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Artist Profile: Billy Solitario

Thom Bennett

The stories behind Billy Solitario’s paintings are straightforward and, to hear him explain it, so is his approach. His subjects might include an oyster, a fish with a lemon slice or a bank of clouds sailing over Gulf waters. There’s no apparent commentary, no personal metaphors or transformative interpretation. But the thematic simplicity belies the intricacies of color, spatial values and perspective on his canvases, which, after all, is the pleasure of viewing this work.

“People ask me why I stick to realism, why I’m just painting what I see,” says Solitario, 35, who lives Uptown. “When you try to dissect and really understand what you’re seeing, it opens up a lot of beauty, a lot of little interesting things that come together. I think about it as relationships in nature. It’s about trying to capture the immediacy of what’s going on.”

Solitario grew up in Gautier, Miss., a small town on the Gulf Coast, and came to New Orleans in 1994 to enroll in the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art. He got his commercial start when the academy received a last-minute invitation from a local gallery to showcase a trio of up-and-coming young artists. His work sold well at this public debut, and he hasn’t looked back. Pragmatic in his approach as a professional artist and prolific in the studio, he believes having a steady supply of paintings available has helped him build a following early in his career.

Solitario’s work has long been based on the Gulf Coast, and he has typically traveled back home for inspiration. The longer he’s lived in New Orleans, however, the more the city has asserted its influence. Now, the grounding details around one of his cloudscapes are as likely to be familiar local church steeples as Gulf dunes.  An evening sky and the black outlines of live oak trees rise up from the riotous nighttime color of a Mardi Gras parade on Napoleon Avenue in one recent painting. In another, grain elevators and ocean-going freighters seen from the riverfront of Audubon Park look tiny beneath towering clouds at sunset.

“I’m still searching out nature,” he says. “You’re in the city, you look up, and there it is right above you –– these massive clouds in all their grandeur.”

Solitario teaches portrait and landscape painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He is represented by LeMieux Galleries in New Orleans and the L2 Gallery in Seaside, Fla. To see examples of his work online, go to www.lemieuxgalleries.com, www.thel2gallery.com or www.billysolitario.com. 

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