Feature Article

Jazz Portraits Bring

Brush With Greatness


Bruni Sablanís oil painting of jazz great Duke Ellington, above, was chosen for display at

The National Museum of American History.

Sablan, below, poses next to another painting of Ellington at the Old Town Gallery;

Her painting was also part of The Smithsonianís traveling exhibit on Ellington.

By Connie Skiptares

Mercury News Staff Writer



Smithsonian Brings Artist a Brush With Immortality

Born in Brazil and immersed in itís rich musical heritage of samba and jazz, artist Bruni Sablan had a vast and colorful background from which to pull the subjects that she eventually glorified on canvas. Among her most famous works is her "Jazz Masters Series" oil paintings featuring such world-renowned musicians as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, many of which grace the homes of jazz and art buffs or hang in her gallery at Los Gatosí Old Town Shopping Center.

After more than a decade of painting hundreds of portraits of musicians, Sablan recently captured one of the highest honors of her career - the Smithsonian Institution chose one of her Duke Ellington paintings for itís permanent collection. "Itís like getting the Academy Award. Itís like getting the seal of approval that you really are good. Iím proud to be there, and Iím proud that the Duke is there."

Sablan of Cupertino, has a special feeling for her "Duke" paintings, not only because she loves the manís music but because the first painting she sold in her jazz series was a portrait of Ellington, whom she started painting a few years after his death in 1974. She has painted a total of 15 portraits of the renowned composer and pianist. "I feel a spiritual bond with the Duke paintings" she said. "Itís hard to explain. They speak to me and touch me, as did his music."

The "Smithsonian Duke" Ė as Sablan now calls the soon-to-be famous painting of Ellington glancing over his shoulder Ė will join the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Like many of her other paintings, the portrait measures 3 feet by 4 feet.

Sablan also was asked to submit work for the Smithsonianís traveling exhibition on Ellington that will make itís way across the U.S., visiting museums and galleries over a two-year period. The exhibit will be displayed in California from October 17- November 28 at the San Ramon Community Centerís Lindsay Dirkx Brown Art Gallery. Sablan says sheíll submit about 15 Duke and Duke-related paintings for the traveling exhibit. Six of them will be current Ellington portraits and she plans to paint six new ones, as well as portraits of Ellingtonís best friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn and band members Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams.

The painting slated for the Smithsonianís permanent collection was selected after two coordinators of the traveling exhibition admired it at Yoshiís Jazz Club in Oakland, where several of Sablanís jazz portraits hang.

"Iím extremely honored, " Sablan said. "My art is a result of a lot of hard work and love. This is a real high point."

Another favorite subject of Sablanís is jazz giant Miles Davis, whom she has painted 80 times. Most of the Davis portraits have been sold over the years, but she still has about 15.

"He was a special being Ė I sensed that through his music, and I liked what I read about him, " said Sablan. "I only met him once very briefly as he was leaving a concert and it was a very special moment. He had seen my work (of him) and said he really loved it."

Sablan began showing an interest in paintings when she was about 5 years old. She remembers playing in her grandfatherís large house in Brazil and studying the precious, finely-framed paintings he had imported from Italy that were hung on the walls.

"One day, I took a pencil and tried to make some changes in the paintings when my horrified aunt yelled at me to stop." Said Sablan. "But then my grandfather came up and said "leave her alone. Let her do it. He saw the artist in me back then."

Her first teacher and biggest supporter, however, as her father Joseph Ė a painter and civil engineer Ė who surprised her with her first serious box of paints at age 15 soon after the family came to the Santa Clara Valley from Brazil.

That year, she sketched a small female nude in an art class and was shocked when a friend of her fatherís was so taken by it that he gave her $50 for it. "My dad also put up big blackboards in our house and gave me all kinds of colored chalk and said "go to it". I was 7 years old and I created some pretty interesting stuff, " she said.

Over the years Sablan took art classes, but largely learned about painting and technique on hr own until a 1980 meeting with Bay Area artist Michael Linstrom, who helped her develop the style she paints in today.

Her portraits are defined by thick, broad swipes of her brush in every color of the palette, and punctuated by splashes and dabs of hues that hightlight and shadow her subjectís faces.

Most people would call the style a form of "expressionism" but Sablan says she hates labels and casts off the description. "I donít call my work that, even though other people might. I just call it great art, art that moves people."

Today, Sablan lives with her father and mother, Clo Ė a former classical concert pianist - and her 24 year old daughter Kristina, who sings, plays piano and guitar and sculpts.


"Iím extremely honored. My art is the result of a lot of hard work and love. This is a real high point."




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1171 Lincoln Ave.
San Jose, CA 95125
(408) 298-4700

Fax (408) 298-7903


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