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A peak into some of the brilliant artists behind REAL!

A peak inside the Sharia Ali Gallery at REAL!

Representational art has had a long history of going in and out of fashion. Realism, a term for this type of art coined by French novelist Champfleury, first became popular in the mid 19th century. Setting itself apart from popular practice, realism depicted scenes and people from the everyday life of non-elites. This was quite the break from the historical, mythological, and religious art preceding realism. While representational art fell out of fashion as the camera was invented and Expressionist movements gained popularity, the horrors of the second world war saw many artists returning to depicting traditional subjects in realistic manners as a way to express their immediate environments. Today, realism is a broadly defined artistic style, widely open to interpretation.

The REAL! exhibition at the Arlington Center of the Arts (ACA) brings together over 50 pieces from a variety of local artists, all in conversation about representational art and its continuing appeal in both popular culture and artistic circles. The following are excerpts from interviews conducted with 3 of REAL!'s participating artists. Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Vicki Paret, and Cathy Garnett speak on their unique artistic journeys, their relationship with realism, and their selected pieces.


Photo courtesy of Sasaki

Ponnapa Prakkamakul is a local mixed media artist who uses the painting process “as a tool to experience, connect, and understand the environment” around her. With a Masters in Landscape Architecture, place plays an important role in both the content of her artwork and the materials which she uses. She has been an Artist in Residence with the Asian Community Development Corporation and the Pao Arts Center here in Boston and is currently a core member of Fountain Street Gallery.

The Origin was painted at C-Scape Dune Shack in Provincetown during her residency there as the recipient of David Bethuel Jamieson Artist of Color Residency & Fellowship. Soil, which is one of her primary artistic mediums, is scarce on the dunes. Prakkamakul instead turned to a unique characteristic of the area for artistic inspiration; the orange water that came out of local hand pumps. Due to local geological conditions, the groundwater in this area of Provincetown contains an unusually high iron count. Using this groundwater, Prakkamakul was able to make rust with a brighter than usual color to use as paint for her artwork.

"The Origin" by Ponnapa Prakkamakul

What is your connection to Realism? Why do you choose to work in this artistic discipline?

“I always have elements that relate to place. Like there might be mountains, the ground or the moon … I was trained to do a lot of architectural drawing styles. So when I start, I start with something I am familiar with, but I feel the abstract work gave me something more joyful to work on. But I feel that galleries and people like the figurative work more than abstract, so I try to do both and merge them.”

For the visitors to the gallery, what do you hope people take away from your artwork?

"Provincetown used to be a forest before the Pilgrims came. Like a heavy forest area. When the pilgrims landed, they mentioned that there were deep depths of black soil that was good for agriculture. Once people started settling and taking out trees and farming, because of the location and the wind … rapidly in the area the wind blew all the good soil away and it became sand. It reflects a lot on people’s actions and what happens because of them.

[With this piece] I would like people to think and reflect on our own actions.

The piece that I drew, I was just collecting things from the beach, like debris, and bringing it back into water again and then drying it. Hopefully to almost make it alive again. Everything was dry and crumbly, but when it comes back into water it kinda fluffs and turns into life again for a little longer.

That’s why I named it The Origin. It’s like we are going back to [the start]”


Vicki Paret

Vicki Paret is a representational artist and functional potter, as well as long-time teacher here at ACA. After changing mediums from printmaking to painting while pursuing an art degree right out of high school, Paret continued on to earn a M.A.T from Tufts University/ School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Today, her practice is primarily done with gouache paint. She finds this medium allows her to best express her artistic ideas. The opaque watercolor can be layered easily and has dramatic color saturation, allowing Paret to play expressively with paint. Paret is represented by Galatea Fine Art in SoWA.

"Just Before Winter #1 (diptych) by Vicki Paret

Why realism? Why representational artwork?

“It’s just where I go when I’m out there. I see things and I can just picture them as a painting, and I know it’s kind of passé but the idea of representing that space on a flat surface is a real wow, something exciting to me. To pull that out of a flat surface. I mean I was in art school during that notion of the “tell it like it is” time. You are putting paint on a two-dimensional surface. It should be all about that. So I think, in a way, that is why I play with the paint the way I like to play with it, because it’s still in my head that that’s where it’s at. … I just love that, representing space on two-dimensions. It’s really exciting to me!”

