These Artists Create Tiny Works of Art
The petite works of three Phoenix painters prove that small-scale art can have a big impact.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Jason Millstein
Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to art. While miniature works have been around for as long as people have made art, they’re often overlooked in favor of wall-size graphics that add a bold punch to interiors. But for many collectors, small is where it’s at. For some, it’s the affordability of tiny paintings or the ability to display a large grouping in a limited space. For others, there’s an intimacy to small works that can’t be captured on a larger-than-life canvas.
Here, we take a look at three Valley artists who are making a big splash with pint-size paintings.
Laura Spalding Best
When she was just a child, Laura Spalding Best’s family moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. However, they would frequently return to the Buckeye State, making the seven-hour drive at least five times a year.
“There would be three of us in the back seat, and we didn’t have much to entertain ourselves with,” Best recalls. “I would look out the window, follow the lines along the road, and daydream and make up stories about where they would lead.”
She pauses. “I still do to some point.”
The road is a common theme in Best’s work. Blacktop winds through the barren desert, disappearing into the horizon. Utility poles pierce the sky. A freight train rumbles alongside an empty highway.
These everyday scenes of Arizona’s urban landscapes that often go unnoticed as we hurry through our busy days are underscored by the artist’s choice of “canvas”: silver platters, vintage teacups, metal hang tags, pie tins, silverware—even irons, vintage hairbrushes and hand mirrors become works of arts.
“I mostly work on found objects,” she says. “I always think about people who share my vision of the landscape and the content of my paintings. How do they identify with it? But there’s always an understanding, something we have in common, because they know what the item is that it’s painted on.”
Best, who graduated from Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College with a bachelor’s in fine arts, began her foray into found objects during a trip to Canada shortly after school. “We were in the middle of nowhere in a cabin, and I ran out of canvases but still had plenty of paint left,” she remembers. Not wanting to stop working, the resourceful artist decided to turn a rusty tractor seat and a coffee can into colorful pieces of art. “Everything fell into place, and it continues to make sense after all these years.”
Most of her materials come from thrift stores and salvage yards. Others are gifted to her by friends, family and fellow art lovers. Dinner plate-sized or smaller platters and trays—metal and ceramic—are frequently used. “This kind of base lends itself to the landscape,” Best explains. “It’s a ready-made thing that can go on the wall afterward because it already has an ornate framework or something more to it than a square canvas would.
“It’s also nice to reuse items,” she continues. “I enjoy using things that are mostly forgotten.”
Like the objects on which they’re painted, Best’s images celebrate the beauty of the overlooked. Unlike traditional landscape artists who focus on the prettiest scenery, Best chooses to highlight details that are often considered eyesores, such as power lines, railroad tracks and chain link fences, transforming them into eye-catching visions that allow viewers to appreciate their presence.
“There are a lot of artists who tend to pull that stuff out of their work,” says gallery owner Lisa Olson. “They’ll paint a desert landscape, and they’ll remove the power lines and telephone poles. Laura not only leaves them in, but she’s figured out how to create a focus with them.”
Notes Best, “The ways that we’re powered and able to live in the desert is something I’m very interested in. I use things figuratively and metaphorically in my work. Those lines are connecting us, and rather than seeing them as being ugly, I choose to see them as the way we communicate.”
Like that young child, Best still finds inspiration while traveling—this time, though, while sitting in the front seat of her car, her always-ready camera clicking away at the dusty cityscape.
Bright colors and playful characters dominate Suzanne Falk’s works. Whether it’s an illustrative image of a cat furiously scribbling on a sheet of paper or a photorealistic image of childhood toys, the artworks present a cheery appearance.
But look closer. The cotton-candy-colored facades mask deeper emotions. That cat? He’s creating a record of folks he dislikes. “You” are at the top of his list. Those fluffy toys? They share space with objects Falk photographed at a local cemetery, or they sit in front of books or albums known for their dark, often depressing themes.
“I could talk about art all day long, but talking about emotions is not as easy,” Falk says. “So for me, it’s easier to communicate through my paintings. There’s an innocence yet there’s often something going on just below the surface.”
The self-taught artist was born and raised in Arizona. Her mother, well-known Southwestern artist Joni Falk, and her father, an illustrator, encouraged her artistic abilities, but it wasn’t until she had graduated from high school that she began painting seriously.
Her earlier works were watercolors—pastel scenes with vintage Airstreams or other vehicles set against desert landscapes. She found herself immersed in the local art world when she began selling her paintings at Art One Gallery in Scottsdale.
