New Haven artist Katro Storm, a master mark-maker, has turned a large gallery space into a temporary studio where visitors can witness his monumental painting challenge in progress — creating 21 (sizable) portraits in 21 days — at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on Trumbull Street.
The painter said he took on the challenge as an art project he is doing for himself, after a string of commissions left him feeling like “more of an illustrator than an artist.”
Billed as an “evolving painting installation” by the Ely Center, Storm’s project is part of Ely Center’s winter showcase of solo and thematic exhibits. Gallery director Debbie Hesse said Storm’s project is emblematic of the goals of the gallery in “creating layers of accessibility for artists and the community at large.”
Storm’s paintings of mostly famous African Americans occupy floor and wall space in a gallery-turned-studio on the center’s second floor, an area now sheathed in polyethylene to protect it from spills, drips, and spatters — part of the mark-making process that imbues Storm’s works with a kind of cosmic essence.
The artist said his work is influenced by a field of abstract expressionists including Robert Motherwell and especially Jackson Pollock — “1,000 percent,” he said. Francis Bacon and artist Gerhard Richter are other lofty influences that have impacted Storm’s artistic sensibilities.
“I am an abstract painter at heart. Figurative portraits is what I know. I try to integrate the two,” said Storm.
Photographic images are the starting point for Storm’s dense and moody portraits.
A collection of faces — musicians, singers, actors, activists, neighborhood heroes, and even some notorious characters such as gangster Pappy Mason, whom Storm refers to as an antihero, are always within arm’s reach as the artist works.
It is not necessarily the celebrity status of Storm’s subjects that leads him to create the soulful images. Painted in black and white acrylic paint with a broad range of tonalities, the common thread in Storm’s subjects seems to be the subjects’ perseverance.
“People that have been on life’s battlefield,” Storm said. “I’m trying to draw energy from their experiences.”
Dominating the gallery wall at the Ely Center is a 15-foot-long painting featuring legendary trumpet player Miles Davis. It’s an older work installed as a placeholder for the emerging new works, which each day gain greater articulation as the artist employs an economy of movement and utility of techniques in rendering the massive portraits.
Storm’s process is not linear. He does not complete one work before moving on to the next. Rather, he works on images simultaneously, depending on the painting technique being utilized. Storm said if he is using a dry-brush technique, for example, he will make applications to several individual portraits, taking his inspiration from image to image.
“I look at this as one big painting,” he said.
Though Storm has created a 21-day, 21-painting framework as the premise for the challenge, the project is not about the number of works he is creating, as much as it is a test of his own artistic mettle.
“I feel like I’m in the art world but I don’t fit in. I have to prove to myself that I’m relevant,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”
This is not the first time Storm has worked under the pressure of a tight time frame. While at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he was a student in the 1990s, Storm said he did a lot of “hanging around” and eventually ran short of time to complete an important assignment headed for the program’s review board. With only seven days left, Storm forced himself to rise to the occasion, creating the seven paintings needed — all portraits of influential African Americans. The images were received with great enthusiasm and his work caught the eye of renowned artist Paul Goodnight, who encouraged Storm’s participation in an exhibit for the National Council for the Arts at Howard University.
The review board paintings also became the highlight of the Museum School’s Black History Month Exhibition, drawing additional attention and new opportunities for Storm. Ironically, Storm’s early successes at the Museum School persuaded him to leave school early and head off to New York City, where he immersed himself in the art scene, taking on commissions and occasionally displaying his work in the subway system. Storm eventually returned to New Haven to deal with family health issues; he also began teaching at the Educational Center for the Arts.
“I like working with kids and art in the community because I think I’m good at it,” he said. “And I do it for free most of the time.”
Storm last year worked as an art instructor for ConnCAT’s after school program at Lincoln-Bassett School. “There is always a lack of money but that will never stop me from sharing my skills and art abilities in the community with kids,” he said. “They deserve it, and it’s my calling.”
The Ely Center portraiture project unveiling will take place on Feb. 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. as part of the closing of the winter showcase, which will feature artist talks and a panel discussion. Included with Storm’s painting exhibit will be a short documentary film about Storm’s painting challenge. The series will also be on view during regular gallery hours on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 (1 to 4 p.m.) at the Ely Center, 51 Trumbull St.