Way back in August 2019, when I first saw three of the portraits from this growing series at the Parkland Art + Design Faculty exhibit, I knew Paula McCarty was onto something. The portraits were rivetting, intimate, and left me wanting to learn more about their subjects. Well here we are in March, just in time for Women’s History Month, and McCarty’s series, Women Who Painted, has blossomed into a full series of unique portraits honoring the women who made their place in the visual arts.
I had the chance to chat with McCarty about her inspiration, her process, and the future of this important work. I hope it inspires you to see the work in its dual-site exhibition, where you will witness first-hand what happens when a gifted artist is given the support of a local arts grant. The work created for Women Who Painted is both visually stunning and educational. It also utilizes technology in new ways, both in terms of artistic process and extending the portraits power through a companion website.
Smile Politelty: This is such an exciting and ambitious project. What was the germ of inspiration that started it all?
Paula McCarty: As far back as 2016, or even earlier, I wanted to learn to paint digitally. My inspiration was David Hockney, who was making digital work and is one of my favorite painters. Needing a new phone, I purchased one with a stylus. I set out to do monthly paintings, honoring a deceased female painter in her birthday month. Sometimes I would fall behind and then try to catch up. I kind of abandoned the birthday idea, but eventually came up with a significant number of portraits. A friend suggested a separate website for them, other than featuring the work on my existing site. I sat on that idea for about a year, then went with it. Another friend suggested the links to the Wikipedia pages.
SP: The portraits seem so intimate, as if we’ve just caught these women in the midst of significant moments. What informed your composition?
McCarty: Sometimes the artist’s own body of work will inform the composition, such as repeated structures or devices she used in her paintings, other times, it may be something I’ve read about the artist that will influence a composition.
SP: Did you work from references?
McCarty: Definitely, sometimes I will find only one or two photos of an artist and other times, there are many to choose from. I really look for one that inspires me. I like working from black and white photos (and most often that is the only choice) because I am maybe less influenced by the color of clothing and can make those decisions on my own.
SP: I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about artists who work on series projects that allow for rumination and reflection, growth and sitting with a concept over time. What has the experience been like for you?
McCarty: I actually have enjoyed the series thus far. The making of a series allows the paintings to feed of off and inform one another. However, I can just as easily be inspired to paint something independently of a series, simply because I want to paint it or investigate something further.
SP: You’ve written about beginning the portraits, or rather thumbnails of them, in digital format. How has that changed your process and/or the final work?
McCarty: It lets me become familiar with a face and to play out ideas. I’ve painted 10 oil paintings in the series thus far. I find sometimes sticking with the idea I had completed in digital format works, and other times does not. Paintings have a life of their own once started and things can change once I get working on a canvas. I do absolutely love the immediacy of the digital “sketchpad”. I really respond to color and the ability to correct and change things quickly suits me well.
SP: What do you think makes a portrait powerful?
McCarty: I think if I can capture something about the subject that transcends the photo reference I am not interested in simply copying a photo. I really hope to bring some personality and verve to my subject.
SP: What do people most misunderstand about the art of the portrait?
McCarty: There may be a misconception that portrait painting is no longer relevant, however there are a number of contemporary painters working in the genre. Artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, John Sonsini, and Elizabeth Peyton are but a few.
SP: What do you most want people to know about the upcoming exhibit?
McCarty: That it will up through the month of March. It was made possible by an Urbana Arts & Culture Grant I received last year and it coincides with Women’s History Month.
SP: What surprised you most about this work?
McCarty: I was familiar with some of the female artists simply through having had art history courses, however, I found long lists of female painters on the internet that included names of artists that were new to me. This series of mine could potentially last a lifetime.
SP: What do you think will surprise viewers the most?
McCarty: I am not sure what will surprise people. Perhaps the fact that its possible to work small digitally (even an Ipad is not that big) and print images pretty large. That is, if the beginning image exports at a large enough size. Maybe viewers will be surprised that these were done on my phone. It has a screen size of 4″ x 2.75″.
SP: What’s next for you after the opening?
McCarty: I would like to get to some paintings I have been wanting to do. My only grandbaby, a boy, is almost 7 months old and I’ve been really wanting to do some portraits of him.
SP: What have you been teaching these days?
McCarty: I had a winter landscape class and another where students focused on clouds and water. Upcoming, I am offering a color theory class at Parkland Community Education, and a portrait class at Springer Cultural Center.
SP: How do you balance it all? Does one inform the other?
McCarty: I’ve managed to balance a variety of jobs for some time. It is not easy doing the balancing act, but I am good at multi-tasking. I cannot say the teaching informs my work, but it certainly has been good for me and is something that I really enjoy. I feel fortunate to work in the arts.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
McCarty: I would like to thank them for reading this interview and I hope they have the opportunity to check out my exhibition. I will be exhibiting this work in September at the McLean County Arts Center with new additions to the series. Finally, I’d like to thank the Urbana Arts and Culture Program again for awarding me the grant that made this exhibition possible.
Learn more on the Women Who Painted website.
Women Who Painted
Urbana City Building
400 S Vine St,
Urbana Freee Library
210 W Green St,
Opening reception: March 5th, 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Urbana City Building
Dual-site exhibit runs through the month