Palos Verdes-based artist Phyllis Ferrara finds excitement and delight in abstract painting. Her appreciation for the genre is evident in her work.
By Maureen Kingsley
To lay eyes on artist Phyllis Ferrara’s work is to be transported. Her dreamy, abstract, landscape-inspired acrylic paintings—riffing off such timeless natural elements as coastline, snowy mountains, lava flow, and rainstorms—take the viewer both out into the natural world and deep into the terrain of human emotion. (See “Mammoth” below for an example.) Her vivid, primary-color abstracts, on the other hand, are full of jagged peaks, sharp angles, and bold brush strokes. Those works (including “Flight," shown below) generate big energy on the canvas and excitement in the viewer, while her “Horizon Lights” and “Moon Series” paintings (below) launch their audience on a moody, transcendent journey out over the horizon and up into the cosmos.
“I didn’t actually set out to create these sweeping abstracts, originally, in my art career,” Phyllis (pictured) says, while showing me around her spacious home studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes Estates. “When I was young, I always loved drawing and painting. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I went on to study illustration at Pasadena Art Center College of Design.” While attending college, she adds, an experimental mixed-media class taught by Dwight Harmon turned her attention to abstract painting. It was “pivotal” in altering her career trajectory later on, she explains. “Someday I knew I’d go back to explore painting in acrylic.”
After graduating, Phyllis contributed her illustration skills to the animated-film version of The Lord of the Rings, among other projects. Later, she learned the art of textile design while in Italy, then returned home to Southern California to open a successful textile design studio, combining her new skills with her illustration background. Phyllis shared her beachwear and sportswear collections with manufacturing companies in New York, Hawaii, and California. Sure enough, though, Phyllis found her way back to abstract painting in the early 1990s.
“I found I love creating atmosphere,” she says of that career switch. “I love the energy of abstract. It is never, ever boring,” she adds—and neither are her paintings. A Southern California native, Phyllis grew up spending time at the beach, in the water, and outdoors. The natural world—and the geography and climate of Southern California, in particular—offer her endless visuals for her paintings. “I love taking photos,” she says. “Over the years I’ve taken many photos of our colorful sunsets and coastline. I utilize them for inspiration,” she says, capturing the horizon, inky nighttime skies, and other natural wonders, which then serve as the foundation for her paintings.
“I’m in the moment when I paint my abstracts,” Phyllis says, and she explains that her typical process is to begin with washes of color on her painting surface. She then layers glazes and sometimes integrates collage, which adds visual interest, texture, and a third dimension to the pieces. A final glaze topcoat finishes each painting, reflecting light and adding shine.
Phyllis approaches her abstracts with a sense of openness to and curiosity about whatever forms and shapes might appear. “When I start seeing them, I develop them,” she says of the images. This spontaneous, fluid approach seems to provide her much joy and momentum as she works, and she is interested in what those gazing at her finished paintings find in them. As I make my way around her home studying her abstracts, Phyllis encourages me to share with her what I see. A peak here, a valley there, an explosion of primordial ooze, perhaps a human silhouette…there’s no wrong answer; it all delights Phyllis. She shares that she, too, will sometimes “discover” something in a finished painting that she may then go back to with her paintbrush and develop further.
Phyllis’s most recent creation is her “Moon Series,” which beautifully expresses the mystery, vastness, and complexity of the night sky. Each painting in the series features Earth’s moon as a focal point. (See examples at left and above.) As with her “Horizon Lights” series, in which Phyllis explores the infinite unique vistas created when the sun meets the horizon, the paintings in “Moon Series” reveal the artist’s keen observation of moon glow, moon phases, and the filtering of moonlight through earth’s atmosphere.
Taking in these newer paintings, one is likely to feel awe, a shiver of reverence, and a renewed understanding of the smallness of humanity in the massive, majestic universe. One will certainly never, ever feel bored!
From left to right: "Free Falling," a framed piece from Miniatures Series, and "A Long Way Up" by Phyllis Ferrara
View some of Phyllis Ferrara’s work online and in the backgrounds of various popular TV shows shot at Warner Bros., NBC, Culver Studios, and more. Contact the artist for information about purchasing artwork or commissioning a piece.
This story appears in the March 2022 issue of The El Segundo Scene.