Amy Sherald grew up in Columbus, Georgia, which shaped her conceptions of identity and fundamentally influenced her artistic practice. “Acknowledging the performative aspects of race and Southernness, I committed myself to exploring the interiority of Black Americans,” the artist told Smithsonian Magazine in December 2019. “I wanted to create unseen narratives.”
Now living and working in Baltimore, Sherald paints distinctive portraits set against bold, vibrant backdrops. She renders each subject, who stares directly at the viewer, in her signature grayscale. “A Black person on a canvas is automatically read as radical,” she said. “My figures needed to be pushed into the world in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative. I knew I didn’t want it to be about identity alone.”
When considering how Sherald titles her works, it’s not surprising that she reads voraciously: “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” is a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves” in Maud Martha; and “The lesson of the falling leaves” is a Lucille Clifton poem. Each explores the relationship between interiority and exteriority and the experience of Black Americans.
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Chicago-based artist Kayla Mahaffey captures the vivid reveries occupying young minds. She juxtaposes realistically rendered figures with chaotic scenes of two-dimensional cartoon characters as they emerge from amorphous clouds and pastel commotions. Each central figure wears a distinct expression that’s reflected through the fictional world.
Many of Mahaffey’s pieces portraying children’s imaginations shown here are part of the series Off to the Races, which serves as a hopeful narration of change, she said in a statement.
As we travel through life we experience the daily trials and tribulations that help shape us into the people we are today. During this journey, we may end up hitting some bumps or may experience some rough terrain, but it’s how we deal with those situations that make the difference. We are all on the journey to greatness, each individual racing to the finish line in hope of reaching goals and prosperity. With the race may come with it mistakes and regret, but not taking part in the race leads you nowhere.
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Whether unwrapping themselves from textile folds or balancing atop spindly stools, Monica Rohan’s figures are perpetually in motion. The painter depicts adventurous subjects set amongst whimsical worlds of overgrown bushes, vibrant seas of fabric, and cloudless skies rendered in patches blue. “The figure brings tension, the possibility of a narrative,” she tells Colossal. Rohan envisions each character as the impetus for action in her playful landscapes and thickly decorated domestic scenes.
Each piece begins with the artist exploring a photographic catalog she maintains with imagery of nature, interiors, and self-portraits.
These are developed through photo sessions which last anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. I then translate this content into sketches and studies, finding different ways to pull patterns out and manipulate the figure before moving forward with the painting proper…The first marks on the board are a transfer of a sketch for the figure. I’ll then start painting and slowly work my way across the surface in a single layer, constantly making micro-decisions and balancing the image as I go. The figure in this way acts as a sort of anchor that the rest of the painting moves around.
Often drawing from texts she’s reading—Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is one—the artist imbues fictional tales into her works. “I’m interested in when real life and fiction bleed into one another. I’ve always been an avid reader, but happily, nowadays I can read and paint at the same time thanks to audio-books. Often whatever I’m reading filters through into titles for works and indirectly into the paintings themselves,” she says.
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In a 53-foot mural of exposed roots and tangled branches, Boston-based artist Ethan Murrow (previously) situates an energetic construction site manned by human workers, who heave their materials and balance across taught ropes. “The Garden” is replete with scaffolding, small tool sheds, and suspended orbs of sod and lumber among the sturdy boughs. With flags staked on its top, the tree serves as an organic backdrop for the humans’ manufactured expansion. Evidenced by the figure raising a tree branch to the sky in the top left corner, though, the workers’ actions often appear peculiar and inconsequential.
In a statement, Murrow explains that his scenic works are rooted in United States history and culture. Whereas traditional narratives are founded on the idea that progress and human superiority are natural, the artist works to subvert those assumptions.
As our world leaks and creaks forward, landscape can act as the ultimate term and representation of the joys and foibles of our actions. Landscape is an aesthetic ideal, an edited view of reality that suits the maker—in essence, a fiction. For me, the word has come to define our use of images and stories to convince ourselves of who we are, what we know to be true, and what we wish was fact.
Rendered in high flow acrylic and paint pens, “The Garden” is installed at Expedia Group headquarters in Seattle. Many of Murrow’s projects that are concerned with historical narratives and human progress can be found on Instagram.
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Home MuralFest: 67 Artists Simultaneously Painted Murals in Their Homes and Gardens While Quarantined
Similar to other muralists, Copenhagen-based artist Jacoba Niepoort was preparing for a busy period full of travel and public projects when COVID-19 canceled all of her plans. “I had been dreaming of methods for connecting individual, like-minded creatives who share common dreams within this multi-layered/directional world of art in the public space,” she tells Colossal. “When quarantine hit, I wanted to use the spaces we were in to create parallel individual works.”
Niepoort connected with Axel Void (previously), a Miami-based artist who leads a cultural platform designed to bring art out of conventional spaces. The pair and the Void Projects’ creative team curated Home MuralFest, a collective initiative that inspired 67 quarantined artists around the world to paint their latest artworks on blank walls in their living rooms, studios, and garden sheds. Each worked simultaneously throughout April to create pieces that range from monochromatic birds inked on windows to vibrant geometric expanses.
By bringing them out of the public sphere, Home MuralFest subverts how viewers typically engage with these artworks. “What interests me about this project is the new unexpected connections across time and space—using this digital world in some potentially more productive way, letting it grow, seeing what unexpectedness comes out of this,” says Niepoort, whose contribution is shown below.
Because only the residents inside the building have the opportunity to view each mural, technology and social media serve as integral and sincere methods of connection. “Being cooped up has presented an opportunity to come together in new ways, both as coordinators and as artists,” Niepoort says. “To share visuals of the space and time we’re standing in now, created in solitude, but with the solidarity and simultaneousness being an important value-factor.”
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Based in France, botanical artist Denise Ramsay renders fleshy petals and pollen-heavy stamen in an exquisite series of watercolor paintings. She focuses on the capitulum, or the head of the flower, to give each lavender lady and glory lily an animated quality. “Corona,” shown below, appears as if it’s ready to scuttle across the otherwise empty work.
By painting less common florals, Ramsay tells Colossal that her Alien Nation series centers on the simple lines and shapes found in nature. “(Watercolor) gives me the fluid and transparent washes of color that I need to create the glow of color, light, and shadows to make each flower look like it floats effortlessly in space,” she writes. “My aim is to show them in new and interesting ways, to take a simple ordinary flower and elevate it.” With a background in fashion, Ramsay said she has a love for dramatic lighting that’s reflected in her floral pieces, which can stretch up to 46 inches.
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Editor's Picks: Design
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