Artist Stella Ehrich in her Vermont studio
Logan, oil on canvas, 18 x 24
Anna, pastel, 38 x 24
JR, oil on canvas, 38 x 27
Alyiah, pastel, 20 x 16
Elyse, charcoal on paper, 18 x 12
Gio, pastel, 38 x 24
More than one of Vermont-based artist Stella Ehrich’s clients have told her that, in the case of a fire, the first thing they would grab is their child’s portrait. One of the select few to have studied under renowned Italian painter Nerina Simi in Florence, Ehrich’s unique ability to capture the essence of her subjects is no doubt the reason her paintings become treasured heirlooms.
Ehrich, who travels all over the country for her work, has a devoted local clientele — including the discerning Kimberly Schlegel Whitman — and is in Dallas taking meetings now through April 6.
From a coastal Italian village to an exclusive Florentine art studio to an idyllic Vermont farmhouse, Ehrich’s gentle spirit and love of painting have led her to create quite a beautiful life. Ehrich tells PaperCity more:
You are a full-time artist. Do you focus solely on portraits?
Lately I’ve been doing mostly portraiture, but I do love to paint the landscape and still life as well. I’m trained as a realist and I love to work from nature, with my subject matter in front of me. With my portraits, I work from photographs because people don’t have time to sit for that length of time, and of course children really aren’t able to! Children are my passion but I like painting all ages.
How do you select the photographs to work from?
I actually take the photographs myself. When I first meet a client I ask them what they have in mind for the portrait, and to tell me about the personalities that are involved. I spend about 45 minutes to an hour with the person I’m going to paint. I take a lot of photos that aren’t really staged – I try to allow people to be themselves, unless it’s a very formal portrait. I try to capture something very spontaneous and unique about that person by not having a rigid pose set up to start with.
It’s a great opportunity to get to know the sitter and interact with them, and then I take that interaction and that meeting and have that to work with in my studio.
How do new clients tend to find you?
I have clients all over, but my referrals are very much word-of-mouth. If you walk into someone’s home and see a portrait of someone you know, you’re better able to judge how well I’ve done with that portrait than if you were just looking through a portfolio of portraits you don’t know.
We’re so glad to have you here in Dallas. How often are you in town?
I’ve been working in Dallas for about seven or eight years. I have friends and family there, which is how I got started, and I’m there three or four times a year. I try to get all of my travel done in chunks so it doesn’t interrupt my work, but I always enjoy coming down. Especially this time of year, when Dallas is already in full-blown spring! We’re still trying to recover from the snow in Vermont.
We’ve lived there for about 25 years and, before that, we were in Italy for 16 years.
What made you decide to move to Italy?
My husband and I are both from the mid-south — he’s from Memphis and I was raised in Mississippi. When we first met, he had a map of this one particular region of Italy on his kitchen wall. It’s a region that does a lot of marble quarrying. They have a centuries-old tradition of marble carving – it’s the place where Michelangelo got his marble to work on for the Medici Chapel. So we got married and off we went. We didn’t know how long we were going to stay there when we first left the country but one year turned into two and three and then before you knew it, it was 16. It was a really incredible experience.
Of course Italy is a real destination for artists and there were so many international sculptors in this area, from really famous sculptors like Henry Moore of England, down to high school dropouts who wanted to become sculptors – the whole gamut.
Then you met Nerina Simi.
After about three years of living there I met someone who was studying painting in Florence with a teacher who was very well known at the time, although I didn’t know who she was because it was before the Internet. I went to Florence to meet her and when I saw her paintings I just fell in love with them. I knew I had to study with her. Her sense of color was absolutely fantastic. I think every painter has their own sense of color more or less, but hers…I was struggling with mine and hers was perfect in my eyes.
She was elderly, about 85 years old, when I met her, but she had a studio in Florence that had been her father’s, who was a very well known Italian artist. She had about 20 or 25 people working in her studio. After a while, she accepted me and I learned to draw from observation with her and paint. I studied there for seven years. Every day, six hours a day, five days a week. She taught very academic methods that her father had actually learned in Paris. It was really special.
I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now if it weren’t for my teacher in Florence. In fact, she was 94 I think when she died. And she said to me that it made her happy to know that I would be able to make my way in the world with my hands, with what I’d learned from her.
Did you commute?
The first year I was studying there I took the train back and forth to where my husband and I were living on the Mediterranean coast. Then that was exhausting because it was a two-and-a-half hour ride each way. So then I found people to live with in Florence and eventually I got my own apartment so I could stay there during the week and go back on the weekends.
Tell me about life in the town you lived in – what was it called?
The name of the place that’s most known to people would be Pietrasanta. It was a small place and we lived outside of it in the mid-1970s so life was interesting. There were no supermarkets there. And so everything you would buy for meals was sold from really small shops that specialized – one would have breads and cheeses, you would go to the butcher for meat, and there would be a fish man who would come around twice a week in a little truck and sell fish.
The vegetable lady would come around on a bicycle with a little wagon on the back. They would park on the corner and yell, “fish!” or, “vegetables!” or this or that. You knew what time they were coming every week. So you go out with your little straw basket and buy the things you needed every day. We didn’t have a refrigerator. Some people had small fridges but nothing like what you would have had in the U.S. So we all shopped every day. And the food was fresh and local.
That sounds incredible – surely you learned to cook some amazing Italian dishes.
In this little village, all of the other women wanted to get to know me — they were curious and hadn’t seen many Americans since World War II. So when I would be buying fish or vegetables or something, everyone would stand around the cart to see what I was buying, and they would tell me their recipes according to what I got. That’s how I learned to cook! I didn’t know how to cook when I first got married but I learned in Italy. Food is so important there.
We live on 28 acres and have a really pretty view of the mountains at the end of the road. It’s very quiet. Both my husband and I have studios on the property, and usually we stay home and work all day. It’s wonderful. I also love to cook and entertain friends. It’s one of my favorite things to do — besides painting.
It’s so easy to snap a photo these days. Do you notice a shift back to appreciating the art of portraiture and wanting to have something of such a special heirloom quality?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure but I will say that I’ve had several clients tell me that if they ever had a house fire or any kind of scare and were forced to leave their home in a hurry, they would grab their children’s portrait first. So I know that it becomes very much a treasured object for people. In fact, people often have a difficult time when they have more than one child, there is difficulty in deciding whether they will paint their children together or separately. Because they know that one of them is going to inherit the portrait! So that becomes a real question people have to grapple with.
When I was a child, a friend of mine had her mother’s portrait in their living room over the fireplace and I was just fascinated by it. Every time I went over to her house, I couldn’t take my eyes off it! And I know those do get handed down from generation to generation.
I did a portrait of a woman from Vermont a few years ago and, in her home, she had seven generations of family portraits. It was very intimidating actually! There were some really beautiful pieces.
What types of portraits do you offer and how do you determine pricing?
Pricing varies on the size and the number of people in the portrait, as well as what medium I use. The least expensive are portraits done in charcoal, starting from a head and shoulders view of someone. They go up from there all the way to a full, life-sized oil painting. So there is quite a range. I do portraits in charcoal, oil, and pastel.
Do you have a favorite of all of the portraits you’ve done?
Oh my goodness. You know it’s funny — my favorite is always the one I’m working on at the moment. And I’ll tell you why, because it’s always a challenge and it’s always…until I get that person to look back at me from the painting and to have the right twinkle in their eye and the right expression on their face, I’m just totally immersed in that. That’s what keeps me going. It’s a challenge every single day.
Visit Stella’s website here for more information or to inquire about commissioning a painting.