Artist Beth Schroeder feels at peace amidst nature

by Janina Birtolo

On a Thursday in January, the narrow, off-the-beaten-path street in Naples where artist Beth Schroeder lives is lined with parked cars. The reason for the logjam soon becomes apparent. Scattered around her property, several plein air artists—those who paint outdoors, taking their inspiration from their immediate surroundings—are at their easels, single-mindedly capturing and interpreting the towering palms, lush undergrowth, and light sparkling on a small lake.

The quietly active scene is natural, in all senses. The grounds of the home Schroeder rents are abundantly beautiful, in a native Southwest Florida way, and so their attraction for this group is readily apparent. As Schroeder notes, there aren’t many places left in the city that have so escaped the manipulations of those intent on a more manicured look.

And it’s just as natural that Schroeder would welcome these other artists, as her own work is so very involved with these surroundings. Each of her works seems a private communion with nature, formed into a moment to be shared with the public. “Mostly, my studio is outside,” Schroeder acknowledges. “I start out there and then bring it [inside] to finish. When I moved here, I was so hungry for nature.”

Schroeder spent much of her life without an easy connection to natural areas. After completing a bachelor of fine arts degree at Western Michigan University, she moved to Chicago and took a job with an advertising agency. About the only time she could grab for her own artwork was a couple of hours of drawing during the mornings she got up early. Still, there were great benefits to living in such a large city.

“I was very active in the art world, and there was a lot of good discussion among the artists,” she says. “I was always going to the contemporary museum and the Art Institute [of Chicago]. That’s the real pleasure you have living in a city. I went to the Art Institute once a week. What opened my eyes the most were the special programs and installations.

“But there was not much primal contact with nature,” she continues. “Living in Chicago for so many years, I was isolated from it. I had other, intellectual things coming at me. But I felt a real need to be reconnected to the earth.”

That reconnection came about seven years ago, when Schroeder’s husband retired and the couple moved to Naples. They found a stilt house on a small side street and moved in, intending to remain there just for a year. But both the house (inspired by the owner’s visit to Bali) and the surroundings proved conducive to Schroeder’s desire to find a natural reconnection.

Her work, regardless of medium, reflects that reconnection. Her watercolors are realistic, detailed, and intimate—close encounters of an immediate kind. “My watercolors are much more controlled and thought out,” she notes. “But that doesn’t feel more restrictive. I’m looking at the small picture. I’m very aware of the light and how quickly it changes.”

Schroeder’s oil paintings, by contrast, are free flowing. More abstract and dreamy, they are impressions loaded with feeling and instinct. “The oils, to me, are a lot harder because I don’t know where they’re going,” she says.

Many of Schroeder’s paintings have an Asian feel to them, underscored by the long, narrow canvases she often uses. The effect is a result of her exploration of meditation and Eastern philosophy, an exploration that has propelled her into new art forms. In one corner of the house, a sculpture of a woman sits in the lotus position. Her head and body are adorned with leaves gathered from outside. In between, inked words inspire contemplation.

In another corner, a mobile created from dried sea-grape leaves dances gently. The light catches the words inscribed on each leaf, poetic passages from the Buddhist scripture. Calligraphy on a three-veiled hanging in her studio shares similar thoughts of blessing. Art is all about sharing and communicating, Schroder insists.

“That’s why I like calligraphy,” she explains. “It’s so much not my medium, but I want to communicate. We [artists] are trying to capture something that’s already the best it can be. The artist really doesn’t know what the work’s about until it’s presented. The viewer brings himself to it. That’s the moment. You need to share [the work], even though it’s a scary thing to do. It’s kind of a leap of faith.”

Schroeder believes so firmly in that sharing aspect that, shortly after moving to Naples, she joined NCH Healthcare System’s Arts in Healing program as co-coordinator. As such, she spends considerable time at Naples Hospital, introducing patients to the benefits of creating small works. “I do better artwork when I’m doing volunteer work,” she says. “It’s having that human connection.”

Although she comes to a canvas with an idea that has “percolated” for a while, Schroeder has found the importance of letting go once she starts painting. The process is a lot like meditation, she says. Just as a meditator needs to let go of thoughts, an artist has to let go and allow the painting itself to guide the outcome. The viewer’s usual response tends to mirror the artistic one.

“The most typical response is ‘Ahhh,’” Schroeder reports. “It’s like a sense of relief. I often see a physical relaxation.”

For Schroeder, that sort of response is something understandable, because it’s so natural. “I think nature feeds us,” she says. “People miss that. In nature, we feel that connection, that wholeness, that oneness.

“When you’re surrounded by nature, and let that stillness infuse you, you feel more alive,” she continues. “It’s a calm aliveness.” And, for Schroeder, it’s a journey that’s just begun.

Beth Schroeder’s work will be displayed at the Sweet Art Gallery in North Naples (239-597-2110, www.thesweetartgallery.com) during May. To see samples of her work, visit www.bethschroederart.com. To arrange a viewing at her studio (and see the surroundings that inspire her), contact Schroeder at 239-262-2216 or by e-mail at bethschroederart@comcast.net.

Freelance writer Janina Birtolo is a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands and RSW Living.