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Carolinas artists create works inspired by the Obamas

By Dannye Powell
In My Opinion

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Picasso wasn’t the only artist inspired by politics.

Three Carolinas artists, each in his or her own way, has created art inspired by the Obamas.

Molly B. Right of Charleston translated her vision of Michelle Obama onto a 45-by-60-inch metal panel with 3,000 bottle caps.

Robert Crowell of Boone, inspired by seeing the future president speak in 2004, spent 28 months carving a life-sized Obama, complete with microphone and pin-stripe suit, out of a dead red oak tree.

Miriam Durkin of Charlotte, transfixed by Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of John Kennedy, captured a relaxed, thoughtful President Barack Obama in oil on a 5-by-3-foot canvas in her studio in South End.

In their own words, each artist describes how the work evolved.

Molly B. Right, 49

I’ve been working with bottle caps since 2003. They’re vintage bottle caps, some dating back to the 1940s, and I get them online. I have millions, cases and cases. Most were found in warehouses and never used. Soda bottle caps. Not beer caps.

First, I work from photographs, and I paint a portrait. Then I apply the caps on top of the portraits. There’s very little paint on the caps, maybe just a little bit around the eyes. I like to keep the natural colors of the caps. The logos provide the color.

I’m self-taught. My husband (the muralist David Boatwright) is an artist. I’m not an outsider artist or a folk artist. I’m not a recluse living somewhere in the woods. I’m not insane.

I did Jackie (Onassis) in the spring. I did her after Marilyn Monroe, as an antidote to Marilyn Monroe. Most of my work is by commission. I love doing portraits of strong women. I did Michelle last summer, 2011. I did her because I love Michelle Obama so much.

There’s something about putting the bottle caps on a portrait that gives it more dimension. It sort of gives me my own niche as an artist. It’s hard to find something that nobody else is doing. Mine are not computer-driven. They’re more painterly, more intuitive.

Molly B. Right’s “Michelle Obama” is on display at Elder Art Gallery in Charlotte.

Robert Crowell, 57

I’m a woodworker from way back. My father (Charles Crowell of Lincolnton) taught me everything about furniture making.

I saw Obama in the 2004 convention, and I just had a feeling that this guy was going to go all the way. I had just sold a (life-sized) piece – Daniel Boone – and I sat back and said, “What am I going to do now?”

I wanted to do something more impressive, more challenging. Obama seemed the way to go. I knew he was going to be popular. For an artist, it’s pretty bold to do something like that.

I actually cut down the (dead) red oak tree. Once I get the initial shape, I make models out of clay to go by. And I had a photograph of Obama when he was campaigning, with his leg twisted around like that.

One reason I did him in red oak is for the skin tones. You work from the outside in on a piece of wood. You can’t make any mistakes because you can’t put the wood back. So it’s a slow process. I use a lot of tools – a chisel and a mallet – and I do some grinding and then a lot of sanding.

I enhanced his brows and hair with dye. I used stain to enhance the grain in the suit. It made the grain stand out like a pin stripe. All of it is encapsulated in a marine epoxy. It could easily be an outdoor piece. I prefer keeping him indoors.

Robert Crowell: 828-262-3716

Miriam Durkin, 58

I’ve been working on figurative paintings for 14 years now. They’re a tough sell in a market that loves landscapes. I pay my studio rent by teaching. Sometimes I’ve questioned what I’m doing. Should I paint? What should I paint?

My answer came about five years ago. I visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and encountered the loose, expressionistic portraits of Elaine de Kooning. Her best known portrait is that of President Kennedy.

Back in Charlotte, I decided to go for it. I wanted my paintings to be the visceral result of a personal encounter between subject and artist. I hatched the idea of painting portraits of artistic people in town. Every encounter was an exercise in overcoming fear, stepping to the edge and jumping off. But with each one, I gained the knowledge that I had the skills to revise, re-paint and persevere until I had it right.

Then, this summer, with the DNC coming to town, I remembered de Kooning and her Kennedy portrait. Why not try Obama! Of course, he wouldn’t sit for me, but using a stack of photographic images allowed me to study him in various postures and from all angles.

I wanted to capture his casual demeanor and genuine concern for all types of people. I wanted the portrait to look like you were in a conversation with him and how he would put you at ease with his thoughtfulness. I didn’t want him to be posing. I wanted him to appear to be a real human being.

Miriam Durkin’s “President Barack Obama” is on display at Elder Art Gallery.

Dannye: 704-358-5230 or dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
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