Painting with a Purpose
After mixing her passion for art and want to explore other professional endeavors Lafayette’s Dana Manly is now dedicating her energy and effort to painting
SETTING THE SCENE: Artist Dana Manly’s command of color gives her paintings an identifying sense of time and place, even when the subjects’ faces can’t be seen. In this piece, “Anything For You II,” Manly strategic touches of pink and orange create a romantic ambiance on an otherwise dreary day.
Inspiration doesn’t keep bankers’ hours. It’s far too fickle for that.
No, inspiration comes rushing in when the rest of the world sits still. At least it does for Lafayette artist Dana Manly, anyway.
To her, a celebrated painter in the region for more than a decade who is now refocusing her priorities and doing this full time for the first time, inspiration is a welcomed but fleeting guest, invading without warning.
Inspiration is apparently an insomniac, because it never pops up when Dana’s making breakfast, running errands or reading before bed. Instead, it appears in the lost hours of the night.
“I swear, I wish I could dictate when these things happen. That’d be nice, huh?” Manly says with a slight laugh. “I rush to what I call my magic journal and I sketch it. If I don’t sketch it, I can’t go to sleep! There’s a poet who speaks of it, like [inspiration] is trying to get away and you have to pull it back in by the tail. That’s how it happens for me.”
Much like Manly tries to corral the inspiration that eventually manifests in her paintings, her passion for art was also once elusive but now has a firm hold over her. Manly’s pieces certainly aren’t new to the scene. For years they’ve appeared throughout South Louisiana, hanging in places like The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, River Ranch’s City Club and the St. Jude Acadiana Dream Home. In 2014, she was the Festival International Poster Artist.
And she accomplished all those things as a part-time artist, dabbling in painting from time to time and taking long breaks from her gift to pursue a career as a counselor and exercise physiologist.
Recently, though, Manly turned her passion for painting into her full-time profession.
“It’s interesting to think that painting has called me back,” Manly says. “It’s been a realization of what I serve as an artist, and I serve the creative process. I often listen to Elizabeth Gilbert, who speaks of your elusive creative genius. ‘How do we reconcile when we’ve created what we consider to be our masterpiece – something that comes through us?’”
“The Romans spoke of our genius,” Manly continues. “And it’s not that we are a genius, but we have a genius. So it makes you humble – knowing it’s in us but we have to find it and cultivate it, and if we don’t show up, it will seek someone else.”
Though she majored in Fine Arts as an undergraduate student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Manly went back to school to get a master’s degree in Kinesiology from LSU years later. While earning that degree had nothing to do with her painting at the time, Manly’s understanding of movement science, and in particular the way the human body bends and shapes, is evidenced in her pieces. In paintings like “Lean on Me,” in which a woman adjusts her high heel while out on the town, using her date as a crutch, Manly perfectly captures realistic angles and dimensions even though the human subjects are somewhat fluid and purposely not well-defined.
“In my work, even from early on, I’ve always loved mystery,” Manly says. “And so that’s there in a painting. There’s mystery in the story. Who are the people in the painting? Where are they going? What are they talking about? Or are they even talking at all?
“All of that comes through when you know the deeper layers of the body,” Manly continues. “I love portraying the mystery of it all.”
Now that art doesn’t have to be shoehorned in with the rest of her day-to-day responsibilities any longer, Manly feels her commission work has thrived. There’s more time to convey her vision for the piece to the buyer, more moments for reflection and contemplation, more opportunities to explore and grow as an artist.
“Are there differences in my work now that I’m doing this full time? I almost feel like you’d have to ask the audience,” Manly says. “But I think I’m more authentically ME with my art….and I think there’s more time to experiment. Like, I’m working on tables, and I’m starting to get into sculpting. It’s wondering, ‘What’s next?’”
“And that’s kind of scary — because I don’t always know what I’m doing — but it’s OK, because these are decisions that are coming from the heart, not the head.”
After earning an advanced degree in Kinesiology, artist Dana Manly has transferred her understanding of human movement into almost all her paintings.
How did your love of art first blossom? “I grew up in a creative family,” Manly says. “My grandmother was studying to be a concert pianist, and my mother was always creative in the ways she participated with fundraisers, building things from [scratch. From there, I just started creating in different ways, whether it be drawing or painting.”
How do you choose the subjects of your paintings? “I’ve taken my work more seriously these past couple of years. There’s a discipline. There are objects that ask to be created,” Manly says. “And you may ask, ‘How does an object ask to be created?’ It’s when things move you or me. They appeal to you.”
You’ve been an artist for some time now, but now you’re doing it full-time. What’s the difference? “What’s fundamentally changed for me is knowing myself, on a cellular level, as an artist. And to own that. OK, I’m an artist. But from there, you have to make the decision to show up, to be disciplined. I’m showing up and I’m doing the work. It’s all part of the process.”