Portraits from the Soul

Renowned artist Gaela Erwin on inspiration, the male gaze and what’s next

By Laura Ross
Photos by
Andrea Hutchinson

A fiercely beautiful African woman stares intently at you, her eyes full of a story that begs to be told. The oil portrait on wood panel is large and stunning in its raw intimacy. “Portrait of Neema Tambo” is at once powerful and breathtaking.

Louisville-based artist Gaela Erwin is proud to have Neema’s portrait “home” again following an impressive tour throughout English and Scottish museums in 2018. The oil painting didn’t just visit any museum – it was on display in both England and Scotland’s National Portrait Galleries as a part of the exclusive BP Portrait Award competition.

“I was beyond thrilled to be included,” she said. “The BP Portrait Award from the National Portrait Gallery in London is one of the most prestigious world competitions for portraiture.”

Erwin, a sought-after figurative artist, worked with her muse for over a year to paint the image. “I had to change from using pastels to oil for this, and it was like changing musical instruments.” Together, the artist and model worked on the image. Was the vintage cocktail dress right? Should the sleeves be long or short? How should she stand and where should she place her arms and hands?

“If only you could see the beginnings,” said Erwin. “We changed so much, photographed the ideas constantly and by the fourth outfit, we had it.”

The portrait is back in Louisville briefly before it is sent to its permanent home with a top female financier New York City. “She’ll be right there in Manhattan and will be seen and taken care of,” said Erwin. “I’m so happy about that.”

Erwin reflected on her recent success while resting on a decorative couch in her eclectic studio. Skulls clutter a desktop. Period costumes and antique dolls dot the hallway. Light pours in through large windows, and tarps, paint and canvases circle the room on the second floor of a historical home. The studio is infused with imagination.

Erwin’s emotional portraits are inspired by realism and Old Master paintings. Her work is included in the Speed Art Museum’s collection, as well as in the collections of 21c Museum Hotels, the Columbus College of Art and Design, the Huntsville Museum of Art and the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science.

She always had a knack for portraiture and studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design and the University of Louisville. With an undergraduate degree in expressive therapy in psychology, Erwin studied artmaking as a form of therapy.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” she said. “I could make money as a therapist and enjoy the art aspect of it, but as an artist, you have to give your all to the art.”

She decided to work in the art realm full time and spent several years as a photo stylist for a catalogue company and as a retail window designer. It was a demanding but creative endeavor, and working with the fashion, models and creative teams taught her crucial elements of capturing detail and filling a scene with emotion. Simultaneously, she built her reputation as a fine artist and began teaching visual arts at Bellarmine University, the University of Louisville and other area schools.

“When I started, it was the heyday of abstract expressionism, but as a figurative artist, it was tough. Everyone just wanted to splash paint around, but I wanted to create portraits,” she said.

As she developed her craft, she painted many self-portraits by self-reflection in a mirror, even exploring herself as a man. She applied for and received many grants that allowed her to travel internationally and study the Old Masters. “I basically created my own MFA degree,” she laughed.

A grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 1986 sent Erwin to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was followed by a prestigious residency in studio art in Greece and additional residencies in the south of France, Germany and Ireland. “It was the turning point in my life,” she said. “I was aghast. They all treated me as an artist.”

“Gaela Erwin has a remarkable gift for creating portraits with a striking level of emotional and psychological depth,” said Miranda Lash, curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum. “Her self-portraits reveal different sides of who she is and the artists she admires. I admire her ability to be so versatile, introspective and even vulnerable.”

“Starting a painting is always the hardest part,” Erwin said. “My subject will sit for two hours, and then I photograph them.” The most important part is that two-hour process, where Erwin draws out her subjects, both literally and figuratively. “I have that give and take, that dialogue, between artist and sitter, and you really glean an intimacy that is so important,” she added.

“To paint a person is one thing, but to capture a personality is a gift,” Erwin said. “That’s what draws me in the most.”

