Before he retired as an art professor at the University of Kentucky, Robert Tharsing did his personal painting in downtown studios, first in the upstairs room of an old house on High Street and then above Cheapside Bar & Grill.
When he was between paintings — or stuck trying to figure out where to go with an abstract canvas — he did what many people do when they need a break: he stared out the window. In Tharsing's case, he also painted what he saw. The result was about 20 views of the Lexington skyline and scenes of downtown life in the 1990s.
In anticipation of retirement, Tharsing built a home studio in 2001. When he moved, he left most of these paintings stacked in the Cheapside space, which wife Ann Tower uses as storage for her gallery on Main Street. Tharsing never showed them in public — until now.
Robert Tharsing: Room With A View, an exhibit of 14 pictures painted over the course of a dozen years, went up last week in the East Gallery at UK Chandler Hospital. The free exhibit will be up for six months.
"I had seen a few hanging in his studio a long time ago and thought they were interesting," said Phillip March Jones, who curates the hospital's art exhibits. "I also thought it was interesting they had never been shown as a body of work."
Jones said viewers from Lexington will easily recognize these scenes, as well as what has changed, and appreciate the bird's-eye view Tharsing had from his studio windows.
The vividly colorful scenes are awash in light, but often devoid of people. Most of the time Tharsing spent in these studios was at night and on weekends, before downtown became a popular destination for restaurants, bars and festivals.
"Wherever I've been, I've always painted the scene as well as other interests I have," said Tharsing, 70, who has lived in Italy and spends summers in Nova Scotia.
Tharsing said these small pictures were often a release, a distraction when he was working on large, abstract paintings. "It was a way to paint something that's very tangible that I knew what it was," he said. "With an abstract painting, I often don't know what it is. In that sense, it's like being a novelist; you have to let the characters develop and see what they're going to tell you about themselves. The painting has to do that, too. It has to tell you what it is, what it's all about."
The High Street studio had a big bay window that looked down on Vine Street and a cluster of 1980s office towers. Tharsing said he liked how light played off the buildings, streets and parking lots in different seasons.
"That part of Lexington is all about very simple geometry," he said. "There's hardly anything that distinguishes itself as being real architecture. So what you're left with is these volumes and planes and reflections. More than half the buildings down there have got these mirrored windows, so it's not only the building I'm looking at but I'm looking at myself through the glass across the street. That interested me."
Cheapside had more people on the street, and a building that did interest Tharsing: the old Fayette County Courthouse, which was then still in use. The massive circa 1900 building or pieces of it appear in six of 14 paintings in the exhibit.
"I really liked it because there was a lot of coming and going," he said. "It was very much small-town life."
Tharsing said "the icing on the cake" came one day when he looked down and saw perennial candidate Gatewood Galbraith in his trademark hat. He was accompanied by a single sign-carrying supporter and was being interviewed by a TV news crew.
To accompany the exhibit, Jones is producing old-fashioned perforated postcard books with 10 of the pictures, for sale ($10) at Ann Tower Gallery, The Morris Book Shop and Institute 193, his nonprofit gallery.
These paintings are reminiscent of the plain, colorful style of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who was one of Tharsing's inspirations. Another inspiration was the Venetian landscape painter Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768).
But Tharsing said he resisted Canaletto's occasional tendency to improve the skyline, tempting though it was in Lexington's case. "He rearranged the city to suit himself," he said. "It is like urban renewal; it's an interesting idea."