A Painter of Place
by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Top photograph by Victoria Goodman
Malou Flato keeps her paints and brushes tidily arranged in a lidded plastic tub. On a mid-February visit to her studio, the tub rests on the floor near the door.
“I’ve got everything I need in there, ready to go,” says the Austin painter.
Though she is a fifth-generation native Texan whose paintings affirm a deep attachment to place and to the natural world, Flato nevertheless leads something of a peripatetic life.
Hence the plastic tub of paints and brushes. Flato works steadily no matter where.
Summer and early autumn Flato and her husband writer John Taliaferro spend in Montana’s Paradise Valley. The remainder of the year, the couple alternates weeks between a Clarksville home and a ranch in Edwards County, a spread Flato inherited from her mother that claims the headwaters to the Nueces River.
“… I grew up knowing how important a painting could be.”
“I spent so much time on that creek growing up,” says Flato, who remains an avid swimmer.
The room that serves as her Austin studio was intended to be the living room. But the high-ceilinged space, awash in northern light, proved ideal for Flato to work on her large paintings.
In preparation for her latest solo exhibit at Davis Gallery, a cluster of finished paintings lean, neatly wrapped, against the walls. On her easel is the last of the Davis Gallery-bound paintings.
Flato paints on a large scale. But her grand-sized canvases often feature small natural scenes. A single pendulous purple wisteria flower might command center-stage in a six-foot painting. Or writ large, the spiky thorns and vibrant yellow flowers of a prickly pear cactus stand in glory.
For her current series, Flato explores the elusive, diaphanous qualities of water.
Flato paints from photographs, using her iPhone and often digitally editing or manipulating her nature images.
“But I go back to the days of Kodak slide carousel,” she says with a smile. “I’d project images really large on my studio wall to see details. Now, though, I do everything digitally.”
She adheres to certain aesthetic parameters though. “I never take a photograph (of a scene) unless the sun is out. I love what the sun does to form.”
And yet for all the luminosity, light in Flato’s paintings is intriguingly implied more than it is specifically rendered.
A single pendulous purple wisteria flower might command center-stage in a six-foot painting. Or writ large, the spiky thorns and vibrant yellow flowers of a prickly pear cactus stand in glory.
A strong measure of realism backgrounds Flato’s artistic style, while a modern impressionism foregrounds it. Compositionally, a measure of abstraction sensibility is always present if often intriguingly understated.
Flato’s scrupulous process serves her style.
Using a type of Japanese paper that appears translucent, Flato applies paint on both sides of the paper in places, coaxing the hues in certain spots to bleed through. The paper seemingly disappears leaving a rough and alluring texture.
Flato uses acrylic paint, sometimes watered down for more luminosity or mixed with a glass medium for added transparency. The paper is then glued to a stretched canvas, and more detail work ensues. The surfaces of Flato’s paintings bear intriguing variations in textures, while the pigments seem to hold light and nuanced detail.
A certainty and thoroughness of habit marks Flato’s art-making practice. She spends an average of six weeks on a single painting always working on just one at a time.
“And I finish everything I start,” she says. “I don’t leave a painting unfinished.”
Flato grew up in Corpus Christi. She and her younger brother Ted (now an esteemed architect behind the celebrated firm Lake Flato Architects) enjoyed plenty of creative encouragement.
The surfaces of Flato’s paintings bear intriguing variations in textures, while the pigments seem to hold light and nuanced detail.
“My parents would take us to the hobby shop on Saturdays, and we’d get all these supplies like plastic clay. And then Ted and I would make figurines and whatnot, set up a make-believe shop and try to sell them,” she recalls.
Another childhood influence hangs in her Austin home: A 1913 painting by legendary Texas landscape artist Julian Onderdonk, commissioned by Flato’s great-grandfather. The scene is of a dramatic cliff on the Guadalupe River near Kerrville, the site of her great-grandfather’s favorite fishing hole. Flato’s mother inherited the painting and it had pride of place in the family home.
“My mother treasured that painting,” Flato says. “And I grew up knowing how important a painting could be.”
Flato majored in theater at Middlebury College in Vermont, specializing in costume design and immediately after graduation spent a several whirlwind years heading-up costume shops for theater companies, among them the Vermont Shakespeare Festival.
As a relief from the hectic deadline-driven nature of theater production, Flato took a life drawing class.
“I could sew, and I could draw costume designs. But I would just draw heads as egg-shaped ovals and stick-figure hands,” she says.
Creatively ignited by drawing, she soon began exploring printmaking, specifically etching. And when she returned to the Lone Star State and settled in Austin in 1979, Flato enrolled in printmaking classes at the University of Texas, studying with masters like Lee Chaney.
“I loved the process of printmaking,” she says. “I’ve always been attracted to process for its own sake.”
It wasn’t long before she was painting in watercolor. She found a studio in then inexpensive and overlooked East Austin. Ceramic artist Janet Kastner worked down the hall. To perfect her painting craft, Flato set up what she describes as “painting boot camp” for herself.
“I didn’t let myself have a phone in my studio and didn’t even allow myself a chair,” she says.
On a visit to Clayworks Studio and Gallery, Flato became intrigued by the of process painting on ceramic tile.
That proved a serendipitous foray. Flato may be recognized for her paintings (her work is in numerous corporate and private collections), but it’s perhaps her mosaic public art murals in cities including San Antonio, Seattle, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas and Austin that remain her most widely familiar work.
Recently Flato finished a five-panel mural on paper and canvas that now graces the interior of Lambert’s restaurant in Austin. In November 2016, she had a solo show at the Art Center of Corpus Christi. She’s been a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome and featured in many museum exhibits. Currently, in addition to Davis Gallery, she’s represented by Valley House Gallery in Dallas and Hunt Gallery in San Antonio.
While she has painted the Aspen trees near her Montana home or flora from her travels (palms in Tahiti or the sinuous umbrella pine trees of Rome), Flato invariably returns to the rough yet potently beautiful landscape of Texas.
“What I’ve always liked is to make beautiful paintings,” says Flato. “And I always think that I’ve yet to complete my best painting.”
Flato’s upcoming solo show Water will be on display at Davis Gallery April 15-May 20, 2017.