Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 19, 2006

The healing art

Painter Klari Reis finds personal inspiration through a microscope

by Rebecca Wallace

Before working in her studio, painter Klari Reis opens all five windows. Then she suits up.

She dons a jumpsuit and a fume mask. Latex gloves. Goggles. Boots. Then she puts barrier cream on any skin that might still be exposed.

"I look like a madwoman," she says matter-of-factly. "But it secludes me from the world, which is good. It allows me to work."

And then it's just the artist and the epoxy polymer.

Reis' precautions are sensible, as the synthetic plastic she paints with is toxic before it dries.

But the clinical feel is also perfect for an artist with the curiosity of a scientist. Her inspiration flows through a microscope, and she creates bold paintings of molecular structures: prescription drugs, food additives, caffeine.

A look into a microscope often yields only blacks and grays. But Reis saturates her works with color. A viewer with a Rorschach eye might see a gumdrop or a fried egg.

One of her favorites depicts the building blocks of Benazepril, a high-blood-pressure medication. Reis smiles at the painting hanging in the Chelsea Art Gallery in downtown Palo Alto. It's an ocean of ovals inside ovals inside rectangles, filled with cool blues and greens, gleaming with the sheen of the plastic.

Reis particularly likes this piece's depth, that you can make out the wood behind the eight to 10 layers of epoxy polymer.

"You can see the texture in the pigments, the wood grain in the background," she says.

Nearby is "Ramipril," named for a drug used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure. It glitters almost angrily, resembling gold rivers with white and red islands. Meanwhile, "Xanax" is placid, with softly melting orbs of blue, white and green. Unsurprising for an anti-anxiety pill.

These are all part of an exhibit called "Double Take," which runs through June 4 and also includes the photography-painting hybrids of Palo Alto artist Kathryn Dunlevie (see separate story).

Reis, 28, grew up in Menlo Park and worked as a presentation artist for architecture firms after graduating from college. Tiring of the rat race, she then went to the City and Guilds of London Art School, where she earned a master's degree in fine arts and then had an associate research fellowship.

She recently returned to the States to live in San Francisco, drawn by the proximity of family and the growing biotech presence in the city's Mission Bay area.

The young artist has wide eyes and an openness that's endearing. She urges you to touch her paintings, and admits she misses one that recently sold.

She's also humble in the face of praise from gallery owners and visitors, said Chelsea Gallery director Tenley Bick.

"People ask what it's made of," Bick said of Reis' art. "They think it's so different and unique. It's not oil on canvas. ... People become excited about it in a different way."

Bick said it's also interesting that Reis seems primarily interested in showing the beauty and intricacy of the tiny forms, rather than criticizing modern medicine.

"This is motivated by science," she said. "Klari sets herself apart from artists making statements."

But there's also a more personal motivation, one that makes Reis' positive attitude all the more remarkable. She's been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that has required her to take a mélange of medications, including steroids, autoimmune suppressors and antibiotics.

During a frightening time of hospitals and treatments in Britain, Reis befriended a hospital worker who let her spend time in the laboratory. Although she had no science background, she became fascinated by seeing her medications through a microscope.

"I wanted to understand all this stuff I was putting in my body," she said. "I was trying to see the positive in pharmaceuticals."

The first 100 paintings she made were of the medications she was on. Now she's expanded into other realms, painting pharmaceuticals she doesn't take, such as antidepressants. She's planning a series on HIV drugs as well.

As Reis talks in the Chelsea gallery, there's pleasure in her voice as she says that although she's still on medication she hasn't been ill for over two years. She does look uncomfortable adding, "I just got a prescription for 16 pills a day."

But the smile is back when she speaks about how valuable her art has been in giving her a healthy perspective.

"I'm making these paintings to make me feel better," she said. "They're alternative medicine for the wall."

That resilience is reflected in her medium. Reis first encountered the plastic while working in architecture. Her firm was using it in terrazzo flooring in the new international terminal at San Francisco Airport.

She said she likes the clinical feel of the material, which matches the topic of biotechnology. And a durable collection is practical for someone who moves around so much, exhibiting in London and New York, Spain and Scotland.

Reis beams. "I liked the fact that I couldn't injure it."

What: "Double Take," an exhibit of artwork by Klari Reis and Kathryn Dunlevie

Where: Chelsea Art Gallery, 440 Kipling St., Palo Alto

When: Through June 4. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, and by appointment.

Cost: Free

Info: Call (650) 324-4450 or go to www.chelseaartgallery.com.

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