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Oct 01, 2018
Artists make decisions all the time—about where to place the given elements of a composition, what hues to use, how to suggest actions, narratives, moods. For Karen, Felice, Ryan, and Emily, it’s also about “creating for a cause,” choosing how and where to dedicate their time and talents. If art can be a form of sociopolitical currency, then these four are rich—and we’re all wealthier for them.
Meet Karen Maness, a professor of scenic art at UT and a scholar of the Hollywood backdrop. She grew up admiring the Mexican American muralists in her hometown of San Diego, where she loved to visit Chicano Park (site of the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals), and describes feeling “captivated” by the sheer scale of the murals adorning LA’s freeways. Today that appreciation for “bigness” translates to painting (and teaching her students to paint) new photo-realistic theater sets, as well as passionately preserving classic motion picture backdrops slated for the landfill. In her private studio practice, she adores painting the many skies of Texas because, she says, “The sky is the one space that’s equal for every person of every economic class and religion. It’s our shared experience.”
Five years ago, Karen saw a need and stepped up directly, creating a movement where there’d been steady decay. Upon realizing that the great scenic artists of the “Golden Age of Cinema” (late 1920s to early 1960s) were fading into obscurity, The Art Directors Guild tapped Karen to co-author a book to document their work and ways. Published in 2016, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop variously explores “plein air painting, observation from life, how light works in the world, what color is, shadow structure, and how to understand the language of architecture and perspective.” Not only did the book win all kinds of awards, but it also launched a recovery initiative to rescue over 200 MGM backdrops that were at risk of being lost to history. “Those Golden Age masters are gone,” Karen laments, “but I intend to preserve and retain and teach from their example.”
Felice House is also an art professor (she teaches painting and drawing at Texas A&M), and like Karen, Felice dabbles in landscape painting for fun. Her bread and butter, however, is re-envisioning the ways that women are portrayed in pop culture and the media—specifically through a body of work that replaces iconic male movie stars with contemporary female figures, and another that cross-pollinates women with their favorite plants and trees. At 13, Felice remembers becoming totally absorbed by teen magazines and their subliminal, often self-destructive, messages. “I realize now how manipulated I was by those images,” she admits. “They didn’t tell me anything except that I should consume and present myself as an object. I want to put out images that young girls can connect with and see, “Oh yeah, women are badass, and of course, they’re the heroes.”
Her series Re*Western takes stills from a number of the most classic Western films—High Noon; The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly; Giant—and begs the question What if John Wayne were a woman? Working from photographs of staged models she finds on Craigslist, plus the occasional “perfect subject” with “the best look” she runs across buying a turkey sandwich for lunch, Felice does her best to re-create the lighting and pose of the original scene. Westworld fans might recognize a similar grit in Delores’s reckoning, when she says: “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” The Sum You Some Me collection, on the other hand, places women on natural backgrounds that serve as “emotional foils” in an interpretation of this partial Salmon Rushdie quote: “I am the sum total … of all I have been, seen, done.”
“Out of many, one people” is the Jamaican national motto and the underlying catalyst for first-generation Jamaican American Ryan Runcie’s paintings. “Being multiracial,” Ryan muses, “I naturally mask part of myself in order to connect with most Americans.” His work captures the feeling of “standing outside, looking in” after a childhood of loving inclusivity, where even in his own home, no one looked the same, but all were equally cherished. Ryan believes that love, not tolerance, is the hard work against conscious and unconscious reactions to race and ethnicity. Inherently curious and reflective, he typically borrows themes from his favorite books; among them, Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness.
Ryan and Felice are the two artists who most consciously choose their subjects. Ryan tends to paint people he knows, whether personally or because they’re popular—like influential artists and singers. Fifty percent of the time they’re mixed-raced, too, allowing him to subvert racial stereotypes by “color-washing phenotypes.” Preferring a palette of loud, saturated colors inspired by Jamaican dance hall culture, his use of color deliberately “wipes away the illusion of race just long enough for you to give that person a chance.” His more abstract portraiture features lots of disembodied eyes: an attempt, perhaps, at “flipping the gaze” back to the dominant white viewer. In these pieces, “You’re the painting now and the painting is looking back at you,” says Ryan, “so you’re forced to take on the emotions and anxieties that the painting would deal with if it was able to.” As some of the paintings are 4-foot tall, Ryan has seen people cringe before them, feeling “overpowered.”
Coming from a design background, commercial artist Emily Eisenhart regularly partners with corporate brands to help tell their stories. Like her father (whom as a kid she believed was Indiana Jones), Emily studied cultural anthropology and has traveled the world. The languages, textures, patterns, and colors of Africa and the Middle East inform her abstract sumi ink work, which she says is “all about balancing the marks on the paper or canvas,” and contribute to her process when she’s out in the field. A trained ethnographer, when Emily agrees to create a site-specific painting for a company, she does her homework, considering composition and color theory, how locals engage with a particular place, and what the client hopes to evoke through the work.
She brings the same discerning eye (and heart!) to bear when choosing which companies to work with. Corporate social responsibility tops her list of ‘must-have’ attributes, as evidenced by her recent partnership with major retailer Madewell. The construction barricade mural that she painted on the building’s exterior, in addition to several interior design projects, fit the bill because of the company’s commitment to recycling old denim into housing insulation through a program called Blue Jeans Go Green. That demonstration of good stewardship was important to Emily because her first job after graduation involved designing safe birthing kits for women in rural India. “I came from the social impact world,” she says. “Looking back, I can see how each phase of my career helped build the platform for my art.”
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