Post-pandemic style trends put an emphasis on personal empowerment – the right statement to pair with a portrait exhibit by artist Sandra Charles.
Styled and written by Christine Fellingham | Photographed by Kylene White
The highly individualized mood of Fall 2022 fashion is the perfect foil for the stunning, woman-power motifs featured in the vibrant portraits that comprise the “The Reality of Our Essence” at KMAC. The striking backdrop and inspiration for our photo shoot, this exhibit marks the first solo museum show for Sandra Charles, a former Hite Scholar at the University of Louisville.
Sandra’s story is an inspiration to any woman who has ever felt stuck or sidelined by life. After raising children and working for decades in insurance, she boldly returned to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts in her sixties and, in the process, revealed her singular talent to herself and the world. “My husband returned to school to get his law degree after working in warehouses all his life and then I decided it was my turn,” she says. “My goal was to complete my degree before my oldest grandchild became a student at U of L too.”
It didn’t take long for Sandra to gain attention – earning a Hite scholarship while in the BFA program and receiving grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and Hadley Creatives shortly afterwards. The KFW grant brought her the opportunity to participate in a group show of new artists at the Art Sanctuary where her work was introduced to gallery owners and curators. Soon after, KMAC came calling. “When an opportunity came up to try something, I would just go ahead and do it,” she says. “My attitude was that even though I was scared to death and not familiar with anything, I had to catch up. I’m an outsider coming in and I just kept an open mind about everything.”
The stunning exhibit (which closed in August) is built around portraits of Black women and is an extension of a collection she began while she was still studying at U of L. “I started studying African American art and trying to decide where I fit in,” she says. “My artwork is about me and my experiences and the paintings address one of the things that has always upset me over the years: Black women in business and the things we had to go through to conform to what was supposed to be acceptable. I wanted to tell our story, to put it out there.”
“My artwork is about me and my experiences and the paintings address one of the things that has always upset me over the years: Black women in business and the things we had to go through to conform to what was supposed to be acceptable.”
That story gets told on large-scale canvases in bright colors and clashing patterns. Sandra doesn’t want her paintings to be quiet. “When I was growing up, the strong people in the neighborhood were the Black women,” she explains. “They had to take care of the kids, get up, go to work, come home and raise a family. One thing that really hit me when I was 16 or 17 and I would be driving down Newburg Road in the late sixties, I would always see these women dressed in maids outfits at the corner of Goldsmith and Newburg. They would work at those big houses in the Highlands. Looking at them standing there, it just got to me. I wanted to tell our story, to put it out there. That’s one of the reasons that the women are like the whole length of the canvas. I want them to explode out of the canvas. It’s breaking the rules a little bit. Usually you center everything, and make space all around the subject, but I made these women bigger.”
As for her splashy, almost electric color choices? “They’ve evolved over the years,” she says. “They were a little more muted at some point and then I said, ‘The heck with it.’ I just wanted to say something as loudly as I can. So I try to use bold colors – colors that are the opposite on the color wheel and patterns that are the opposite of each other. It all boils down to our personalities. We’re complicated and everyone is not the same.”
Sandra hopes that people see something deeper in the dazzling portraits of these strong female figures. “I want them to connect to not so much the person, but to their essence, to what’s inside of them,” says Charles. “The essence inside of my figures is inside of everybody. The experience of each of these women is a human experience. We are all humans and we have connections and it’s deeper than Black, white and brown.”