Fine art from fine paper

Abingdon artist Jo Houtz takes an unusual approach by painting in watercolors on the tissue-like, Japanese-made masa paper.

July 17, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jo Houtz's scream summoned June Arrington to the basement art studio in their Abingdon home.

"What's wrong? Are you OK?" Arrington asked.

Looking distraught, Houtz replied, "I just destroyed a painting I loved. It has a hole in it that I painted over, and now it's ruined."

Although Houtz knows tears and holes are occupational hazards for artists daring to use Japanese masa paper, she enjoys working with the fine, thin, tissue-like paper medium too much to stop.

"Masa paper is a perfect fit for me," said Houtz. "It's a moody paper, and I'm a moody person."

Houtz paints with watercolors on the Japanese-made paper, a medium created about the 12th century from mulberry pulp.

The shoguns of early Japan chose it because of its durability and used it to post the news in the villages.

She was introduced to the paper by Renate Duncan Shelley, her art instructor for the past 17 years.

Houtz's improvisational style and eclectic subjects have earned her recognition all along the East Coast, including prizes in numerous competitions and a request to exhibit her work at an upscale Rehoboth Beach restaurant.

Shelley said that of all the students she has introduced to masa paper, "Jo was the only one to pursue it. She just ran with it. There aren't many people in the state or even this area that use this technique.

"She's self-taught, and she's become an expert at it."

Houtz, she said, has a unique style and use of color along with an array of eclectic subjects including florals, water birds, ancient cave paintings, animals and Native American motifs.

"She's an excellent colorist," said Shelley. "She's very creative with her colors. She's not afraid to be different. She has layer upon layer upon layer of color, so you can't copy her work even if you were to learn the technique."

Houtz's use of color caught Raymond Armstrong's eye. The Rockville man saw her work at a show in Ocean City and said it was love at first sight.

He was scouting the show for artwork for his new condominium, which looks out on wetlands in Ocean Beach.

"Usually when I buy art, I buy prints," said Armstrong. "The piece I bought is called Pensive. It has this big blue heron in it that takes up most of the frame. Pensive is the first and only original piece I've ever bought.

"The vibrant colors in the painting and the bigger-than-life bird sold me on it. I was just very impressed with her work."

Houtz said the piece was a tough one to part with.

"When I painted Pensive, it became a part of me," said Houtz. "It's very hard to part with something you put so much into. Sometimes I cry when I have to part with certain paintings because I can never paint the same thing twice."

Demonstrating the process in her home studio, she started by wadding up a large sheet of the bright white paper and walking to her sink.

"The reason you can't do the same thing twice is that it's impossible to crunch the paper up exactly the same," said Houtz, wetting the crunched paper. "I don't say, `I'm going to paint flowers today.' Instead I say, `What will I paint today?'"

She continued by taking the bundle of dripping masa to her worktable. She explained that the most difficult part of working with the paper is avoiding tearing it.

"I never come down here thinking this will be a piece of cake, because it isn't," said Houtz. "To make it easier, I flatten my paper onto a piece of Plexiglas and do the initial painting there to avoid tearing it."

After flattening the paper, she picked up a 1-inch paintbrush and slapped paint onto the paper like a chef basting prime meat.

"I use these large brush strokes to add color," said Houtz. "I use layers of colors to create my art. Sometimes I have what I call happy accidents.

"For example, sometimes I put blue paint on the paper, and when it dries it looks like white clouds."

Houtz said she finds it easier to carry samples of masa paper to the shows to demonstrate the process, rather than trying to explain it.

She'll show her work in several states during the remainder of the year in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and, locally, in Bel Air.

Her patrons admire her work so much that one woman told the owner of the Blue Moon Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach about it.

The artist was asked to exhibit her work in the main dining room.

"Every month the Blue Moon has a different artist come in and exhibit their work," said Houtz. "I get November this year. My goal is to get my work in the Blue Moon in peak months, but you have to work up to that."

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