On a broad table, brushes were ordered and dropped into tin cans, paints were laid out in rows. On the opposite wall, birch canvases stood upright in a ceiling-height frame. “I'm very concerned with the zen of my space,” Rocca laughed as I wondered at the totally untroubled otherworld she had created in her studio—somewhere entirely apart from the outside world. It makes sense, that this practice was born out of a very different lifestyle that necessitated she carve out space to relax.
Just before she hit on this style of work, Rocca was living in the Bay Area and working in Silicon Valley. The pace of life, she explained was “just frenetic—absolutely insane.” She had always been a painter but in this style, she “found a way to slow down. To turn everything off.” She painted the desert, she painted the sea, exploring landscapes both on-foot and later, in her studio. Looking at her work, viewers might not see a landscape right away, however. What Rocca does is snap simple iPhone photos of these places, and uses them as source material—starting with very rough renderings, and slowly blurring the image through layer after layer of paint, until just the washed, melding fields of color remain. It is like looking at the world through a prism—the suggestion is there, but each object in the frame is distilled to color and light.
When Rocca describes “slowing down,” she is describing both a mental and physical experience. She uses all-natural materials, including walnut oil paints, which are extremely slow drying—it takes up to a week for each coat on her paintings to dry. Every time she sits down to work on a single piece, she paints the whole canvas, building up many thin layers over long periods of time—some pieces take as much as a year to complete. The collection of pieces that will be shown in Public Lands, for example, took around two years to be created. Looking at the paintings so brilliantly illuminated in Rocca's studio, it was hard to believe they are paintings at all—so seamless is the end result, without a brushstroke evident across the gulf of the canvas—each of which are several feet in length and height. The harder you look, the more nuance you see.
“It's abstract—but the goal is that you're getting a sense of what it feels like to be in these places,” she explained. In this show, Glacier National Park, the Eastern Sierras, the Redwoods and more surface. As Rocca pointed to a painting of the Grand Canyon I suddenly recognized its colors—such distinct shades of blue, purple, red, the gleam of desert sun.
Each summer Rocca and her family spend four or five weeks exploring preserved natural places such as these. “You come back and people say, 'How was your trip?' and all you can say is, 'It was beautiful,' ” she said—but those words don't quite sum it up. “It's like Georgia O'Keeffe said,” Rocca paraphrased, “I paint because I can't express this in words.”
In this practice—which has been evolving over the course of the last 20 years—Rocca finds that she is compelled to see more of the parks, not just snapping photos, but allowing for the time—the slowness—to experience the fullness of the place. “I often create compositions that are much more consistent with what I was feeling if it wasn't captured right in the photograph,” she said. “Having the experience as opposed to just the photograph is such a blessing because I often don't get the perfect picture, but I still got what I needed.” The painting created then has a sense of fullness; attached to each one is a snapshot of the place, sure, but also the story—a nine-hour hike in the Redwoods, an inside joke with her children, a long vista—not just the physical evidence. As she works, she puts this energy into her work—the feeling of being somewhere beautiful, among loved ones, and the sense of patience that comes with her style of painting. All cut through with a sense of light—which seems to infer calm.
Rocca's Public Lands exhibition opens Thursday, Sept. 6 in New York. If you're not making an exodus to the big city any time soon, follow Rocca's work and keep an eye out for openings via her Instagram (@tracyrocca) and on her website, tracyrocca.com.