Génévieve May goes into the Hartford community and meets people. They might be dancing at a club, running a cash register, or just people she hangs around with. When a face or an outfit catches her fancy, she asks that person to pose for her. Usually the person is a stranger.
“I’m intrigued by the idea of getting to know someone as I paint them. I guess I’m just looking to be stirred by someone,” May said. “Painting strangers is extraordinarily rewarding. [The models] tell me ‘I didn’t know I looked like that’ or ‘I see myself in another way now.’ I like when people don’t give away too much when I meet them. I want to explore that.”
A collection of classical-style, oil-on-panel portraits created by May will be on exhibit at EBK Gallery in Hartford through the end of the month, starting Friday, May 5.
May is a native of Northampton, Mass., and her parents, Dennis Nolan and Lauren Mills, are both artists.
“I’ve had a paintbrush in my hand since I was 2, literally,” she said. May graduated from University of Hartford, where her father teaches. “I was criticized at school for always painting faces,” she said. “But I just love painting faces so much.”
After college, she worked for Jeff Koons in New York City, as one of his many studio assistants. Her job was creating an accurate copy of Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” for Koons’ “Gazing Ball” series. “I worked 60 hours a week,” she said, adding that sometimes she became so exhausted she found herself catnapping in the bathroom. She made $19 an hour; Koons’ artwork sells for millions.
Happier moments in New York were spent studying with painter Brad Kunkle, who creates mystical portraits with paint, gold leaf and silver leaf. She spent as much time with Kunkle as her Koons schedule would allow.
Rather than mystical, May’s paintings feel outside of time, her models posing against solid backgrounds dotted with May’s golden accents and textured paint. Some of her paintings are nudes, but she likes to let her models wear their own clothes. “I want them to bring their own story into the portrait,” she said. “It’s less about their beauty or their body or their face. I want to show their soul.”
Today, she lives in the Parkville neighborhood of Hartford with her boyfriend, Eli Novicky, who runs the Arch Street Tavern, and their pet carpet python, Sleepy Prince.
Novicky is an exception in her portrait series in that she knows him. She doesn’t want to paint self-portraits. “I see this face every day,” she said. “I’m so bored looking at myself.”
GÉNÉVIEVE MAY is at EBK Gallery [small works], 218 Pearl St. in Hartford, until May 31. The opening reception is May 5 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. ebkgallery.com.