“The thing that fascinated me about Suzanne’s work was her attention to detail,” says gallery owner Kraig Foote. “If she was painting a book, you would see the binding and all the letters. You could read everything on it.”
At the suggestion of her then boyfriend, a fellow artist, she began experimenting with oils. “I thought, ‘All right, I’ll give it a try,’” she says. “I loved it immediately—the way the color went on the canvas. But I still paint like a watercolor artist with oils. Maybe that’s why I’m able to get a glow on things, because I’m almost working backward and saving the white spaces.”
Following stints at various galleries throughout the Valley, Falk decided to strike out on her own, selling her works online. To supplement her income, she began creating miniature illustrative paintings. The Lilliputian images feature an array of colorful critters, including foxes, cats, Loch Ness monsters, bunnies and more, often in mischievous situations. Tiny skulls can be found peeking out from behind trees or among grasses. “I study Buddhism and am slowly getting comfortable with the idea of death,” Falk explains. “That’s what the little skull is all about. He’s a friendly character, even though he’s sort of menacing.”
As her work evolved, so did its size. Falk’s illustrative paintings are as small as 2 inches square. Her photorealism pieces are often diminutive, as well, with intricately detailed scenes arranged on 6-inch-square canvases.
“I like the smaller pieces because you have to go up to them and engage with them,” says Foote. “If you look at them from far away, they really hold their weight, but the closer you get, they pull you in and you end up finding surprises in them.”
Falk has garnered a loyal following of online customers across the globe, a positive accomplishment in a world of fast-moving images and constant scrolling for the next big thing. “It’s her use of color and her subject matter, but it’s also Suzanne. There’s a little bit of her soul in each piece,” says Foote.
Falk is just happy that art aficionados enjoy her work. “You’re lucky if you get a second. People are spinning by, so if they linger with it or get a giggle out of it, that’s all that matters. I really hope it makes them feel better for a minute.”
On first glance, the small, realistic oil paintings by Rachel Bess appear as though they were pulled from a museum. The richly detailed still lifes and portraits recall the work of the Old Masters. Chiaroscuro lighting adds a delicacy to the dark canvases. But closer inspection reveals a more surreal vision. Rotting fruit rests atop golden platters. Women in corsets, their faces stoic and eyes mysterious, pose with skulls. Red lights cast an eerie glow on black leather and lace.
“The Dutch masters certainly influence my work. The way they used light is something I’m drawn to, and I think that’s the primary thing that people notice, whether they realize it or not,” says Bess. “And then my process is very similar. I use a traditional oil painting method that helps me attain a certain luminosity in the work. It’s not something I’m trying to copy. It’s just a shared aesthetic.”
Bess, who like Best graduated from ASU’s Barrett Honors College with a bachelor’s in fine art, has always worked in oils—and she prefers to work in small scale. “I have always felt that large art is very much like a billboard that’s yelling at you, demanding your attention,” she says. “The smaller pieces force you to come close and have an intimate relationship with them.”
Many of Bess’s works are portraits no larger than a standard sheet of paper. Her subjects are models, both professionals and friends. All are folks with whom she feels a connection. “I’m fascinated by complex people and I try to convey that,” she notes.
Bess works from photographs—she can take upward of 300 during a single session. “Once you hold a pose for more than 10 seconds, you lose the freshness and the immediacy of that expression,” she explains. There are no big grins or frowns. Emotions are subtle, exuding a feeling of where that person was and what they were thinking at the time of the photoshoot. “That intimacy is really special, and that’s something I’m drawing attention to—these vulnerable places.”
Gallery owner Lisa Sette, who has represented Bess for about 10 years, says, “She’s investigating concepts of self and how we’re all connected in the world.”
For Bess, it’s important that the viewer be able to feel something when looking at her work. “I want to be able to evoke some sort of mood and communicate that feeling in a way that they find visually beautiful,” she says. “But I also have a lot of technical challenges for myself.” These can range from how many shades of black she can layer and still have each one read, or how many textures can she create without overpowering the artwork. “I have goals that are for myself and then ones that affect how I want the painting to be perceived.”
Whether it’s a postmortem self-portrait or a decaying peach, the works are meant to mark time and celebrate the beauty of existence, from beginning to end. Her work is a paradox—dark and light, modern characters brought to life through old-world techniques—much like Bess herself. “Rachel paints like an Old Master from centuries ago, yet her subjects are 21st-century people and concerns,” says Sette. “It’s unusual, because most contemporary artists don’t have the formal abilities that she has. It’s not easy to paint like she does. I don’t know what to compare it to.”