Local artist Stephen Lange comes from an art history background, and it was through learning the stories of famous creatives that he realized his calling.
“Vincent van Gogh, Andy Warhol and Gustav Klimt loved what they did, and it showed. If they didn’t have art in their lives, they probably would not have lived as long as they had,” Lange says. “That’s how I look at art. I love being alive, and I make art to prove it.”
Among his many projects, Lange collects ginkgo leaves that fall on Wall Street, stamping them with individual Japanese woodblock prints reading “Happiness,” “Prosperity,” “Wisdom” and “Love.” Once complete, he scatters them back on the sidewalks for people to discover. While gathering the flora, Lange also searches for gingko leaves with a perfect heart shape, which he says occur at a frequency of one in a hundred, to more fully connect with the project.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, Xpress caught up with Lange and other area artists to discuss the influence that love plays in their work as well as their approach to life. For these creatives, the emotion is an integral component — if not the driving force — of their creations.
Sit with it
With a gallery called Heartful Art, located in the River Arts District, it’s easy to see the influence love plays in Raphaella Vaisseau’s work. But it’s the artist’s chosen name of Vaisseau (which means “vessel” in French), that truly reflects her values, she says.
“That is the best description of how I feel about my art: I am a vessel,” she says. “People ask me if it’s hard to let go of a painting I worked on for years. I tell them, ‘No. I paint for you.’”
Contemplation also factors into Vaisseau’s work. The self-taught artist notes that for nearly 50 years, she has practiced meditation, allowing her to easily center herself in her love of nature, color and creativity.
“My devotion is to align more and more with the best of life, the best of us all and express that in my art,” she says. “My art is an expression of my love of life itself.”
Painter Lori Portka, whose studio is located in the RAD, views her approach to her creative process in a similar way.
“I don’t usually just start painting,” Portka explains. “I usually sit and think about what I’m grateful for and what I care about in that moment. I like to think about how I want the world to be, and then I start painting.”
Give and receive
Since 2019, Portka’s work has been featured at Mission Hospital’s pediatric wing. As part of the application process, Portka explains, she included comments clients left her on her website. In reviewing these statements more closely, Portka says she was surprised to learn that many people gave her art to loved ones who were sick, depressed or generally having a tough time.
“That’s meant a lot to me,” she says. “People will also write to me and say that someone gave my art to them as a gift when they were going through something difficult and that things are much better now — but that they still have the art hanging to remind them that they got through it. They find meaning that feels kind of deep for a piece of art, which makes me feel really good.”
For Vaisseau, the feedback is often more visceral than verbal. Though she’s painted plenty of hearts over the years and believes in the power of such imagery to remind the beholder to trust their own heart above all things, she feels that her love is just as present in her flowers and abstract designs.
“When someone walks into the gallery and bursts into tears upon seeing a certain painting on the wall, I know I painted it for them,” she says. “I trust the process of my art and know the people who love the essence of my artistic expression will find me.”
Meanwhile, hearts have been a more prominent theme in Lange’s work since 2008, when he nearly lost his son, who had to be airlifted to Duke University Hospital for open-heart surgery when he was 13 days old. The procedure was a success and made Lange more conscious about conveying a love of family, place and art in his creations.
Among them is his series “Krush,” which he’s ramping up for Valentine’s Day.
“The idea is to give one of these pieces to someone you have a crush on, and when they discover the cloaked heart, they realize that they are loved,” Lange says. “I’ve heard that there have been a couple marriages resulting from somebody giving one of my pieces to somebody they had a crush on. I love that because that’s precisely why I made them.”