Perhaps the most emotive paintings she has done include a series featuring her mother in later years. As her mother’s health declined, Erwin found herself traveling frequently to North Carolina to be a caregiver. To soften the ravages of her mother’s illness, Erwin involved her mother in her art. They took photographs, dressed in period costumes and connected on a deep level as Erwin painted a series of poignant, deeply realistic images of her mother and herself.

“It was very cathartic for both of us,” she said. “She supported me as an artist, and it was the unifying thing that brought us together through the decline and degradation of her mind.”

Caring for her mother and the emotions that came with it forced Erwin to put her portrait work on hold. But when she began painting her mother, something changed. “That body of work saved me,” she said. “My mother and I were very similar, and I grieved so much watching her go through her illness.” Her mother passed away in 2014, a month shy of her 89th birthday.

At the same time, Erwin was in talks with the Speed Art Museum to develop an exhibition, which would later be born as “Gaela Erwin: Reframing The Past” in 2016. The Speed commissioned her to create a series of pastel pieces inspired by works on paper from the museum’s collection of 18th and 20th century pastels.

“I said, ‘Yes, bring it on!’” Erwin exclaimed. She worked for two years to bring the collection to life, pouring over the Speed’s inspiration pieces and working with the director of costumes at Actors Theatre to support her work. “I tried to translate the images I selected and make it my own,” she said. “It was a fantastic dream because my orientation is around the Georgian period and French painting around 1780, which is the golden age of masters of portraiture.”

“Her handling of pastels is exquisite, executed on a level that is rarely seen,” said the Speed’s Lash. “Gaela’s work draws on Old Master techniques but still feels contemporary. Her capacity as an observer is uncanny.

“I also admired the attention she pays to her sitters’ costumes,” Lash added. “No one can handle recreating lace like Gaela does.”

More recently, Erwin continues to work on commissions and a new series of paintings. In her light-filled studio in her Highlands home, 12 portraits line a wall. The brooding and sometimes delighted or thoughtful stares of a dozen individual men gaze at the viewer. They are young, old, sexy, scruffy, dignified and curious. “I’m calling it ‘Looking at Men: Objects of Desire,’” she said.

As always, inspiration can strike out of the blue. Erwin received a grant from the Rev. Al Shands’ Great Meadows Foundation to attend the Venice Biennale. She found her latest exhibition inspiration on a meandering walk through the twisting and mysterious, narrow roads of Venice, Italy.

“I was stumbling around Venice and came across a small industrial part near the water, and I saw this concrete dock and there was a pile of old boats stacked about eight high,” Erwin said. “I asked a young man if it was an art installation and he said, ‘No, it was just boats.’”

The boats were outside an old shop that restored Venice’s famous gondolas. The young man invited her inside and hours later, she’d enjoyed learning about the ancient art of gondolas, had lunch with her new friends, taken a gondola ride and sketched an impromptu portrait of her new friend, Giovanni. That was the inspiration she needed.

“I took lots of photos and painted him as soon as I got back,” she said. She began looking for additional inspiration for the series in men who she “stumbled” across in her daily life. She has now painted portraits of her neighbor, her mechanic, a professor friend, a former monk, a surgeon, a sculptor and more. The images are varied, the stories wide. “I wanted to turn the male gaze on its head and have us look at them.”

Erwin hopes people will look at the portraits and form an instant story in their mind about how they feel about the person – judging their appearance and the exquisite detail she paints into every wrinkle, gaze and smile. As she puts the final touches on the portraits, she will have them professionally photographed and will then shop them for a solo exhibition outside of Louisville.

So, what’s next?

“That’s the question I ask myself,” she laughed. “Inspiration is all part of an experience, a moment. There’s always an incubation process that can be a year or more. I look for perfect days, which are not having to deal with business issues or emails. I’ll walk the dog, come to the studio and work through the afternoon. Maybe go horseback riding. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I’ve got a great life.” V