Need an art fix? Take a virtual tour of the new exhibit celebrating Palo Alto artist Nathan Oliveira

He created an artist sanctuary at Stanford after painting world-famous pieces — now explore the inspiration behind his vision

By Sheryl Nonnenberg

A selection from Nathan Oliveira’s “Wings & Windhover” series. (Image courtesy of the Pacific Art League)

It is not often that we get to see the “back story” to a work of art. What inspired the artist, early drafts and preliminary drawings are all facets of creativity that are often lost to time or the garbage bin. A now-virtual exhibition at the Pacific Art League gives us the opportunity to learn, and see, what led painter Nathan Oliveira to create his ethereally beautiful Windhover series, on permanent view in the contemplation/meditation center of the same name on the Stanford campus. “Wings and Windhover,” which consists of thirteen paintings and prints on loan from the artist’s son, Joe, was recently on display in the Main Gallery and will be reinstalled when the PAL reopens, hopefully in June. (While the PAL is closed, the exhibition can be seen online).

“I was thinking about the history of the PAL,” said exhibition curator Lisa Coscino, “and of all the artists who have come in and out of here over the past 100 years. Although we are here to support emerging artists, I would like to take an opportunity once a year to exhibit an artist who is local/regional who has accomplished great things. Nathan Oliveira was first on my list.”

Nathan Oliveira was a prominent Bay Area artist whose accomplishments span half a century. (Image via the Windhover website)

Oliveira was a prominent member of the second generation of Bay Area Figurative artists. These men and women eschewed the emotion-laden, gestural approach of the Abstract Expressionist and returned to figuration, especially the human form. In addition to his successful career as a painter and sculptor, Oliveira was a much-admired member of the art faculty at Stanford University for over three decades. After his death in 2010, his son Joe became administrator of his estate and a foundation that continues his father’s artistic legacy.

That legacy takes tangible form in the Windhover Contemplation Center, a 4000-square-foot building that contains four large-scale paintings by the artist. During a visit to Joe Oliveira’s home in Palo Alto, which also serves as the headquarters for the artist’s archive and foundation, he explained how the Center came into being. “In addition to being an instructor, my father was also a student advisor. Many of the art majors he taught came from middle-class families and were struggling with school, their art and life in general. He felt strongly that there should be a place on campus for quiet contemplation and meditation.”

The Center, which was privately funded, took a long time to come to fruition: the idea was first proposed in 1995, with the building finally opening in 2014. Today, it is a fixture on campus, a serene sanctuary where students can pray, meditate, take yoga classes and escape the rigors of student life.

Views of the Windhover, a “spiritual refuge” on the Stanford campus. (Images via the Windhover website)

The paintings in the Center reflect a 20-year study by the artist and were inspired by two things: the kestrels (British term for small falcons) that swoop and glide over the Stanford campus and foothills where Oliveira used to take walks, and a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that describes the wonder of soaring flight by these small birds. The finished paintings are actually quite abstract — we see the arc of a wing and a “bird’s eye view” of the world, which expands out into the universe. The colors are deep and rich, in the case of “Big Red” or wonderfully warm earth tones, as seen in “Diptych, White Wing.” But getting to the point of expressing flight, freedom and the infinite in the paintings was a slow and steady progression.

Coscino explained, “What I hope our students will take away from the show is the idea of deconstruction. It takes a long time to get to abstraction: the idea of starting with something and reducing and reducing it to the element that inspires you.”

As can be seen in the PAL pieces, Oliveira’s fascination began very traditionally with representational depictions of birds. In several of these small studies, such as “White Hawk,” details like eyes and wings and beaks are rendered fairly realistically. Soon, however, the artist honed in on just the wing. In his first efforts, the wing is clearly outlined and individual feathers are discernible. Over time, however, his focus was reduced to the arc formed by the top of the wing. “From wings to abstract images,” explained Joe Oliveira, “my father conveyed the idea of flight — without getting all trapped in feathers.”

(Images courtesy of the Pacific Art League)

In the 1995 oil painting entitled “Kestrel,” the wing has become further reduced to a flash of movement, expressed in tones of brown and gold. Some of these small-scale works reflect the luscious texture of paint applied with a palette knife — a technique often used by Oliveira. Observing the pieces around the gallery, it is as though we have been given a privileged view into the mind of the artist, as he worked out issues and solved problems. The paintings, which have not been exhibited before, stand alone as beautiful objects. But to really be impressed with the skill of Nathan Oliveira, a visit to Windhover is highly recommended. To see how he progressed from these intimate studies of birds and wings to the enormous, immersive abstractions that facilitate meditations on life, death and what may lie beyond is truly remarkable.

If, in this age of instant everything, the idea of focusing one’s attention on one subject, one idea, for several decades seems improbable, if not impossible, consider a few lines from “The Windhover:”

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend, the hurling and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

(Image courtesy of Joe Oliveira)

You can view a virtual exhibition of Nathan Oliveira’s Wind & Windhover series here. (The actual exhibition will be reinstalled upon the reopening of the Pacific Art League. The Windhover Center is closed until Stanford University reopens.)

For current info on the exhibit and more about the PAL, email: [email protected]

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