A full scholarship to study engineering at Princeton typically launches a career, but Vanessa Rusczyk’s full ride delayed her career for nearly two decades. While she shared a childhood trait common among future female engineers of preferring building furniture for her dollhouse to playing with the dolls, she quickly found that engineering didn’t stimulate her interest in the arts. Unfortunately, architecture, her preferred major as she finished high school, wasn’t part of the engineering school at Princeton, so she stuck with civil engineering.
But the furniture-building still beckoned. Two years later, married now and in New York City, she started studying at the New York School of Interior Design, where coursework in building codes and lighting proved far less engaging than classes in color, drafting, and drawing. When she and her husband finally left New York in 1999, she headed to San Diego, interior design degree in hand.
For Vanessa, the move to the chaparral foothills outside San Diego was nearly a homecoming. She had been raised in the southwest, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from the age of 2 until she left for college. Like many people who grow up in a single location, she didn’t appreciate the beauty of her childhood home until she left. While San Diego offered access to ocean and mountains, it was, and still is, the surrounding deserts where Vanessa most feels at home. “One of my favorite drives is from suburban San Diego County east to the Anza Borrego Desert. I love that first glimpse of the vast landscape just before you head down the winding road to the desert.”
After a couple of years working as an interior designer, she completed her transition from engineer to artist by coming home to her husband, Richard, and announcing, “I want to be an artist.” He gifted her a workshop at the San Diego Watercolor Society, where her training as an artist finally began. Soon after she began her studies, she found what continues to be her artistic inspiration. And she found it all around her.
Palo Verde Blossoms
Oil on Canvas, 24” x 12”
Her home bordered the Cleveland National Forest near Alpine, California, and her house rested on 17 acres, much of which were full of native plants like manzanita, sage, buckwheat, scrub oak, yucca, ceanothus, and more. “In the spring after a good winter rain season, the hills look like green velvet as all of these plants spring back to life after a long period of dormancy,” Vanessa describes. “As I started to be able to identify these plants, I also learned about their support for local wildlife, from small insects and butterflies, up to large predators such as coyotes and mountain lions. My growing passion for native plants coincided perfectly with my first dabbles into painting, and so they became a natural subject matter.”
Her interest in native flora deepened through her work with a local volunteer organization dedicated to plants and creatures of the region, which ultimately led to her being commissioned to paint a large mural in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park. She and her husband also spearheaded a drive to plant native gardens throughout Alpine. While they no longer live in Alpine, these investments remain, displaying many of the plants that would increasingly form the focus of her work.
After hearing Georgia O’Keeffe invoked dozens of times by viewers of her watercolors, she switched to oils, beginning her studies at Art Academy of San Diego, where she developed the contemporary realism style that is the hallmark of her work today. While there, she also learned her unconventional approach to underpainting - using primary colors rather than values of a single color. “I love being able to talk about this part of the process,” Vanessa describes, “especially when I can show a finished painting alongside a painting in progress. A colorful underpainting creates a much more dynamic and vibrant finished piece, even if all those colors are painted over and made virtually invisible, they still influence the finished piece.”
Meanwhile, as her interest native plants magnified, so did her portraits of them. Her work offers a detailed, close-up look at the beauty of the desert flora that most people easily overlook. “I love hiking and spending time in my garden, but sometimes it’s overwhelming and you can’t focus on any one thing, there is so much beauty all around. My paintings aim to create that focus for the viewer, presenting a single focus that is so large in scale it is impossible to ignore.” Her first foray into displaying her oil work won a First Prize award in its category at the San Diego County Fair, and soon after she was featured in a solo show at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego. The success of this show led one of the park’s patrons, Shannon O’Dunn, to ask to represent Vanessa’s work in the La Mesa gallery O’Dunn Fine Art. In the following years before the gallery was closed due to O’Dunn’s retirement, Vanessa was featured in multiple shows including a solo show in 2015.
Shortly before the gallery closed, Vanessa placed her painting on hiatus to indulge her childhood interest in architecture by designing her own home, working with San Diego architect Drew Hubbell. While she didn’t originally plan to take more than two years off from painting, she quickly found the blizzard of details that come with custom home design to be a full-time pursuit. Vanessa describes, “Although it was frustrating to stop painting when everything seemed to be taking off, it did give me the opportunity to design our house from the ground up. Of course one of the key rooms was a studio space!”
During this time she also became a more avid collector of western art herself, acquiring pieces by Ed Mell, Kevin Red Star, Julia Rogers, Curtis Wade, Eric Merrell, and others. Her return to painting after her studio (and the rest of the house) was complete included workshops with some of her favorite artists, including Eric Merrell, Aaron Scheurr, Linda Glover Gooch, and G. Russell Case. Her new work has been included in several juried shows, most recently Looking West: An Exhibition Highlighting Works by American Women.
Dead or Alive
Oil on Canvas, 40” x 30”
While she has broadened the range and scale of the native plants she features, she has retained the signature style that have inspired collectors of her work. The California Art Club recently described her work Dudleya Triple as having “a direct feeling; almost a nod to O'Keeffe, but a distinct style to differentiate from her. Sculptural, a pleasing depth that draws the viewer in.”
She also has retained her purpose. “I want people to see the beauty around them in native habitats, but also to understand that these are more than just pretty plants. They are the basis of life support for all local insects, birds, and mammals. With more habitat being destroyed every year, it’s vital that backyards move towards supporting wildlife. My hope is that my paintings draw people in because of their vibrance, color, composition and technique, but then as the viewer takes a closer look, I want them to start asking questions about it. Appreciation and the desire to care for something usually starts with an initial attraction that is often hard to explain. My art aims to create that moment for the viewer.”