MODERN MADONNAS Painted Old-Masters Style

Shelley Lamantia PortraitLast week, thanks to the weather, I had to extend a business trip to Chicago by two days.  In a sheer twist of occurrences that often make you wonder how much is really left to coincidence, I attended an art opening at the State Street Gallery.  It’s not often that one gets to see the creative side of collegiate faculty and presidents.  The show featured works by Robert Morris University President Michael P. Viollt; sculptures by Christine Fisher, Vice-President for Brand and Image; and oil paintings by Art Professor and Dean of International Studies, Shelley Lamantia, as well as works by two Chicago artists, Al Kexys and Amber Warren.

Shelley Lamantia’s series of Modern Madonnas combines the lighting, painting techniques, and traditional poses from Old Masters’ paintings of Madonnas with modern-day subjects, women that have touched her life in a way.

The Madonna series started with a calendar, says Lamantia.  “Several years ago I came across a calendar which featured a different Madonna painting sold each month.  The paintings originated in distinctly different regions of the world during different centuries.  As I flipped through the months, it struck me that they all had similar lighting and coloring.”  Painted by different people, in different centuries and different places around the world, the Madonnas all have the same expression:  a slightly submissive nod and a certain serenity in the eyes and posture.  After thoroughly researching the topic, she noticed that an overwhelming majority of Madonna paintings had similar lighting and that their subject projected this mix of calm, serenity, and inner strength. “Even if they look down or sideways, they’re not timid or depressed; they all project this feeling of inner strength,” says Lamantia.

Shelley Lamantia - Two MarysWith the Madonna series, Lamantia wanted to present, in some way, a new, more updated version of this icon whose message of peace and strength would be meaningful to modern-day viewers and would cross religious and cultural boundaries.  She chose real women as subjects of the paintings, strong women that to her projected this mix of quiet inner strength and beauty.

The Madonna series contains studies of Old Masters’ paintings that often focus on secondary characters in the painting as the main subject, and modern women posing as Madonnas.  In addition to showing her mastery of the Old Masters oil painting techniques, her paintings subtly mix the old and new, the sacred and the profane.

”The Madonna faces adversity, is strong without overpowering, has inner strength.  The Two Marys is actually a painting of my mother and my aunt,” says Lamantia.  “They both have dealt with adversity in their lives, and they both have this quiet strength, this inner knowing.”

Shelley Lamantia Save the RabbitIn Save the Rabbit, the subject, in a Madonna pose from a renaissance painting, is her son’s first girlfriend.  She projects a quiet, calm innocence as she’s holding a rabbit in her hands.  The rabbit (allusion to a 1960’s phrase) is a hidden cautionary message to the young couple to practice safe sex.

Louise Nevilson, Lamantia’s first painting in the oil medium, is a portrait of the sculptor, who lived in the early 20th century, and was known for her large-scale wood sculptures.  When she could no longer hold the sculpting tools, 80 years old, she directed a group of men to do the work with an iron fist, standing tall and pointing with her cane.  “She reminds me of a ballerina with her posture.  People don’t realize how strong ballerinas are; they’re all muscle even if they’re so small.  Louise Nevilson has this posture and projects that inner strength,” says Lamantia.

Studies of Old Masters focuses on one of the secondary characters in an Old Master Madonna painting.  “The original painting doesn’t even focus on her; she was somewhere in the corner. I thought her face was so beautiful; it was not getting the attention.  So I made my painting about her and focused the spotlight on her.”  She’s looking down, but she’s not sad, more contemplative, engaged in thought.

With a Graphic Design Degree from Pratt and additional art studies with David Ray, Lamantia spent many hours doing research on the Madonnas topic, and refining her oil painting technique.  She puts strong emphasis on color and lighting in her work, as well as in the Art Classes she teaches at University. “The lighting that the Old Masters paintings used mostly candles and daylight, affects the colors, of course. The lighting in the Madonna paintings is always warm.”  When painting studies of Old Masters, she pays attention to the direction and location of the lighting sources.  “When painting this, I realized there’s something glowing from this corner,” she explained.  Oftentimes, when doing studies of Old Masters, looking at the lighting and rendering the lighting, especially when it’s coming from different sources, is a challenge.

Shelley Lamantia Study of Old MastersShelley Lamantia divides her life between being her commercial graphic design practice, the college art classes she teaches, managing the International Studies Program at Robert Morris University, and painting.  Having this balance between the creative problem-solving of her graphic design work with the personal “pouring of the heart” that goes into her paintings is important, she says.  “Graphic design is fast, creative; it’s about solving problems, putting together the whole puzzle of passing on a message, target audience, technology. You do a project; then you move on.”  With art, she says, “It’s a continual process. It’s an obsession that continues even after you’ve finished a painting. I paint for myself. In some ways, it’s a personal self-exploration, of what’s important to me. What’s interesting is that when you use your artistic side . . . when I’m painting . . . you have to let go of everything else, and that’s sometimes hard.  It’s important to let go.  The transition from doing the ‘important’ work stuff to the artistic mindset is what’s hard, so we often avoid it,” she says.

The Madonna series is an on-going project, a work in progress, as she reflects on the idea of inner strength and beauty, and the people that have affected her life. Will there be “saints” in the future, alongside the madonnas? Maybe, she says, she will include male subjects.  However, painting men is a different challenge, as they project a totally different energy than women.

“In art history, the female body means continued life.  It’s a symbol of beauty mixed with a subtle symbol of strength.  What fascinates me is the combination of the two—beauty and strength.  The Madonnas are beautiful, but they also have this inner strength and character.  The balancing act is not being the domineering, but the strong one that can persevere.” Lamantia hopes that her modern-day representations of Madonnas will also convey the same message as the Madonnas of the Old Masters.

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