by Bob Bahr, PV Arts Council member
Debra Payne has seen a lot of art in her time. She taught art at Liberty High School for 30 years, teaching students how to draw and paint. So, before even counting the art she has looked at for her own enjoyment, Payne has examined thousands of thousands of paintings and drawings. She knows what it takes to execute art effectively, and she knows how art can go further to make a dramatic impression on the viewer.
This explains why, when a viewer pauses in front of her painting "Flower Girl's Dress," currently on view at the R. G. Endes Gallery, in the Prairie Village Municipal Offices, the painting exerts itself beyond a superficial reading of any old dress. Exquisitely painted, it begs for a narrative.
I'm afraid the viewer will have to provide that story. Payne may imbue her paintings with emotion, but there is no grand narrative at play.
"A lot of my subject matter is just stuff that I think will look cool in a painting," Payne says. "Objects that are discarded--it's just things that I'm personally drawn to, maybe all the stuff in my recycling box."
The key is the alchemy that artists bring to something, the transformation of an everyday object into something interesting to behold. 'I hope the viewer recognizes what I'm depicting but see it like for the first time," says Payne. "I hope that they can identify the subject but are wowed by the painting of it. I'm always pursuing the 'cool' factor."
That elevation of the mundane is something she taught her students. A beautiful dress for a young girl is already a work of art…but an old, used-up flip-flop? Payne has long understood shoes to be a good subject for a painting. If one needs precedents in art history, they are there. Google Van Gogh's painting of shoes, for example. Andrew Wyeth's tempera painting of his boots treading on a weed. But most of all, Payne found shoes useful for teaching her art students.
"When I was teaching high school kids, I was always looking for things to draw--things readily available and not too precious," says the artist. "Never use candy in a still life--they are always so hungry, so they will eat it--even if it is glued down! Shoes work well because we all have such a strong symbol in our brains for what a shoe looks like. Same with a flip-flop. To correctly draw a shoe--and to me, painting is just an offshoot of drawing--you have to give up on the idea of drawing the symbol. What do you really see? What shape do you actually see? I still like painting shoes today. This summer I'm going to paint shoes a lot bigger. I don't know if it will be a series, but I will return to shoes. I'm also going to paint some pieces with those magnetic letters that people put on refrigerators. I am raising chickens so I am going to paint them as well."
Payne sometimes paints outdoors, and she likes it, but the weather and the sunlight changes rather quickly, making it a challenge to capture the scene. So she prefers to carefully arrange objects and set up lights in her studio to prepare her subject matter. "I spend a great deal of time setting it all up, but I find that if I have a really solid plan, it's unlikely that the painting process will falter. I like to feel pretty confident in what I'm doing for it to be a success."
Before the pandemic she enjoyed participating in several artist residencies. Payne would paint in a community for one week in all four seasons, depicting the local beauty. That's preferable to some outdoor painting events, where painters compete to paint the "best" painting over a week or weekend. "Residencies were more doable," Payne says. "It was still hard work, but I had the opportunity to take as much time as I needed, to repeat a painting, or to return to the same scene a couple of times to finish a piece to my satisfaction." Payne reports that these paintings of local communities, including Lindsborg, Newton, and Marysville, appeal to collectors who appreciate a small-town vibe.
Payne clearly appreciates the Prairie Village vibe. She grew up in Johnson County and graduated from Shawnee Mission West. She "married a boy from Shawnee Mission South," and earned a master's degree in art education from KU (much of it off-campus) after graduating from Emporia College. Now retired, she paints what she wants, the way she wants. "It keeps me off the streets," she says with a laugh.
Bob Bahr is a member of the Prairie Village Arts Council. He has written about visual art for several national magazines. He lives with his family in Prairie Village and paints a variety of subjects. He wishes there was a NYC-style bodega in the Shops.