The Flinn Gallery in Greenwich is getting a taste of the unexpected from Manhattan artist and New Canaan native Karen Santry.
On Thursday, Feb. 3, a group show entitled Three Visions, featuring the works of Santry along with Perry Burns and Willard Lustenader, opened with a gala celebration attracting 244 art afficianados from CT and New York City.
Santry's latest series, The Kabuki, combines her sense of drama, fashion and almost impossible realism with kabuki theatre, resulting in the perfect artistic storm.
“Karen’s work is better than anything else,” said Luis da Cruz, an artist from Manhattan who purchased a Santry painting at the opening. “It’s bigger than life. The colors come alive — and the faces are so expressive.”
“What’s unique about Karen’s work is that it’s exquisite and delicate and yet at the same time monumental,” said Minette Valeriano, a journalist who also purchased a piece at the show.
Santry said that as she became better acquainted with the stories of the kabuki she found they are similar to western operas and stories by Shakespeare.
“Tales of love, yearning, jealousy, wars and treachery create fascinating interactions," she said.
Santry received her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, where she developed an affinity for working with large canvases inspired by faculty members Alex Katz and Neil Welliver.
This led to painting sets for the theatre where she worked on Broadway productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. But it wasn’t long before Santry’s roots led her back to her true passion.
“Having grown up partially in Holland, my adoration of the Dutch Masters Rembrandt and Vermeer followed me in my lifetime passion: painting of the figure in costume with dramatic lighting,” said Karen, who has exhibited at many international galleries and museums.
Santry was also a founder of the Norwalk artist community SoNo in the late 1970s where fellow artists and local dancers from the Ballet Etudes became her models.
“I just love the detail,” said artist Paul Muranyi of Manhattan who also plays guitar with a Thin Lizzy cover band. “The strong faces, the emotion, the antiquity of statement, the strong vibrant colors and how the faces are animated. They just jump out at you.”
Another passion, teaching, resulted in Santry teaming up with Professor Robert Reed at both the and at Yale University, where she was named a Lily Fellow. Soon, Santry won a teaching position at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has remained for three decades as an associate professor of art —often being named Favorite Professor by students.
“My teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology led me to an interest in the drama of the international haute couture runway fashion shows where I will be drawing at this season’s New York collection,” said Santry. “I enjoy the interaction of the shapes and fabrics of the clothing working in tandem as well as in juxtaposition to the figure. This coupled with a pose accentuating gesture, conveying the emotion of the figure made for exciting painting material.”
Santry does illustrations for mystery books, and theatre posters and fashion work. A member of the Society of Illustrators, she has been living and working at Westbeth Artist Housing since 1990. She was one of 13 aratists chosen to appear in the recently released film, Westbeth Home of the Arts .
“I have two studios there and love interacting creatively in the artistic community. It is both an honor and inspiration,” Santry said. “I have a large permanent 40-foot installation of stainless steel Dalmatians running along astro turf grass in the courtyard
Santry said that after years of painting fashion figures, she found what she calls "the most beautiful fashion figure ever—the Japanese Grand Kabuki." Santry said the Kabuki represents a confluence of theatre and fashion. She has been painting the series that includes 26 actors for about 12 years.
A favorite subject is the work of actor Tamasaburo Bando.
“The majority of paintings of him are Onnagatas,” she said, describing a male actor in kabuki who performs female roles. “Although the original kabuki actors were women, it was thought unsafe for them to travel and perform. So to this day it is comprised of an all male cast.”
In this series, Santry occasionally works from live models and recreates the fabrics in paper — painting and draping them on the figure to understand the lighting.
“I work also from embroidery, finding subject matter such as cranes and dragons to emulate the textures of the fabrics,” she said.
Santry said she employs eight-foot wooden cutouts because when drawing for fashion illustration it’s of extreme importance to clarify the shapes in order to strengthen the image.
“I find myself drawing with the skill saw on a large scale — similar to working on scenery,” Santry explains. “I so admire the colors and patterns of textile designs in clothing.”
Santry is currently completing work on another installation project that features paintings of the fashion figure often with animals and interacting in crime scenes.
“This series celebrates Fashion Week coming to the New York Chelsea meat district,” she said. “I recently created the cover for the best seller The Big Book of Fashion Illustration, by Martin Dawber and wrote the preface.”
The book cover was created with small cutouts of the fashion figure accompanied by pug dogs.
“I have been exhibiting these paintings in Manhattan and recently had a painting of a woman in a striped dress with zebras at the Hall of Fame Gallery at the Society of Illustrators,” Santry said.
The artist’s short-term goals include creating a new series of drawings called Life Style.
“These drawings would be of contemporary people interacting at the High-line in Manhattan, at the Apple store and at Starbucks,” Santry said.
The Kabuki is an ongoing series and is being continued in smaller mono prints on delicate rice paper, which are on exhibition and contrast the larger than life wooden painted cutouts.
“I think the word 'exquisite' sums up Karen’s work,” said Barbara Hanlon, a professor of illustration at F.I.T., who traveled to Greenwich for the opening.
Santry remains dedicated to her students and in helping them build sustainable careers in New York.
The show runs through March 16. The Flinn Gallery is located on the second-floor of Greenwich Library, 101 W. Putnam Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; Thursday: 10 a.m.to 8 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free.