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Monthly Archives: February 2018

  • Portraits and the Artists


    The first 43 presidential portraits, and those of the corresponding first ladies,  have a certain similar quality to them. They look, for the most part, like classic portraits that strive to depict rather than illustrate. That is, they're grounded in realism in the same way as a photograph: here is the subject, here is the background.


    Forty-four is different. These paintings were created by two African-American artists, the first Presedential portaits for which that's true. Both artists were hand-picked by their subjects, based on Mr. and Mrs. Obama studying dozens of portfolios and conducting one-on-one interviews.


    Obama Presidential Portraits Portraits of Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (NPR)

    Kehinde Wiley's Portrait of Mr. Obama

    Former President Barack Obama's Presidential Portrait Former President Barack Obama unveiling his portrait by Kehinde Wiley (NPR)

    Kehinde Wiley, who created Barack Obama's portrait, is already known for subverting the "classic" portrait, usually by painting a minority subject in a classical setting. One of his earlier works, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, shows not the expected Napoleon Bonaparte, but an African American man dressed in camouflage atop a horse. For Mr. Obama's portrait, Wiley depicted the president sitting casually in a formal chair. But the background has a surreal sense of imagination. The foliage that surrounds Mr. Obama is bright green and dotted with blooms, including pikake from his native Hawaii, African blue lilies from his father's native Kenya, and chrysanthemums to represent the Obama Family's hometown of Chicago.

    Kehinde Wiley grew up in LA with his twin brother and mother. Wiley studied painting at Yale.

    Amy Sherald's Portrait of Mrs. Obama

    Amy Sherald, in 2016, became the first woman to win the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait competition. She, like Wiley, is known for portraits of everyday people. Her work often features skin tones that are not strictly natural--often shades of gray--and so allow the other aspects of the painting to pop with color. For Mrs. Obama's portrait, Wiley used signature gray for her skin tone, with a flat, one-tone blue background. The dress, by designer Milly, is where the color resides. The patchwork style is reminiscent of a quilt, which the artist chose as a nod to the quilts of Gee's Bend, an Alabama community known for the gorgeous blankets created by its black female residents.

    The presidential portraits are hung in order, starting with George Washington, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. Each of the 88 paintings (of presidents and wives) is its own, singular work of art, and the Obamas' portraits have taken that tradition to a new level.

  • Meet Paige Holland

    Paige Hollands Self Expression Paige Hollands Self Expression

    Paige Holland did not train as an artist. In fact, the first time she bought an artist’s canvas, she says, she felt like she was breaking an unwritten rule. “I was living in LA,” she remembers. “I was a struggling artist trying to find work. One part-time job I had was working for a vet to the stars. [Michael Jackson’s birds were treated there, she says] “The head vet knew I was kind of artsy and he asked me to pick out art for the office. I thought, ‘I’m going to pick out the work of two artists and paint one piece of my own and throw that in there and not tell him.’ It had like a bird and a cat and a dog. He picked that one. That was kind of validation that I could do this. I felt like when I bought the canvas that someone was going to arrest me since I didn’t have an art degree.”

    Holland’s imposter syndrome has eased in the intervening years, and she now makes a living with her art, doing a combination of paintings and decorative commissions. The decorative painting stretches even further back in her career than the veterinarian art, since her mother was an interior designer in the 1980s. “Decorative painting was huge,” she says, “Faux marble, faux malachite, all that. I was really good at it. I was painting huge murals for people on their walls, ceilings, floors. I found I really had a voice for paintings and people really liked them.”

    Her foray from huge murals to expressive animals, like the ones featured on GreenBox, began with a pensive llama she saw in a photo. That llama ended up the central figure in her “Can I Have Yo Number” piece. “I’d never painted animals before except cats and dogs—people’s pets. I saw a photo of a llama and the expression on that animal’s face blew me away. I love how it came out and I just got hooked after that. I started looking for animal photos that had expression that conveys a feeling.” Holland starts many of her animals with a photo to capture the expression she’s after, and then she alters details on the animal to make it her own. She’s not a portrait artist when it comes to people—that’s a skill she doesn’t think she has and isn’t much interested in honing. In fact, the use of animals lets her explore expressions that might not translate well to humans, she says. “The animals are like [human] portraits but people are more open to them because it’s not a human portrait. They’re open to that expression if a critter has it but not a person. If you put a guy with that expression into ‘Can I Have Yo Number,’ it would be a scary guy on”

    The bright and imaginative backgrounds and landscapes Holland paints are often from her imagination. She uses acrylics and ink along with occasional additions of Mylar. “On some pieces, I’ll paint specific flowers on Mylar or an animal in the foreground and affix to the canvas. It creates a slight 3D-ness. Mylar is so perfectly smooth, unlike canvas which is slightly nubby, so you can shift your scale of detail [and paint onto Mylar with much more precision] and it creates a very interest juxtaposition.

    Paige Holland works from her home studio in San Antonio Texas, and these days she’s painting lots of flowers. “I’m trying to figure out chrysanthemums,” she says. Whether she’s doing animals on vibrant backgrounds or lush landscapes, she’s got an overarching goal: “I’ll make a playful version of any of these things; plants or animals or flags. I want to people to be happy and feel like all is well. Everything’s gonna be okay. Even past okay, I want people to have fun.”

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