The paintings of Semiramis Novak push the edges of realism
By Megan Kamerick
Semiramis Novak knew at an early age that she could draw. Growing up in a dicey section of Philadelphia, she would chalk designs onto the streets.
“I’d draw a Batman the size of a car,” she recalls.
Her mother was less than enthused. “She would ask, ‘Have you been chalking on the streets?’ I’d lie and say, ‘No, Ma!’”
But the black asphalt on her knees and elbows always gave her away.
Novak still doesn’t shy away from getting dirty, or from hard work. Her first name (pronounced Sim-merm-mis) comes from an aunt, who heard that the name referred to a Greek god of love and art. The stories of Semiramis also combine legends of her as the Queen of Babylon (said to have been Nimrod’s wife or mistress) with actual history of her unusually powerful role in ancient Mesopotamia, which included skills in what were traditionally male fields.
That’s a good fit for this Semiramis, who loves operating heavy equipment, having found in the work a lucrative career path that lets her pursue her art on the side. So while she currently works at Sandia National Laboratories driving heavy trucks, she is also a prolific watercolor artist whose work graced the official poster for the 2014 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Novak did try art school, but it was around the same time her father died.
“I lost focus,” she says. “I partied and wasted a lot of time.” Then she found a forklift job. “It paid great. It was fun and easy.”
She married an artist, and her well-paying blue-collar job supported his career. She followed him to Colorado when he got a job there, but the marriage did not last.
However, right after her divorce she got a flyer in the mail about watercolor classes held during morning hours. She was working a midnight shift driving tanker trucks at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant, so she would finish at work, go to class in the morning, then go home and sleep until it was time for work in the evening.
Her teacher, Don Coen, a well-known artist out of Boulder, became her mentor. It was the bridge she needed to take her from drawing into watercolors. She loved the lightness of the medium and how quickly it dries. She insists on mixing most of her colors, pointing out that all great watercolorists mix. “I think it gives you better tone.”
Coen, whose art was often wall-sized, also inspired Novak’s love of making large-scale work. She says she spends a quarter of her time when working just walking away from her art and looking at it.
Semiramis eventually married again and moved to New Mexico with her second husband, who also works at Sandia. She continued to paint, honing her technique and expanding her subject matter to include elements of her work life. One of her many giant watercolors in her home studio in the Paa-Ko subdivision is a self-portrait showing her applying lipstick in the reflection of a truck hubcap. Each lug nut holds a smaller version of her reflection. In another she is looking into the headlight of a 1930s pickup truck.
Cacti and other plants are also favorite subjects. One painting shows a yellow flower bathed in sunlight blooming atop a prickly paddle. Another features colorful hollyhocks set against the darkening sky of an approaching storm over the mountains.
Another piece is based on a photograph of a group of kayakers that she took in Colorado. She often takes a photo and then graphs out the painting to get an accurate size and rendering.
“When you’re doing large sizes it’s easier to get the details correct,” she says.
Those details are what led Novak’s neighbor Natalie Derbyshire to purchase a painting of cholla cactus with cerise flowers.
“I was a botany major and these are unbelievably realistic, including little specks of pollen on the petals,” Derbyshire says. “That’s something most people would never notice.”
Derbyshire says Novak also got the details right on the cacti stems. “Some are green and some kind of look worn out, and that’s exactly what she picked up.”
There is a contemplative stillness in much of Novak’s work as well, even in paintings buzzing with activity. For instance, the large canvas in her living room, a depiction of the Jersey Shore with a lively mix of people strolling the beach on which a young girl, oblivious to the activity around her, squats in the sand and stares down intently at something. Novak based the painting on a photo she took of her daughter, but like many of her works it goes beyond a mere imitation of a photograph. Something happens in the translation between the two that adds another layer of depth or mystery.
Although she loves the Southwest, Novak is also drawn to water and urban scenes, particularly wet days in Manhattan, and Lake Powell is one of her favorite sites to paint. In one piece, her father-in-law bends over to talk to her daughter at the lake’s edge. A simple scene, but also otherworldly, with the dark water set against pink and brown sandstone and the figures indistinct on the distant shore.
While Novak’s work has found a few fans, the size of her paintings makes it tough to find a gallery to represent her. So art remains a side gig, while driving trucks pays the bills.
Still, even a long day of physical work doesn’t stop her from getting into her studio almost every day. “I just have to have art in my life. Exercise, God, and art: If I have those three things in my life every day I feel good,” she says. “I have to do it every day. It’s such a great high.”
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