THE PAINTER MONIKA Rossa spends vast amounts of time and gasoline shuttling her five kids around town in a white van, careening from school to music to judo to swimming. But she never stops exercising her artist's eye. Hurtling down Grant one day, she caught a glimpse of a woman in blue walking along the side of the road.
"I was stunned when I saw her -- it was an unexpected beauty," says Rossa, who just opened a one-woman "new artists" show at Davis Dominguez Gallery. "I sketched right after I came home. There are few places as ugly as Grant Road. But you can't expect to be only in beautiful places.... You never know where your inspiration is going to come from."
The woman trudging along, a baby in her arms, became "Afternoon Walk," a sun-dappled acrylic on canvas that's one of the largest of the nine paintings in Rossa's exhibition. It has transformed Grant Road's unseemly jumble into a spare and lovely space, yellow light bouncing off an underpainting of green, gold reverberating against the rich royal of the woman's dress. Her figure is expertly drawn. Her hip, thrust to one side, balances the baby, and her feet, bent just so, convey a deliberate gait. The baby's wide eyes -- a sentimental but forgivable note -- peek out over her shoulder, taking in the world.
More often, the Polish-born painter draws on subjects closer to home -- in fact, inside her home. The other eight paintings on view are chock-a-block with kids, school-age children elbowing for space in crowded canvases. The pictures are drenched in the imaginative world of childhood, tinged with a bit of Eastern European expressionism. Benevolent cats and pet rats assume human-size forms in these paintings, colored in a disciplined palette of ochre, sienna, turquoise and black. The kindly animals play along in a string quartet with the kids ("Music Lesson") or beam benevolently, like spirit animals, on the little girl clutching a cat in "Girl Holding a Cat."
"I'm very busy with family life -- it inspires everything I do," Rossa says unapologetically of her subject matter, which is hardly fashionable in the cool art world. "This is my life. When this life will be over some other life will be coming up" and find its way into her art. "Artists are always inspired," she adds. "You ride a car or do the dishes. The artists are people who can actually make something out of it."
Still, her large family is a force to be reckoned with. While the kids, ages 7 through 15, are at school, and her husband is off teaching math at the UA, Rossa does the shopping, cooking and cleaning.
"There are seven people living in this house," she notes dryly, summing up the housework in an eloquent raised eyebrow. Mid-afternoon to evening finds her shuttling kids, serving up meals, supervising homework. By late evening, though, the time for art comes around. Rossa has commandeered the family room for a studio -- and installed locks to press the point. At 9 p.m. sharp Rossa goes in, locks the door, and paints until midnight or 1 a.m. She sleeps till 7 a.m. and then starts all over again.
Her studio is full of paintings, art books and sketches; a large charcoal of a male nude is positioned on the easel. She pays a model to pose for her every Thursday evening, and she goes to a life-drawing class at the UA every week.
"I always took drawing no matter what," she says. "You have to all the time exercise your hand. It's essential." Most of the time she discards the drawings, but her Davis Dominguez show includes four fine pen-and-ink nudes.
Rossa, now 39, is not a new artist, despite the show's title. She's exhibited at the Tucson Jewish Community Center and at the old Local 803 and New Doors of the Arts galleries and still shows regularly at Café Sweetwater. Two years ago in Warsaw, she had a pair of large exhibitions during a family sabbatical.
A painter at least since her teens, she can easily retrieve from her bookshelf a tattered, much-used volume on Modigliani.
"At 17, Modigliani was the most important painter in my life," she says. Other favorites range from Goya to Matisse to the California painters David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. As a young painter, Rossa found art training in Poland under the old socialist system dispiriting and bureaucratic ("You had to have a document to be an artist"), and she departed in 1981 for Spain, just before martial law was imposed. At a private school in Barcelona, she found "great contemporary artists" who helped her believe in herself as a painter.
"They showed me I was already doing it. I spent eight hours a day painting and drawing."
Rossa moved on to Paris and the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but the school's large size and low-quality classes were "like a bad dream. I was trying to do my work, but it was like being in a Franz Kafka novel." Eventually, Rossa met the man she would marry, a Polish mathematician who was off to Berkeley for a post-doc. After much debate, Rossa gave up Paris for California.
"I had never learned English," she remembers. "It was hard in the beginning." Now fluent in five languages -- Polish, English, Spanish, French and Russian -- Rossa learned to speak English by baby-sitting American kids. "You are not afraid of making grammatical mistakes to 6- and 7-year-olds."
The couple moved to Tucson 15 years ago, in time for the birth of their first child. From the beginning, Rossa loved the desert's light and heat, so different from dark, cold Warsaw. The early years here were taken up with babies and breast-feeding instead of late-night painting sessions, but the indefatigable Rossa found time to illustrate and write books in Polish for her toddlers, who were taught their parents' language first. The hand-bound storybooks, American tales of Thanksgiving and cacti, are full of her dramatic paintings, drawings and collages.
A more recent book project, inspired by one young son's devotion to his pet rats, is a lengthy saga of life-size rats living with the family.
"Each child has a rat that matches their personality. All those rats are doing the things the children do." One son laughed to tears over the story; a daughter was deeply offended; another son rewrote it to make his own Doppelgänger rat better behaved.
Nevertheless, the rat tale triggered an entire suite of paintings, some of them on view at the gallery. Just another case of art imitating family life.
Monika Rossa: New Artists Series continues through Thursday, October 30, in the salon of Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. Philip Melton: Scotland Studies runs simultaneously in the Alcove. A mix of paintings and sculpture by gallery regulars fills the main gallery. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The Heavy Metal Brass Quintet performs Pictures at an Exhibition on Saturday, October 23. For information and reservations, call the gallery at 629-9759.