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Pandemic paintings featured at the Center for the Arts

DECATUR, Ala. - As the coronavirus shuttered schools, churches and businesses and suspended life for many last spring, north Alabama painter Jane Philips turned to her art to address feelings of isolation, death, decay, rebirth, wonder and growth.

Four of the paintings Philips completed last year are currently on display at the Alabama Center for the Arts, which debuted two new exhibits last week.

Philips’ “Convalescence” in the main studio and the “Festival of the Cranes” in the walking gallery will remain on display at the downtown Decatur art centre through Feb. 19.

A multi-media artist, Philips named the show “Convalescence” due to the “hard-earned healing” she experienced last year.

“For many months following the start of the pandemic, I could not paint. I was very frustrated with myself because I seemingly had all this free time open up that I felt like I should be taking advantage of. But the truth of the matter is that this (past) year has been stressful and abnormal for everyone — no matter how hard you try not to think about it. For a while, I could only survive. I’m still working on the thriving part,” the Huntsville native said.

To cope with stress and start healing, Philips turned to nature and began hiking through the Tennessee Valley’s forests and parks.

“It’s a thing I can do alone to push myself physically and mentally. The woods became a place of peace and, oddly, connection with the world around me — just maybe not the human part of it,” Philips said. “Hiking helps me think through ideas and clear my head, and the beauty of nature around me inspires me to paint.”

That love for nature appears in Philips’ art, from “Jungle in Triplicate” — a bright and colorful three-panel jungle scene with butterflies, a frog and birds — to “Saying Hello to an Old Friend,” a painting of the artist’s hand on a tree trunk.

The other two new pieces created from oil paint, coffee, charcoal, gold leaf and house paint are “Feels Like Hope,” a portrait of a woman among a field of Queen Anne’s lace, and “Saint Anastia,” a painting of the same model.

“The model is a friend who works with NASA. She’s had some personal triumphs over the last few years, and I wanted to celebrate that and create something positive with them. I just couldn’t muster the energy to work on them until the very end of (last) year — when I could finally feel a little hope again,” Philips said.

Along with the new pieces, the exhibit features Philips’ older work, including “Hereditary/(Whisper),” which won best in show at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center’s “Embracing Art” exhibit in 2019.

Created from oil paint, gold leaf and coffee, the work shows Philips looking to the left, away from the viewer. Her chin rests on the palm of her hand and her bent fingers cover her mouth. On her right are sprigs of dried Queen Anne’s lace.

“I think at my core, I have a strong dedication to the stories and characters I share, and I’ve continued in that vein over the last two years,” said Philips, whose work, which reflects her struggle with anxiety and exploration of identity, recently appeared in the Wiregrass Museum of Art’s “Biennial” and the Huntsville Museum of Art’s “Red Clay Survey.”

To see Philips’ art, stop by the Alabama Center for the Arts Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday, 8 a.m. to noon. Admission is free.

“I hope people can see that beauty can be found in many different moments, and not all of those moments are light or joyous or peaceful. There’s also beauty in the breakdown, in darkness, in isolation. Even if, sometimes, it feels almost impossible to find,” Philips said.

In the walking gallery, the “Festival of the Cranes” exhibit features 27 nature-themed pieces of art by 21 artists, Jennifer Bunnell, chief operating officer with Alabama Center of the Arts, said.

Held in conjunction with Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge’s Festival of the Cranes, which took place Saturday, the juried exhibit features art by students, alumni and faculty at Athens State University and Calhoun Community College.

The exhibit includes oil, acrylic, watercolour and digital paintings for whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, deer, forests and the Tennessee River.
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