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After 25 years of making art for other people, Connie Connally has finally done something for herself

It's Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, and Connie Connally's helpers have deserted her to rush home for the game. The men in her life--husband, Pete Stovall; son, Zach; and friend, Gary Daniel--spent most of the day hanging the panels Connally has labored over for more than a year on the long, north wall of Craighead-Green Gallery. Connally handed them up, one by one, from the grid of paintings she first arranged on the floor. Stovall and Daniel measured, nailed, and hung the 90 panels quickly, without much discussion, and Connally approved the installation as it went up. There was very little tweaking to be done; she had seen this project completed and envisioned this moment for so long that there was nothing left to say.

One year and 27 days after conceiving this People I Know exhibition, Connally drags a sagging director's chair from the office at the back of the gallery. She's grateful to be alone with her work, yet gloom is setting in. She's tearing up, partly from sheer exhaustion, partly from relief. The moody weather doesn't help, and Connally gets up to turn on the bank of track lights since the gray, drizzling sky holds little hope of natural light. She sits again and stares; 90 pairs of eyes stare back at her. Her portraits are of family, close friends, friends now distant, and people she's barely met. Each panel is 20 inches by 16 inches. She calls it a "portrait journal," an introspective study of herself, human nature, universality, life. She says it's been a journey as well, taking her out of her element as a sought-after portraitist in Dallas in favor of this soul-searching, technique-testing, talent-stretching project.

Slumped in the chair in the quiet darkness of the gallery, Connally regards each rendered face and brightens a little as the spotlights make some of the two-dimensional people radiate with personality, while others droop in shadow. Some of these faces command respect; some engender pity; others seem sad, or tired, or happy, wise, loving, wistful, calm, silly. Above all, and surprisingly, they seem very real. The artist's expressive, exaggerated style infuses the faces with life and emotion more than a hyper-realistic treatment could. Connally gets up, overcome with emotion herself, overwhelmed after only a few minutes with the finished piece. "I gotta get out of here," she says, wiping her cheeks, putting on her coat. "I knew it would work," she says earnestly. "But I didn't expect it to affect me like this."

Dallas painter Connie Connally knocked out 90 portraits in one year--including writer Annabelle Massey Helber, with naked baby--for People I Know, an exhibition at Craighead-Green Gallery.
Dallas painter Connie Connally knocked out 90 portraits in one year--including writer Annabelle Massey Helber, with naked baby--for People I Know, an exhibition at Craighead-Green Gallery.

Details

Through March 17

(214) 855-0779

Craighead-Green Gallery

Connally looked hard at herself and her life before taking this fine-art leap of faith and convincing her friend and gallerist, Kenneth Craighead, to commit to a show of work completely outside her former box. "I think I reinvent myself every 10 years or so," she says laughing, lapsing occasionally into New Age-speak, when she talks about a year of drastic change, the death of her father, the human condition, connections and relationships, and a growing internal energy for a new direction in her work. Connally began her career as an illustrator in 1975. After years of pleasing prima donna art directors in advertising agencies across the country, she began painting portraits of people and even their pets. "When I was pregnant with Zach," she says, "I painted our 19-year-old dog on a whim. A few people saw that painting, and I started getting calls and commissions to paint pets." She made a decent living and, she says, created a quirky niche for her work that kept her able to paint full time.

But something stung about becoming well-known as a pet painter. "I began trying to convince people to be in the paintings with their pets," she says, "because I was interested in conveying these special relationships." From this work, she built a lucrative portraiture business, commanding as much as $40,000 for a wall-sized interpretation of one Dallas family, although $5,000 to $18,000 is her average commission range. As Connally found her illustrative, colorful, caricaturelike style more in demand, she wrestled with every artist's agony: balancing commercial success with the need for self-satisfaction and critical recognition. In illustration, she says, it's all about style. What she was itching to create was more about substance.

Scribbling the idea for People I Know in a notebook while on a family road trip on New Year's Day last year, Connally says she didn't realize how much the process would help her break out of her routine, explore untapped internal resources as an artist, and change the way she thought about every aspect of life. "It was hard to give up making money," she says. "And it was hard to ask people if I could paint them. Some of them said no at first, so I would just ask them again. I found myself going up to strangers at art openings. I would know who they were, but they'd never met me. I would make myself do it."

Also taxing were her days spent working alone in the studio. "Some of the people came here to let me sketch them," she says, "but for most of the portraits, I went to them and either drew or took photographs." Connally observed that the closer she was to her subject the more difficult it was to paint. "My sister Shelley was the hardest," she says of the struggle to render the "real Shelley" beneath the likeness. Photographs and sometimes sketches didn't reveal people's personalities to the degree that Connally hoped to express them, she says. She dealt with her subjects' vanity, shyness, reluctance, criticism, and exuberance as well as she could. The tight timetable--90 paintings in one year--put most of it in perspective. "And I made mistakes, but I let myself make mistakes. That really freed me up," she says.

Connally built People I Know from the inside out. The core group of 12 panels includes a self-portrait, wherein the artist gives herself a wild-eyed Stockard Channing look; her immediate and extended family; and very close friends. Acquaintances and virtual strangers surround the intimate center, many of whom are well-known players in the Dallas-Fort Worth art game. A gentle, elegant likeness of Patricia Meadows, noted Dallas art patron, hangs near the angular face of Terri Thornton, director of education for Fort Worth's Museum of Modern Art. Connally painted fellow artists, including art stars Pamela Nelson and Annette Lawrence; gallery owners, including Craighead, Steve Green, and Houston's Betty Moody; art leaders, such as Katherine Wagner, former director of the Dallas Visual Art Center; and the grande dame of Dallas gallerists, Edith Baker.

Connally threw in a couple of local art writers you might recognize, too, along with her film processor, her son's teacher, her mail carrier, a banker, a lawyer, a pilot, and a cowboy. "It really is a reflection of a community," she says, noting a mix of ethnicity and ages from newborn to her father, who was 77 when he died in July 2000. One of her subjects, Dallas floral designer Don Hathorn, died after Connally completed his portrait. In it, Hathorn is painfully thin, smoking, and solemn, with pale, nearly gray skin and a palpable sadness.

Even if you don't know each person's story, or the emotional investment of the artist, you'll take this work at more than face value. You may not like the way Connally sees the people she knows--with noses that seem a little too big, exaggerated expressions, jutting jaws, scowling aspects, prissy attitudes, pouty lips. Of these faces, a few seem familiar, a few are off-putting; some attract or repel you instantly, some require study. The installation itself--90 panels hanging edge-to-edge in enforced and unnatural closeness--creates a sense of community and chaos at the same time. It's a wall of mirrors in a sense, daring you to see yourself as others might.

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