This is how Gail Marcus-Orlen deals with sorrow: She paints.

After losing her husband, poet Steve Orlen, to lung cancer eight months ago, all the 63-year-old artist could do was paint.

"Even when he was in the hospital, I would run home and paint for an hour. I needed it," she says.

"I needed to keep my sanity by painting, otherwise life would have made no sense to me."

When it was complete, "Empty Chairs" was a piece of art which spoke to the relationship she had with her husband of 42 years.

"It's not a sad painting in any way," she says.

"It's two empty chairs and there are a lot of things going on around the chairs. It's more symbolic."

Symbolic is a term that can be applied to many of Marcus-Orlen's works.

But it wasn't always that way: Early on, her canvases were larger and less fanciful.

Today, they approach the surreal. A constant with her: bright, vibrant colors.

Marcus-Orlen's midtown studio is a study in creation. A piece she is working on sits on the easel, the still life that inspires it is arranged on a table just beyond.

Nearby are numerous tubes of paint and paintbrushes of varying sizes, all specked in paint.

Some of her finished works lean against each other on the floor. Above is wall space reserved for hanging finished work with lighting which gives her studio a gallery-like effect.

A back room is dedicated to the dozens of her paintings that she's kept over the years. Shelves along each wall are full. More pieces line the floor.

She is, literally, surrounded by art and art-making tools.

A New York native, Marcus-Orlen moved to the Old Pueblo in 1967 armed with a degree from The Fashion Institute of Technology. She dove into school at the University of Arizona, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts.

She quickly established herself as an artist - and became a married woman.

She met Orlen in Tucson in 1968 at a party; they married four months later.

"I was 19. I was young," she says. "But it worked."

Their son, Cozi, was born 17 years later.

Making art co-existed with marriage and motherhood.

Marcus-Orlen - who counts the Renaissance painters among her influences - creates canvases that are rich with fantasy.

"It's imaginative and more sort of how I see the world as opposed to how the world is," she says.

"To me it makes no sense to paint what there already is without me playing with it."

Objects, people and animals of all kinds make their way into her work, whether they be floating, flying or stationary.

Her works are peppered with birds, toys, squares, fruit, plants and other random objects.

The Mona Lisa lurks in one painting, a jester with wings in another, and pears lounge in a chair in still another.

Flowers appear in numerous works - though she uses artificial rather than real flowers as models because it typically takes from three weeks to a month to finish a painting.

Those florals saturate many of her paintings with color - the element she most likes about them.

"I don't care much about painting politics or anything that has to do with reality," she explains.

"I want to escape reality and see beauty. And I think they're (flowers) just so beautiful to paint."

Bill Nugent owns six of Marcus-Orlen's pieces.

"Her use of color is just incredible," says Nugent, who displays some of his Marcus-Orlen paintings at the bar he owns, The Shanty

"It's almost surreal how she can use color for dimension and depth," he adds.

"And the tonality is just beautiful. And I like her subject matter."

Nugent met Marcus-Orlen and her husband more than 30 years ago.

"There's not a nicer person in the world," he says.

"She's one of the really great souls on the planet."

Marcus-Orlen says her subject matter hasn't changed much over the years.

As an artist, she still sees things the same way, she says, but she's learned how to handle paint and space in a different way.

She has continued to work since her husband died. And she doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

"I still don't know what to do with my life. Suddenly everything is open," she says.

"But I'm gonna paint no matter what."

Want to see more?

Where you can find her paintings: She is represented in the Davis Dominguez Gallery's current show, on view through Aug. 20 at 154 E. Sixth St.

You can also find her works at Tucson International Airport, Feast, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, and The Shanty. She is represented by Etherton Gallery.

Price range: $800 to $5,000.

What the critics have had to say

"Marcus-Orlen presents works that are stunning both for their insightful honesty and befuddled ambivalence. In a daring gesture, Marcus-Orlen is willing to reveal her doubts as well as her certainties."

Arizona Daily Star

"She is a master colorist and lets her warm velvet reds, golden oranges, glossy blacks, furry greens and porcelain blues provide the vitality in her glowing compositions."

Tucson Citizen

"Such multipronged impact - pictures that are cheerful yet murmur of a hidden, even dark, mosaic at the periphery- grants these paintings a richness in spirit that matches the richness of activity one finds in her scenes of a magical world."

Arizona Daily Star

Serena Valdez is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.