Celebrity on canvas
Pueblo Community College students revel in the joy of art making

A portrait of Madonna hangs in the hallway at Pueblo Community College Monday. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

The week after Christmas I spotted Lauren Bacall walking down Main Avenue. Having lived in Manhattan, I don’t get too excited by celebrity sightings but here in Durango, the place I live to escape that hype, I was a bit “wowed.” Even if she wasn’t a star, Bacall still would have caught my eye. It’s hard not to notice a woman wearing a bright red leather jacket and matching pants, sliding Sophia Lorenz-type sunglasses down onto her nose. One would think that seeing the leather-clad cinema diva wearing sunglasses with lenses the size of orange juice can lids strolling out of Eureka Dan’s during the holiday hustle down Main would be enough star-gazing for one year.

But then last week, I sighted Madonna in a hallway, and she was accompanied by another daring and controversial artist, Frida Kahlo. Bob Marley was their escort. These three larger-than-life characters are truly larger-than-life: their heads measure around 4 feet high and have no bodies connected to them. You figured it out – I am talking about painted portraits of these famous folks, and they are currently on display at Pueblo Community College in Durango.

Pueblo Community College (PCC) is located on the lower level of the old federal building on Camino del Rio. Within its community of students, a small population takes advantage of the visual art and art history curriculum, classes that fulfill requirements and electives toward either an associates of art or science degree. Art class sizes usually numbers between eight and 15 students, offering instructors the possibility to create student-centered learning environments and provide individualized instruction … which brings me back to the celebrity presence in Durango. Madonna, Frida, Bob, and … oh, yes … Johnny Cash, the subject of an 8-foot-by-8-foot painting, were all created by students in a beginning painting class taught by Durango artist Shan Wells. Purchased by another instructor who is a fan of Johnny Cash, the large-scale portrait now resides in a loft on Main Avenue so you won’t find Cash mingling with the other superstars. You will find a hero of another sort, however, hanging with these idols of music and art. A large portrait of a survivor of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, her face tense and mouth poised to make her voice heard, contrasts the familiar face of Marley with its “jah-man” expression.

The idea behind these large-scale paintings came from Wells’ interest in devising a collaborative, experimental project in which the students would take ownership of their work. “One of my main objectives was wanting them to feel like they were making art instead of doing a painting assignment,” he said. “Also, working on a grand scale makes you feel more like an artist.”

A grand scale it is. Frida Kahlo’s characteristic “unibrow” has the wingspan of a good-sized crow.

As is true with the creative process, the project grew from inspiration. Wells had the students in the painting classes begin by choosing inspirational people to portray. Laurie Hoffman, a liberal arts major who worked on the Bob Marley piece, explained, “As a class we voted on who we wanted to use as subjects … this was the hardest part of the project.” Nicole Harlan encouraged her classmates to choose the Hurricane Katrina survivor portrait, wanting to remind people of the courage and determination that it takes to overcome a disaster.

With the subjects chosen, the students looked to media sources for photographic images to use as references from which to base the final portraits. Selecting the best reference images was challenging: finding photographs with pronounced highlights and shadows wasn’t as easy as the students had expected.

Once the teams decided on the best reference images for each portrait, the students made a charcoal drawing, their interpretation of the image. Wells then took each student’s drawing and scanned them into his computer then digitally generated a composite image that incorporated elements of each student’s drawing. For Wells, this was his favorite part of the process, “picking the strengths from each person’s drawing and combining them together to create a homogenization of all the drawings.” What the students received back after this amalgamation process, was “an odd abstraction” according to Wells. Shawna Dooley, who painted Marley’s dread locks, really liked this aspect of the project because it helped her understand a more abstract way of seeing. She used this new understanding to paint the hair less realistically and more stylized.

After building and stretching the large canvases, the students transferred their composite image with the aid of a transparency of the digitized image and an overhead projector.

Complex and multifaceted, the portrait project offered a depth of learning to the students. Laurie Hoffman praised Wells’ teaching methods. “Shan is an excellent teacher because he combines old techniques with new ones.” Another student, Mike Parks recalled with enthusiasm, “On the first day of class, Shan had us get down on the floor with his kids, who he brought to class that day, and had us draw with them to remind us of the joy of art making.”

The students also gained from their collaborative experience. “I couldn’t have asked for better partners … each of our strengths were different, and we all came together and really consulted before we altered or added to the painting,” said Jade Heath.

In all of his classes, Wells is interested in giving students a taste of “the artist’s process” – what creative types engage in mentally, aesthetically and technically to bring an artwork from inspiration to the final painting. “I want to give them something really huge that they can surmount through good planning and working together. I want to engage the students in a project with the capital ‘P.’” •

The portraits are for sale and the money raised goes into the PCC art fund to support future large-scale painting projects. (Johnny Cash sold for $500.) If interested contact Shan Wells at shan@shanwells.com. Pueblo Community College is located at 701 Camino del Rio, Suite 100, in Durango.



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