Nancy Klos is in rare spot, authorized to paint a cherished and protected Chinese garden in Portland, and she’s the perfect person to do it. The artist is trained in the Sumi-E painting technique, and that now influences her oil painting. A large solo show at the garden is showcasing her explorations.
The exhibition, which runs through March, is two years in the making, with roots going back even further. The show coincides with the reopening of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a block-long oasis in downtown Portland that strictly follows the philosophy and precepts of Chinese gardening. The garden, which features 500 tons of rock from Lake Tai in China, is a popular tourist stop and a living symbol of Portland’s relationship with its sister city of Suzhou, China. It has just finished undergoing some renovation.

“Wysteria,” by Nancy Klos, oil, 24 x 12 in.

Detail from “Out of the Shadows,” by Nancy Klos, oil on board, 24 x 12 in.

Klos teaches Sumi-E classes there. She’s excited to note that while oil paints are strictly forbidden in Lan Su, she has been invited to teach a weekly series of oil painting classes on Sundays. “You can have calligraphy, water-based inks in the garden, but no oils,” she says. “This is a protected environment. But I will be allowed to demonstrate in oils every Sunday. And I will show the progression of a painting; it will be a cumulative demonstration. I’ll also show how Sumi-E and painting this garden have affected my oil painting — not just as reference material, but as continual inspiration.”

Sunlight in Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland, Oregon

Detail of “Wysteria,” by Nancy Klos, oil on board, 24 x 12 in.

The Portland artist has been involved with the garden for 15 years, but now it all seems to be coming together. In the last year, Klos has watched her painting process change. The mark-making of Sumi-E has altered the way she applies oil paint. “Sumi-E affected my underpainting first,” she says. “I would do a watercolor-like wash to create the composition and design, and it was like a Sumi-E approach. Then it evolved into more mark-making after I blocked it in. Then I started using the palette knife more often, and it became more gestural painting, an extension of my arm, a drawing tool. When you do a Sumi-E, you are writing a painting. It used to be more of a cerebral process for me, and now it’s much more fluid. The tools, the techniques I use to get the image to work are informed by Sumi-E.”

View of Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, from its offices on the 10th floor

“Moon and Magnolia Tree,” by Nancy Klos, oil on board, 20 x 16 in.

“Pond II,” work in progress by Nancy Klos

She gathered information from the garden through more Sumi-E paintings — ink wash drawings done in the traditional, somewhat tonal fashion of Chinese art — and painted a few oil paintings from an office 11 stories above the garden, where the non-profit that runs the garden is headquartered. She practiced her new mark-making approach in oil via several plein air painting expeditions, including a residency at a gallery on the Oregon coast. A more abstract look insinuated itself into her work. Now it has come to a fruition of sorts in the more than 30 works Klos has on view in two locations at Lan Su Chinese Garden. Among the pieces are oil paintings, Sumi-E ink on paper pieces, and photography.

“Pink Orchids,” by Nancy Klos, ink and Chinese watercolor on paper. An example of Klos’s Sumi-E process

“Red Trees at Hawk Creek Meadow,” by Nancy Klos, oil, 12 x 16 in.

“It’s substantial, my art has a big presence there,” says Klos. “It’s really a great opportunity for me.”

Klos’s colored canvas in preparation for a plein air painting on board, 16 x 20 in.

“Untitled,” by Nancy Klos, ink on paper, 22 x 30 in. An example of her Sumi-E process

She embraces chance along with disciplined marks. Klos has taken to toning a new canvas at the end of a painting session using the colors still on her palette. “It’s not planned, which allows me to work spontaneously on the next piece,” she notes. “I use the palette knife edge to scrape back into the layers of paint. This allows me to draw back into the piece as a finishing mark-making technique.”

Lotus leaves in late summer in Lan Su Chinese Garden

Persimmons and willows in late fall at Lan Su Chinese Garden

Throughout, her greatest mentor watches over the proceedings — not a person, but a place, and an idea. “I’d say the garden has been my greatest teacher for painting.”


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