HUNTINGTON - When you think of portrait paintings, the last two things most people would think of preserving is the awkward stare of a teenage boy and the facial scars of an accident victim.
But in her latest exhibit, "Personal Space: New Paintings by Sassa Wilkes," the artist has turned her oils and gold leaf drips and smears onto a collection of mostly three-foot-by-four-foot canvases highlighting local people. The exhibit of 18 paintings and four sculptures is up through July 5 at the Carroll Gallery at the MU Visual Art Center, located across from Pullman Square in downtown Huntington.
"Personal Space" can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The gallery is free and open to the public. Go online at http://www.marshall.edu/art/vac/ to find out more.
The idea for Wilkes' latest art exhibit started when her 13-year-old son Max donned her old gold-stitched jacket as they headed to a concert by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. They were on the street and she snapped a picture of a deliciously awkward moment. She then painted a portrait with the natural use of gold leaf on the jacket.
"We were getting ready to go to the concert, and he is on the street, and he is looking like he is the stuff, but yet he is awkward too and has a huge head and is at a weird age where he is in between everything," Wilkes said. "That stage is so fleeting and beautiful though. He was looking me just dead in the eye, and I thought he looked like an angel, and I wanted to preserve that."
Max's portrait hangs beside the second painting Wilkes did for the exhibit.
Titled "Where The Darkness Ends," the painting is of one of her longtime friends, Danielle Pierce, whose face is scarred following a bicycle accident that happened after she moved to Asheville, North Carolina.
"In this one, the placement of it is very meaningful," Wilkes said. "She was one of my very best friends when she was here, and when she moved to Asheville she was in a horrible accident. She was on a bicycle and going downhill late at night, and the gold is where her scars are from her accident."
Wilkes said in the painting of Pierce she was thinking about the Japanese technique of Kintsugi - "golden joinery" - also known as Kintsukuro, or "golden repair," the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum, a method based on the philosophy to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than something to disguise.
"That technique ties into the Japanese philosophy that when something is broken it is more beautiful for having been broken, and when fused together with gold it is so much nicer," Wilkes said. "In the photo of her she had been on this mountain she had been hiking and was doing all of this stuff to heal after the accident, and that picture made it look like she had found her spot and that she was OK with things. I am sure I inferred that, but I wanted it to look like her scars are gold and coming out of the top of her head like everything is just fine."
Wilkes said she placed those first two side-by-side because they tied together in her mind.
"The teenage years are an awkward stage that people want to forget. They destroy the photos and black themselves out of the yearbook. It is not a stage that is normally immortalized, and her scars are not a thing that ... normally in our culture (are) celebrated. They want to tell you that you need to fix it right away. I wanted to immortalize both things."
A photographer as well, Wilkes painted the majority of the portraits from photos she had taken of some of her friends and acquaintances such as Tiffany Tatum, a friend since childhood; Phoebe Patton Randolph, a well-known local architect; Jason Jones, a Cross Lanes, West Virginia, tattoo artist; and Jaye Ike's daughter Avery.
"I think I just pick people intuitively," Wilkes said. "I like to feel my way through things, and I can overthink things if I let myself, so I just try to go with my gut. I think that I pick people that have a good soul."
As for using gold leaf throughout the series, Wilkes said that, while she's a fan of early pioneers of its usage like Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, she is more influenced by contemporary usage. While painting this cornucopia of local people she admires, she said the gold kept manifesting itself.
"I think I use it like paint in some of them where it is a background, but in some of them, like Avery, I just sort of smeared it, so I am using it in a way that is very abstract," Wilkes said. "Sometimes you don't know why you are doing what you do. I don't know why I liked all of these images of gold, but gold seems pure and perfect and angelic and kind of untouchable, and it gives you a real surreal feeling to things too. Plus visually, I like what it does to backgrounds and foregrounds."
In "The Ritual," the largest painting at four-feet-by-five-feet, the gold also adds a weight of seriousness. In the painting, gold is streaming down on the heads of Randolph and Tatum. Wilkes said the photo she took was just of some after-Christmas silliness where she had them draping leftover holiday tinsel on their heads while listening to some '90s rap at a dinner party.
"I took pictures of them pouring the tinsel, and I know it means something to me and it comes but from somewhere, but I just intuitively like this image. I like the way it looks because it does look like a ritual," Wilkes said. "I am not poking fun of any rituals because I think sacred things are really cool, but to me you might as well make a ritual sometimes out of putting tinsel on somebody's head; it is just as valid as some of the others."
Wilkes knew most of the people in "Personal Space," save for Lauren Gray, a pilates, mat and dance instructor at 4th Avenue Arts in downtown Huntington.
By utilizing photos friends took of Gray, Wilkes has painted her a couple times. This time, she developed her portrait from a photograph from Ayo Akinsete, a photographer she met in Huntington at the art walk last year, the day before he moved to Sweden.
