By Donna Clayton Lawder
"I think it's true what they say about eyes," says Silver City painter Lois Duffy, this month's cover artist, "that the eyes are the windows to the soul. When I decide to paint a face, the first thing I do is the eyes. If I can't capture the eyes, I can't paint that face."
Duffy has captured myriad faces—and more—in her huge acrylic paintings, and has become known for the stories she tells through powerful human images. She counts at least 13 awards in her painting resume, including Best of Show at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in California two years in a row. Her well-known Pink Trailer took that honor in 2004. It's About Time, a composition in which Alice in Wonderland 's white rabbit seems to float among the inner workings of a clock, won in 2005.
"I didn't enter this year. I wanted to give someone else a chance to win," she quips. It's About Time also took Best of Show in the International Museum of Art in El Paso last year.
Duffy's Silver City gallery has been a mainstay of the town's art scene, first on Yankie Street and now at the corner of Texas and Yankie. She bought and renovated that building, which expanded the Yankie Street art district perpendicularly onto Texas Street. Besides giving Duffy larger space for her own work, the building houses Casey Luria's Bloomin' Gourdworks and Bob Swisher's Last Day in Paradise (see last month's Tumbleweeds section). Another space, recently vacated, will soon house another gallery.
Having her own gallery is very important to Duffy. "I have the freedom to paint what I really want," she says. "When you exhibit in another's gallery, they have to sell it for you, so they will shy away from the controversial."
Educated at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Duffy says she learned her color theory and the basics there, but her style is largely self-taught. Having followed her fiancé to New England, she married relatively young and started a family right away, quickly finding herself the mother of four children—the oldest just five years in age. When the youngest toddled off to kindergarten, she was ready to resume her art.
Working for a printer, Duffy was taking photos in a cotton mill and was taken by the face of one woman in particular. "I noticed her, kind of off to the side. She had this absolutely great face, and I asked her to model a bit for me," she recalls. "She was really shy about it, but I got her to move around, sit over here, over there. I got some great photos! And in my heart what I thought was 'I really want to paint this face,' so I did later."
Years later, she says she is now known for her unique and varied subject matter. Her paintings are also very, very large. Her largest canvases measure six-and-a-half by seven feet and require a truck to be moved around. Aside from the challenge that presents to her as an artist, it also may not work for, say, a customer looking to hang something in the living room. To that end, she has had many works reproduced as giclee prints, in smaller sizes and even as greeting cards.
Duffy feels it is an artist's responsibility to paint things that matter, she says, things that are the issues of the day, even involving political issues. Taking up this gauntlet herself, her current project is a series about global warming.
"This one obviously deals with the flooding that is happening around the world," she says, pointing to the first painting in the series. Turbulent water swirls about, the result of melting polar ice caps. "This is my grandson," she says of the small child in the lower corner of the piece. "He's holding onto the last piece of land."
Walking over to an easel where a work is in progress, Duffy continues, "This is the next one in the series, and of course it is dealing with the drought factor, the other side of the (global warming) coin." The landscape is sere and lifeless.
Other politically themed works include We The People, a piece depicting Duffy's feelings about the 2000 presidential elections, specifically the vote recount in Florida. There is a crowd, perhaps rioting, in the foreground. Most look "ethnic," and one person holds up an infamous "chad" ballot. In the background, a row of people—the US Supreme Court justices—wears white masks.
Another piece, Twin Towers, is an emotional work depicting the lives lost in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. The two buildings are composed of small heads. Two blood-red swaths cut through the structures, symbolic of the destruction from the two planes terrorists used as weapons, and smoke pours out the top of the buildings into brilliant blue skies.
"I had to put a sheet over that (painting) for a while," she says. "Some people couldn't even look at it at first."
Duffy also paints "pretty things," she allows. "Trees, pretty scenes. I can't wait to get back to Canyon de Chelly." She finds that place greatly inspiring, and an earlier work painted there, Starry Night, has sold, so the gallery has room for more beautiful landscapes with unique perspectives.
Another of Duffy's well-known series involves scenes and places around Silver City's downtown. 4 PM at A.I.R. depicts the well-known coffeeshop on Texas and Yankie Street, now Dos Baristas. Buffalo Bar shows the Bullard Street watering hole, a characteristic cadre of motorcycles parked out front, regulars posturing in the doorway.
"I call them my 'Norman Rockwell Series' because they have a touch of the idealistic. They are real, but there's something not quite real about them, too," she says.
Pink Trailer is of this same genre. With the single-wide of the title in the background, the painting's focus is the larger-than-life woman squatting in the foreground, a likely (or at least formerly) stray cat at her feet.
A detail from another work in this style, Blues Festival, is this month's cover art. Depicting a scene from the annual Silver City Blues Festival, held in Gough Park, the work evokes pleasant memories of a summer day, a small group of people dancing to the musicians in the gazebo, a man rich with local character in the foreground playing a huge upright bass decorated with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"I'm known for that, this juxtaposition," Duffy remarks of her larger-than-life focal points. "If you think about it, the bass is really too big, but our minds put things in place."
In a different segment of her work she calls "Other Worlds," Duffy paints images that are more abstract, involving things of science and nature on a colorful and perhaps sub-atomic level. What could be atomic particles swirl through brilliant or dark backgrounds, strands of glistening fibers creating mysterious webs. Fabric of the Universe, Origins and The Information Highway invite speculation and fire the imagination.
"I'm fascinated by scientific things," Duffy says. "Physics, time-space things, molecules. Those things are so fascinating, so beautiful. I think it's what I would have done if I hadn't gone into art."