Despite her late start as a painter, Alyce Frank now expresses in her art a unique vision of the beauty of the New Mexico landscape. Forty-three years ago, Alyce Frank, AB'50, graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18 after three years' study. "I was in a big hurry," she explains. "I'm not sure why." Her approach to art, however, proved to be much more leisurely. Having begun painting in 1973, after her three children were grown, Frank credits her success as an artist in large part to her late start: "I rue sometimes the lack of drawing experience I would have had if I had started earlier. But I like very much that my work is quite unique because I don't have the usual academic training."

In fact, Frank's early training consisted of a liberal arts education--"I learned how to learn"--and three years spent as the only female member of the U of C rifle club, an extracurricular activity which, she quips, improved her hand-eye coordination. By the time she had graduated from the college, the only artistic experience Frank had under her belt was attending an early Van Gogh exhibition at the Art Institute. She recalls, "It knocked my socks off."

Despite her fascination with Van Gogh, at that time in her life Frank didn't even consider becoming a painter. Nevertheless, she believes that she was "storing up" experiences for later use in her art. For example, after moving to Los Angeles in the 50s, she spent ten years working with her husband, Larry, as an educational film producer and editor, a job which she describes as "a study in composition." In their spare time, they frequented LA's museums and galleries.

Frank didn't begin painting, however, until she and her family moved to an adobe morado built by the Penitentes in Arroyo Hondo, a small village outside of Taos, New Mexico. Transfixed by the beauty of the countryside near her home and inspired by the achievements of the German Expressionists and the Fauves, Frank, then 43, began painting New Mexican landscapes in the bold colors and expressionist style which have become her trademark. "Within 20 miles from my house, I can paint high mountain scenery, the snow line, the tree line where it is bare; I can paint the gorge of the Rio Grande, high desert and rock canyons. There are also orchards and farmland because of the irrigated valleys that the Spanish have developed. And then," she adds, "we have this beautiful light."

Frank's enthusiastic appreciation of the New Mexico landscape springs from over 20 years of traipsing through it, looking for a subject for her next painting. She usually paints outdoors with a partner, and while her work can by no means be described as realism, she prides herself on the fact that, by looking at her paintings, "the people around here know exactly where I was, what I was looking at." Frank explains that she intends to create in her art "a feeling of place."

This feeling of place manifests itself most dramatically in the colors she chooses to convey her own "joyous" appreciation of the vistas of rural New Mexico. Most of her paintings, particularly the early works, begin with a "red ground." First covering the entire canvas with red paint, Frank then adds another layer of the brilliant colors which have become her signature. "I am free from the restraints of the actual colors of the landscape," she explains. "The scene gives me the idea of form and value, but the red ground appearing in the sky, mountains, valleys and fields acts to flatten the surface--a contradiction of reality."

Born in new Iberia, Louisiana--home of Tabasco sauce--Frank seems drawn to the color red almost by birthright. However, rather than using the color to spice up her landscapes, she values its neutrality. "Red is in the middle of the color values--which makes it quite neutral, even though it is quite strong. So, it turns out to be a good choice for a ground. If you use bright yellow, for instance, you've got to fight with it all the time. It wants to jump off the canvas toward your face."

Although best known for her striking landscapes, Frank doesn't limit herself to bucolic subjects. In the winter, when the cold weather discourages painting outdoors, she usually focuses on equally arresting caricature portraits. In addition, she has created an entire series of miniatures from her own paintings. Not surprisingly, these miniatures, too, were conceived in an unorthodox way. "I kind of work backwards, actually. Most people work from sketches and then they do big paintings. I do the reverse."

Despite her late beginnings and non-standard training, Frank has carved a distinct niche for herself in the Southwest art scene. Featured in close to 30 art shows in the past ten years, her work has been exhibited most recently during much of October at the Zaplan-Lampert gallery in Santa Fe. Frank has also proven to be prolific; since she began numbering her work just before her first show in 1981, she has finished almost 402 paintings--an average of almost 35 a year. That's no small feat, given her leanings toward large canvases.

Having suffered polio as a child, though, Frank anticipates a time when she will have to slow the pace--when she will no longer be able to pack up her easel and roam the New Mexico terrain in search of inspiration. "I think some day I won't be able to go out. It's physically difficult for me now," she muses. "But I don't think I'll just paint from photographs. I'll have to change my style. I will probably just get more and more abstract." But, lest she seem disheartened, Frank immediately launches into an enthusiastic description of her future plans to do a "huge" triptych--a three-paneled painting that promises to be bigger than anything she's done before.
--C.M., University of Chicago Magazine/October 1993