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IN LIVING COLOR

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
Dec 30th, 2019
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Bayou Artist MOLLY ENGEN captures people on large-scale, colorful canvases. Her artwork captures the emotions of her
subjects in a spiritual and purposeful way.

ARTICLE BY APRIL CLARK HONAKER AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

According to recent research from the Pew Research Center, 68% of adults in the United States report that they use Facebook, and 88% of young adults (18-29 years old) use at least one form of social media. Among those who use social media, the average time spent accessing them daily is 2 hours and 22 minutes, according to Global Web Index. For many people, social media takes up a significant portion of their day, but for the youngest social media users, the time spent is concerning. The non-profit Common Sense Media concluded that teens spend an average of almost nine hours on social media daily, and tweens, those between the ages of 8 and 12, spend almost 6 hours daily. These numbers are staggering, and various studies have linked the use of social media to a variety of ills from depression to sleep disturbance.


Artist Molly Engen of Eros, Louisiana, is aware of the impact social media has on our lives and sees art as a possible remedy. “I feel like social media is so readily available and accessible to all of us,” she said. But when it came time to choose the theme for her art in college, Molly chose to be different. Although Molly has a social media presence, living in the moment is important to her, and she chose to make that the theme of her art. For her, the process of creating art is a way to step away from the distractions of the digital world and be present. According to Molly, social media and media in general are a constant source of distraction in today’s world, but she uses art to reconnect with the here and now. In her artist statement, Molly said, “For me, creating has evolved into a way of being genuinely receptive of the now. Though my work comprises a wide range of subjects and mediums, the overarching intention is the mindset of cognizance.”


Making things and being creative takes a special kind of focus that many young people today fail to experience, but Molly has always been creative, and even when she could only draw stick figures, she enjoyed making art. “I’ve always said I wanted to be an art teacher,” Molly said, “and my parents [Margaret and Larrie Butler] have always been very encouraging for me to follow my heart in my career.” But when she was in high school at West Ouachita, Molly’s gifted art teacher, Michele Olinde, encouraged her to focus on gaining experience in art first. For any budding artist, a strong support system is crucial, and Molly has certainly had one. Since graduating with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from Louisiana Tech University in 2018, Molly has realized that she doesn’t need to teach. Although she hasn’t ruled out the idea of teaching, commissions keep her as busy as she wants to be.


Molly’s medium of choice is acrylic paint. “I feel like it’s just a very vibrant medium,” she said, “and I enjoy how much I can manipulate it.” The texture, colors, and lines are all subject to the influence of her skilled hands. Although paint is her preferred medium, she sometimes uses charcoal and chalk pastels in her work as well. “I work fast and use a lot of layers,” she said. “I jokingly call it a violent approach to painting.” At the same time, Molly’s paintings use marks economically. Each one is thoughtfully applied, has power, and serves a purpose. “I don’t want a painting to look overworked,” she said. For Molly, knowing when to stop is intuitive and something she’s learned over time. “When a painting starts to look too busy, that’s how I know it’s time to stop,” she said. And when she’s still not sure, that’s when she asks her husband Austin’s opinion.


In just a few years, Molly’s approach to painting has changed significantly. She used to really sketch things out and plan her color palette. Then she would take a very technical approach to applying the paint. Now Molly said her approach is more emotional. She still has an idea of composition in mind before she starts but no longer considers herself a planner and rarely has a color palette in advance. She also used to paint with a limited color palette, but now her palettes are more expansive. “I feel people’s eyes are drawn to a wide range of color,” she said. With very little advance planning, Molly now lets the paintings speak to her and tell her what they need as they develop. “It’s more spontaneous,” she said, “because I want it to be about being present in the moment.” Each mark is based on the previous one, and for this reason, Molly said, “It’s a very focused process.”


Because Molly paints quickly, her process lends itself to live painting, and she has done a lot of live paintings. Live painting itself has helped her paint more mindfully. “Painting has really helped me realize how important it is to be mentally present,” she said, “and I think it’s neat that I can freely express myself on a canvas, and no one is in charge of that but me.” Molly and Austin also recently added their daughter, Thea, to the family, and Molly said that having Thea has definitely changed her approach to art and life. When Thea was born, she had a major defect of her esophagus and was in the neonatal intensive care unit. During that time, Molly learned that sometimes it’s not enough to take life day by day, you have to take it minute by minute.

