Artist Spotlight: Sharon Charmley and Benjamin Parks I Figurative Works II Award Winners

Sharon Charmley

How did you first become involved with art?

I have always been interested in art, and I can recall that even in elementary school, I was the kid pouring over the school book sales looking for “how to draw” books. I found art as a natural outlet for my introverted personality, and it helped me find some confidence in school since I wasn’t the strongest student in the class. I found out later in life that I am dyslexic, which accounts for the school struggles, but also contributes to the creativity. I completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at Kent State University, then worked in several social services positions before becoming a stay at home mom. The stress of child rearing propelled me back into producing art as way of supporting my mental health.

I went back to my art in earnest after the birth of my boys. I find parenting a challenging role and I have found painting to be an outlet for my personal health and well-being, but additionally it has become a place to work through issues that I find to be challenging or difficult in child rearing. I have always been easily influenced by the emotions of others. This empathy is a blessing and a curse at times.


Do you have any academic training or art education?

I took classes and workshops, as a rule I tried to take at least one workshop each year to continue my progress as an artist, and I attended open drawing or painting sessions that had a live model. Since moving to St. Louis a few years ago, I have had the opportunity to continue learning from the talented professors in the painting program at Fontbonne University, where I will earn an MFA next spring.

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Who or what inspires you to create art?

The two things that inspire me most to keep creating are: first, the sense of fulfillment I get from the process of learning and practicing a skill, and second, the opportunity it gives me to work out issues or emotions I find difficult to deal with in my mind. A couple of examples of this later benefit are easier to see in two older pieces I have done: one for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (2011), and the other, a nativity scene (2012).

These two paintings are examples of where I find inspiration. In fact I would say that I find it most clearly when I am honest about the struggles I am having. More recently, those struggles center around the raising of two boys that have been diagnosed by our current educational system as “twice-exceptional”. This means that they have been tested and found to have exceptional abilities in certain areas of learning, and also they have been diagnosed with learning disabilities in other areas of learning. For example one has been given the labels of: a genius level IQ and dyslexia, so the dyslexia prevents him from learning to the height of his intellectual ability. The challenge of raising two children with these academic labels, and trying to figure out how to best encourage them to be the best unique individuals that they were created to be, has been at the center of my personal struggles, and therefore also my artwork.

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Why are you a figurative artist?

As for the question of why I do figurative art, it really come down to a lifelong fascination with the non-verbal expressions that can be communicated through the human body and face. Since the viewers of art are human, there is a natural connection that happens when portraying emotions or messages using non-verbal expressions. I have been fascinated by the idea of how to use the portrait to convey more of the psychological interworking of the subject than a photograph can capture. In an age of selfies and digital social media, there is no shortage of portraits today, but do those endless photos really convey what makes that individual unique and special?


Tell us about your process and materials.

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My process has changed over time, the materials will vary depending on the project, but there are a few things that remain constant. After I feel inspired by an idea, I will gather photographic references, and in some cases I will set up a photo shoot to get the references I envision; this was the case with my Nativity painting. Other times the photos that I take of people will inspire an idea, so I will use that as my starting point. I usually use Photoshop to work out my compositions before putting brush to canvas, this process helps me to make many compositional decisions before I start a painting. Recently I have been using my children’s drawings as the initial basis for a painting. When I do this, I will make a xerox copy of their drawings, then use a gel medium transfer process to put the drawings onto a birch wood panel. I chose wood panels because the gel medium transfer process works easier on a rigid surface, and I like the way the light warm tone of the wood panel looks against the cooler tones of the xerox copy transfer. After I have my background set, I will use that image as the backdrop and start composing in photoshop. Once I am ready to start the painting, I will project the image onto the canvas and trace a faint outline of the figure. I do this because the gel medium transfer would show every single correction of the drawing process, and I want to preserve the white background as much as possible so that the kids drawings are not covered up. After I have painted the figure in oils, then I play with the edges and background images to try to build up the interior dialogue that inspired me in the first place.


Benjamin Parks:

How did you first become involved with art?

Some of my first memories are making drawings and paper sculptures at 4 years old. In elementary school, I could be found drawing faces during class. I have continuously created and experimented with visual art and expression for as long as I can remember.  

Do you have any academic training or art education?

I have taken several art classes to learn technique and theory at institutions such as the Kansas City Art Institute. I spent over a decade studying books and techniques form Italian and American masters to develop my own style and technique.   

Who or what inspires you to create art?

For me, creating art is the deepest form of meditation practice I can do. This allows me to connect with myself and communicate with others on a spiritual level.

Where do you draw your influence?

I find my major influences are from American artist such as John Singer Sargent, Dean Mitchell, Andrew Wyeth and Chuck Close.

Why are you a figurative artist?

I have always felt a compulsion to create and communicate through the human form. In middle school, I read an article featuring the artist Dean Mitchell. He described how he left the illustration world to pursue his fine art figurative work. This was not for commissioned work, but for himself. This was an impactful moment that gave me permission to pursue what I knew to be an inner truth.

Tell us about your process and materials.

I paint in Acrylic or Oils, depending on the piece. Each piece starts with a ½-1-inch grid and topographical-like shapes are drawn within that grid. The first layers of paint are an Ultramarine blue and Titanium White underpainting that helps create depth in the skin tones. I then re-draw the grid multiple times as I apply dozens of thin layers of color over the top of the underpainting. The main focus of the painting is what I call the ‘face triangle’, which consists of the eyes, nose and mouth.