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Sally Storch's Unfinished Stories by Stephen Jared

For more than a couple of decades Sally Storch has been a revered painter. Her work often consists of characters alone in the world, and the world they inhabit is all but gone. There are suggested scenes, stories unfinished, which create visions of tension, even suspense. Sally was married to painter Richard Bunkall who succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease in 1999. She later married Ray Turner. Ray was a friend of Bunkall, and also one of the city's reigning painters. Sally's great aunt, Bertha Rihani, was a painter in Paris in the early 20th century, knew Matisse and Kees van Dongen. Sally's work has more in common, however, with American regionalists like Edward Hopper. Recently, I spent an afternoon with Sally and her life-long friend, writer Alison M. Bailey, in Pasadena. We spoke in Ray's studio as Sally's was suffering the saws and hammers of remodelers. One of Richard's massive cityscapes hung behind me, while more than a dozen of Ray's painted heads hung on the walls like headshots in a casting office before everything went digital, except these headshots were colorfully and thickly painted and difficult to turn away from. The smell of oil paints filled the air. It was fantastic. Here's some of the conversation.


Stephen: Is Hopper becoming more influential to painters as time goes by?

Sally: I think he's probably gotten more popular. I had never heard of him around the time he died in the 60s. I think now people are really appreciating what he did.

Alison: The Sunday New York Times just had an article about the new Whitney and talked about their Hopper collection.

Stephen: Hitchcock based the Psycho house on a Hopper painting, and I feel like there's something of Hitchcock in your work - the almost obsessive repetition of shapes and images found in everyday things that reinforce the narrative, that close in on your characters. The square shapes in your work, for example.

Sally: That's a compliment. I would say vertical. I've noticed I'm really abandoning horizontal for vertical in my work. I love vertical. And I love Hitchcock. I've never had anyone compare me, but I love Hitchcock.

Alison: Don't all your paintings tell a story?


Sally: Yes, and with him there's simplicity. I love that. It inspires me.

Stephen: And then there's Rear Window.

Sally: One of my favorite movies.

Stephen: Your paintings remind me of that film. There's a voyeuristic quality to the content in your work.

Sally: Totally.

Stephen: The apartments in Rear Window share a similar architecture with the buildings in your work. You have a lot of views of characters in windows. Jimmy Stewart calls one character in Rear Window Miss Lonelyheart, and a lot of the characters in your paintings could be given that name.

Sally: I used to drive around and enjoy seeing inside people's windows, and wonder about the stories going on in there.

Stephen: I can't imagine a Sally Storch painting with glass and steel buildings and people preoccupied with their phones. There seems to always be a solitary figure and a cityscape that shows off the architectural beauty of an earlier time.

Sally: I think I'm displaced in the times we live. I think it's just an era that I respond to. I'm not doing it to be nostalgic. It feels like a timeless place to go. I think what I'm looking for is simplicity. I also like painting part of our world that's disappearing.


Stephen: Were you always talented?

Alison: Yes. Since High School. Absolutely she was.

Sally: My mom says I painted a lot as a girl. They say for children it's not how good it looks but how long you focus on something that matters. I used to draw for hours.

Stephen: Was it ever a struggle to communicate as an artist, to find something that felt true to who you are?

Sally: For me, no.

Stephen: Is it coincidence there are a number of current southern CA painters, Kenton Nelson among them, who share a similar reverence for the past?

Sally: In our rapidly changing world there are people whose sensitivity to it is maybe greater. Do you know Kenton?

Stephen: My wife and I met him. I don't know him.

Sally: He might as well be living in that era.


Stephen: When we met him I thought he seemed like a 1950s baseball player.

Sally: His wife, Tessa, is the same way. They're wonderful and unique, and I appreciate what he stands for.

Stephen: The one on the porch with the girl reading, and the home is black and white, is so dramatic. It seems a house full of neurosis. All the vertical and horizontal lines and shapes create such anxiety. The porch floor is impossibly polished. There's a red door, which typically is a sign of welcome, typically at the front of a home, and here it's inside the home.

Sally: I didn't even think about that.

Stephen: The picture is nearly black and white aside from that red, and the woman is outside, seemingly unconcerned with what's going on inside, immersed in a book. Despite so much beauty, she seems unhappy.

Sally: Oh, that's interesting.


Stephen: What went into this one? Where did it come from?

Sally: It's called Summer Porch. That painting was in my last show. It was so popular I could have sold it ten times. I think for many people it's ordered and safe. What's interesting is that a woman wanted a painting like this but she asked that I put more story in it, so I painted a picture like this for her but I put a painter inside, visible through a window at night, and he's painting a still life with a bowl of apples, and she's outside on the porch eating an apple. I called it Still Life. And I felt there was sadness, like two people doing their own thing, not together. It's isolation. I didn't think of her as sad but definitely in her own world, living in her own place.

Stephen: There's a Sally Storch style. How did that develop?


Sally: I think there are painters who are so talented they can paint anything. Richard was like that. He could paint anything beautifully. I don't think I have that. So I tie into that part of me that is Sally Storch, and some people think, "A street scene, really?" But it's more than that. That's why I love that you asked about Alfred Hitchcock. I think I've been very fortunate to be married to two artists. They both would say, "The perspective might be a bit off but it's still good."

