Thirty people standing in a room all look different. The abstract portraits of 30 people from the Nuquist Gallery of the TW Wood Gallery are also all unique. Instead of physical characteristics, these abstract portraits consider what lies inside their subjects – layers of emotions, stories, dreams – through color, form and imagery.
“Living Space: Portraits through Appreciative Inquiry, Paintings by Stephanie Kossmann” opened at the end of March at TW Wood Gallery in Montpellier and runs until May 12.
Kossmann’s abstract portraits are interpretations based on each person’s responses to appreciative inquiry – questions inviting them to explore their goals, accomplishments, concepts of safety and love, and more. Participants are survivors of complex relationship trauma and sexual violence. The exhibition includes three paintings of each person presented in the form of a triptych.
TW Wood also presents “The Vermont Watercolor Society Members’ Show” in the Hallway Gallery. Between still lifes, portraits, landscapes, the exhibition shows a diversity of techniques and styles of watercolor painting.
“Living Space” is the culmination of three years of work by Kossmann, 2019-22, who lives and has his studio in East Fairfield. Kossmann, a survivor of relationship trauma, conceived the series in 2017.
“I wanted to honor and give back to the community that has helped me live fully again. I have found understanding and camaraderie, and lots of support for healing, from others with their own history of abuse,” Kossmann explained.
Kossmann, who is known for her emotional abstractions, including in seascapes and landscapes and artworks exploring memory and perception, turned to appreciative inquiry as an approach for these portraits.
Appreciative inquiry, she explained, “is a method of shifting perspective and moving creatively toward a desired future by focusing on strengths, qualities, and accomplishments rather than overcoming shortcomings.”
For the project, she reached out to others who had experienced abuse and neglect.
“Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far,” she noted.
To develop these abstract portraits, Kossmann did not have conventional sessions with his subjects. She still doesn’t know what most of them look like.
“Their physique was not what I was trying to convey. I wanted to honor the best in them and hopefully help them embrace and implement their ability to achieve their goals and dreams” , said Kossmann.
She wrote an appreciative inquiry questionnaire that participants had to answer in the form of a short essay. His questions build on each other, from an imaginary or real moment when the participants feel calm and peaceful. Its prompts include exploring the qualities they value in themselves. She asks what word comes to mind as they look to the future.
“It was important for participants to trust that they are only sharing what they want and that they have full control over what I divulge, if anything, about their answers and who they are,” he said. she stated.
Kossmann painted his interpretations of their answers in the order, as they had answered. Some sets have up to a dozen undercoats that are barely noticeable in the final paint job. She listened to their favorite musical genres while she painted.
She made four paintings of each participant – from 8 inches by 8 inches to 24 inches by 24 inches – and gave one of each series to the participant. Participants were asked to name their paintings.
Kossmann’s creative approaches are incredibly diverse. Some portraits evoke a sense of landscape, others draw the viewer to the interplay of forms. Some burst with brilliant color and energy, others sparkle. Using a wide range of techniques, Kossmann builds and scrapes surfaces producing remarkable textures and depth.
For “Portrait of Leah,” Kossmann said, the participant’s emphasis in her questions “made one think of tensile strength, so if you think cobwebs or wires or things that help grabbing and holding things like hammocks or nets”.
Kossmann used an etching needle to incise lines into the panel, painted the piece black, then wiped it clean to leave the very fine lines distinct. Subsequent layers included colors painted over and between the lines. She finished with layers of wax, giving the piece a soft surface.
In “Fern, Clover, Thorn”, bright yellow flecks seem to float or perhaps open through fields of blue. Dark blue, with white underneath, can evoke the night – in an enveloping way – or perhaps a blanket.
With their vertical arrangement and their dimensions, the triptychs look very much like figures. The three paintings form a whole but are equally convincing individually.
“Just like when we meet people, we each tend to pick up unique aspects of them. I invite viewers to ‘meet’ the people behind the paintings organically, through the colors and shapes and hints of stories that led to the final image. Look across the room. Climb right next to them to see the details. Think about textures. Look around the edges. Look from different angles,” Kossmann said.