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Love Of the Land 

Charleston artist pours her passion onto the canvas

Among the things that make a work of art memorable is the way it conveys its creator's passion for the process of making art, for the medium, the implements, the colors and shapes, the subject matter, and so on.

By that, I mean that you, the viewer, can stand in front of a painting and know in your gut, in your heart, that the artist is, literally, in love. That she is stirred, obsessed, insane, consumed by the quintessence of chalk, the sensuousness of pigment, the immutable beauty of the golden mean, and so filled with the sheer joy of being alive that it spills over onto you.

Such passion is evident in the luminous landscapes by Charleston artist Linda Fantuzzo, presently on view at Joie Lassiter Gallery. Fantuzzo's mastery of her craft is achieved, as she confirms, by making "real decisions about life. There are many things I haven't done because I've chosen to do this."

Not that she resents any part of her commitment to art. "I hardly have a day when I don't jump out of bed in the morning. In fact, I often resent time spent away from my studio. People ask me what I do for fun, which doesn't make sense to me. I love the act of working, exploring. There aren't enough hours in the day."

Her talents were nourished early on. At her Endicott, NY, high school, she enjoyed classes in photography, jewelry, sculpture, art history and field trips to the Cloisters and the Met in New York City -- made possible by the huge tax base generated by the town's primary industry, IBM. "Outside the schools," she explains, "the area was devoid of galleries or studios." Acceptance at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia followed. Experiences there solidified her desires to continue on that path.

"The Academy was full of energy from skilled, talented, devoted students who were dead serious about art. It was exciting because the student body was so diverse and the teachers were full-time artists, not dilettantes. Even after classes, we'd hire models or model for each other -- it was total immersion.

"We were taught the techniques of the masters," she continues. "It was all about creating -- nothing to do with selling or careers. We were not prepared to be anything other than autodidactic artists in garrets. We were told that if the public liked our work too well, there was something wrong with it."

Despite being indoctrinated in traditional styles and methods, Fantuzzo's interests took a non-objective tack after two years. While on an "independent study" -- "We just traveled all over Europe," she laughs -- she became interested with metallic Moroccan artifacts and incorporated them into her paintings. "I'd always been fascinated by metal," she explains. "Instead of playing with dolls when I was a kid, I'd sort through the nails and chunks of machinery in my father's barn."

Soon after graduation in 1973, the young artist met and married Ed Warmuth. Her mentor at the Academy, Manning Williams, told them that Charleston had a little society of painters and craftspeople, as well as wonderful weather. "Ed and I fell in love with it and we've been here 25 years."

The work Fantuzzo is now known for -- landscapes distinguished more for a romantic, magical rendering of light and color than for the tropical flora that identifies the region -- was not what she was doing then, however. For years in Charleston, she made assemblages with the aluminum flashing her contractor husband used in construction. But when a fire and a tornado wiped out two of her studios, she became frustrated and discouraged. In an attempt to boost her spirits, friend Williams, who was then living in the city, suggested they "just go out and paint."

"And that's when I fell in love with painting again," she says. "I loved the immediacy of it, the instant response to what was right before me. That's what I try to capture, nothing social or political, just the elemental aspects of what's around me."

The wonder of the landscapes in this show is that she does, indeed, capture a single moment in time, the one you want to last forever. The natural light portrayed in them is so ephemeral, you're sure that if you blink, the images will have changed when you next look -- just like in real life, only better. The canvases glow with the kind of incandescence that's quickly extinguished by the setting -- or rising -- sun.

One look at the landscapes tells you that even after 25 years, Fantuzzo is ever enamored of her surroundings. "The density of the air is sultry. My favorite season here is fall, when the air is liquid gold. Unless you fly over South Carolina, you have no idea how much of the area is literally floating. You see water, water everywhere. There's the ocean, the Cooper and Ashley rivers, estuaries, creeks, salt marshes.

"And then the light bounces off everything -- even the beautiful magnolia blossoms have extraordinary reflective properties. I've learned to see how the light breaking across a pile of trash on the floor makes the most mundane things beautiful. That's the role of an artist."

But the visual impact is not what raises her work above the norm. Rather, it's their visceral impact. There is the sense that if you reached out to touch it, you would feel liquid, sultry humidity.

It's been a rewarding 25 years. Although several of the area's artists are more readily recognized on a commercial level (meaning they sell a lot because they reproduce what people like about the low country), Fantuzzo is among the few who have achieved professional status in a critical sense. Example: She was selected in 2003 to represent Charleston in the opening exhibit of the city's new contemporary gallery, The Gallery at One Vendue Range. Her work is in collections at the Gibbes Museum of Art and Kiawah Resort, among many others. But mostly, she works.

"You can't just wait for "the muse' to visit," she says. "You have to work constantly. Work begets work. And passion is important in everyone's life. That's it, that's what I'm going for."

Linda Fantuzzo's exhibit New Paintings can be seen through December 2 at Joie Lassiter Gallery, 525 N. Tryon St., Ste. 140. Hours: By appointment 12noon-2pm Monday-Saturday, 3-4pm Thursday-Friday. Details: 704-373-1464.

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