Some artists chase beauty, and some pursue a deeper expression of their experience. Grace Athena Flott chose both: she uses her work as an act of healing through aesthetic beauty. She paints with a distinct, classical Renaissance style, developed by training at an art atelier in Seattle. The atelier style of teaching dates back to ancient Greece and Medieval Europe. In this style, artists take on students as apprentices so that they can learn directly from an art ‘master.’
FF2 Guest Post by Bri Fecarotta
While such art training comes with ages of knowledge and expertise behind it, this type of education carries baggage from the past. In an interview at Figure|Ground Gallery with Scott Méxcal, Grace mentions how atelier training focuses on a narrow-minded type of ‘beauty.’ That lack of inclusiveness is quite personal to her.
When Grace was 20, she was trapped in an apartment fire and had to jump out of a fourth story window to escape. This experience dramatically changed the course of her life and gave her something unique to comment on with her art. Grace’s work deals with her fear and grief, but it also embraces resilience, joy, and beauty, rekindling her pain into something else.
Her first series, Still I Rise, opens with a self-portrait titled “Forged in the Flames.” This painting deals most directly with her trauma and self-acceptance. In the portrait, Grace is featured in a straight-on composition that maintains a confident yet relaxed stance. Initially, we meet her eyes and feel a sense of strength and calm. As the gaze lingers and travels across the painting, the textures and the colors built up around her scars become more prominent, but remain beautiful in the soft window light. By including herself in the canon of what is considered classically beautiful, Grace’s self-portrait speaks of healing and reverence.
In Still I Rise, Grace’s other pieces depict her crutches, back brace, wheelchair, and a scene from the hospital she recovered in. Each object or person in this series is painted close to a window, illuminating her subjects in cool, natural light. The outside and inside contrast hint at the feeling of freedom. She is healing but not quite recovered. Grace must rely on the hospital and equipment, trapping her in this environment, and yet they also give back her agency. With the muted colors and cool sunlight, Grace communicates the bittersweet nature of these moments. Furthermore, the lack of a person next to the crutches and wheelchair paintings creates a question for the viewer: Where did Grace go? Will she return for the tea on the windowsill next to the wheelchair? This uncertainty combined with hope creates a deeper insight into Grace’s mindset around her experience of disability, while still remaining quite literal with what the paintings portray.
Grace explores what it means to be underrepresented and the dichotomy of invisibility and hypervisibility that comes with being different.
In her more recent 2021-22 show, Exposure Therapy, Grace takes her previous concepts even further. Grace explores what it means to be underrepresented and the dichotomy of invisibility and hypervisibility that comes with being different. In her artist statement, she mentions she has dealt with the human gaze, both unkind and curious, because of her scars. But, she also recognizes that she can sometimes hide that part of herself to avoid the judgement of others. Not everyone has the opportunity to mask themselves. Her experience with stigmatization led her to paint people who had similarly faced unwelcome stares due to their appearance.
Still, Exposure Therapy starts with another self-depiction, leading us into the new concepts present in this show. The painting is titled “New Monuments,” and there are two arms outstretched, both her own but opposing one another. This is a triptych, which means physically there are three paintings, but they remain connected as one piece. This choice further highlights the connectedness and yet broken feelings upon the journey of acknowledging one’s self. The limb on the right prominently features her burns, and the hand is relaxed, inviting. The arm on the left is more hesitant, recalcitrant – and has fewer scars. The hands seem close to touching, but it is uncertain if they will ever grasp one another.
Exposure Therapy leans into the gap between these two hands. Pieces like “Tools of the Trade” further demonstrate this by showing hesitance and the uncertainty of acceptance. This still life has a scattered array of objects like nail polish, a makeup brush, and an upside down glass. These elements project the aftermath of going out, of desiring to be seen.
Exposure Therapy asks the viewer to reflect on their vulnerable sensitivities, creating a space of reflection.
As a subtle contrast, the painting features a pink measuring tape painted across the objects like a ribbon. The baby pink color and elegant lines give it an innocent feminine beauty, while also alluding to the insecurities that come with beauty and diet culture in the modern era. Only a small sliver of the actual inches on the tape are shown, as though it might have slipped out unintentionally. Exposure Therapy asks the viewer to reflect on their vulnerable sensitivities, creating a space of reflection. “Tools of the Trade” seems to encapsulate this message, and furthermore asks us to bring all our good and bad to the table in order to properly heal and move on.
Due to the vibrant and terrifying nature inherent in exposing oneself, paintings in Exposure Therapy feel voyeuristic and personal, but some feature the joy and healing in being seen and in being remembered. The concept of inclusion into a private space features prominently in pieces like “Peep Show.” In the painting, we glimpse down a hallway to see feet carelessly hanging, maybe swinging back and forth. Vivid sunlit windows and vibrating greens and oranges almost create the nostalgic feeling of a memory or a dream. While every painting in Exposure Therapy brings a sense of balance to the good and bad of vulnerability, “Peep Show” leans a bit more into a warmer, freer form of vulnerability in comparison to pieces such as “Tools of the Trade” or “New Monuments.”
Grace brings a fresh perspective to this classical medium. She introduces marginalized people such as herself into the beauty of antiquity and highlights unique struggles born from being both invisible and hyper-visible. Grace also has a separate series titled Burn Survivor Portraits, where she paints other burn survivors. Through these works, she turns the narrative of their lives into beauty. By painting survivors as they truly are in classical oils, she helps to shape future generation’s tastes into something more inclusive. Her call to action to any burn victim wanting to be painted summarizes it best: “This is for any burn survivor who wants to revel in their own beauty.”
© Bri Fecarotta (9/19/2022) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit Grace’s website, which features both shows Exposure Therapy and Still I Rise, her school work, and a place to commission work.
For resources for burn survivors and information about volunteering, visit the Phoenix Society’s website.
Check out Grace in conversation with Scott Méxcal for great insight into Grace’s ideas and thoughts behind the Exposure Therapy series.
To learn more about ateliers, check out Juliette Aristedes’ video or the Gage Academy website where Grace was trained.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Grace Athena Flott in front of “Ways of Seeing.” Photo by Nate Gowdy / Courtesy of Grace Athena Flott
Top Photo: “Forged in the Flames.” Courtesy of Grace Athena Flott.
Bottom Photo: “New Monuments.” Courtesy of Grace Athena Flott.
Bri is a traditional and digital artist living in the Pacific Northwest. She studied art and animation at University of Washington and traditional oil painting at Georgetown Atelier. Her current focus is telling authentic stories through storyboards and comics, and so she seeks out interesting artwork that taps into both modern and classical ways of expression. Bri also teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle.