The Art of Noticing

Painter Bill Sturman brings artists together

Story and photos by Drew Myron

“Maryhill Peony” and other paintings by Bill are on display at 301 Gallery. Photos provided by Bill Sturman

Bill Sturman sees nature’s details. Sunlight on a trio of cherries. Peony petals unfolding. The embossed bark of aspen trees.

“I’m really attracted to the small things,” says the Mount Hood artist as he bends close to examine light on a leaf.

Drawing inspiration from the natural world, Bill translates beauty through the moody hues of watercolor. His work is a controlled process of wet paint on wet paper that produces a subtle atmospheric texture with a creative immediacy.

“I love the blending of color, and that allows the pigment to flow,” he says.

With a close focus, his paintings are primarily single compositions with a limited range of color that creates a tonal mood.

“I like a simple composition,” he says. He also creates abstract landscapes that combine setting and feeling to achieve a sense of mood and place.

“Landscapes are a real challenge because you start with a white page,” he says. “With most paintings, I start with a drawing or photo, something concrete. But landscapes sell. People buy landscapes. I should paint more landscapes.”

But Bill is not painting for money or fame. He paints because he interprets the world through art.

“I’m real visual, that’s how I learn,” he says.

Bill learned to paint through books and workshops, through trial and error, and through many long winters.

“If you work at something, you can learn pretty quickly, I think," he says.

Active and fit at 79, Bill enjoys tennis and hikes, though he doesn’t have to walk far to enjoy nature’s beauty. Forty years ago—when “I was young and strong,” he quips—Bill built his home in the Mount Hood National Forest by hand, mostly by himself. Situated 1 mile east of Highway 35 at the end of a narrow gravel road, the secluded hideaway is an inviting two-story home with woodstove heat, natural light, and reclaimed wood construction. Nestled among trees, the home is lined in windows that offer observation at every turn.

“I love nature, looking around and being in nature,” Bill says. “It was always my dream to live ‘back to the land’ as we used to say, to become stronger as a person and to be self-reliant. There was a lot of that going on in the late ’70s.”

Born in New Jersey, Bill and his family lived all across the country before settling in California’s Bay Area. He attended University of California at Berkley, where he studied pre-med. Instead of becoming a doctor, he spent time exploring before combining his passion for biology and ecology at the University of Washington, where he graduated with a master’s in zoology.

“I was in love with birds and ecology, and I wanted to teach college,” he says.

Initially, he blended medicine with education and worked for the Oregon Lung Association, where he ran a statewide program screening patients for emphysema. He then fulfilled his dream to teach at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, where he spent 10 years leading classes in the school’s inaugural nursing program.

Later, in The Dalles, Bill taught students in the nursing program at Treaty Oak Education Service District (now known as Columbia Gorge Community College). After many years of teaching, he retired at 58.

“I like a simple composition,” Bill says of his paintings that have a close and single focus, such as this watercolor dubbed “Double Cluster.”

Bill enjoys relaxing at home—painting, reading, and spending time with his wife of 29 years, Julie, a stained-glass artist.

Even in his secluded perch, Bill is no hermit. A longtime advocate for Columbia Gorge artists, he works quietly behind the scenes to bring artists together.

In the 1980s, he served as president of Columbia Center for the Arts and was instrumental in helping the organization secure its downtown location. The move provided gallery space, a theater, and a classroom while also boosting the group’s stability and visibility.

More recently, he helped establish 301 Gallery, an artist cooperative in Hood River. The gallery opened in 2018 and showcases the work of 16 Gorge artists. Located along downtown Hood River’s Oak Street, the gallery is situated in an elegant stone building that originally served as a bank designed by renowned architect A.E. Doyle and built in 1924.

In the spirit of cooperation, every member plays a role and hosts the gallery at least two days each month. Bill handles finances for the all-volunteer organization.

“He does an unbelievable amount of work on the finances,” says artist Carolyn Crystal, who worked with Bill to create the gallery. “He manages day-to-day books and accounting. It’s really a daily responsibility. He is so willing to work and has such a willingness to make things happen. Bill is such a Renaissance man. He can build or create or fix anything. He’s just so resourceful.”

Bill’s paintings are on display at 301 Gallery. His artwork ranges from $175 to $750. He takes part in the Gorge Artists Open Studios Tour, an annual self-guided tour of Gorge artist studios. Now in its 16th year, the event—like the gallery— feeds his creative spirit.

“It’s nice to do my art and have people appreciate it,” says Bill.