Lynne Riding was once a competitive windsurfer in England. The contemporary abstract artist, a native of Wales, tells me this as an aside, quickly moving on to discuss the physicality of her larger paintings. I laugh and ask her how I can get into such a sport. "I would teach you," she says, "but I don't really do it anymore." These days, what Riding does a lot of is create — from painting to sketching to hand-making papier-mache, Riding is a busy woman.
After almost 24 years in Charleston, Riding has made a name for herself in the Lowcountry; she previously worked as a professor at CofC and is currently working as a program coordinator at the Art Institute. She earned her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has participated in art residencies and exhibitions all over the world.
Riding guides me through her upcoming exhibit, The Pulse Beneath the Surface. The large paintings and landscape-inspired sketches include pieces from a previous exhibit, Concerning Being, a display comprised of many papier-mached bowls Riding hand-crafted. "They're suggestive of a soul opening," she says.
I think, at first, that Riding's lofty statements are too intense for what amounts to just a bowl, but the simplicity of the papier-mache feel organic — kind of like a new life. Riding experimented with ceramic and porcelain bowls as well, but she says they turned out "too perfect." Some of the bowls are filled with scraps of paper, eggshells, and acorns, representing both fragility and fertility — I can't help but think of a womb full of wishes. Maybe that's just the woman in me.
In Concerning Being's first showing earlier this year at Art Fields in Lake City, S.C., Riding asked guests to respond to the pieces by writing down their age and the answer to the question: what does being mean to you? She hands me a slip of paper and I pause, eventually scrawling my own answer in slippery green ink. I drop it quickly into a bowl; it's painted black inside and narrows to a thin slit at the top.
We look at some of Riding's ink paintings, created while she was in New Mexico. "I sat in front of a mountain," she says, pointing to one such work, "The White Place." Dirt from the land is smeared across the piece, a soft contrast to the stark ink. "The ink is the guts and the truth," says Riding, noting that you can't erase ink once it's been applied.
Another piece, created on the beach in California, incorporates its surroundings as well — the painting was created when Riding set rocks around the edges, holding it down in a strong wind.
Riding sweeps her hand from right to left, taking in three large paintings that she says represent the progression of life and love. The first is predominately red and pink — it's important to note that Riding's color palettes are, for the most part, soft and subtle — and the middle painting is comprised of yellows and earth tones, with the final one featuring darker hues, including a swirl of that permanent ink.
"You know, it starts with delicate love," Riding says. I take this to mean that life starts with love. I nod and say, "Yes, but it's so fleeting." Riding considers this and disagrees. She then gets starry-eyed talking about the love between her 90-year-old parents.
Both of Riding's parents have dementia, and after a while they simply couldn't keep up their passion — a massive garden. Riding shakes her head, laughing at the intensity with which her parents once tended their garden. "I have a movie of them and all you can see are their heads popping up," she says. A few years ago, to make life easier for her parents, Riding had to return home to cut down and then burn the overgrown garden. The charcoal from those remnants dots a large yellow canvas.
The painting is huge and ephemeral, with the dark charcoal acting as a grounding force, which fades into an ink and white paint swirl reminiscent of the inner twist of a small seashell. I can't take my eyes off of it.
Riding's work is deeply personal. I ask her if she's ever been influenced by the work of a student. "No, I've never had to," she says. She points to abstract expressionists like Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock's wife) as influences, but she remains grounded in her personal experiences. I tell her that I'm drawn to the piece with her parents' garden and she smiles, "Well, thank you."
Riding is humble, but she is certain in the quality of her work. She says that she likes to teach to give back, and she enjoys hearing people tell her that her exhibits are inspirational, but at the end of the day Riding paints for herself. She has crafted each piece with a deep love for the final product. "There's a sense of space," she says, which allows viewers to come at the painting in their own time, "and you can put whatever interpretation you make of it."
Riding looks back at her bowls — we keep returning to them. "My friends say, 'What are you doing? Go back to painting,'" she laughs. But Riding loves those bowls. They remind her of her mother and a trip home where the shape of her mother's baking bowls inspired a papier-mache frenzy. Riding tears up recalling this memory.
"We paint from what we really know, and we reach into the depths," she says. "It's scary, but people can feel it."