ALBANY — Sometimes the best surprises can be found in your own backyard.
The “Paintings of Addy®: Dahl Taylor’s Original Illustrations for American Girl” exhibition at Albany Institute of History and Art is one of those.
“I like to surprise people with little-known things from Albany,” said Diane Shewchuk, curator of the exhibition.
It features sketches, paintings and studies that Albany artist Dahl Taylor used to create the iconic illustrations for the “Addy” series of books. For those not up on their American Girl lore, Addy is the protagonist in a series of books that detail her life during the Civil War era. She is born into slavery but eventually escapes.
It’s a nationally loved series that was created, in part, right in the Capital Region.
Taylor, an artist who’s done work for Procter & Gamble, Mars Inc. and Ralph Lauren, among other companies, was commissioned in 1996 to re-illustrate Addy’s story. It was a huge endeavor that required 54 paintings and more than 19 portraits to be created and finished within two years.
With Taylor’s attention to detail, each piece does much more than tell Addy’s story.
In one piece, a young Addy looks longingly at a beautiful piece of fabric in a shop while the owner watches with a gentle smile. It may not sound like a noteworthy scene, but Taylor infused each figure with a sense of warmth that radiates off the canvas, reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s figures.
Of course it helped that Taylor used all local models and people he knew, as Rockwell did.
“We did castings just like they do in movies,” Taylor said. He and his assistant held casting sessions at local churches and community centers until they found the perfect set of characters. Taylor even painted himself into the book, casting a likeness to himself as Master Stevens. He also painted his wife as the character Mrs. Ford, a dressmaker in the series.
“When I was in high school he [Rockwell] was my hero,” Taylor said.
It shows in his work, from his use of lighting to the way he’s able to make the characters come alive and make the setting feel fresher than a century ago.
“Each stands alone because they’re beautiful paintings,” Shewchuk said.
Although every painting is meant to illustrate a certain scene from the American Girl books, there’s a sense that these could hang in any museum or gallery, regardless of the book’s context.
The majority of the pieces are hung without a frame, with the unstretched canvas adhered to the wall. Far from taking away from the caliber of the pieces, the technique gently draws the eye into each work’s focal point, then out again with the fading brushstrokes at the edges of the canvas.
“It makes the viewer more conscious of the process,” Taylor said.
That process was intensive. For each piece, Taylor did full-sized sketches and sent them to American Girl publishers who would check them over for historical accuracy, and send back notes and comments on pieces of tracing paper. Managers of “Addy’s” story at American Girl headquarters sent Taylor to Philadelphia — where Addy and her family move after escaping slavery — and Taylor also garnered historical information from the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown and the Erie Canal Village in Rome.
A few of the clothes Taylor had the models wear are also included in the exhibit and reflected in the paintings, which ties in well with the Institute’s “Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany,” exhibit next door.
Whether you read the “Addy” books growing up, have a child who loves them or are just learning about the series, the “Paintings of Addy®: Dahl Taylor’s Original Illustrations for American Girl” exhibition is well worth the visit. It will be on exhibit through June 18. For information, visit albanyinstitute.org.
Members’ Show at Albany Center Gallery
The Albany Center Gallery packs a lot in with its 2017 Members’ Show.
Works from more than 150 artists are on display, from sculptures to photorealistic paintings to photography and everything in between. It’s a feast for the eyes and one that requires a leisurely walk through the gallery space.
The show is surprising in scale, featuring large works and miniatures such as Stephanie Levay’s mixed-media piece called “The Sheriff” that fits into a container the size of an Altoids tin.
With a large show it can be difficult to come away with just a few standout pieces, but “Round Up” by Niki Haynes is one that stood out from the others. It’s a mixed-media collage in which products such as shaving cream and canned goods are given faces and anthropomorphic qualities. It’s a surreal piece that asks more questions than it answers.
“Opus 40,” is another eye-catching work, literally jutting out from the wall. Artist Sean Stewart created a windy sculpture of a winding path with intricate stonework and trees. It looks like the stones would be cool to the touch and the trees would actually blow in the wind, although Stewart used only paper and paint to create the work.
The President’s Choice Award went to Emily Dorr’s watercolor-and-ink piece “Preserved.” No wonder, as Dorr depicts an elk crying out as it’s becoming engulfed in an icy blue color.
The Members’ Show will be up until Jan. 12. To learn more, visit albanycentergallery.org or stop by the gallery at 488 Broadway, Albany.
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