Portraits | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Portraits 

A pastel of your child? A bronze bust of your father? An oil of your lover draped seductively on a couch? Kathleen Van Ella has an artist for you.

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"Women are really dumb," says Kathleen Van Ella. "We have this problem--even with all the growing up we've done in the feminist age, women still think 'I'm ten pounds too fat or ten years too old.' Women are still too hung up to rejoice in who they are. And that's what a portrait's all about."

Van Ella reps traditional portrait painters and portrait sculptors from all over Chicago. She is showing me samples she has borrowed back from their owners this summer to display at a friend's art gallery. She was hoping to attract new commissions--and she did.

Several paintings of women line the gallery walls. Some are lying seductively on beds with their cleavage showing. Some are lying back with half-closed eyes, their fingers on their breasts inside their negligees. One patrician-looking woman is standing in a plum-colored formal; another, an earth-mother type, is outside with her child. She is hung next to a blond little Lord Fauntleroy all decked out in white lace. There is a portrait of Van Ella's fresh-faced adult daughter. A stuffy-looking CEO, painted with corporate dignity, looks across the room at them with a sly grin.

Van Ella continues adamantly, "You can quote me all you want on this. Even if a husband really wants to have a portrait of his wife, she'll still say no. The artists themselves love to paint women in their middle years. They're the most exquisite subjects--their character, their beauty, their figures. But women will want one of their husband done first, then one of their children, and by the time they add up the bill, it never happens [for her]."

Van Ella walks up to a huge, compelling full-length oil in the middle of the wall--a blond woman in black sits on a black chair with an enormous, colorful necklace around her neck. "Now Carole said, 'I want to be painted.' She'd had her children done in pastel and really wanted her own portrait done. I realized that was a profound thing for a woman to say. She was in the midst of transitions-- she was moving and all--and she felt that a time of transition was a perfect time to have the painting done."

Van Ella says the artist didn't think the necklace would work well in the portrait. Carole (Carole Jones, Van Ella's good friend and the owner of East West Art Gallery, where the paintings were displayed all summer) was disappointed. It was a favorite necklace from the Middle East. But before the artist finished the commission he changed his mind and asked to borrow the necklace so he could paint it in.

Van Ella, who lives in Lake Forest, became interested in portrait painting when she received a portrait of her then-13-month-old daughter as a college graduation gift. She represents that artist today--though she is not allowed to show the painting because the artist doesn't want his early efforts displayed.

Van Ella used to offer portrait portfolios as part of her interior-design business, but in 1980 she decided to market portraits alone. Portraits don't "sell off the wall," so Van Ella's agency, Portraits/ Chicago, markets portrait artists all over the Chicago area. Her first clients were on the North Shore.

"In the south," says Van Ella, "portrait painting is still quite a tradition. No little kid gets beyond a certain age without his parents having a pastel done. But when I started it wasn't too common in Lake Forest."

Van Ella says she's been doing everything she can to further portrait painting, which "has the prestige of history" behind it. "The history of fine portraits," she says, "is the history of art." Portrait painters up and down the North Shore and all over the metropolitan area have benefited from her efforts. "If I hadn't been doing this for the last ten years, a lot of paintings wouldn't have been done." Van Ella brings samples and does a portrait slide show at women's groups, before concerts, at country clubs, and at other places where potential clients gather.

"We're moving back to a conservative time," Van Ella says. "People are interested in traditional values of home and hearth--and getting relationships to stick. A portrait carries a spiritual value of the worth of a relationship. It makes a tremendous statement as to 'who we are' as a family."

Van Ella says clients only occasionally commission portraits of themselves; more often they arrange to have their grandparents painted, or their parents, or their children, or a spouse. Boards of directors and employees sometimes arrange for their company's founder or past president to be painted.

"A corporate painting gives people in a company a sense of belonging--of history and tradition. It gives a sense of 'who went before us.' It's a good feeling to see history. It's like looking at paintings of U.S. presidents.

"Portraits are a sort of love gift. They're beautiful paintings that capture the qualities of real people."

Van Ella has arranged commissions for big names in industry, the arts, and politics. She arranged for the first bronze bust of the late Mayor Daley (recently commissioned by Hilton Hotels and just finished). She says portrait paintings and portrait sculptures always involve "good vibes."

They also involve time and money. Van Ella shows fewer than a dozen portfolios to a client, who then chooses the artist with the most appealing style and price range. The portraits take anywhere from five weeks to a year to complete.

Portrait artists try not to demand too much of their subjects' time, but at a minimum it involves a photo session and then an average of three additional half-hour sittings. If a subject has no time, or if the portrait is to be a surprise, it can be done from a photograph alone. But some portrait artists would really like sittings every day for a month.

Depending on the artist, the work's size, and the medium--oil, pastel, watercolor, or graphite on paper, canvas, or board--portraits range from $600 to $10,000. Portrait sculptures in terra-cotta or bronze (bronze requires foundry time, too) range from $6,000 to $15,000.

"A portrait is a very dynamic result of a dialogue between a client and a subject," says Van Ella. She laughs. "A client should never hate the end result or we'd return the money."

I ask Van Ella about a painting of a funky young guy slumping in a chair in an office. It turns out the portrait is for sale--obviously something that rarely happens. But this one is of an artist's ex-boyfriend.

Near the handsome boyfriend is a painting of a middle-aged lawyer and his wife against a backdrop of abstract shapes in primary colors.

"One of the benefits of dealing with Portraits/Chicago," says Van Ella, "is the scope of the portrait painting. These people are in a highly contemporary, stylized high-rise apartment. That's the way the artist saw them.

"The 'genre portrait' is the next natural creative step for some of the artists," says Van Ella. "Placing subjects in a particular surrounding, such as the beach or in their garden watering flowers or around a golf hole"--or in their beds--"is part and parcel for a person who doesn't want a straight-on portrait. The artists conceive a painting first--and lo and behold, the subject ends up being in it."

But in general the portraits available through Portraits/ Chicago tend toward the realistic and traditional. Two of the portrait sculptors Van Ella represents, Anna Koh Varilla and her husband, Jeffrey Hanson Varilla, were considered radicals of realism in their Art Institute sculpture classes. "They wanted to do realistic when everyone else was doing abstract," says Van Ella. "His teacher said, 'Jeff, you are so traditional you are radical.' Classical realism has not been considered OK."

Van Ella says that occasionally landscape painters come to her with their portfolios, wanting to get into portrait painting and hoping she will represent them. "Of course," says Van Ella, "they're artists. They can do it. But a professional, experienced portrait painter specializes in people, in special kinds of human contact. That strength is utilized in their painting." Van Ella accepts very few of the people who send her portfolios.

Van Ella says a portrait is "a person's own myth. We all have one. It isn't ego. It's self-esteem. Those with big egos don't have their portraits painted. People with big egos may talk about having their portrait painted and they may laugh about it. But a real, authentic portrait does not come out of ego. Or vanity. It comes out of a strong sense of self-worth."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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