'Face Off': Portrait art with an audience

Portrait artist Matt Payovich participates in the third edition of "Face Off" at the Box Factory for the Arts. He is one of about 15 local artists who will participate in Friday's fourth edition of the popular event where artists paint live models in front of spectators.

ST. JOSEPH — Bob Williams’ artistic career has often included an audience.

Unlike many artists who choose to work in solitude in their studio, carefully crafting pieces, Williams has a long history of creating portraits in a public setting, whether setting up a booth at firefighter’s carnivals when he was starting out, to partnering in an anti-bullying program to make charcoal sketches of students in area schools, to passing the time as a frequent participant in the Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff.

The one question he gets most often when painting a portrait is to smile or not to smile.

"I do a lot of drawing and painting from life because I like the interaction with the model asking them questions and trying to get them to relax," Williams says. "One of the first things models usually ask we when they sit down is whether they should smile. I always say, 'Well, that depends. Can you hold a smile for 30 minutes?' Most people can't hold a real smile for more than a few seconds, which may explain why people seem to comment that the people in my portraits look sad."

Williams hopes those who show up for the fourth edition of the "Face Off" event, which takes place Friday at the Box Factory for the Arts, will at least be smiling when all is said and done.

The event, which debuted at the venue in 2014, will feature some of the area’s best-known portrait artists drawing and painting from a live model while visitors are encouraged to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, watch the process, ask questions and even bid on completed pieces.

"One of my favorite things to paint are portraits, and unfortunately I don't get to work with live models ever because I'm usually at home with kids or teaching, so that opportunity is exciting for me," says Lori Ehlke, who teaches art at Michigan Lutheran High School and middle school homeschooled students in Berrien County. "I think it will help me step outside of my comfort zone, too. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

In addition to Williams and Ehlke, artists scheduled to participate are Matt Payovich, Zech Ray, Angie Mamovzellos, Richard Kebdai, Suzy Russo, Joe Sukup, Lea Bolt, Erica Roberts, Gershon Clay, Jimmy Pantelleria, Jonathon Rosengren, Phyllis Norris, David Baker and Kimberly Wood.

While many of the artists are veterans, others, like Roberts, have only recently returned to painting.

"I was really into art in high school and planned to go to art school, and last minute switched to engineering instead," she says. "I even went back for my master's, so I had a long hiatus from art for awhile. About a year ago, I decided that was enough, and I needed to make myself paint. I decided if I took a class, then I would feel more committed. Then I found the classes at Krasl."

Roberts, who took a class with Bolt, says she has been an inspiration ever since.

"She really took me under her wing and has been helping me find different art activities going on in the area," Roberts says. "She told me about it, and it sounds like a great way to meet more local artists."

About three artists will gather around one of five live models while working in an array of mediums, including oil painting, pastels, charcoal, watercolors and more.

While the event is free, donations raised will support the Box Factory. While helping raise funds for the venue is one of the evening’s goals, Williams says he originally came up with the idea as a way to get other Berrien Artist Guild Members to spend more time together at the Box Factory.

Williams, who belongs to the Portrait Society of America, occasionally attending their national convention, says one of his favorite events at the convention was watching other portrait artists at work.

"One of the things they do the day before the conference starts is this event called Face Off, where they have five models and about 15 artists drawing and painting," he says. "These are some of the best artists in the world. You get to see people there that you just read about. So when we were talking about an event to have here, it came to mind. I didn't know if it would be interesting to people or if people would show up, but I suggested this, and it went over so well people thought we should do more of them."

Ehlke says the event not only offers a chance for other artists to interact, but also offer insight into the artistic process.

"The challenges of working with a live model is that they move," she says. "When you work from photographs, which is what I normally do, I can measure everything or even use a grid to transfer the image to my watercolor paper. But when it's a live model, you have to rely on what you see. Usually when painting from a model you like to have your paper upright, but watercolor drips, so I might have to have it upright as I draw and then flatten it out as I paint. We'll see."

When asked if there is more pressure painting with an audience, Roberts laughs.

"Oh, I'm a social creature," she says. "I don't mind sharing my work even when it is really rough and in process and bad. So I am excited, especially if people provide me with their feedback because my job as an artist is to evoke a certain feeling, and I want to hear what people are getting from it."

Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio