Monday, March 5, 2012

The Allure of the Everyday

The Beaneater, 1580-1590, oil on canvas
Ahhhh......Annibale Carracci's "The Beaneater". This painting has so many memories for me. I attended undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney....many years ago. It was in that program, that I met one of my best friends and he and I decided to take a "Baroque and Rococo" art history class together. Truthfully, it was a requirement for graduation and it was, terribly, terribly dry. The woman who taught the class was a very lovely lady who had immigrated from Eastern Europe and she was extremely brilliant. Her only downfall was the thought that teaching art history consisted of offering the class at 8 am, turning off the lights and speaking in a monotone drone that was in perfect sync to the gentle whirring of the slide projector. So, in essence, the entire class was asleep, including my friend. In that class we spent an entire week discussing Carracci's Beaneater painting. I remember when I initially saw the painting I thought "How interesting, I like that idea", but after a full week of the painting I remember thinking "If I have to see that man drooling beans again, I am going to cry". Now, perhaps my teacher really did explain the relevance, but I was convinced that she was just trying to weed out the students who sat in the back of the class with their baseball caps pulled over their eyes spitting chew into empty Pepsi cans. And, if that was her aim, she succeeded as the class diminished in size throughout the semester. Over this past weekend, I was talking to my college friend and mentioned something about art history which prompted his look of alarm coupled with "Oh...god...The Beaneater!" We both had a good laugh.

Don's Noodles, acrylic, 24"h x 24"w, ©Chris Willey
In defense of my teacher, I am certain she explained the significance of the painting and I was, most likely, too immature to pay attention and absorb as much information out of her as I should have done. Now, many years later, I look at The Beaneater painting with a much different set of eyes. The interest in everyday subject matter in paintings really captures my attention. Carracci was one of the first to break away from paintings that were solely religiously commissioned. Although he did those as well,"The Beaneater" shows an interest in just everyday people, doing everyday activities. And these sorts of paintings are what grab my attention at art galleries and at shows. When I see paintings like this, there is an implicit narrative or story going on. Even more than portrait painting, I am drawn to narratives which probably also explains why I am an illustrator.

When I got accepted into Boston's program, they sent information about how to go about choosing a mentor. Well, of course, there are the obvious standards: can this person paint well? Is this person exhibiting? Is this person a master of his or her media? The paperwork also said that I should find someone whose work I admire. Well, I admire a lot of people and I happen to love a lot of people's work, but I remembered someone who was painting everyday genres and that is something I have never done, and yet, it is something I am very interested in. I remembered Chris Willey. I remembered her figures and portraits and her scenes of people in cafes just chatting. Those are the images that I enjoy the most.

During my residency in Boston, several faculty and students proposed this very idea of everyday genre as it relates to Neurofibromatosis. Instead of doing just merely head shots of people with NF and making the disorder the dominant theme, why not paint people with NF, just simply .....being people? Rather than isolating them from their environments, placing them in very comfortable surroundings gives the paintings a sense of time and place. Showing people with NF doing everyday things integrated in society shows the viewer that these are just everyday people, not people to be gawked at or discriminated against. By painting everyday scenes, the focus is removed from the disorder and the viewer of the painting simply sees a person...who happens to have NF.

So, this is what I am going to try next. I have painted Reggie Bibb's portrait numerous times, but this will be the first time I incorporate a painting of him doing what he loves to do: drink coffee!

Here are three different compositions: little dainty coffee cup, sipping coffee, in the midst of a gesture while talking to a friend.

My next idea is to have a scene of us, the viewer, just watching Reggie as he looks out of a window. Whenever I go on a trip, I always go to those viewing areas, whether it's the Hancock tower in Chicago, or the Space Needle in Seattle or the London Eye. Anytime I'm up there at one of those lookouts, I tend to watch other people looking at the panoramic horizons. Maybe it's my curiosity to see if they will ooh and ahh or if they will just glance and then leave, but I always think it makes for good people watching and it's also a good time to just contemplate without being disturbed. Here's an idea of Reggie just looking out the window over the Thames in London. I think if I do this one, I will have to get my friend to pose and London may turn into Kansas City or a very vague cityscape.

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