Painter Tonya Ingersol followed in the footsteps of her father, Baltimore philanthropist Eddie Brown, and spent nearly a decade working the rarefied precincts of high finance in New York and Dallas. Then, like artists Jeff Koons and Paul Gauguin before her, she switched careers, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002. She's been a full-time painter ever since, working eight hours a day, six days a week in her Mount Vernon studio. Recently, she began preparing for her next show, which opens Oct. 6 at Galerie Francoise II in Woodberry. She'll be exhibiting six of her meticulously detailed, mural-scale oil-on-wood-panel paintings, each of which takes months to complete. Her paintings often depict middle-class Afri can-American subjects in seemingly commonplace but emotionally charged settings that exude an aura of mystery and drama.
In her words --The title of the show is Altered States and all the paintings deal with altered states of being on many levels - physical, spiritual, geographical and psychological. Each of the scenes in the paintings occur after the alteration has taken place. They range from subtle shifts of metaphysical status to violent dislocations of physical space. To me, it seems that when the altered state is self-imposed the transformation can lead to growth and self-empowerment, but when it's inflicted from the outside it can lead to a sense of disorientation.
Describe your style --I call [it] "aggressive materiality," because the viewer is confronted with objects and figures that are similar in size to objects in the real world. The [very large scale] lets viewers enter the paintings emotionally and ties them to the objects and figures there because they're the same size. My medium is oil on wood panel, which is also part of that aggressive materiality - these are enduring and substantial materials. I'm using figurative realism, which usually puts people in mind of narrative painting. But what I'm actually doing is withholding the narrative, because I'm providing only the skeleton of a story; the flesh I leave for the viewer to put on.
Choosing what to paint --I'm not painting scenes I happen upon on the street. I'm actually creating scenes that are very crafted and orchestrated. I'm selecting the models, looking for locations that set an atmosphere or a mood, and sometimes even going so far as to get elaborate costumes and bring in furniture and props to really make what I would call a stage set. So they're very manufactured scenes.
Creating new symbols --In my classes at MICA there were mostly Caucasian students. They could do a Caucasian figure, and that figure would be seen as a universal person, a universal figure. But as soon as I painted somebody, say an African-American, the first question I would get is, "Oh, is that your relative?" So, all of a sudden, the figure had to be specific because it was a black person. One thing I'm working on is transforming the black figure from a specific individual into a universal figure through the use of allegory and symbolism.
Changing careers --I grew up in a family that is very focused on philanthropy and participating in the community, and that's part of why I wanted to leave finance, because I didn't think I was doing that in my field. I switched to art because this is my way of trying to change aspects of the world. So in that sense I'm very idealistic, I guess. But that's what my impetus was: How can I contribute and not just to make money but make a difference? Now every day when I wake up, I love what I do.