Lexington washes across the walls of Cross Gate Gallery this month in streams of watercolor, forming images of Cheapside, the Lexington Opera House, Al’s Bar and many other familiar locations rendered in dreamy impressions from the brush of Sandra Oppegard.
“There was one lady in here who said, ‘You make Lexington look like Paris,’” Oppegard says, leading a casual tour of her exhibit, Landscapes and Townscapes. She quickly steers toward a painting and says, “I think she was referring to the old Metropol at dusk, because that has a kind of Parisian feel.”
In her image, the restaurant, which was in the building now occupied by The Village Idiot pub, is framed by lights and occupied by a reveling crowd.
Others have told her that she makes Lexington look fabulous.
“To me, it looks that way,” Oppegard says. “That’s the thing about someone coming in from another area: new eyes.”
Oppegard, 71, was born in Cincinnati and then began moving west, eventually settling in California. Her love of art coincided with a love of horses. She was encouraged through art classes in high school to go to art school and attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. From there, she went on to a 23-year career as a freelance illustrator based in Southern California with a list of clients that included Max Factor, Redken, Mattel Toys and Baskin-Robbins.
In 1974, she married Thoroughbred trainer Victor Ellis Oppegard. The couple moved to Montana in the 1980s and Lexington in 1999.
“I even got an assistant trainer’s license in California,” Oppegard says. “I got to saddle horses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. I learned things that were very handy to me getting commissions to paint horses and selling work because it’s very authentic. I really know what’s going on. You can tell if an artist knows horses or not.”
While working in California, Oppegard met Cross Gate Gallery owner Greg Ladd and he started buying her work. In 1994, she visited Lexington for the first time and says that’s when she and her husband first considered moving to the Bluegrass. An added draw was family that had moved to Northern Kentucky.
Oppegard says that being on the West Coast gave her a strong sense of bold color, distinguishing it from the muted tone of a lot of watercolor work.
Oppegard’s husband died in 2008 after a long illness, and it was not long after that she started adding city life to her work. She began following events, from the Roots and Heritage Festival downtown to a farm equipment auction in Paris, to hidden Lexington locations like Bluegrass Stockyards on Forbes Road, where scenes like the cattle auctions also let her add Western imagery to her Kentucky works.
The daughter of a musician, she was drawn to nightlife and music, particularly venues like Natasha’s Bistro and Bar and Willie’s Locally Known. She names singers like Jessie Lane Powell and the Kentucky Hoss Cats with audible exclamation points.
Sometimes she snaps photos that she later uses as references for her paintings. Otherwise, she’ll show up with her sketch pad in hand.
“People always come over to see what I’m doing, since they aren’t used to seeing someone out with a sketch pad,” Oppegard says. “It’s a great way to meet people.”
A lot of work in Oppegard’s Cross Gate exhibit was done with the prospect of the show coming up. The paintings fill two galleries, a couple of corridors and even the restroom.
But the end of the show won’t stop her from pursuing her new muse.
“I was just doing it,” she says. “This hand just won’t stop doing things.”
She rattles of a short list of locales she hasn’t painted yet such as the Lexington Philharmonic and the Atomic Cafe.
Oppegard observes, “I just really enjoy the town.”