“For me, creating has evolved into a way of being genuinely receptive of the now. Though my work comprises a wide range of subjects and mediums, the overarching intention is the mindset of cognizance.”


Caring for Thea has strengthened Molly’s resolve to live in the moment, whether she is painting or rocking her to sleep. Before Thea was born, Molly painted a special floral painting for her nursery that was inspired partly by the work of Bobbie Burgers. Burgers often paints flowers and is especially interested in the transformation they go through in the course of their life. In fact, she paints them in every stage. For this reason, the painting Molly made for Thea reminds her of life’s fragileness in all its stages.


Just as life happens in stages, paintings develop in stages. Molly used to try to finish all of her paintings in one or two sittings, but she’s learned that it’s okay, even necessary sometimes, to take breaks. “I think it’s important to rest from your paintings and rest from your work,” she said. She’s also slowly learning to say no sometimes. “I used to accept anything and everything,” she said and told herself it would be good practice and would help with marketing herself. But lately, she’s become a bit more selective and would like to begin work on a collection solely for herself. “I’ve learned that you have to think of yourself as an artist and respect your time,” she said.


When it comes to commissions, Molly does a lot of portraits. Recently, she was asked to paint a portrait of Savannah Payne and her mom Stephanie. After Savannah passed away due to health complications in 2016, Stephanie started inspiring others by speaking and writing about grief, faith, and family. Then, earlier this year, Stephanie was killed suddenly in a car accident. Molly’s portrait of this mother and daughter was a gift to Stephanie’s husband Tim and their daughter Isabella. According to Molly, the painting was different than others she had done before. “It was really emotional,” she said. “I had to sit in front of the canvas and just pray that God would guide each stroke.” She’s painted other portraits that were emotional for different reasons, but turning the paintings over and seeing the reaction is always worth it.


Although Molly said some of her paintings have a stronger spiritual component than others, prayer is important to her, and she reads a devotion every morning to start her day on a positive note. “I think it’s important to stop and be thankful for all your blessings,” she said.


Molly likes to think of herself as a positive person and believes her positivity is reflected in the brightness and color of her work. “I feel like my work is unique in that I don’t see a lot of artists doing large-scale, colorful portraits,” she said. “It was an original idea for me.” Two of her favorite paintings are portraits of her grandparents when they were young. The portraits were rendered mostly in reds and pinks tempered with touches of blue and gray. They’re vibrant and have garnered a lot of interest when displayed. According to Molly, the fun thing about portraits is that viewers often find themselves reminded of another era, of someone they know, or sometimes of someone famous. In particular, people often tell her that the portrait of her grandfather reminds them of Elvis.


Another aspect of Molly’s paintings that tends to capture attention is their size, which is also purposeful. “They’re so big and bright that they kind of force a face-to-face interaction,” she said. Molly hopes they stand out enough in the monotony of life to make viewers pause and take notice—that they’re striking enough to wake people up and hold their attention. Because the process of painting has given Molly the gift of mindfulness, she wants to share that gift with others. “A lot of what social media has to offer is instant gratification,” she said, “and I hope my paintings don’t communicate that. I want people to stay and look at them and spend time with them.” She also hopes that viewers find an emotional connection to her work. She believes that spending time with a piece of art can allow a deeper connection to develop. “It’s a moment from a fast-paced life to just break and enjoy a piece of art,” she said.


At the same time, she expects viewers to have unique reactions to her work. She wants them to feel free to connect in whatever way is best for them. “I hope it serves as a reminder that it’s okay to not answer to all the distractions in the world,” she said. “We don’t have to document everything. We can just be in the moment.”


Mindfulness involves focusing one’s awareness on the present moment and has a range of benefits, according to a Harvard Health article. Those benefits include improved feelings of well-being, improved physical health, and improved mental health. The article also suggests that it can help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and even alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties. Because art helps us be in the moment, which is at the very core of mindfulness, Molly believes we need it. Art is not necessary in the sense that water, food, and shelter are necessary, and we can certainly survive without it. “But,” Molly said, “I feel like it is a necessary thing. Nobody needs it, but it’s a good way to pause and look at beauty. It’s ‘unnecessary,’ but ironically, we still need it.”


In a world where the average young person is spending more and more time engaged in their separate, digital lives, maybe art is the answer—whether we’re making it or enjoying it.