Gisela Alpert is svelte and slim, but she likes her artwork big and bold. A Montréal native with a background in landscaping, Alpert paints much-larger-than-life-size close-ups of flowers. She has also chiseled the top portions of a pair of 16-ton, 12-foot-tall black concrete slabs that are part of her elaborate design for a small park at the entrance to a shopping plaza in Milton.
This installation, titled “Unity,” was commissioned by Burlington developer Ernie Pomerleau as an audacious addition to his recently completed Hannaford supermarket project.
“It’s something different for Milton,” says Alpert, whose design was chosen from among eight proposals submitted in response to Pomerleau’s call to local artists. “It’s something that helps put Milton on the cultural map.”
“Unity” gives metaphorical form to the town’s main topographical features. The twin monoliths are meant to represent the two highest points in Milton: Cobble Hill and Arrowhead Mountain. A wavy pattern etched in greenish granite that bisects the slabs at their base alludes to the Lamoille River, which is depicted as spilling into an oval that stands for Lake Champlain. The whole installation is based on a circle, signifying unity.
It’s quite an undertaking for a 55-year-old woman who’s been making art for less than a decade. Alpert experienced an epiphany in 2005 right after she had finished remodeling the house in a rural corner of Milton that she shares with her husband, BioTek Instruments co-owner Adam Alpert. “I was tired but very happy,” Alpert relates, “so I decided to buy myself a small birthday present” — an oil-paint kit. It was an impulse purchase; Alpert wasn’t even an amateur artist at that point.
But, brimming with self-confidence, she plunged into painting without taking a single lesson. It didn’t seem appropriate to learn about art making in a formal way, Alpert explains while leading a reporter on a tour of the three-story studio that adjoins her equally spacious home.
“Taking lessons would mean I wouldn’t be painting what I had in mind. I’d be painting what I was taught,” Alpert reasons. “I wished to let my own creativity flourish.”
And flourish it did.
“It was obvious from her first efforts that Gisela has a fabulous talent,” comments Jane Morgan, a local painter who has watched Alpert’s art develop. It became more technically sophisticated and aesthetically appealing as Alpert painted and painted — and as she processed suggestions from Morgan and some of the more experienced members of the Milton Artists’ Guild. Alpert joined the group a few years ago and, in keeping with her go-getter personality, now serves as its president.
“Painting turns out to be something I was born to do,” Alpert reflects, “although I didn’t realize it until later in life.”
Her resolute quest for self-expression has produced the over-scaled florals displayed throughout her studio and home. These close-ups appear as though they were painted while the artist was looking through a magnifying glass.
The dazzlingly bright palette Alpert favors further heightens the visual impact. One of her renderings of dahlias is particularly immersive. Viewers might feel they’ve been cast onto an undulating sea of red petals, with a couple of sun-colored stamens bobbing like lifeboats on the roughly 6-by-3-foot canvas.
It’s difficult to look at Alpert’s flowers and not think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s achievements in that genre. Alpert acknowledges the association but insists she isn’t imitating O’Keeffe — and was not even inspired by the luminous representations of lilies, roses, irises and petunias that have become some of the most admired images in American art.
“I didn’t even know O’Keeffe’s work when I started painting,” Alpert confesses. “Now I admire her tremendously, but I don’t think there’s much resemblance between what I do and what she did.”
That’s true. Alpert’s flowers are much bigger in scope and less microscopic in detail than are O’Keeffe’s. Alpert also doesn’t sexualize her subject matter to the extent O’Keeffe did, although there’s a sensual, even erotic, quality to the floral works hanging on walls or propped on easels in Alpert’s sunny studio.
She sees sex in stones, too, Alpert announces, referring to the sculptures she started making in 2009. “At some point, no matter what you’re working on, a sexual organ comes out of the stone, and then it changes into something else,” she suggests.
“I love the tactile aspect of sculpting,” Alpert adds. “It’s really different from paintings, which are not so much about touching.”
She once again hurled herself into a medium that was new to her. With sculpture, however, Alpert did take a tutor: Katharine Stockman, owner of Shelburne Pond Studios, to whom Morgan had introduced her. “I was OK with learning from Kathy because I had no feel of my own for sculpture, unlike painting,” Alpert explains.
It took Alpert a while to figure out how to work the backside of a stone that’s being transformed into a work of art, Stockman recalls. “Many painters at first have no idea what to do with a three-dimensional form,” she notes.
Alpert’s first sculpture — a far cry from “Unity” — emerged almost spontaneously from a piece of pink-and-white Colorado alabaster, Stockman remembers. “Gisela saw a woman’s torso in the stone right away, and she just carved it out.” The small-breasted, big-hipped figure now sits on a pedestal in the living room of Alpert’s home.
“The stone tells you what it wants you to do,” Alpert says she’s come to realize. “You have some idea of what you want to create, but the end result probably won’t be 100 percent what you had imagined.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Headlong Into Art"