Fields of Color

In her pastoral up-Island studio, artist Marie-Louise Rouff explores the interplay of imagination and reality in her abstract paintings.

For expressionist painter Marie-Louise Rouff of West Tisbury, the periphery of her abstract work can hold subtle clues to its content.

Hints of imagery – a window, a figure, a sail, a mask – are often quietly embedded near the outer edges, like colorful “little bits of magic,” muses Hermine Hull, a friend for nearly thirty years who once represented Marie-Louise’s work in her West Tisbury gallery. The images offer a glimpse into the artist’s past representational work but imply a deeper meaning. Marie-Louise suggests these mysterious edges are like our outer-lying thoughts, just outside of our main focus. “What we often ignore can be the most important thing,” she says.

She embraces the philosophy of Henri Matisse, who envisioned art as “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair,” adding that for her, “paintings need to comfort the soul.” Her abstract aesthetic calls to mind the rich fields of color in the paintings of Mark Rothko, whom she freely recognizes as one of many influences on her work.

Marie-Louise, who settled on the Island full time in 2011 after years of visiting, strives to inspire the human spirit through her work. In recent years, acrylic has become her
medium of choice: Strong, visible brush strokes gradually give rise to curious shapes, lines, and textures that for the artist evoke fragments of memory. Her colors are warm
in tone and intensely saturated, the layers creating depth and interplay.

She made monotypes for many years, and though she no longer does, she continues to show them in her exhibits at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven. In these handmade prints, the paper and inks form subtle color combinations with a quiet energy. She often created a series, sometimes up to fifty works that related to each other almost like siblings, but each is one of a kind. Nancy Shaw Cramer, who represents Marie-Louise’s art, is especially intrigued by their uneven edges and calls the overall effect “a subdued chaos.”

In both her paintings and monotypes, Hermine notes, “Her art has a language of its own.” Somehow a finished composition – even one with pulsating reds or difficult-to-use blacks, which could otherwise appear hostile or sharp – feels balanced and easy on the eyes. “Black is a lovely and mysterious color, very deep and emotional,” Marie-Louise says.

Cultivating a vision

It’s no wonder Marie-Louise’s art seems to have its own vocabulary, given her facility with spoken languages. As a youth, she learned the three official languages of her native Luxembourg – Luxembourgish, German, and French (although her French lessons were disrupted during the German occupation during World War II) – as well as Latin. As a teenager, she learned English when the American troops arrived in Luxembourg in 1944. Marie-Louise recalls, “The excitement of meeting these wonderful American soldiers with their chocolate and tinned cheese, being allowed to go to school [again], all contributed to the speed with which I acquired [English].” Later she studied French intensively and learned a “smattering of Italian.”

The third of five children, she often sat in her father’s lap, watching him sketch flowers and bunnies. Her mother, a passionate decorator and avid photographer, especially of posed tableaux vivants, noticed her penchant for art early on and enrolled her in traditional art classes. However, rote activities such as copying post cards quashed her interest. “I was drawing and painting all my life, [but] I didn’t give art much space...until later,” Marie-Louise reflects. “I [also] had that traditional feeling that you can’t make a living being an artist.”

A trip to India in her early twenties had a profound effect on Marie-Louise. “It was the first place I went that was totally different. It really ripped me away from my moorings.” Everything from the use of color to the distinctive architecture and unfamiliar cultural values shifted her perspective. She redefined the terms “right” and “wrong” and shrugged off her mother’s traditional sense of what goes with what, realizing, she says, “there are no rules.”

Since then, Marie-Louise has traveled extensively, returning to India several times, once on a trip devoted exclusively to painting. She has also held various career posts, including as an interpreter at the Coll├Ęge de Sorbonne in Paris.

A major change came her way in the early 1970s. A transfer student from Vanderbilt University, Marie-Louise was finishing her PhD in French at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, when she decided to take an evening drawing class there.

“At the time, my babies were little and crawling around. I had been painting on my own and felt I needed that kind of structured training.” She received encouragement from her drawing instructor and soon abandoned her doctoral pursuit and instead earned a bachelor of fine arts.

“What you do now, it doesn’t have to be the last thing you do,” counsels Marie-Louise. She never regrets making the choice to start a career as an artist midway through life. With a personality that is both strong and gentle, Marie-Louise, at age eighty-two, moves fluidly between reality and imagination.

Island inspires anew

Longtime Vineyard visitors, Marie-Louise and her scientist-turned-novelist husband, Paul Levine, felt pulled toward the Island two winters ago. As Paul neared retirement at Stanford University, they liked the idea of leading a quiet rural lifestyle where people know their neighbors. On their scouting visit, February’s cold did not scare them away. In fact, everything quickly fell into place, as they discovered a sylvan cottage with the potential for a studio in a former knife-sharpening shop near Nip ’n Tuck Farm in West Tisbury, close to the grocery store, post office, and pharmacy.

 “It’s amazing,” Marie-Louise says of being a full-time Island resident. Already established on the Island as an artist, since she had previously shown in Hermine Hull’s gallery during the late 1980s, she quickly built on her existing art network. At her new home, she finds inspiration everywhere, especially in the open fields surrounding her studio, which remind her of her native Luxembourg.

She also feels continually influenced by the “greats,” such as American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, whose work, she says “you cannot help but be affected by.” She is struck by the way artists in the Picasso-cubist period were “breaking up reality...believing [the] subconscious can express itself in a visible form.” Going further back in time, she notes the impact of Matisse on her work: how he used colors, especially his blues and greens, and his way of thinking about art, the idea “that the end result should comfort.”

Her representational work, in the form of traditional landscapes and still lifes, once reflected Luxembourg, Provence, and Carmel Valley. Then fifteen years ago, Marie-Louise was drawn to creating traditional monotypes, enjoying the spontaneous, energetic process. This medium deepened her interest in improvisation and honed her exploratory, serendipitous approach to painting. She now focuses on creating paintings with acrylics, sometimes subtly incorporating paper collage, “constructing from bits of visual memory.” Her paintings often reflect her perceptions about life and its constant, subtle changes.

She does not have a particular result in mind as she paints. Instead, she thinks about colors: how they respond to each other and how to apply them. This past summer, she created a few tiny nostalgic paintings of apples and lemons, to “keep me integrated in my abstract thinking. It’s a contradiction but a balance between the intuitive and something that exists in space. It’s kind of a game.”

This playful push-pull between the abstract and concrete is an important part of her identity as an artist, and why her art has intrigued corporate collectors such as Adobe Systems and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as galleries, museums, and private collectors in the United States and abroad.

Marie-Louise compares the emotional and intellectual response to her paintings to those generated by listening to good music, and finds great satisfaction when collectors of her work seem to share that feeling. She says, “There is elation. Certainly, a sense of confirmation also. But there is something deeper.”