Brush with fate

Illness shapes path of whimsical artist

Story:Danielle Portteus — Photo:Tom Hawley

Laura Atkins spent a year bedridden with chronic Lyme disease.

Although the illness did not shape her artistic voice, something clicked during that time.

“It was like a death and then rebirth,” she explained. “It sent me on my path to be a full-time artist.”

Growing up in the Detroit area, Laura was interested in art at a young age. She used to watch television shows featuring artists and would try and recreate the images she saw. In her youth, she focused on drawing portraits before moving into painting.

“I did little portraits of kids in school,” she said. “They didn’t believe me. The kids thought I traced the images.”

A graduate of the former Northwestern School for Practical Nursing in Toledo, Laura worked 30 years as a nurse, spending time in nursing homes and at the former Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe.

Despite the full-time job, the Monroe resident would paint portraits of friends and family and their children for “a little bit of money.”
She turned to painting full time in 2013.

Primarily a self-taught artist, Laura has studied at Monroe County Community College with instructors Gary Wilson and Ted Vassar. Over the years, she has taken workshops with a variety of artists to perfect her craft, including Kate Stone and David Gray.

The 55-year-old said she constantly studies other artists. Recently, Laura was a studio assistant with her mentor, Leslie Adams, a portrait artist.

She has worked with people in the medical field who specialize in human anatomy to help her recreate every detail of faces.

“I really like to paint life,” the artist said. “I love creating faces.”

Her creations, dubbed magical realism, mix representative art with fantasy. She only started exploring this avenue last summer.

“I used to tell stories all the time. I loved ghost stories,” Laura said, adding the imagination helps add a fantastical and whimsical element to the paintings.

“I think it helps people become enchanted and gets them into the story of the painting.”

She prefers to paint subjects live, having them pose in costume. She also takes photos of the models to help her recreate the scene. One of her favorite models is soon-to-be daughter-in-law Melissa Arnwine.

“She participates in the Renaissance festivals and loves to dress up,” Laura said. “The women are a lot easier to work with because they will dress up and indulge me.”

Leah Van Allsburg also is a frequent subject in her paintings, often seen on canvas with Melissa dressed as everything from gypsies to masked Marie Antoinette-like characters.

Laura selects the costumes for her models, often finding pieces at various shops.

“I’m always on the prowl for costume ideas.”

Primarily working with oils, Laura’s paintings have been featured in galleries including the Women Painting Women exhibit last year at the Richard J. Demato Gallery in Sag Harbor, N.Y., which was started by Alia El-Bermani, Diane Feissel and Sadie Valeri to recognize female painters.

One of her biggest influences is Alexandria Manukyan, along with other representational artists — particularly those living in the Detroit area.

Laura said her husband, Bob, of 34 years has been very supportive of her artwork. They have two sons, Rob, 31, and Mitch, 27.

Laura escapes in her painting. She said she spends countless hours on each one because of the layers and layers involved.

Ultimately, the artist enjoys being able to communicate through her work.

“I really just enjoy telling stories through the paintings,” she said. “I love seeing people’s reactions to them when they see each piece.”