Opening Windows: Ariana Vaeth reflects on the impact of a residence program

In her painting, “Love is Blind,” Ariana Vaeth depicts herself sitting on a couch facing LaNia Sproles and Leon Palacios, artist friends in Milwaukee.

“They are very close friends whom I have known since college,” said Vaeth, who was raised in Baltimore before attending the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). “They have been in my paintings for a bit, a couple of renditions. I could almost have a collection of just them.”

The painting is included in Vaeth’s new show at SÖMI gallery in Sturgeon Bay, a collection of work that honors the people who inform her character. She creates the paintings from photographs that provide a collage of source materials.

Ariana Vaeth’s work is on display at SÖMI gallery through Oct. 16. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“My self-inclusions in the paintings gives me a voice, but restricts my agency: I can never be fully director or actor when producing a composition, and I trade that sense of control for the serendipity found in these intimate exchanges between loved ones,” she said.

Her SÖMI show is not Vaeth’s first artistic appearance in Door County. She had a show at the Miller Art Museum in the winter of 2021 and was awarded the Al & Mickey Quinlan Artist Residency at the Dome House in August of that year. That residency is awarded annually to mid-career artists in the fields of silk-screening, fine arts or photography and gives them an opportunity to live and work at the one-of-a-kind house in Whitefish Bay. 

“Love is Blind” by Ariana Vaeth.

Her paintings have been going through a bit of a transition since her Miller show. Those paintings were visually realistic. Since then she has allowed herself more creativity, flattening spaces or changing dimensions.

“Being in the residency at the Dome House helped me figure out how to integrate imagination and reality,” she said.

Her interiors often open to the outside through doors and windows.

“I do a lot of windows – windows and framings have interested me for a while,” she said while visiting the Dome House. “This is actually a big studio space for me, being on this porch with frames everywhere. Windows symbolize what is possible.”

Among Vaeth’s favorite painters are the French painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, who often painted rooms looking out to gardens.

A residency provides an artist with a break in her routine, and it blurs the line between creating and exhibiting.

“It takes a creative person and puts them in a place where your mind naturally explores a lot more,” Vaeth said. “Door County is a different kind of art space where people have home studios and gallery spaces that don’t necessarily run the way they would run in the city. You can walk into The Hours Gallery that Meg Lionel Murphy runs, or the Popelka Trenchard art studio and gallery and have a personal experience talking to the artists.”

Vaeth usually paints in oils, but in the Dome House she worked with oil pastels and other materials, including sewing with fabric. The residency had a flow to it, so she could make works and share them while they were still in process and not feel as if she had to wait for polished finished work to display in a formal exhibit.

“The residency was a showcase that could include failures, or things that were unsure of themselves. I think that as artists we often box ourselves in,” Vaeth said. “A gift of a residency is that you show up and you make a piece, and it’s not expected to be polished.”

In October she will do another residency, at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau. She credits her Dome House residency with establishing her credentials for a second residency, and preparing her for how to use it. 

“Often you just need a little bit of a jump start, but once you have a good residency, you know it worked and you know what it’s possible to do,” Vaeth said.

Also one learns what is impossible, or difficult. 

“In a short residency, especially if you’re painting, you have to transport all your stuff and set it up,” Vaeth said. “I started doing a lot more oil pastels here and since then it’s become a very regular part of my process because I can do it just everywhere. The setup is easy and you can stop and go back and pick it up at any point.”

“Special Effects” by Ariana Vaeth.

The residency also provided an opportunity to get to know the work of several local artists she has come to appreciate. Those include Joseph Kaftan, who creates portraits and landscapes with small pieces of colored glass and lives just down the road from the Dome House, and the paintings of Meg Lionel Murphy and Claire Erickson.

On a visit to the Dome House in late June, Vaeth reflected on a painting of her friends that she had recently finished. For her the painting reflects the maturation process that comes with time.

“It’s a little bit sad because LaNia is leaving us, and it kind of puts a little bit of responsibility on me for how the relationship will change, you know, when someone’s far away,” she said. 

She noted that she had been painting a lot of pictures of people in front of windows, showing the backs of their heads rather than their faces.

“I ponder, what’s going to be next,” she explained.

Ariana Vaeth’s work will be on display at the Sömi Gallery, 45 S. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay, through Oct. 16.