by Lee Armfield Cannon
Walk into Annette Polan’s home studio and you enter a space with twenty years’ worth of stories to tell, and only one purpose: To create beautiful and meaningful portraits that serve as biographies of the sitters, and of the artist herself.
When Polan moved to the Forest Hills from Capitol Hill twenty years ago, she was looking for another place with a community feel, and a home with growth potential. She was already a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and an accomplished artist with a very particular and well-developed studio practice, so she needed a place she could mold into her ideal studio. Armed with knowledge gathered from her studies of artists’ studio spaces throughout history and the world, Polan and architect Douglass Rixey set out to build the ideal space onto the back of her 1930s-era Forest Hills home. (You’re invited to tour Polan’s studio on Sunday, May 18th. Click here for details.)
Polan’s studio is about two stories high and composed according to the Modulor system developed by Le Corbusier, based on the proportions of the human body, specifically Polan’s.
“We designed it to fit my size, the size of my head space. Within 24 hours of the studio being finished, I was in it and working. I immediately felt at home,” Polan says.
Lighting is one of the biggest issues for an artist, so to provide her with constant and evenly-distributed light, the studio is topped entirely with a translucent material called KalWall, which is fiberglass-filled and allows sunlight to filter in without hot spots. It mimics the 19th century go-to quick-fix of artists in Paris: Whitewashed windows and skylights. The walls of the studio are covered with panels of soft Homasote fiber wall board, painted white, so Polan can pin up her latest sheet of paper or hang a canvas from two pushpins, then move it up or down at will.
“I always work at eye level,” Polan says. “I like to be able to move the work up and down, so I also had this slot built in,” pointing to a three-foot-deep depression in the floor abutting her favored wall for working. “I can drop the canvas or paper into the slot and keep working at eye level.”
So what happens in this studio? The portraits that come out of this carefully-designed space are created with equal care, and are true to the human body. They wind up hanging in some amazing and surprising places, such as the Supreme Court and Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire, Great Britain, in a country mansion built for the first Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland. Polan’s portraits also hang in the U.S. Embassies in Denmark and Fiji, in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery and in so many other places that the list consumes a whole page.
Annette Polan’s entire career has been in the arts and in arts education and she has taught and exhibited on almost every continent. And she considers herself very fortunate to have made a career and a living from studio art.
“I could have been content in Art History,” she says. “But things wouldn’t have worked out the same way. My daughter tells me I would have found my way to art no matter what, though. It was just bound to happen.”
Early in her life, Polan’s family and friends encouraged her to pursue her passions and become whatever she wanted to be, so armed with their support and her own confidence, Polan earned a B.A. in Art History at Hollins College, now Hollins University, and went on to graduate work at the Corcoran College of Art, now the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
She later furthered her education at the École du Louvre in Paris and the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. With family, friends and professors encouraging her, she launched herself into the world of studio art and art instruction at her alma mater, the Corcoran, only retiring four years ago after a roughly 30-year teaching career.
Polan uses many different media – acrylic, pencil, wire screen, silk organza and cheesecloth, even sun-baked leaves – but she focuses almost exclusively on portraiture. Nearly every work in her studio has a face, often her own.
“I do a lot of official portraits,” she says. “I think of myself as a biographer.”
Prominent on the studio wall today is a portrait in acrylic of Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force. Polan caught the brigadier general in an uplifted attitude, it seems. Vaught’s face has an upward movement, a lightness in the smile, and her gaze moves upward through the large negative space that takes up the left half of the painting. Polan has managed to capture Wilma Vaught as well as the “wild blue yonder” of the Air Force’s anthem. A distinct personality is apparent in the composition and mood of the painting, and it’s a magnetic one.
“I love the connection I have with clients and people,” Polan says of her portraiture career. “Clients come and I play music while they sit. We might have some wine. I try to make them feel comfortable.”
Most of her portraiture work is commissioned; people seek her out in order to have their own or their loved ones’ likenesses captured for history. Polan has painted portraits of famous public figures, such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as private citizens. She has captured military and cultural figures as well as the faces of children caught in the act of growing up. Opposite Wilma Vaught’s smiling face, preliminary pencil sketches of the two children of the Gallo family peep shyly from their place on Polan’s favored work space.
