MORAGA -- Urban landscape artist Ryan Reynolds paints life the way he has lived it.

An intimate exhibit on display through Sunday, April 7 at Moraga's Saint Mary's College Hearst Museum presents 16 layered, accumulatively-rendered works. Lurking behind their azure blue skies and submerged mysteriously under streets and waterways, photo transfer images suggest secrets embedded in the passage of time.

Painting on location -- preferring his human eyes to a photographic reference captured by a camera lens -- he structures the art with grid-like, red snap lines. The process is tight, organized: the result is not. Instead, dealing with wind, rain, lack of time and the occasional sand storm, forces him into an organic, "paint like crazy" realm. The end effect is raw, with fractured energy rippling to the surface.

Like his artwork, Reynolds' past and his present tell an incongruous story.

Growing up in Southern California's Ventura County, Reynolds was curiously drawn to what he calls "bad kids." These were 10-year-olds who hung out at gas stations and whose pierced ears, rock and roll and rough influence prompted his family's move to a more rural setting.

"I ended up roaming the hills and surfing," he said, in an interview at the SMC gallery. "But it wasn't blond haired, muscly surfer stuff, it was the relationship with the ocean ... "

The dangling verbal reference mirrors his visual style, where the sand-colored panels he favors bear arching bridges and grassy river beds that taper off, leaving behind unadorned wood.


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A casual artist in high school, Reynolds took art courses because "that's where you went if you were flunking out. It was basically a place to sell drugs."

He wasn't actually flunking, but he could have been, because Reynolds barely knew how to read.

"I was kind of faking it. I'd pay attention in class, but there was no way I understood any book we were studying," he recalled. "I was quiet and teachers just thought I was stupid. That's what made images so powerful to me: I couldn't make the connection through language."

Enrolled at Ventura Community College as a biology major, Reynolds segued to painting.

"I just started, and it worked out. It just came naturally," he said.

But becoming an accomplished artist, not just a flash in the pan, took years. Reynolds moved to Prague, Czech Republic, teaching English and studying the work of European master artists.

"It gave me huge respect for traditional painting and elevated my ambition," he said. "I also learned how to draw, how to see all-over mood. A great painter can make the dumbest thing have significance."

Wrestling with influences -- from Bay Area Figurative Movement painter Richard Diebenkorn to French landscape artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot -- gradually allowed Reynolds a graceful landing.

After completing his MFA at the University of California, Berkeley, he became an assistant professor of art at Santa Clara University, where he remains today. A number of shared and solo shows and a recent Alameda County commission have allowed his work to mature and to find a public forum.

"For the Alameda Arts entry, I submitted a proposal to do time lapse paintings in different places," he said. "One was the view from the roof of Highland Hospital, another was done on a hill in Garin Regional Park, and the third piece was near an old, withered pine in front of the marshes in the Coyote Hills."

Now on permanent display at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Reynolds imagined an audience unfamiliar with art history and knowing nothing of his esoteric process enjoying his work.

"I tried to be clear, so they would recognize the elements. The commission gave me a distinct audience and I liked that."

The Lexington Reservoir series exhibited at Saint Mary's integrates Reynolds' preoccupation -- evoking not just place, but time.

"We're just a short piece in the broader awareness," he said, pointing to historical photographs of two, long-buried towns, visible under thin layers of oil paint depicting the modern day reservoir.

The images describe both irretrievable loss and lingering memories that never die. It's autobiographical--and suggests eternity, much like a line of prose written by John Steinbeck or Fyodor Dostoevsky.

"I've always depicted nature as two-sided," Reynolds concluded. "It's gorgeous, but it doesn't care about you at all and it will kill you. It's pokey, prickly, beautiful and transcendent."