Artist Gwen Voorhies Comes Into the Light
Once too bashful to share her work with the Acadiana art community, artist Gwen Voorhies' exploration in brighter colors reflects deep thought and humble confidence.
The shyness – the invisible but menacing barrier that blanketed the understated brilliance of Gwen Voorhies’ paintings from the eyes of everyone for so long – hasn’t disappeared entirely. It's still there, just underneath the surface of her psyche, an insecurity she’s done her best to subdue.
That’s why it’s still hard to talk about her work, uncomfortable even. If you wanna email, that’d be fine. Ask (or type) anything you want. Through that medium, she can explain her artistic concepts and thought processes without sounding so damn righteous. She hates that. It feels forced. It feels braggadocious.
“I wouldn’t even know what to say,” Voorhies laments. “I couldn’t even show (my work) for a long time. I didn’t feel like an artist. I felt artificial. It seems contradictory that I’d be painting really strong but feel insecure in showing my work, but I think that had a lot to do with fear of criticism.”
When asked how long she kept her pieces to herself, Voorhies sighs before sharing, “It took me 35 years before I was confident enough.”
Thus, at an age when many artists’ careers have wandered off on various tangential detours only to come back full-circle to their strengths, Voorhies sheepishly admits she’s taking her first professional turn. She’s delving into the use of brighter colors, now. There’s symbolism in the switch, she shares. For so long, Voorhies exclusively dabbed her brush in dark, earthy paints, creating landscape scenes of majestic, yet haunting places.
“Looking back, you can tell when artists go through a traumatic experience,” Voorhies says. “There’s a parallel in their tone and in their feelings – at least there was for me. It shows up in their work whether they can talk about it or not, it’s their authenticity coming through.
“I remember taking a workshop with Elemore Morgan, and I remember my daughter was in the hospital, and there wasn’t anything I could do to help that situation, so everything I painted was dark and depressing. He kept saying, ‘You’re boxing it in. You’re trying to control it.’ I had no control over what was happening to her so I was putting that control in my painting.
“And so now, there’s a parallel with the color shift and the changes in my life. The darkness has been lifted.”
Yet the shyness persists. While painting is undeniably Voorhies’ passion, it remained her dirty little secret for decades. It’s hard to explain, she says. In front of a blank canvas, she brims with confidence. There’s no hesitance in her strokes and few pauses once the artistic process has started. She works fast. Faster than most, for sure. But put her in front of that same canvas – now filled and hanging on a wall – and Voorhies' insecurities surface. For instance, the second painting she ever finished won a regional high school art award, yet Voorhies decided not to keep the piece. When Voorhies finally jumped into the deep local pool of painters, those close to her had no clue she even liked art, let alone that she possessed the talent necessary to create it. A couple years ago, one of Voorhies’ friends thought she was pulling a prank when she showed her recently-completed website featuring the vast catalog of her work.
“We can paint beautiful paintings, but people can look at it and hate them. It’s kind of scary,” Voorhies says. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been painting for 50 years; it matters if it touches them. So if you’re not confident and self-assured, if you’re insecure and a little bit shy, that’s holds you back tremendously. I was lucky that it didn’t show in my work, but it showed up when I tried to talk about it and explain what I was trying to do.
“You almost have to turn it off. For a while there I would show my work but didn’t care if anybody liked it. I just painted and painted and painted, and it didn’t even matter if I liked it for a while there. I had to put it out there and work through this fear and overcome it. You know what they say about face your fears? I had to overcome it.”
The result? A previously unforeseen collection of landscapes and portraits that the local art community has embraced. Typically, Voorhies visits the places she paints, snapping a picture only when the conditions are unbearable (which is often in the merciless Louisiana summer.) The Acadiana topography – heavy earth tones topped with stretching shadows – lent itself to Voorhies' fondness of dark colors. But considering her shift in mood and style, Voorhies has wandered inside and outside the region to find settings more conducive to the other end of the color spectrum.
“They’re brighter for me, but I like subtlety. The colors are still sophisticated but they’re brighter. Not these dark browns and greens,” she says. “It’s a lot of soft, neutral colors. I like that because it’s very soothing and calming and that’s what I want people to get from my work. I want them to enjoy getting into the landscape and feel like they can go in and sit, you know? And when I paint a figure in my landscape I want them to know what that person is thinking. That they’re kind of comfortable in that space and in deep thought.”