Jill Hooper has her eye on decay 

The Nature of Change

When summer turned to fall this year, Jill Hooper struggled to adjust. The temperature was changing, the humidity was different, and little critters were raring to eat her pal's pomegranates.

"My friend's tree was bursting with them," says Hooper, an award-winning realist painter. "I was determined to get to them before the squirrels." The pomegranates ended up as subjects of a still-life painting in her sold-out show, On the Nature of Autumn. It's a series of five oil-on-linen pieces that show her calmer, more reflective side.

"Subconsciously, I was drawn to these beautiful fruits of autumn," she recalls. Further inspiration was close by. Next to the pomegranate tree were persimmons, fruits glowing a distinctive orange color with a smoky blue-gray film over them. They are featured in "Stolen Persimmons," a 12½" x 43" painting that juxtaposes the orange with wilting leaves and rich blue cloth.

In her late 30s, Hooper is the youngest artist to have work collected by the Gibbes Museum of Art, and she's been hailed as a "top emerging artist" by Art & Antiques magazine. Even though it's been 15 years since she graduated from the College of Charleston with a BA in Fine Arts, Hooper shows no signs of taking a break. She still paints every day and finds insight in everything she sees, including moldy fruit. Hooper allows her objects to have a breath of their own. She says that she finds "the beauty in letting the leaves of a twig start their decay to being brittle, having been clipped from their branch."

"Pomegranates From a Tree on Queen Street" has a similar background to "Stolen Persimmons." Its coppery tones are accentuated by a metal pail placed right of center, the fruit reflected in its surface. The succulent red pomegranates draw the eye across the painting. In "Lemons, Plums, and Clementines" the artist uses rich yellows to lead us to the center of the image.

"Bread Crumbs" demonstrates Hooper's mastery of detail, a rustic Tuscan table scene depicting two loaves of bread down to the smallest ort. This is a softer painting, lighter in shade and mood. The pale crusty bread contrasts with a few small green olives and a dark vase casting an insouciant shadow on the wall.

The show's final piece departs from the fruit theme but continues that of food and its association with life and death. The copper bowl in "Beaufort Oysters" has overturned, spilling empty bone-colored oyster shells toward a crumpled white cloth. From a distance the shells look like the curved skeleton of a strange animal.

"Working from life always offers the unexpected," Hooper states. "Though I start out with an idea, I know that things have a life of their own and it's best to follow the natural path even if it breaks from the original plan." If her fruit rots or the leaves turn brown, she incorporates this fact of death into her work. It fits in with the autumnal premise.

Unexpected surprises notwithstanding, these large-scale still lifes are very different from some of Hooper's landscapes and portraits. Her self-portrait "Pugnis et Calcibus" ("With Fists and Heels") is messier than her usual calculatedly classical work. Apparently, it shows the artist as she sees herself rather than her in actuality; she described its creation as "carving out a monster." The honesty paid off; in 2007 the piece was selected from 1,870 entries for a highly prestigious BP Portrait Award, and it now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We'd love to see more of this kind of work from Hooper, who has had some great mentors (D. Jeffrey Mims, Charles Cecil, Ben Long) and an ability to find significance in everyday nature. Recent landscapes show a closer attention to texture and adding the "rough edges" that can be found in life.

Despite her training and experience, there's a sense that Hooper is still learning how far to push things. She says that's the hardest aspect of her work, mentioning the paintings that she's had in progress for years. "I have several ... sitting in my studio now," she explains. "I learned that leaving them for awhile helps me see clearer."

She's found a musical term that eminently describes what she wants to achieve with a painting over time — rubato, carrying a note just long enough to fully feel it through, but not one moment longer to ruin it.

"It's so hard," says Hooper. " Obviously, that's where you hope instincts come in."


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