"I had never actually officially met her until the opening, and I had drawn her and painted her two or three times," Wilkes said. "That image just struck me immediately. His photographs are beautiful, but I don't think I would have painted her if I didn't have a feeling from her, even the small one I had from social media. She is a very open and kind person, and I like to paint people who have kind souls."
Gray's fashionable, retro flair also made Wilkes think of her grandmother, Virginia Campbell, who is 98 and who got to come to the opening. Although she lives by Wilkes, she had never been to one of her art openings.
Wilkes said one of early art influences was her grandmother, who they call "Moggle," a word Wilkes' sister came up with as a little kid when she couldn't say mammaw.
"She went to college in the 1940s and took photography classes and stuff. She is so cool," Wilkes said. "In World War II she would draw pin-ups and send them to my grandpa, and he would use them as currency to trade with other soldiers. I think a lot of the reasons I was drawn to Lauren is that she looks like my grandmother at that age, and she always dressed sharp. I think I got into figure drawing because she had those how-to-draw figure books.She is amazing, and I think she influenced me more with art than I thought."
Wilkes said the exhibit has been really amazing to celebrate her art work with her family, like her grandma, and her mom, who she says is one of her biggest influences.
"My mom is the biggest influence because she can make anything, and she makes everything beautiful," Wilkes said. "She says she is not an artist, but she is in every possible way. When I was little if you were bored, you make something - that is just what you do."
Melissa Yungbluth, gallery director and facilities coordinator at the MU VAC and a working visual artist herself, said she feels it is essential for the MU VAC to host exhibits from current community members who are making significant work. She said Wilkes, who has a bachelor's of fine arts in sculpture and a master's in art education from Marshall, was a perfect choice to showcase this summer.
Yungbluth said especially in summer when the majority of students are gone, she hopes to have the gallery open for thought-provoking and exciting contemporary art being made by artists in the surrounding area.
"I came from a community art center background, and this was our programming - we had national exhibits about half the time, and the other 50 percent was local Floridians," Yungbluth said. "This is the first time we had a local, well-beloved community artist, and so it was eye-opening to see what the reception turnout was like in this scholastic setting, and the turnout was fantastic. Sassa's work is incredibly beautiful, and in a way it was a perfect storm of some fantastic work of an alumni who brought out the community for an exciting reception."
Although Wilkes has had exhibits in other cities, she said there is nothing like getting to show at home.
"Sometimes galleries in general and art in general can feel a little stuffy and inaccessible, and I like sharing it with people and making it accessible," Wilkes said. "I do feel like we are on the cusp of something here. I really do. I think it is growing, and I want to be a part of it. I have had shows in Charleston and Rio Grande, (Ohio), but it different. Those aren't home, this is home."
The VAC will indeed be home for Wilkes this summer, as she not only has an exhibit downstairs but will be upstairs from June 25 to July 15 teaching 16 current high school sophomores visual art at the Governor's School for the Arts.
Wilkes said it was an exciting opportunity to continue to teach. She decided to resign at the end of the school year after three years of teaching art at Cabell Midland High School. Wilkes said because of layoffs in the system, she was going to be moved and possibly displace another art teacher, so she has decided to pursue her art, as well as the possibility of opening an art center in Barboursville where she lives and where she is from.
"I remember I told Dean Van Horn when I was here as a student that I am in love with oil painting, and it feels exactly like being in love with a human - I can't sleep, I wake up thinking about it, like my stomach hurts so bad I am in love with it. I got a couple of kids, I used to tell them that, and they were like, 'Oh my you are weird,' but I could tell they got it. They got that bug, and I could tell they were like that too. As a teacher, I am prouder of the kids than I am of myself, by far. When they win awards, I feel things I would never feel for myself."
For now, though, Wilkes is excited to guide the next group of students further down the path of art during the School for the Arts.
"I got to interview the kids personally by myself. I had four out-of-town locations where I interviewed them. I picked like 16 kids out of 60 applicants all over the state. I have 16 of the best little 10th-grade artists you have ever seen, some real unbelievable talent. We are going to do some public art together, and it is really cool because this stuff will be up when they get here, and my exhibit comes down to make room for their stuff."
Wilkes said beyond the School for the Arts, she hopes to help start an art center in Barboursville and to also reach out and help use art to help people here in the Tri-State.
"I want to be in a place that prioritizes art and understands what it can do for people," Wilkes said. "I want to do recovery programs for people who are drug addicts. I would love to do that. Art and music can pick people out of places where nothing else can reach them. They reach people in ways that there are no substitutes for it. In school, the kids that would end up in my room at lunch hanging out and making art, they were the rugrats, they don't have any other place. They aren't into sports.
"Barboursville is a big sports community, but what about the kids that aren't athletic - those kids are always drawn to art. If you make a comfortable place for them to express themselves and make it OK to fail, it teaches lessons that no other thing can teach. It gives you power when you don't have any."