The Art of Buffy Cribbs: Painting Backward. Thinking Forward.

Posted in Feature, More Stories, Visual Art
Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
June 10, 2014

Shortly after I moved to Whidbey Island two years ago, I walked into a shop in Langley called Chic Debris. In a room filled with the work of local artists and artisans—all worthy of any viewer’s attention—I was particularly drawn to a painting that was attached to the back of an olive oil can. The can had been perforated and cut open to create “windows” on all sides, then fitted with a light bulb in the top.

The subject of the painting was John Steinbeck, one of my literary heroes. But even if Mr. Steinbeck hadn’t resonated with me on a personal level, I would have been intrigued by the style, which—I later learned, after I bought the work—is known as “reverse painting.” Reverse painting is done on a translucent surface like glass or Plexiglas and has a long history, going back at least to the Renaissance and likely earlier.

As the name infers, the technique involves painting the subject in reverse on the backside of the glass. It’s slightly analogous to tying a tie while looking in a mirror but much more difficult and infinitely more aesthetic.

Buffy Cribbs explains the process of reverse painting  (photo by Martha McCartney)

Buffy Cribbs explains the process of reverse painting (photo by Martha McCartney)

While it’s a challenging way to paint, the effort is more than balanced by the special depth and luminosity that are revealed in the process. The artist who created my now treasured painting is Buffy Cribbs. As the sense of happenstance that seems to thrive on Whidbey Island would have it, I later found myself sharing some time with Cribbs and discussing her work as well as its presentation in a number of venues this summer.

I met Cribbs for a tour of her studio and followed her through the gardens filled with fanciful assemblage sculptures. Every time I turned a corner I saw another installation bearing the artist’s unmistakable sense of fun. Pink and orange roses backlit by the sun grew along the fence and filled the spaces between bronze sculptures, rusting whimsical creatures fashioned from junkyard finds, a gazebo and a garden shed.

Stella, posing on the porch amidst the art  (photo by Martha McCartney)

Stella, posing on the porch amidst the art (photo by Martha McCartney)

As I followed Cribbs and Stella, her Staffordshire bull terrier, into the house, the interior proved to be equally fascinating. Kitchen cabinets painted in bold geometrics, hand-built furniture that looked as if it had walked into the space instead of being carried and walls lined with fabulous prints and paintings combined for a powerful impression.

Her upstairs studio walls are hung with a selection of reverse paintings in preparation for an upcoming exhibit at Brackenwood Gallery in Langley. The exhibition is on display during the month of June and includes “whimsically capricious” paintings by Cribbs and Bruce Morrow. Both artists’ works are also currently being featured in the Whidbey Life Magazine Virtual Gallery.

 Assemblage sculpture by Buffy Cribbs, entitled BEST OF SHOW  (photo by Martha McCartney)

Assemblage sculpture by Buffy Cribbs, entitled “Best of Show” (photo by Martha McCartney)

“This exhibit is something Langley has not seen and is going to be exciting and dynamic,” Cribbs said, standing by a large painting of crows silhouetted against a wallpaper-like pattern in striking shades of yellow. This piece and much of her other work are achieved by a bold buildup of brush strokes in lively colors.

The subjects of the paintings are narrative and the vibrant jewel tones bring each story to life. “Some people are afraid of color,” Cribbs said. “They are afraid that the intensity of pure color will interrupt the harmony of the piece. But I think dissonance in art can be as essential as dissonance in music. Conflict creates a focus and it’s one of the necessary elements for art to become even more compelling.”

Cribbs’ artwork is filtered through a variety of geographies and cultures including her childhood in California, coming of age in Ireland and working as a young artist in Paris. The result is a vibrancy and light-heartedness that infuse her art, regardless of the medium. Even at the beginning of her career she took the stance that art could be fun and she has supported her claim time and time again. How else could you describe a painting of two red bell peppers atop the fins of a cobalt-blue underwater sea creature?

Across the road from the studio is the new Flicker Feather Press print shop. The printing press can be used for copper plate etching, monographs and relief printing. Cribbs’ vision is for “collaborative salon” events where writers, poets and artists meet to share ideas and create within the context of partnerships. “Art is not about ownership,” she said. “Art is about what the viewer brings to the piece. As artists we make room for viewers to have their own experience, to participate and bring into the artwork their own story, their own narrative.”

Hand bound reverse glass painting portfolios by Buffy Cribbs  (photo by Martha McCartney)

Hand bound reverse glass painting portfolios by Buffy Cribbs (photo by Martha McCartney)

As an example of the kind of synergy that’s possible through combining a relief print and the written word, she pulls out a framed print with her original poem beneath. The black and white relief print softens and illustrates the written word. The Flicker Feather Press studio is being utilized by several local artists and is available for bookings and workshops.

You can view the intensely colorful reverse paintings of Buffy Cribbs during the month of June at Brackenwood Gallery in Langley and then see her work during the first week in August at Froggwell Gardens in Freeland. In September she will be exhibiting relief prints at the Brackenwood Gallery in a show that will include a number of Whidbey Island print artists.

For booking time at the Press or to inquire about workshops, visit the website or email Cribbs at To see images of Cribbs’ work in the Virtual Gallery, click Whidbey Life Magazine Virtual Gallery.

Image at top: A studio tour with Buffy Cribbs  (photo by Martha McCartney)

Martha McCartney is a poet, photographer, mixed-media artist, persistent gardener and candle-maker. She has never really gotten over not being photographed for a Richard Brautigan book cover. Currently she is learning to navigate by using her inner compass, which she keeps pointed towards her own true north.

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