Stephen: There's no desperation to shock, one doesn't get the sense you're trying to ingratiate yourself to people who feel that anything worthwhile has to be wildly original. Did you ever feel pressured to do that?

Sally: I think sometimes I do still feel that. I call it a 'so what?' painting. I think to myself, "Is this a 'so what?' painting? I'm worried about this. What can I do? How can I make it a little strange or take it a little further?" There's an insecurity in having it possibly turn out to be a 'so what?' painting.

Stephen: Tell me about the process. You start with sketches, I assume?

Sally: I don't always. Sometimes I do. I start in my head with a finished piece that I can generally see. Not detailed, but generally what I want to see. I just finished a piece and I knew I wanted a light striking something. I wanted a woman looking out at what the viewer can't see. I wanted it sunlit. I wanted it to be bright and airy. So I see this in my head, and then I have to find where it is. I'll drive around east LA and look at little bungalows until I find the perfect one, and then I have a model, Anna Howell, that I usually work with. I get her, dress her how I want, and I put her there, and I kind of set up a scene almost.


Stephen: Do you photograph it?

Sally: Yes. And then I do drawings. Though with photoshop I'm finding that sometimes I draw less. My new rule is that I have to do a finished study before I do a big piece.

Stephen: Where does that vision come from?

Sally: You know how you'll be driving around at night and you see something and it just thrills you. So I see a vision and it's loose to begin with. I might see a corner in New York and think, "I love that corner. When would the light hit it in just such a way?" And I'll go back and photograph it in the morning light or afternoon light. And then I'll do a study in oil, detailed, and it's a smaller version and sometimes people who can't afford a big painting end up buying the little painting.

  1912 costume party from Sally's photo collection. Matisse is in front, squatting with hands on knees. Sally's Great Aunt Bertha is the smiling woman standing over Matisse's right shoulder. The man over Matisse's left shoulder is painter Albert Marquet and the man directly behind Bertha is painter Charles Camoin. This is the studio of Kees van Dongen.

Stephen: Your great aunt, Bertha Rihani, was a painter in Paris, knew Matisse and Kees van Dongen. Did you, as a result, grow up with a reverence for that era, and modern art in general?

Sally: Yes, I think I probably did grow up with a reverence for modern art, and I do love good modern art. My dad loved Aunt Bertha. My mom's sister was also a painter in the 30s. But Bertha was pretty radical. She dated for a long time, lived with, Kees van Dongen. And then she ran off to Arabia. And I remember her coming to our house and trying to talk my dad into letting us all move to Iran. At the time I guess Iran was a really cool place. This would've been in the 50s. She said the beaches were just beautiful. We all just loved her. And, also, as to a reverence for that era, I think there was probably an element of taste in our house because of my mom and dad.

Alison: It was very sophisticated.

Sally: Well, you grow up surrounded by that.


Stephen: What did your parents do?

Sally: My father was an executive with an oil company. My mother had four children. I sometimes think my life was really idyllic as a child, easy. We lived at the beach. I had a horse. Sometimes I think if I grew up in a more compromised situation, a tougher situation, my paintings would've had more turmoil, would've been more cutting edge. It might have been a different path. I've always kind of had this idyllic place inside of me. My life was happy. I painted things that made me happy. But you have to paint what is true to you. I remember Richard used to say "You're apologizing for your work. Quit apologizing."

Stephen: One of the reasons I think people romanticize that era is because so many great painters and writers were there at the same time, socializing, responding within their work to the artistic merits of those around them. Also, the creative possibilities for artists at that time seemed endless. You see this envy explored in a movie like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I'm wondering if you've maybe not experienced that envy for a social circle of great artists given that you're married to a great painter, were married previously to a great painter, presumably you have painter friends, obviously you have writer friends.


Sally: I remember I was really lonely in the beginning. I don't know a lot of women painters. I'm pretty isolated. I have Alison. I have other friends who are creative, but I don't know a lot of painters. It's still lonely in that way.

Stephen: Who are your painter heroes?

Sally: I love the Ash Can painters. Manet was an amazing painter. I love George Bellows, Edward Hopper of course. John Sloan. Am I forgetting someone?

Alison: Sargent?

Sally: I think Sargent was immensely talented, but part of it is what they're painting. I think Manet painting a parrot or a dead fish was cool. But I also love the story of the Ash Can painters because it really was the first time they painted reality the way it was at the time. Like when they painted a woman she didn't have to be beautiful with perfect pale white skin the way Sargent would paint his women. I respond to that.


Stephen: Was it difficult getting into galleries in the beginning?

Sally: There's a club, probably not unlike with acting. I went through it with Richard for years. I knew how good he was, such beautiful paintings and he got rejected so many times from these galleries, from the Young Talent Awards at museums. No gallery would take him, for three or four years when he was really doing beautiful stuff. It's getting into that little club.

Stephen: Do you think it's true that real talent, a foundation of painting and drawing, gives you power, as opposed to ideas, conceptual stuff, installations, that sort of thing?

Sally: It only gives you power within yourself to know what you can do. I think that's the point that Richard got to. He gave up on it, all the nonsense. We gave up on it together, and he just kept painting, and I remember he won two NEA grants and some gallery person said, "Where have you been?" and Richard's response was, "Quietly painting."

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