Garden Wall by Don Wunderlee

Fine Lines

56 blocks of chunky window glass. Gold stripes on a chartreuse couch. Squared-off floorboards from amber to auburn.

Don Wunderlee’s Westville studio is alive with lines, most notably the wavering horizontals and verticals of his acrylic paintings. Less than a block away, his recent public mural, Garden Wall, appears as a fascination on the retaining wall at the corner of Blake and Whalley—a surprising shift from sage green concrete to the colorful pastel grain of what might be a fantastical wooden wall, complete with knotholes you may be tempted to peek through. Intermittent sunlight superimposes the shadows of nearby leaves, adding to the impression that there really might be a garden there, just beyond.

Back across Blake, inside the studio he keeps at West River Arts, Wunderlee’s work takes on more oranges, reds and golds, more texture and compressed tension. Enlivened by the scale of Garden Wall—larger work “commands,” he says—he’s going bigger in general, despite the limitations of a workspace where he can’t take more than 10 steps back.

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One large piece, a square 72-inch work in progress, hangs on the wall, its lines unfinished, some dripping their colors. Such happy accidents will likely be visible in the finished work. “I like to leave the editing in there,” Wunderlee says. “I like to show the notes, and the side notes… because it’s part of the personality of the painting, and my process.”

It’s no mistake that Wunderlee uses musical words like “notes.” In addition to being a painter, he plays lead guitar in the local cover band The Inflatables and teaches at Neighborhood Music School.

“Improvisation,” he calls both painting and music-making. And yet, he says, there’s something more “primitive” about working with paint on canvas. “When I’m playing guitar, I’m listening to the note structure,” he says. “The Western tradition so influences us as listeners, in terms of what’s melodic and harmonic.” There are rules, or at the least the perception of rules.

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But painting, Wunderlee says, is more open-ended. “I can dip my hand in paint and just go on the canvas that way. Wow. I don’t see that’s wrong… Why should there be rules?”

None of the hand-rendered lines that are Wunderlee’s signature of the moment run straight. Those in his studio piece Summer Longitude suggest the slightest bow, as of a distant horizon. The lines of Orange Strata II are ragged and raw at the top of the canvas but cool into soothing strokes that conjure pink sand.

Wunderlee’s career as an artist has taken its own wandering line. He began with the dream of becoming a photographer but found it “too wrapped up in the mechanical” for his liking. Next came puppetry. Behind a door in his studio, one elfin marionette still hangs from a box fan, its back to the visitor, and a framed poster for a puppet show he did once upon a time in Nantucket is propped behind a hodgepodge of furniture. In the past year, Wunderlee has done just one puppet show, though they used to be a staple of his artistic life.

As for his current work, “I can’t imagine doing this—I wouldn’t it—15 years ago,” he says, leaning back in his chair and gesturing around. Ultimately, he thinks, a life in the arts is a great experiment, one that needn’t be drawn with a straight edge.

Wunderlee Abstract Art
West River Arts – 909 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Open by appointment.
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Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photo 1 by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photos 2 and 3 by Dan Mims.

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