Across from the boy and girl, who look like they’re on the verge of a self-conscious giggle, is a large, unstretched canvas; a playful portrait of a bearded man and a pregnant woman. The pair have angel wings, and the man is playing with the feathers of the woman’s wings.
The painting is done in bright colors with a border inspired by those in Pompeii plaster frescoes. Furthering the effect, the painting shows lines and cracks, as though the viewer is truly looking at the wall of a Roman house in antiquity, a trompe l’oeil effect that Polan enjoyed experimenting with for a while.
And then you see that the man is wearing what looks like boxer shorts and the woman is wearing a nightgown.
“Look at the hand,” Polan says, pointing to the woman’s foreground arm. “There’s weight in the hand holding the belly. It’s a playful but powerful painting. This was my studio assistant at the time and his wife, right before the birth of their first child.”
In addition to her commissioned portraits and the relationships she formed through them, Annette Polan is eager to talk about a large-scale portrait project she designed and took on herself.
The project began after her mother’s death, when she saw an article in The Washington Post featuring thumbnail photographs of all the servicemen and women who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from 2001 up until then. Polan was struck by those faces and immediately thought she wanted to fill a room with them.
That was the birth of the “Faces of the Fallen” portrait project, which eventually grew to include 1,327 portraits – each 6 by 8 inches – painted by Polan and about 250 other artists. The first exhibition of all the collected paintings made history. Some 25,000 relatives of fallen soldiers attended the March 22, 2005 opening at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, making it the largest gathering of family of the fallen in American history.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, gave the keynote address and spoke personally with many who attended.
“About 700,000 people came,” Polan says, seeming a little awed, even so many years later. “Active-duty personnel came, buses of Walter Reed patients came. People came from all over.”
“It was the first time those 250 artists felt so empowered. It was the first time they accomplished something that brought people together like that. It taught me that I was a closet organizer, too. It was because of being an artist that I could do it. It taught me my own power.”
Polan’s latest big project is a mixed media self-portrait series she is calling the “Covert Autobiography,” which examines the aging process.
“Aging for me has been a process of maturation of mind and energy, but at the same time, it’s also a process of becoming invisible,” Polan says. “Now, people sometimes don’t hear or listen to me. The issue is, as we age we become transparent to people. So, I’m making lots of ephemeral or translucent images, or using translucent materials to show that process.”
Polan unpins a long piece of gauzy fabric from a circular rack in the corner of the studio, holding it up to reveal it is not just a strip of fabric, as it seems at first glance. When she folds some of the corners of the fabric away, a face appears, molded into the silk organza using a cheesecloth backing and stiffened with acrylic gloss medium. The model for the impressions is not a living person, but one of a row of Styrofoam heads sitting across the studio on a side table.
“One of the phenomena of aging is denying it,” Polan says, of why she is using the idealized forms. “You lose the individual ‘you’ in exchange for perpetual youth, through things like surgery and Botox.”
Next she picks up a small frame with a single pressed leaf mounted inside. A close look reveals Polan’s own face on the leaf. Polan achieves the effect by sun-bleaching the leaves while they are pressed against monochromatic prints of her own face, generated on a computer and printed on regular paper. The image transfer can take months, and it’s a tricky process.
“You can’t peek. You have to just wait,” she says. Sometimes the images come out well, but there are plenty of throw-aways.
The largest works in the “Covert Autobiography” series so far are an acrylic painting and a sculpture in starched gauze, made on a seamstress form. The painting is Polan’s response to the short story by Balzac, “Unknown Masterpiece,” and carries the same title.
In the life-sized painting, Polan captures herself in motion, with her right arm upraised and her torso curved with effort, as though she is slashing her arm downward with all her might. Her face is blurred almost beyond recognition and her arms are visible only as hazy approximations, but the feet and black, strappy high heels on them are clearly and precisely rendered. When Polan exhibits the painting, she even props it up on the very high heels she posed in, as the pedestals for the work.
The sculpture, titled “Bound, Unbound,” is about six feet tall, and made of stiffened gauze over a human form of wire screen material. A tree climbs the front and sides, bringing to mind branching blood vessels or a skeletal structure. The face on this figure is Polan’s own, and barely visible hands and feet float on the form, which is lit from inside.
The overall effect is eerie and strangely comforting at the same time.
“Over the top of the sculpture, that could be a shroud or a wedding veil,” Polan notes, gesturing to the white gauze cascading from the neck of the form.
