Francie Lyshak-Stelzer – Biography


Socrates made the observation that an unexamined life is not worth living.  The common thread of hundreds of my paintings over four decades has concerned the representation of emotional, sensual and spiritual experience in the imagery and act of painting.  For the last 30 years I worked as an art therapist for at-risk youth, combining psychological theory with the aforementioned concerns.  The practice of art making as a therapeutic tool has allowed me to teach skills that have enabled others to better express and understand themselves.  This, in turn, has influenced my own painting in that this rigorous and self-applied mindfulness has helped me to remain true to the value I place on authentic self-expression.

I studied art history as a young adult at University of Michigan. Then I traveled to Paris to study in a summer art institute.  When I returned to the United States I transferred to College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University in Detroit graduating with a BFA.   Years later I did graduate work in NYC earning a Master’s degree from Pratt Institute with a specialization in Creative Arts Therapy. I designed and led two grant-funded community art service programs in New York City and in post-Katrina New Orleans.  I developed and lead the Creative Arts Therapy program at Bronx Children’s Psychiatric Hospital.

I am a painter who has exhibited in many solo and group shows since my move to New York City in 1974.   My paintings have been selected by artists, such as Alice Neel and Barbara Ess and curators, such as Paterson Sims and Barbara Haskell for juried exhibitions.  Most recently my work was selected for an award by Paulina Pobocha, Assistant Curator of the Museum of Modern Art, at the 2009 Fabir Birren National Color Award Show. My paintings have been reviewed by Joe Voitko in Review Magazine and described by Gary Indiana in New York Magazine.  I am a published author of a book of my prose and paintings. 


The following is a description of the evolution of my work:

In my early work, my visual language was a figurative and metaphorical narrative with strong feminist overtones. This work lasted for two decades in the 1970s and 80s. Animals, humans, dolls and toys populate these paintings, each one describing the psyche captured in a critical moment of time.  Influenced by art therapy theory and practice, their emotional rawness challenges the viewer to contemplate disturbing aspects of life that are typically overlooked or avoided. After years of pursuing these explorations, I unearthed evidence of my own childhood sexual abuse.  With the support of the late Ellen Stuart and La Mama La Galleria, this work resulted in a one-woman exhibition in 1993 narrating my own trauma recovery through my paintings.  The series of paintings with accompanying prose was published in a book in 1999 entitled, The Secret: Art and Healing from Sexual Abuse (now out of print). This exhibition provided me with a release from the narratives of the past.  After that show, my work changed slowly but radically.

Over time I abandoned the figure altogether.  I focused on the landscape alone while retaining a symbolist visual language.   Initially, I used elements of landscape as a metaphor to examine questions of existential meaning. These landscapes of the late 90’s explored the human relationship to forces of nature, specifically the four elements. Though fire, earth and air are represented in this series, it is water that is ever-present and essential as a symbol of transformation and a visual metaphor for the varied nature of creative energy.

By 2000 I was discarding all underlying narrative and symbols as I began to move closer to abstraction.  In these works observed reality was almost completely ignored. My next series of landscapes had no more than minimal references to memory.  I began to explore the raw gesture of painting. My focus shifted onto the unique qualities of painting itself, pure color and the impact of the artist’s hand.  In this next series, landscape was defined by implied space and horizontality alone. 

My next series was dedicated to the excision of all that is peripheral in landscape and architectural painting, an exploration of pictorial essence.  References were made to nothing other than space and gravity.  By stripping away the myriad devices that define memory, each painting becomes a tabula rasa that leaves the viewer to find their own meaning within. 

I then reached further to reduce pictoral space to its essence. The following group of paintings were limited to a line (curved, bent or broken) in the midst of implied space. Space is indicated by a color field and gestural brush.  They are unencumbered with references to time-- past, present or future.  These paintings can be thought of as meditative spaces.   They are related, in this sense, to the work of Rothko, Diebenkorn and Newman. However, they incorporate a significant shift towards an increased depth of field.  I see them as inheritors of a particular reductivist impulse, found in both Western and Eastern art, that invites the viewer into the practice of pure awareness.