Joan SommersJoan Sommers, an American painter known for uniquely fusing the tensions of abstract expressionism with the principals of eastern aesthetics, died on Nov.
Joan Sommers, an American painter known for uniquely fusing the tensions of abstract expressionism with the principals of eastern aesthetics, died on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day, at her home in Pittsboro, N.C. She was 89 years old.
Born in Duluth, in 1924 as Joan Pokorney, Ms. Sommers attended Cathedral High School, spending her free time skating at the Duluth Curling and Skating Club. She skated professionally with Shipsted & Johnson's Ice Follies in the early 1940s before entering The Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 on a full scholarship. Among her fellow students were the figurative artist Leon Golub and abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. Upon graduating in 1948, Ms. Sommers, like so many of her contemporaries, embraced the abstract expressionist ideas of Pollock and DeKooning, and her work through the 1950s reflects the sense of excitement and experimentation that defined the American art world in those post World War II years.
In 1950, she married Bill (William) Sommers, also from Duluth, while he was attending Middlebury College on the GI Bill. While in Vermont, she worked with the noted watercolorist Arthur Healy. They then moved to Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Sommers went on to graduate from Harvard's Littauer Center for Public Administration (now the Kennedy School of Government).
In 1963, Ms. Sommers and her family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, when Mr. Sommers took a position with the State Department's Agency for International Development (USAID). As Ms. Sommers noted years later, with the move to Asia, her evolution as an artist took a redefining turn. A new aesthetic sensibility opened up to her as she immersed herself in the study of Thai temple painting, Chinese calligraphy and painting, and the hot-wax techniques of Indonesian batik. A life-long student as well as a beloved teacher, Ms. Sommers pursued studies at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and the National Batik Museum in Jogakarta, Indonesia.
Over the course of the next 50 years, living throughout Asia, the Mideast and eastern Europe, Ms. Sommers produced a prolific body of work that explored the tension of east and west but always with an eye to blend and balance ideas of contrast and similarity, continuity and disruption.
In her years overseas in South East Asia, Ms. Sommers sought out contemporary artists in the cultures she lived. A regular visitor to Bangkok's famous Trio Gallery, she was among the earliest western collectors to recognize the importance of Thai artists like Chalood Nimsamer (regarded today as the father of Thai printmaking) and the Indonesian master Mochtar Apin. While living in Manila, Philippines, she became one of the few westerners invited by the revered Philippine artist Hernando Ocampo to join his legendary Saturday Afternoon Drawing Group (the Taza de Oro Group).
Although Ms. Sommers' work has been exhibited internationally, from the Tesoro Gallery in Manila, to the American University Gallery in Cairo, to the Dominik Rostorowski Gallery in Krakow, it wasn't until late in her career, at the age of 84, that she finally had a one-woman show in New York at MH Gallery in Chelsea. In the review of her show, art critic Joe Bendik wrote, "In this day and age of gimmickry, its refreshing to see a true individual who has both a singular style yet constant variety."
Ms. Sommers leaves behind her husband of 63 years, William Sommers; three daughters; two sons (a third son died earlier in the year) and three grandchildren. She is also survived by two sisters in Duluth, Bardie Brown and Marylou Crain.