As a child, Blair Pessemier had to maneuver around resistant parents as they saw him consistently gravitating toward art. His father had completed his PhD from Harvard in one year. His mother had been a nurse anesthetist at a prestigious Seattle hospital. Their initial amusement over their son’s artistic talents turned to worry over his being snared in a most difficult life, so they refused him any art lessons. This is a common refrain in the childhoods of artists throughout history. Parents can become an artist’s first most significant obstacle.
However, it was soon clear that the art spirit in Pessemier would win that battle. The boy loved to copied Rembrandt etchings. He discovered a small paint set in the basement that had been his grandfather’s and began to use it. At age twelve he entered a nationwide contest sponsored by Post Cereals to create a kid’s cereal box. He won first prize. By high school, he was designing, painting, and directing the entire environment for his junior prom.
His parents sighed some measure of relief when he earned a Master of Business Administration from Purdue University in 1975. He then studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame. While at the university’s campus in Rome for his junior year, he took a course in “drawing as a means to painting” under the program of the sister college, St. Mary’s. He was inspired by the innovative approaches to understanding how drawing, color, and visual space work in painting. While Notre Dame’s architecture studio was located near Rome’s Piazza Navonna, the dean of the program, Frank Montana, led field trips to the countryside. Montana was a brilliant watercolorist who was the last attendee of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, as a winner of the Prix de Rome.
As a young architect he joined Olson/Walker in Seattle, a firm lauded for approaching art not as an afterthought to architecture but an integral part of it. While this environment suited him the painting spirit still continued to tug. He recalled, “I didn’t know who the hell I was. I had sheets of paper that affirmed I was both an MBA and a graduate architect. Really, all I always wanted was to paint and draw.”
A few years later he decided to follow his heart and paint from inspiration. He took a studio with a twelve-foot high ceiling overlooking Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Reflecting upon this difficult start, he adhered to his philosophy that “Art comes from a passion. It needs vision and trueness to itself. Viewed as malleable metal, it is the heat and hammer that harden, giving strength and allowing the inner beauty to rise. Lack of air can stifle or extinguish the fire. This was close to happening to my spirit at that time. Somehow though, a tiny spark remained.”
That spark ignited to flame when he visited an exhibition called “Northwest Traditions,” which featured paintings and drawings of the Northwest School artists from the 1930s to the 1960s. Included were notable works by Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Paul Horiuchi, Mark Tobey, Margret Tompkins, and Morris Graves. He found himself particularly captivated by the images of Morris Graves — and surprised when he realized that the person with whom he was having such a moving conversation was the great artist himself.
In 1979 he married another artist, Laurie Fox. The couple explored many outlets for their creative energies, from hotel and restaurant interior design to the publishing of eighteen children’s books. Despite their successes, in 1993 they left for Paris. Pessemier explained, “I felt if we just continued in the same fashion, I would probably just drop dead at the office one day. We sold everything we owned, closed the business, and moved to Paris without a plan. I was captivated by art again and started painting en plein air.
Mostly, they found themselves placing their easels at the same locations where the great Impressionists had painted around Paris. One of their first exhibitions in Paris was held at the famous Bateau Lavoir in Montparnasse, once home to the pantheon of French modernists that includes Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. (Today, Laurie teaches a painting workshop while revisiting their favorite haunts in Paris. Their travels are documented at artnotesparis.blogspot.com)
While Paris has been considered their new home since 1993, extended sojourns in Seattle resulted in Pessemier producing two different prototype patterns of sterling flatware. In 1998, they formed The American Design Center in Paris and travelled around Europe selling American design products. Naturally, they also painted wherever they travelled. They even lived and painted in Tunisia for six months.
Since the 1990s Pessemier has exhibited extensively in Paris, including eight shows at the famous Le Petit Luxembourg. His exhibitions in galleries on the East and Northwest coasts of the United States started the late 1970s. However, his most highly publicized exhibition came in 1999. A demonstration by union workers who were striking at the Musée D’Orsay provided inspiration for the couple to hang their paintings on the barricades. They identified their show with placards bearing the title “Artistes Inconnues.” When some of the strikers started knocking over their paintings a reporter featured the incident in an article in Le Parisien, the largest national newspaper.
Pessemier continues to be inspired by scenes around Paris and in his trips around Europe. When asked what motivates him to paint, he replies, “I am inspired by images and feelings. To be connected, one needs to be in sync with a subject. I want to explore different ways to express what I feel. Repeating a selling formula is not what my art is about. I seek making images that by their composition, color, or handling engage the viewer.”
To see a video of Blair and his wife, Laurie, painting in the Luxembourg Gardens copy and paste this link in your browser: https://vimeo.com/45354548