A few months ago, June Stratton began working on a painting called “Heartbreak.”

The piece was intended to explore emotional heartbreak in a Shakespearean sense, but the meanings shifted as COVID-19 spread to the United States.

“The pandemic adds this extra lens or layer to everything you do,” Stratton told me recently from her home near Fort McAllister in Bryan County.

Like much of Stratton’s recent work, “Heartbreak” includes a realistic female figure in an evocative, ethereal landscape.

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Studio porch ~ Still much to do on this piece. It was very lovely on the porch today. Although, just a little bit humid here in the South. Please excuse the pandemic hair 😉 Have a wonderful weekend everyone! . . . #oilpainting #goldleaf #contemporaryrealism #americanart #figurativepainting #junestratton #poetsartists

A post shared by June Stratton (@june_stratton) on May 22, 2020 at 1:37pm PDT

Stratton was drawn early in life to figurative drawing and painting. Her grandparents on both sides of her family collected art, including photographs. She was influenced by seeing images of work by the likes of John Singer Sargent and Leonardo da Vinci.

“I really wanted to draw realism,” Stratton said of her years growing up on the West Coast. “That was all I wanted to do. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

She even began drawing movies stars in graphite pencil. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.

In 1977, Stratton enrolled at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, but personal and professional challenges led her to quit school without finishing the degree.

The art world looked down on realism at that time, so Stratton had to teach herself.

After moving to Seattle, she met working artists and eventually established a following for her landscape paintings.

Stratton married her husband in 2000 and soon moved to the Savannah area. She opened Whitney Gallery on Whitaker Street but close the business after eight years.

“I came from Seattle where all the galleries worked together,” Stratton said. “That’s just really hard in Savannah for some reason.”

Without the demands of running her own gallery, Stratton has had more time to devote to her own increasingly complex work.

For example, the 2019 oil painting “American Beauty,” which was purchased by The Bennett Collection of Women Realists, incorporates 22 karat gold leaf and secco fresco (a plaster technique).

“I don’t think I’m happy unless I’m learning,” Stratton said.

Stratton generally works with female models, in part because paintings with female figures typically sell better than those with male figures.

But the female models also reflect Stratton’s own presence in her work.

Stratton said that she is generally thinking two or three paintings ahead, but she has lately been forced to ask herself a difficult question: “Do I want to spend two months on something that’s totally dark and pandemic?”

As she conceptualizes new paintings, Stratton will typically conduct extensive photo shoots with her models. She has recently taken a series of photos that reflect her current “pandemic angst.”

Some of the striking new images include veils. Sometimes the young women are holding translucent orbs that suggest connections to other worlds.

“I’m hoping that my new work is hopeful,” Stratton said.

Stratton has been represented for years by Robert Lange Studios, a beautiful gallery in Charleston, and has also sold work through the online platform PoetsArtists. She foresees video and other technology becoming more important as the art world responds to the pandemic.

Stratton told me that she struggles with insecurity, but she pushes herself to keep working every day.

“Onward,” she said. “One foot in front of the other. ”

Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at hissing lawns (www.hissinglawns.com).