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The Ocean as Muse

Sherman Gallery show explores artist’s love affair with the sea

It was perhaps inevitable that painter Julia von Metzsch would return again and again to the sea for inspiration. Growing up in scenic Manchester-by-the-Sea, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, she spent countless days at Singing Beach as well as at the North Sea in the Netherlands.

“Growing up on a cold coast leads to a lot of alone time and daydreaming on the beach,” says von Metzsch (CFA’07,’10), a College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts lecturer. “The North Shore is a good place to dream and create.”

But while the sea may be a powerful muse, it can be maddeningly hard to capture. “The sea is impossible to get right,” she says. “It’s always moving and changing with the clouds, the tides, the time of year, and the winds.”

Smoke and Rain Near Magnolia Beach painting by artist Julia von Metzsch, Midnight at Coolidge Point exhibit Sherman Gallery Boston University

Smoke and Rain Near Magnolia Beach

In her new one-person show, Julia von Metzsch: Midnight at Coolidge Point, now on view at the Sherman Gallery, the artist succeeds beautifully in capturing the sea and shore in all elements—heat, freezing wind, sudden rain. Viewers expecting tranquil seascapes are in for a surprise. In von Metzsch’s rendering, the ocean is a roiling, turbulent force, often with dark undertones. Drawing on both memory and imagination and working with a muted palette of gray, green, lavender, black, and brown, she emphasizes the play of light and wind.

Many of the works here are heavily textured—paint applied to suggest the ocean’s constant motion, its often explosive nature. In the sprawling Snow on Singing Beach, the lines, squiggles, and blotches convey the stinging sensation created by blowing snow. In Sail over Manchester Harbor, the white sail of a boat slices through a dark blue sea, creating a sense of urgency. One can almost feel the rapid movement of the boat and feel the spray. And in Starstruck, a starfish lies at the edge of the water, waves just inches from its body. Stare long enough at the canvas and you sense that at any second, the creature will be overtaken by the surf and carried out to sea. Everything here feels ephemeral.

“I don’t paint sunny scenes very often,” says von Metzsch. “When it’s hot and tranquil, I’d rather be painting figures.” But, she adds, “there’s always an exception, however. I love painting into the sun.”

School of Visual Arts exhibitions director Lynne Cooney (GRS’08,’15) describes von Metzsch’s work as lush, dark, and abstract. “The paintings are not a literal response,” she says. “They are visually intuitive and painterly responses to the ocean and coastline.”

View of Molly from the Driver's Seat by artist Julia von Metzsch, Midnight at Coolidge Point exhibit, Sherman Gallery Boston University

View of Molly from the Driver's Seat

All of the work in the show is autobiographical to one degree or another, von Metzsch says. View of Molly from the Driver’s Seat was inspired by a road trip to Maine with friends. “We were driving on a logging route and we were lost,” she recalls. “The light was on in the back seat of the car and it shone perfectly on my friend Molly’s hand, which was dangling out the window. I could see it in the side-view mirror, and it was beautifully cropped and placed into this environment of future Christmas trees and fireflies.”

Likewise, Smoke and Rain Near Magnolia Beach recalls an autumn evening spent at a local beach. “The night was very dark and humid,” says von Metzsch. “The humidity was swirling around the floor lamps and mixing with a friend’s cigarette. The scene was so beautiful and dark, I had an urge to make this humid night painting.”

Starstruck painting by artist Julia von Metzsch, Midnight at Coolidge Point exhibit Sherman Gallery Boston University


Other paintings are inspired indirectly by von Metzsch’s flights of fancy, by imagined situations “that become so real…that they have a light quality, and I want to paint them.” In Drowned, an abstract oil on panel, she imagines her spirit rising after she’s drowned. “Some of the most ridiculous ideas can lead to good painting,” she says. She painted Starstruck after her mother gave her a piece of costume jewelry—a starfish ring—last summer. “When I got the ring, I automatically went to my dark place,” says von Metzsch. “With all its glitz and its curvy shape, the ring reminded me of a corpse struck by lightning.” Hence, the lightning bolt that appears to be electrifying the starfish on the canvas.

The show’s title comes from the peninsula bordered by Magnolia Beach, Clark Pond, and Black Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a place the artist describes as “magical.”

“I have so many dark and beautiful associations with Coolidge Point: the rocky alcove, the springtime smell of death after a rough winter,” von Mentzsch says. “I love the witching hour there, when the constellations are sinking beneath the ocean’s horizon and it’s 2 a.m. and we are still swimming.”

Julia von Metzsch: Midnight at Coolidge Point is on view through March 3 at the Sherman Gallery, George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. The show is free and open to the public.

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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