What inspired you to create Just Before Winter #1 (diptych)?

"During the pandemic walking became a refuge, that’s all you could do. That was the approved activity we all had. I realized that I had been painting tangled vegetation for a while but I noticed that in fall of 2020 it seemed different. It might have been the headspace I was in or it might have been a physical climate thing, but things were brown and gray. But there were moments where you would encounter incredible, brilliant, hanging-on leaves. Like I never noticed it in the way that I did in the Fall.

It seemed metaphorical to me that because those colors were surrounded by the drab, gray, and brown they just seem more brilliant. And I was thinking about that juxtaposition, that when you have bad, good seems even gooder. That juxtaposition of opposites. It just seemed more real last fall”

For the visitors to the gallery, what do you hope people take away from your artwork?

“I think in large part it’s about the beauty that’s out there and taking note of things that you might not normally think of as beautiful, but really are beautiful. The wonder, I know it sounds schmaltzy but, it is. The different shapes, the different textures. It’s the metaphor.”

Catherine Garnett

A local artist, painter, and printmaker, Cathy Garnett always knew she wanted to be an artist. While life initially led her away from a career in the arts, she kept her artistic dreams alive through her long career as a landscape architect. After receiving her Masters of Landscape Architecture, she spent forty years developing trail systems and parks while working in the Boston area. After retiring, Garnett attended the School of the Museum of Fine Art Boston and received a diploma in studio art. She has also served on the board here at ACA since 2017.

Her time spent out in nature heavily influenced her artistic practice. Whenever she creates art, she begins outdoors where she is most comfortable, taking cues and inspiration from nature. Dock Stonington, currently in the REAL! exhibition, is her largest piece to date. Garnett was inspired by a photograph she took for a watercolor class. Coincidentally, this was a class with teaching artist Marjorie Glick at ACA. This piece honors her roots in realism, while also showcasing her growing interest in more abstract forms of art.

"Dock Stonington" by Cathy Garnett

What was the hardest part about the process of creating Dock Stonington?

“The hardest part was choosing the colors and the color relationships. The ripples and the water were the hardest part. The dock, well. Then you do things to the water and the dock [has to change]. When you paint you are playing off of different parts of the piece. It’s knowing when to stop that is the hardest part of it.”

Why realism? Why do you choose to create realistic pieces of art?

"Well partly because of my experience [as a Landscape Architect] and because I’ve gone on trips [for different art classes] and done plein air painting. It's conducive to doing realistic art. But I’ve started doing printmaking at the Museum School. Printmaking has pushed me more towards the abstract. The only common denominator in all my work is that it’s about the outdoors and the landscape…

So it’s a hard thing to say that I’m veering away from [realism]. I’m trying to push myself away from being too real and [Dock Stonington] is sort of a hybrid of it. It’s a little more abstract than real...

You can get kind of stuck trying to do really realistic stuff. It ties your hands in knots, you worry about if it looks like it and you fuss a lot of the time. I think I’ll always be somewhat real but … I would like to get more playfulness. Which I think if you get too stuck in realism you lose the playfulness of a piece."

For the visitors to the gallery, what do you hope people take away from your artwork?

"I put it up on Facebook. One of the people I know from my church said, and I hadn’t thought of this, ‘I love that piece because I keep getting lost in it. I look in different areas and it leads me in. I keep going deeper and deeper and getting lost in the painting.’ That’s what I would like people to do and not get stuck in any one part. That’s what is good about abstract art. It makes your mind associate with other things and a good thing about a painting is moving around [it] and getting lost in a painting is not a bad thing.

People have seen a lot of docks and water under docks and it brings back memories of their happy moments when they’ve been by the water. That would also be a great takeaway."


Make sure to schedule a time to come out and see these artists' work being displayed in ACA's REAL! exhibition. The exhibition runs from October 21, 2021 through January 14, 2022. Due to Covid-19 considerations, please sign up for a timeslot to visit the gallery.

Only registered visitors will be permitted into the gallery. Due to COVID-19 precautions, we cannot accommodate walk-ins to view the exhibition. Visitors must provide proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of your visit to enter the gallery. All visitors must wear a mask and practice social distancing while in our facility.

Information found in this article was taken from the following sources:

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