Layered Stories

A Manhattan Beach artist carves emotional journeys on canvas.

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  • Written by
    Alina Orozco

Photographed by Lauren Pressey


Most artists use a putty knife to help create texture or depth in their acrylic paintings. It’s a nonessential tool in their arsenal—and one that isn’t often swapped for a paintbrush.
But for local artist Paula Langstein, a putty knife has become the star of her work on canvas—perhaps even more so than the strokes of a brush. Here is why Paula is no ordinary abstract artist … and one to watch.

First, she covers the canvas in multitudinous layers of acrylic paint. Some tones are muted, while others are vibrantly bold. Each additional layer seemingly tells a chapter of a story, taking us on a visual journey with each hue.

Often found in this cacophony of colors are the number “3” and shapes of triangles or stars—images that resonate with the artist. But they are usually hidden under many coats of paint. “There is a lot behind the number 3: birth, life and death, the Three Wise Men, or the three wishes,” poses Paula.

Then the artist takes out her trusty putty knife and begins to carve the main characters of the story. The abstract human figures usually reveal a deeply personal moment in time, or a fleeing feeling of the artist. But despite the close connection to the images on the canvas, Paula’s work is relatable, striking a chord with anyone whose gaze happens to meet her canvas.

In fact, it’s so typical for someone to feel an instantaneous connection to the images Paula has knifed into the cotton fibers of her canvas that the artist is shy about revealing the true stories behind her work, leaving us with the sculpted figures over the assembly of color and a short, hardly descriptive title.

The effort is purposeful to allow the viewer to construct his or her own tale. “As an artist, I don’t want someone to just walk by it. I want them to relate to it,” explains Paula.

The immediate connection to the carved storytelling of Paula is likely due to her abstract use of the human figure and the viewer’s keen ability to see themselves in her images—at times as a meditating yogi, other times as a mother, a lover, a partner.  

Paula’s other work features iconic images that elicit a powerful emotion. Take the towering Statue of Liberty canvas hung in the entryway of her Manhattan Beach home, which houses a bright enclave of a studio where Paula spends a large chunk of her day painting several pieces at once—often reworking an older piece that may no longer hold the same emotion value. “I rarely regret painting over something else,” she says.

The deep blues and blood-red tones of the painting instantly evoke the American flag, and the artist’s beloved stars are promptly evident in this work. The canvas is a clear nod to Paula’s immigrant parents, or maybe a reminder of her own roots or a message to her three children. Its true intention we may never know.

Perhaps it’s a reminder for all of us to take a moment and enjoy each layer and peel back the stories of our own life. For a glimpse of her art in person, stop by Doma Kitchen in Manhattan Beach, where the artist’s work will be displayed through mid-January.