice Neel, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliviera, William DeKooning, Vincent Van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, Mark Rothko, Caravaggio -- just to name a few.

"What these artists all have in common, and what compels me to move forward in my painting career, is that they all know how to use color, texture, atmosphere and composition," she said.

Drop anchor
Her father's influence led to a change of college plans, but only delayed Brenna's seemingly inevitable art career.


"During high school, I loved to draw," she said. "But my father, a navy captain, thought it was impractical. To be fair, he really just wanted me to develop my potential in other areas.

"I think he believed that I was "too smart" to go into fine arts or graphic design, that it was something you pursued when you didn't have the skills to do anything else. So I dropped my plan to go to Rhode Island School of Design and attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where I majored in religious studies.

"Real practical, huh? At the time, I thought I was going to be a rabbi."

Paint it bigger
The turning point came in the first semester of her senior year. While Brenna was writing her senior thesis and overwhelmed with work, a friend suggested they take an "easy A" class -- Painting 101. She was hooked from day one.

"I remember my first real painting," she said. "It was so ugly! But I loved it anyway. Gradually, it got to the point where if I hadn't painted for awhile I'd get crabby, like an addict needing a fix. My friends would tell me, 'go paint, dammit, then come back and talk to us afterwards.'"

Brenna remembers having some great times painting portraits of friends. One in particular still makes her laugh.

"I convinced my friend Zach to let me paint him in the nude," she said. "He kept saying 'paint it bigger.' We had that painting over our couch till the end of the school year -- it was a real hit at parties. I'm not positive what happened to it, but I have a sneaking suspicion it's in my parent's attic."


To be or not to be ...
Up to that point, Brenna considered painting a hobby, not really an option as far as her future was concerned. After graduating, she spent four years working a variety of jobs -- and trying to stop painting.

"I would give away all my brushes and paints, thinking that it was just a waste of time and money," she said. "Then two months later I'd be out buying it all back. It was pretty silly.

"After awhile, I started to get some positive feedback and began to feel like I was onto something good. I allowed painting to take priority in my life -- to at least give it a chance and see what I could do."

In 1998 Brenna moved to San Francisco, started painting seriously on a regular basis, and applied to the post-baccalaureate program at the San Francisco Art Institute.


"I was in this tiny little room in the Mission District," she said. "It was so small that I would sometimes have to sit on my bed in order to paint. I had my stuff hanging from floor to ceiling to make room. It was a big mess, but it was exhilarating, too."

Brenna had slides taken of her work and was accepted to the institute. She felt like she'd made it.

"Looking back, it was kind of ridiculous, but I felt that I had achieved something miraculous," she said. "Around the same time, I put all those paintings up in a coffee shop near my house and sold 16 out of 20. People loved my stuff. It was incredible, really."

... and the answer is
After a year at the institute, Brenna decided she wasn't ready to go on to graduate school.

"I was painting like crazy and working at an art supply shop in San Francisco," she said. "That's where I met and fell in love with my husband, Ken. He's an incredible artist and was really teaching me a lot. It was a period of intense growth for me as an artist.

"I spent time studying human anatomy and sketching everything around me. Of course, I was so poor that I had to ration out oatmeal during the day so I wouldn't starve. It was a wild time."

After a brief stay in Tucson, Ariz., Brenna and Ken moved to Portland and have continued to work in their "studio" (which doubles as their living room).

"Structure V"

"I'm sorry now that I didn't listen to myself when I was younger," she said, "but I guess everyone probably feels that way about something. I don't know if I'll go on to graduate school, but I know that painting comes first for me as a passion.

"There was a moment at my wedding when I was dancing with my father and he apologized to me for discouraging me from art, saying he had been wrong and he thought I was a talented painter -- that he was proud of me for sticking it out. Something just clicked for me then ... about how hard it is to be true to yourself -- but more important than anything else you do in life."

Check out Brenna's Web site at www.romerart.com.

Reach Kathy at kanderson138@attbi.com, and draw on other Sketch Pads.

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