Born in California in 1954, hold a Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design from San Jose State University, Vanessa Stafford is an artist I have had the privilege of getting to know as a friend and professional artist during the past two decades. She is one of the few naive artists whose work appeals to me. I collected her paintings because of their unique qualities and characteristics.
Her use of watercolor as a medium, pallet of bright colors and unique imagination initially have the appearance of illustrations for children’s books. Upon closer inspection the conceptual reality of her work is revealed.
Venessa presents her ideas in the format of a story. The story is a reflection of her personal life experiences . In her painting titled, ” The dream in the Jungle”. Vanessa bases the imagery on a vision she saw in a dream. In her dream, she was sleeping soundly on a back of an Elephant surrounded by herbivores, a Giraffe on the left and lions on the right, in the middle of a jungle. In the dream, she talked to Saint Michael and he commanded her to reveal her soul to the others. After exposing herself to the herbivores, she was attacked by flying arrows eminating from all directions. The dream respresented her subconscious acceptance of vulnerability to attack by mean spirited people after being open.
“Local Artist Paints North Coast” by Ed Penniman
Vanessa Stafford paints with a unique sense of style and design. She has a way of developing shapes and figures that facilitates the pleasing arrangement of colors playing off each other. Her painting always has a direction. She develops a theme and goes with it until the “muse” has left some pretty interesting tracks.
Lately, Stafford has been painting night scenes in and around Capitola. She is primarily a watercolor artist, but is doing the night scene series in oil because of its forgiving nature.
As a side interest, she decorates intricate patterns on eggs in traditional Baltic style and colors.
Her paintings and eggs are sold in galleries in several states. Vanessa has had illustrations published, as well as a cared series and posters.
I first met Vanessa several years ago, after joining a painting group centered in Santa Cruz. The group consisted of several prominent landscape painters including Sajid Martin, Kitty Wallis, and Barbara Lawrence.
Stafford, who was born in Mesa, Arizona, and moved to Capitola in 1967, started painting symbolic and surreal images on paper. She still likes these images and is especially pleased “when they manifest themselves on paper or canvas.” The bulk of her work in the last five years has been plain (sic) air painting of local scenes of the north coast and cityscapes.
She graduated with honors from Cabrillo College and has a degree in art. She displays her work at various restaurants locally and participates annually in the Open Studio Tour sponsored by the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.
December 4, 1975
“Portrait of an Artist on Her Way Up” by Jay Shore
People who look at Vanessa Stafford’s pen and ink watercolors say she draws just like Hieronymus Bosch, the medieval genius whose hellish depictions got a jolt in popularity about then years ago when the counter culture swallowed them whole. But Vanessa – a very sensitive, talented and friendly Scotts Valley artist – thinks differently. “I don’t feel a lot of similarity,” she says. “Both of us have a busyness, but Bosch has a strangeness; he almost gets perverted. I don’t think my work is scary.”
Indeed, Vanessa describes her work as joyful and magical, with illustrations such as: satyrs, centaurs, fauns, and unicorns: moons with duck faces and chicken heads; horse tails and noses that blossom into flowers; and transparent bodies with angel wings. One canvas shows a girl, not too dissimilar in tone from Clairol’s animated princess, riding on the back of a princely steed and “being affected by the moon” which is sending down rainbow rays. Off to the left a zen character sits rooted like a plant under the earth, while to the right a fatherly Pan rests his arm on a girl’s perhaps his daughter’s, shoulders.
Whereas Bosch’s creatures are weird, wicked and to be pitied, Vanessa’s are warm, graceful and to be loved. But like Bosch today, Vanessa’s art is popular, and her talent is surprising for one who’s yet to reach the age of 22. At Soquel High School, where Vanessa graduated, three of her art teachers, the school principal and secretary, and her counselors all bought chicken eggs she’d illustrated. She charged $8 apiece. “I had a real business going then,” Vanessa laughs. At Cabrillo College, where she studied for two years, an art teacher offered her $100 for an illustrated ostrich egg immediately after Vanessa had finished it. “I didn’t want to sell it,” she says, “because it was the first ostrich egg I’d done.” Vanessa is still holding on to it.
One measure of Vanessa’s ability lies in the fact that other artists have bought her work, knowing that in a few years its value will increase. Both John Thomson and Robert Buckland, local artists, have her watercolors, as does Gary Geyer who is currently exhibiting a canvas in his living room. Anyone is welcome to see it; Gary’s address is 509 Riverview, Capitola; Green Haven is the name of his house.
Vanessa herself is wondrous to look at; her eyes glisten beneath thick glasses and her smile is easy and winning. The afternoon we visited she was wearing a green woolen parka from Norway on top of a bright red pullover sweater, underneath which was a dark green T-shirt. Pinned to her parka was a button from County Bank which read: “I like Live Oak.” Vanessa is no more a Live Oak chauvinist than you or I. Someone happened to give her the button that morning so she just put it on. Vanessa also was wearing loose fitting purple corduroy pants, which gym socks, red rubber soled shoes, and the aforementioned glasses. “I’m legally blind in one eye,” she says. “But I can see with glasses.”
Fantasy and music have preoccupied Vanessa all her life. She’s read Greek mythology, the Oz books, Tolkien, and lots of science fiction. Vanessa lives with her mother (“We get along pretty well,” she laughs. “It’s cheap.”), who’s a jazz musician as is one of her brothers. Her father played trumpet and arranged music before he died ten years ago in a plane crash. And one of her sisters is the first flautist for the Cabrillo Orchestra. Vanessa is a musician too, a cellist, with seven years of practice behind her. She used to practice four hours a day, but has dropped the schedule to allow her time to draw.
Still, music is integral to Vanessa’s art. “Sometimes when I’m listening to music I get a visual image; it’s a real certain feeling about what the music is trying to say.” She talks about attempting to put movement, a rhythm into her illustrations. “I don’t like to draw silence,” she says.
Vanessa’s taste in music bespeaks her refined and delicate sensibilities. When asked what her influences have been Vanessa says what’s obvious to anyone viewing her art. “Everything influences me, especially music. I real like Debussy. And jazz standards, bebop, lyrical things. I like some rock ‘n roll, not a lot, mind you.”
Vanessa admires the work of Paul Klee, the Swiss modern, “part of the German Expressionist movement – wait, I’m not really sure of that,” she injects. “Do you know? Of course, she’s a child of the Impressionist movement. “I love Chagall, he’s very poetic.” On Gauguin: “He gets a chalky kind of coloring I like.” On Bosch: “once he did a regular figure, the Madonna – and it wasn’t that good.” She pauses. “I shouldn’t say that.”
Vanessa used to work as a janitor in Capitola. One of her drawings romantically depicts those day; instead of grime and dust, there are the soft hues of the bay and sky at sunset, and the innocence of a girl surrounded by mystical beings, sort of an Alice in Capitola vision. Last week some people visited Vanessa in her home and bought $250 worth of art, the most Vanessa had ever sold. Until recently, Vanessa had a manager who advised her not to sell anything for some time so her work would increase in value. But the young artist grew tired of waiting and is ready to sell and make a living from her work. A friend is currently framing some canvases which, when they’re ready, Vanessa will take to San Francisco galleries for sale. “I can’t sell eggs for $8 apiece anymore,” she says.
Unlike the stereotypical artist as brooding madman, Vanessa is bright and cheerful, eager to talk and enjoy life. Does she ever get depressed? “No!” she blurts, but quickly adds, with girlish candor, “Oh…sometimes. But I’m pretty regular.”