A look at an artist through her own eyes

Caroline Danforth can show you her world in the curve of her spine.

A self-portrait can be striking, granting insight into the way the painter sees herself and the world, but modern art often shies away from representational work, let alone portraits.

Enter Danforth, a GW graduate student who recently opened an exhibition of her work at the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, Md., showcasing more than two dozen small oil self-portraits on wood, many of which don’t even show her face.

Danforth paints her back in browns and reds and arched at a variety of angles, emphasizing the twists and turns of her spine, which is slightly bent by scoliosis, a genetic condition that warps the back.

Danforth sees her back as a symbol of a kind of inheritance.

“It’s about the things we pass on (from generation to generation) and sometimes things that we don’t always necessarily mean to,” said Danforth, whose parents are also artists.

The portraits exhibit tight brush work and simple colors that emphasize shadows to give the works a tense but evocative feel.

“Believe it or not, this is actually pretty loose (brush work) for me,” Danforth said. “I’ve been encouraged to try and open my work up a little bit.”

Danforth comes to GW after triple majoring in Fine Arts, Art History and German at Mary Washington College and then spending several years studying art in Germany. Danforth, whose mother is German, said German culture has played a large role in her life and that studying there was a fulfilling experience. She did some work as an art historian there because the country is home to a wealth of texts on the subject, but in the end Danforth decided she liked creating art more than studying it and returned to the States to begin graduate work.

Danforth is in her final year of pursuing a masters of fine arts degree at GW, where she transferred after what she described as “10 very long weeks” at Savannah College of Design. Since moving to the D.C. area she’s begun painting on much smaller surfaces – her portraits are only a few square inches – and experimenting with some nonrepresentational work focusing on patterns in abstract colors and lines.

Although she dabbles in more modern styles of art, Danforth isn’t a big fan of conceptual pieces.

“I’ve seen plenty of work that I didn’t like at first but could appreciate after being told that this is what they were going for (symbolically), which is fine. But I think art should stand on its own,” she said.

Her work, even when she’s painting in abstract, focuses on tension, coming from dense lines, repeating patterns and stark colors that convey emotion apart from their subject.

Danforth said the Fraser Gallery show could have counted as her thesis show for her master’s degree, but in the end she decided she wanted to make her final project more accessible to other students by holding it at GW’s own Dimock Gallery in Lisner Auditorium.

“I like the GW community and I wanted my show to be a part of it,” Danforth said, adding that the Dimock exhibit will feature larger, more abstract works she withheld from the Fraser showing.

When she’s not painting for class or writing her thesis, Danforth enjoys a new artistic outlet – the recorder, a small, wooden, flute-like instrument. The artist often practices in her studio in the Smith Hall of Art. Slightly embarrassed, she explained that these $1,000 instruments are used in a lot of traditional German music and provide her with a change of pace when she’s overworked. And yes, she owns more than one recorder.

For a professional artist, Danforth has a relatively certain future. After graduating in the spring, she will begin working full time at the Arlington County government’s cultural affairs division. She recently transferred into the public art office there, helping to secure funding and implement permanent public art pieces and temporary displays throughout the year.

Danforth enjoys her day job, but she doesn’t necessarily need the added financial support it givers her. She said her small self-portraits sell for $200-$300 and the larger ones can go for up to $2,500. With such lucrative talent, it’s no surprise that Danforth plans to continue painting – unless, of course, she gets too distracted with her recorder.

Caroline Danforth’s work can be seen along with the self-portraits of Scott Hutchison through Dec. 10 at the Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda, Md.

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