Artist's lines sketch insights into family, digital relationships

Thursday, April 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Amy Stephenson stands in front of her pieces "Facebook," currently on exhibit in the Perlow-Stevens Gallery.

COLUMBIA — Lines are powerful. Faint lines, drawn by artist Amy Stephenson, bring a small ballerina to life with minimalist delicacy. Bolder lines shape people's faces in Facebook-style profile portraits.

Lines jump out of Stephenson's work in a familiar, accessible way.

If You Go

What: Perlow-Stevens Gallery Spring Exhibit, featuring Amy Stephenson, Cathy Broski, J.D. King, Lynne Loshbaugh, Mary Miller, Joel Sager and Mitch Yung

When: Through June 27

Where: Perlow-Stevens Gallery, 812 E. Broadway

More information: or 442-4831



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"Her linear quality in her drawings is just amazing," said Lisa Bartlett, who, like Stephenson, is an artist at Orr Street Studios. "Her draftsmanship is really good — she's able to capture the form with one single line."

Stephenson's two-part series is included in a spring exhibit showing through late June at the Perlow-Stevens Gallery in downtown Columbia. One part is several pen-and-ink drawings about motherhood and childhood. The second part, collectively called “Facebook,” is made up of coaster-size portraits representing profiles of Stephenson’s friends on the social networking site.

Both parts are different conceptually, yet both show Stephenson’s stylistic attempts to make sense of what she calls her unreliable perception. “I am attracted to distortion and incorrectness,” she said. “I think that I’m more interested in that than trying to perfect things and make them just right.”

Stephenson draws in semi-blind contour; that is, while she works, she looks almost entirely at her subject rather than at the drawing. On one wall of the gallery are a trio of semi-blind contours from the motherhood-childhood series. On a recent visit, Stephenson looked at one that captures her 3-year-old daughter, Jane, dressed in a tutu for Halloween. In “Ballerina,” thin lines contrast with the pink watercolor splash of the girl’s skirt.

“These are about the power that we have over our kids and how huge that is,” Stephenson said of the paintings. “It’s such a terrific responsibility, and I think that power that we have that shapes their lives can sometimes be beautiful and can sometimes be monstrous.”

“I think that our perceptions are a little off, especially about childhood,” she said. “Once we leave childhood, we can never go back to it. We can never really understand it. We can never inhabit it again. I tried to communicate that.”    

Stephenson, who grew up in an artistic household, still maintains that lifestyle in her own home with her husband, Steve Woods, and daughter. But to her surprise, motherhood isn’t what she thought it would be. 

“Somehow I thought that we would be magically transported to this acreage with a stream and her playing outdoors all the time,” Stephenson said. “I really had high expectations for myself, and I think that sort of goes out the window once the child is introduced.”    

This message of uncertainty threading throughout her drawings speaks to other mothers.

“For me, it resonates remnants of time I’ve probably also had with my children at some point,” Bartlett said. “It’s going back to that very simple part of life that happens all the time. But there’s this quality of the moment that’s captured.”  

This recognition and the gap between expectation and reality isn’t restricted to mothers. Joel Sager, an Orr Street artist and an associate curator at Perlow-Stevens, reacted immediately to Stephenson’s drawings: He found uncertainty and compassion.  

“I think that there’s something really beautifully done that she’s expressed in the relationship between mother and child,” Sager said. “Even in the 'Ballerina’ between the child and the viewer (is) this really weird relationship that happens, which is love and frustration. She’s wrapped all these emotions into drawings.”

Such emotions drew Bartlett to the pieces as well. In their community at Orr Street Studios, they enjoy bouncing off one another's  thoughts and explorations, giving critiques and inspiration. Bartlett was one of the first people in Columbia to see the Facebook portraits in her studio, Stephenson said.

“The fact that she can carry it through on hundreds of small pieces is amazing,” Bartlett said. “Each piece is such a great little piece of artwork. You put it all together and there’s a wow-factor.”

Stephenson, 37, didn’t experience the insight for the Facebook portraits until several months before the show when her daughter presented her with a floppy disc. "How do you open this?" the girl had asked. On it were several photographs of Stephenson’s older work, and she drew from them a new vision.

“I had not looked at photographs of my work from that time period in a really long time,” Stephenson recalled. “I was having a lot of trouble deciding what I wanted to do with the show. When I saw those pictures, it took me back to what I really wanted to be doing.”

Set among the many large paintings and sculptures at Perlow-Stephens, Stephenson’s 105 mini portraits carry their weight.  A black shadow box to the right of them invites viewers to place different portraits in the box for display. Orr Street artist and sculptor Wayne Leal finds the concept new and fun.

“It’s a sort of 21st century cathode method of communication of bringing some humanity and life into it through fine art,” Leal said. “There’s a neat twist in there. I really like that.”

Leal, like Bartlett, often drops by Stephenson’s studio to see what she’s working on. When he first saw the Facebook portraits, he was drawn to their unique quality. Because of their appeal, Leal said, he imagines Stephenson having to replace the many portraits that he predicts will be purchased in the coming weeks.

“My first reaction was that it was really, really cool conceptually,” he said. “She hasn’t just done little representations. She’s done impressions of the people and their backgrounds and so forth.”

Similarly, Kelsey Wiskirchen was caught by the variation of Stephenson’s Facebook portraits. As a fourth-year art student working with fibers at Truman State University, Wiskirchen found the abundance of stylistic experimentation enjoyable.

“I think that the variety is really important to this group of work,” said Wiskirchen, who was visiting the gallery with friends. “It makes it really cohesive. The ones I like the best are the more expressive ones (where) you can see the artist’s brush strokes. I’m drawn to that texture.”

Wiskirchen, who has a Facebook account, finds the work familiar. “Scanning across all of it, it’s like when you log on and you click on your friends’ list and scroll and scroll and scroll and see what photographs people choose to represent themselves,” she said.

Some, like Wiskirchen, found appeal in the portraits' representative qualities, but Stephenson aimed to be more expressive and loose. She’s still figuring out her viewpoint on social networking.

“It’s a strange time to be around,” Stephenson said. “Painting portraits is a very traditional thing to do, and yet we have something that’s so new that couldn't have been conceived by people a few decades ago. I think that’s sort of an interesting contrast.”

While seeking friends’ photographs, Stephenson noted the ways in which they represented themselves through their profiles. She hasn’t decided whether she likes the networking site or not, but continues to use her account.

“It’s a very strange way to connect with other people," she said. "I think it’s both distancing and connecting. It’s not face-to-face with humans, and that’s very different.”

While Stephenson continues to make small Facebook portraits to replace those purchased at the gallery, she brainstorms for future projects. Painting is her creative outlet, and she doesn’t see that changing any time soon. If she couldn’t paint, she said she’d seek the creative outlet of writing, which is her husband’s profession.

At the moment, she admires New York painter Alice Neel, who was "very brave about putting down the line that she wants," Stephenson said. These lines inspire her when she constructs her semi-blind contours.

"I try to look more at the subject matter than what I'm doing," she said. "That enables me to get to a meditative place when I'm drawing that facilitates expressing what I want to express."

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