Written by Phillip Ratliff Images by Terry Strickland
Artist Terry Strickland knows that the secret to throwing an effective party is to plan some things, and let others just happen. In 2010, Strickland put this principle to the test with 25 friends and family, who she assembled for an evening of revelry in her Pelham home. Strickland’s shindig was by all accounts a zesty, self-revelatory partying hearkening back to the themed-out blowouts of Strickland’s younger days.
To ensure an ample level of self-revelation, Strickland made a request of her guests: that they cast off their civilian clothes and don the garb of their deepest fantasy self. Responses to Strickland’s invitation were all over the map. In attendance were a Goth rocker bearing vampire fangs, a couple of Wild West gunslingers, a torch singer, a Victorian-era Steampunk rat taming scientist, a nude peace activist flashing a peace sign.
“I felt like I was making dreams happen for people,” Strickland says.
While the party was liberating for guests, it was, by careful design, a night of work for the 52 year old artist. Over the course of the evening, Strickland’s guests descended one-by-one into her basement studio to be photographed. Over the next two and half years, Strickland translated her photographic portraits to canvas, creating a series of oil paintings she has dubbed “The Incognito Project.” The project has since attracted positive critical attention and represents an important milestone in a career about-face Strickland undertook almost a decade ago.
For the Incognito’s Project’s kick-off event, Strickland allowed her models freedom to create their characters as each saw fit. The model behind the peace-signing activist, Strickland recalls, created her alter ego in a dream. Daughter Carly Strickland mined her interests in science fiction and a blood curdling fascination with her pet rats. The portrait, “Professor Rattus and Her Royal Court,” depicts a make-believe side of her daughter that was there all along. “You think costumes are disguising something, but they can also be revealing. Carly is exactly this: logical like a scientist, creative and fun, she loves small furry critters. It’s her,” Strickland says.
Strickland struggled to find her own true self over the course of her art career. After earning a graphic design degree from University of Central Florida, Strickland entered the commercial art profession as an illustrator, acquiring valuable experience in Florida’s T-shirt industry. “They were almost always figurative pieces, surf designs, space center designs, animal designs for Sea World and Busch Gardens. I always felt like I could bring fine art to the commercial world,” Strickland says.
As she produced commercial art, Strickland painted fine art on the side, a practice she kept up for 24 years, both in Florida, then, after her 1994 move, in Birmingham. After turning 40, Strickland focused more intently on painting. She enrolled at UAB, taking three cobweb-dusting semesters of art with painter Gary Chapman, known for his large figurative pieces. Strickland credits Chapman not only with honing her technique, but helping her find confidence and point of view. Strickland started entering her art in juried exhibitions and galleries across the region. By 2005 she had quit her day job and was painting full-time.
Strickland’s change of course has met with strong critical response. Artist and critic Daniel Maidman sees her work as “loosely recalling” the work of several great artists, including Velasquez, Manet and Ingres. Graham C. Boettcher, William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, appreciates Strickland’s mastery of painting’s fundamentals. “One of the first things you notice is her command of the medium. She really knows how to paint. She’s a wizard with the paintbrush,” Boettcher says.
Boettcher also enjoys Strickland’s sense of humor and the theatricality of her compositions. While her subjects’ facial expressions can be serious, taciturn, even beatific, several models seem to smirk. The series’ numerous references to mythic figures—knights, cowboys, explorers, guitar gods and Greek goddesses—are inescapable.
Lighting supplies more subtle cues to Strickland’s fantastical point of view. Strickland employs photographer’s lights coupled with colored satin reflectors and gels to yield theatrical, even cinematic, effects. Butterfly lighting, used on silver screen beauties of the 1930s, and shadowy film noir techniques contribute to both the project’s movie still feel—and to the frankness with which Strickland addresses her viewers.
“I like to have light on the eyes. Some artists paint the model looking away, with downcast or shadowed eyes. I rarely do that. I like the interaction with the model too much. Making eye contact with the subject is an invitation to the viewer to communicate, it makes the viewer a participant in the painting,” Strickland says.
Strickland’s models make “relentless eye contact,” as she describes it, a feature she says some find confrontational. But Strickland wants her models to engage their viewers. It is Strickland’s attention to the interpersonal, Maidman says, that makes her works so accessible. “One thing that is charismatic about Strickland’s work is that a layman doesn’t have to apply a huge body of critical theory to getting legitimate enjoyment from it,” Maidman says. “Painter and subject are comfortable with each other. She invites her viewers into that relationship.”
Painter and subject, painter and viewer, subject and viewer—all bring their perspectives to the gathering. Strickland’s paintings, like her parties, are complex social affairs. As the master mind behind the Incognito Project, Strickland has proved an insightful host.
“Sometimes life doesn’t pan out the way you think it will, but this is a fantasy where for that moment, dreams happen for people. There is a place in the painting where the artist is there, because obviously I have input, the model, with this fantastical dream is also there,” Strickland says. “There’s more: there’s the person who is viewing the painting bringing their own ideas. It’s a cross section of timelines and thought processes.”
Tags: Alabama, alter-ego, artist, B metro Magazine, Birmingham, Daniel Maidman, fantasy, oil painting, Phillip Ratliff, photography, portrait, portraiture, steampunk, Terry Strickland, The Incognito Project