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Magic realist Painter Sylvia Fein, 94, of Martinez, sits at studio in her home in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Fein's work is currently on display at the Krowswork Gallery in Oakland. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

MARTINEZ -- Although she's been painting for most of her long and fruitful career, artist Sylvia Fein is experiencing a creative and professional renaissance -- and the art world is taking notice.

Fein's dreamlike paintings -- rendered in the centuries-old egg tempera medium favored by medieval and early Renaissance painters -- are now the focus of "Sylvia Fein: Surreal Nature," a one-woman show at Oakland's Krowswork Gallery and Project Space spanning seven decades of the 94-year-old artist's oeuvre.

The exhibit's pieces range from early narrative paintings and drawings made during the tumultuous 1940s -- when World War II separated Fein from her serviceman husband, William Scheuber -- to the painter's most recent creations made following Scheuber's death last year. They cement Fein's status as a master artist fully wielding her creative powers.

Nestled on a couch beside Leonardo da Vinci, her rescued Italian greyhound, in the large stone house she and her husband built on a rural Martinez hillside nearly two decades ago, the curly-haired artist said the time was right for the Krowswork exhibit. "I was about ready to have a show, I think."

On display through Feb. 22, the 58-piece exhibit follows a 2007 solo show at the Bakersfield Art Museum and a group show at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Fein's alma mater.

She was one of only two living artists whose work was included in the sprawling group exhibit "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012, alongside work by painters Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, sculptor Louise Bourgeois and other 20th century luminaries.


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"(Fein) has had a very complicated but rich life," said Ilene Susan Fort, LACMA's Gail and John Liebes Curator of Art, who met Fein while curating "In Wonderland."

"Women artists have been neglected and misinterpreted terribly. That's why I do these shows -- to revive and restore people to history because they're able to be better known."

When Fein traveled to Mexico for "In Wonderland's" debut at the Museo de Arte Moderno, fans lined up for a chance to meet the artist and have her sign the exhibition catalog.

"I was so astonished," said Fein, who tends to deflect the increasing buzz around her life and work.

At Krowswork, Fein's paintings include fantastical miniature landscapes of Pleasant Hill and Martinez and roiling seascapes from the 1950s and 1960s.

"(The exhibit) shows the completeness of her work, of her vision," said Krowswork owner and co-curator Jasmine Moorhead, who noted it's rare to be able to exhibit such a backlog of never-before-seen work. "I'm fascinated that her moment is coming at this point."

Fein has had other "moments" during her lengthy career, including a steady stream of exhibits for more than 20 years beginning in the 1940s at galleries and museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art and locally at Saint Mary's College in Moraga and Mills College in Oakland.

But it's the present in which Fein now revels.

"I never expected to be painting like this. I never expected to have the rush that I did when my husband died," Fein said. "I was just amazed I could paint."

After Scheuber's death last May, a big tree suddenly appeared in her artwork. The resulting piece, "For W.K.S: I Think I Shall Never See A Tree As Lovely As Thee," depicts a dark, multilimbed tree against a moody green background.

That painting, Fein said, led to another and then another. Five of the "Trees" paintings are in "Surreal Nature"; one is "W.K.S. & S.F." in which the feet of two human figures -- the painter and her husband -- merge with the trunk of a tree whose limbs seem to explode with radiant energy.

Fein continues to work on the series, crediting the musical training provided by her pianist mother for the discipline she applies to her art.

In the afternoons, Fein tends her land and garden, with its acres of olive trees, avocados, wine grapes and citrus. Fein mixes the yolks of fresh eggs from the chickens down the hill with brilliantly colored powdered pigments and a bit of water to create her tempera paints.

She has hung her most recently completed painting on a stone wall near her kitchen. "From the Ashes" depicts a grape vine emerging from a large mound of dark earth against a pale sky.

Fein's husband's ashes are in the vineyard, and she plans to have her own placed there, with his. Like the other paintings, "Ashes" is a symbol of regeneration and transformation, a testament to the endurance of love. There is one more painting in the series; Fein is not sure if that is the last.

"I don't know what I'm going to do next ... something that interests me," she said. "I like it when I surprise myself. That gives me a thrust, I guess. I can't tell anybody why I paint or what I paint. Why do I breathe?"

Then she's off with her dog Leonardo to tend her garden.

Contact Jennifer Modenessi at 925-943-8378.

Sylvia Fein
Hometown: Martinez
Age: 94
Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Occupation: Artist, author
Quote: "I hadn't painted for 15 years, probably. Honest to God, I forgot how to paint. I just had to sit and noodle around and it all came back to me like I had never stopped. It came back with a bang! I haven't stopped since."