Artist Rhea Gary employs deep, saturated colors to illuminate what she calls the "passionate and unique" culture of Louisiana. This 2005 painting, made with oil on gessoed watercolor paper, is entitled "Living on the Edge" and measures 10 x 22 inches. Learn more »
Rhea Gary, a longtime Baton Rouge resident and graduate of the art school at Louisiana State University (LSU) in that city, has discovered artistic expression among the cypress swamps, coastal marshes, bayous, and rivers of South Louisiana. Her style exaggerates the colors found in nature. She was late in realizing that inspiration for her art was not dependent upon forays to paint in Europe, but rather that captivating subject matter could be her own familiar surroundings.
Born in Baton Rouge on July 5, 1940, Gary loved painting the rolling hills of France and the architecture of Italy during her travels to Europe, until her son convinced her one day to accompany him to his duck blind on a swampy lake in South Louisiana. “For years I painted other things, but working on the wetlands has opened my eyes to so much,” she said. Gary thought about what she was seeing in the wetlands but also, more important, how she felt about what she saw. “I began to think, ‘What was it really like out there?’ I sat in my studio and asked myself, ‘What is a love affair?’ Heat and drama—the serene, cool pictures didn’t do it. It’s hot in Louisiana. I changed my palette and my paintings have not been the same since. ... Everything in Louisiana—our food, our culture—is more intense than other places. Something in the painting has to show that intensity. Red and yellow convey the feeling of heat.”
Gary credits her approach to landscape painting to German-born New York expressionist painter Wolf Kahn, with whom she once studied. “He gave me the ability to see things differently, to actually look at the landscape, be able to simplify it and interpret what I feel rather than put down what’s there. The colors I use are there in the landscape. I just exaggerate them. They are the underlying colors in nature. I want colors to convey the whole feeling of the painting rather than the imagery.” In addition to various art workshops in the United States and Europe, Gary has studied art at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art and LSU, where she received a master’s degree in painting.
Oddly, she often gives titles to paintings that convey a feeling of mellowness and serenity, though her paintings are anything but serene. Titles such as Resurrection, Still Waters, and Alleluia Day are likely to conjure up peaceful thoughts of someone drifting in a small boat, lost in a daydream among moss bearded cypresses and languid bayous. In reality, her paintings show treetops and clouds ablaze in bright pigments of red, yellow and orange. Even the still bayou appears to be burning.
“The wetlands of Louisiana have long been my passion,” she writes. “I’ve found no other paintable space on earth where there is more contrast between vibrant color, rhythm, movement and, at the same time, an alluring peace of place. The fact that the marshland is gradually fading away continues to inspire me to return again and again to capture the wetland beauty we now have before we lose it forever.”
To that end, Gary teamed up with Louisiana naturalist and wildlife photographer C.C. Lockwood in 2003 for a book and education project titled Marsh Mission, depicting Louisiana’s rapidly disappearing coastal wetlands. The two spent a year traveling in and out of the coastal marshes, bayous, tributaries and swamps to capture the changing moods of the wetlands during the four seasons. She painted her impressions while Lockwood captured the natural environment with his camera. She became passionate about bringing attention to the crisis of Louisiana’s coastal to the news media, legislature and government. “I thought what I could do as an artist to make a difference,” she said.
Gary describes her paintings as a combination of spontaneity and intuition. “When I’m at the canvas, it’s a spontaneous response. When I step back, I intellectualize and then step forward to the canvas and intuitively put down what I’m seeing and feeling. Sometimes accidents are the best part of painting.” Gary began her artistic endeavor as aplein-air painter. “I later evolved into a studio painter working initially from one of the many photos that I continue to take as I find new places of inspiration,” she said. “Once I’ve used one or more photos to achieve a workable composition, I put the photos away and continue painting, improvising from memories of places I’ve been and from my imagination.”
Gary and her paintings have received considerable recognition. In 2011, Forum 35, Inc. of Baton Rouge named her a Louisiana Art Legend, and in 2003 she received a Louisiana State University Sea Program development grant. Gary’s paintings can be found in numerous private and public collections, including the Louisiana State University Museum of Art and the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; the Louisiana State Capitol Senate Offices and Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge; the Alexandria Museum of Art in Alexandria, Louisiana; U.S. embassies in Venezuela, Bahrain, Jordan, and Australia; the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona; L’Auberge du Lac Hotel in Lake Charles, Louisiana; the Woman’s Hospital Foundation Collection in Baton Rouge; Whitney National Bank in New Orleans; and the Shell Oil Corporation and Indigo Minerals headquarters in Houston, Texas.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Kemp, John R. "Rhea, Gary." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published September 12, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1256/&view=summary.
Kemp, John R. "Rhea, Gary." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 12 Sept 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.