“The idea came from sculptures in the Parthenon.” Polan says. “I want to make twelve of them, eventually. The thrill is in thinking up ideas [for the series] and figuring out how to make the thing itself.”
Polan is not restricting her vision of the “Covert Biography” project to the visual arts. She is inviting women from many different fields and disciplines to contribute to an anthology on the topic of aging. Fellow visual artists, photographers, writers and a woman from the National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Aging will contribute essays about their personal experiences. Polan’s classmate from her Hollins University days, the acclaimed author Lee Smith, will even have a piece in the anthology.
It is clear that Polan approaches art, her own life, indeed society in general, with a strong sense that her experiences are unique because of her gender. Women’s experiences are apparent in much of her work and in many of her observations about her role in society as a person and an artist.
“My focus on gender difference came from the women’s movement [of the 1960s and 70s] and because my early opportunities came from women reaching out to me,” Polan says. “In 1972, I wandered in blind to a conference at the Corcoran. It was a conference about women in the arts and women came from all over to discuss the question: ‘How can we make our voices heard?'”
At the time of the conference, there were only three women on the Corcoran faculty, and no women artists in permanent collections in Washington, DC museums. Adding insult to injury, works by women artists were sold at auction for far less than men’s works. Polan points out that the price difference is still as true today as it was in 1972.
“My family is very socially conscious,” Polan says. “My mother was an educated woman and taught my siblings and me that we could make a difference. She told us if your life is good, you have a responsibility to help others.”
This feeling is evident in Polan’s body of work, her organizational work and also in her other current project, the Insight Institute. The institute’s goal is to use the visual arts to help members of different professional communities develop critical thinking skills and spur innovation. Polan developed the program with two other professional women, Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, a dermatologist and Georgetown University professor, and Dr. Aneta Georgievska-Shine, a lecturer in Art History and Fine Arts at the University of Maryland, College Park. Polan particularly hopes to aid members of the medical community in developing creative problem solving, teamwork and empathy skills.
In early April, Polan, McKinley-Grant and Georgievska-Shine kicked off the first of a series of workshops in the Titian room at the National Gallery of Art. Here, Polan and her colleagues split the twenty attendees into smaller groups and assigned them a portrait to examine in detail. What may have looked from the outside like a normal tour group quickly became an in-depth discussion of artistic composition, historical context, painterly technique and revelations of character gleaned from facial expression and body language.
The group in front of the portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo noted the positioning of the sitter’s hand, which is outstretched in a giving gesture, and wondered if this was intended to capture his Christian charity. The group in front of the portrait of the preteen Ranuccio Farnese thought he seemed too small for the heavy mantle and stiff clothes he wore. A man in the mental health field made the case that the painting feels heavy and weighted toward the bottom left, as though the weight of expectation on this boy was as heavy as the mantle on his shoulders. In another group, the discussion centered around the power and fierceness in the eyes and the one visible – and huge – hand of Doge Andrea Gritti.
After a period of free discussion, Polan called back the groups and gave them a new task: look again and try to tease out information about the people themselves. “What can we tell about the sitter?” she asks the group. “What can we tell about the artist from the technique and strokes? What kind of man is Titian? What is his relationship to the sitter?”
The groups dispersed again and a new energy entered the room. An NIH expert in autism and traumatic brain injuries asked: Why the detail in the cloak and robe the Cardinal wears? There are wrinkles and lines almost like watermarks or stains. The group theorized this was a move by Titian to show the real instead of the ideal vision of the Cardinal.
Feedback Polan gathered from questionnaires at the end of the workshop showed that the participants truly were connecting to the paintings on a deeper and more empathetic level, just as Polan and her colleagues had hoped. One participant noted it was “fascinating how the long and slow looking opened up the paintings.”
Polan seemed especially delighted with another comment, that the workshop became “the visual equivalent of being a patient listener.” She smiled in anticipation of what the participants would achieve at their next meeting in mid-April, which was to have the participants use ink washes to create portraits of their own.
For more information about Annette Polan and the Insight Institute, visit InsightInstitute.org. And you’ll have a chance to meet Polan and visit her studio as well as the studios of two other prominent Forest Hills-based artists on Sunday, May 18th from 1 to 4 p.m. Please join us for the open studio tour!