article by STARLA GATSON / photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
While many artists might shudder at the thought of an empty canvas, likely wondering if the work is good enough before the brush has even touched the piece of tightly-woven fabric, Rhenda Saporito loves the blank space for the very same reason others loathe it: the possibilities are endless, and you don’t yet know what you’ll paint.
The New Orleans-based artist picks up a brush and begins to mark the canvas with strokes that respond to one another, letting intuition be her guide. Then, she explains, the brain gets involved and reveals exactly what else needs to be done to finish the piece.
It’s all part of the process, Saporito says, and it’s got nothing to do with painting something that’s flawless. “Many artists say, ‘Well, I don’t have any talent’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘Somebody’s better than I am,’” she says. “You have to let those things go; those don’t have anything to do with the art process. Perfection is not what we’re striving for; we’re striving to continue the process.” She paints for herself, of course hoping others like her pieces, but at the end of the day, being more concerned about pushing through the process and all its struggles to create pieces that are strong.
The advice she offers to an artist struggling to continue the process to which she refers is simple: don’t second-guess yourself. “Even when you paint what we all call ‘the ugly painting,’ the ugly painting, if you keep going, takes a life of its own,” she says. “I’ve got paintings that look nice and people might respond to, but I’ve got other paintings that were so ugly and so bad that it didn’t matter what I did to it; anything I did would’ve been better than where it was. And some of those paintings, to me, are the strongest of my work.”
In other words, Saporito is a firm believer in the power of perseverance and resonates with it so strongly that she calls it an integral part of her artistic process. “I’m just an optimistic person,” she explains. “I just think good things are coming, no matter what it is, and they may not be here today, but they’re going to come.” This optimism is a driving factor as she works, striving to paint “out of chaos,” or create a piece that projects a sense of calm and is a resting place of sorts to the observer.
Growing up, a career as an artist wasn’t even on Saporito’s radar — not seriously, at least. “I had very good elementary art through Louisiana Tech and the A.E. Phillips school that’s associated with Louisiana Tech,” she says of her early relationship with art. “I had a good art background as a young child, but then no real art to speak of in high school or college.”
By the time she finished her time as a Louisiana Tech Bulldog, Saporito had earned a Bachelor’s degree in home economics (now human ecology), a field of study that made perfect sense for her, as her mother was once the dean of the department. While the decision for a home economics degree-holder to pursue art may seem random to some, as she looks back now, Saporito can see how she was in touch with her artistry even before beginning to paint.
She explains that back then, she created out of necessity. She did a lot of crafting, sewing, and cooking because her classes required it or because she needed something for her personal use, but realized tasks like sewing articles of clothing according to a pattern, for example, was an artistic process in itself. “When I graduated, I had an apartment and I needed a painting on the wall, so I painted it,” she recalls. “And then, my grandmother gave me a chair. I wasn’t going to be able to have it upholstered, so I just made the upholstery and did it myself. I was kind of crafty in that way.”
Now, her motivation for her artistry has shifted from necessity to passion, thanks to her time at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. Her time there began in 1986, when she enrolled in her first course, a color theory class. “It was Becky Vizard, who is from St. Joe, Louisiana, and does all of the beautiful pillows, that suggested that I take a class with Auseklis Ozols,” she says. “His class started the next week, and it was color theory. So, I started there.”
The next step, she decided was to enroll in an independent study class the following semester. Throughout the course of the class, which was also taught by Ozols, a Latvian artist and the founding director of the Academy, students would paint whatever they wanted, and Saporito set out to create her own rendition of a painting she had set her sights on before.
“I had seen a painting that I wanted, and I called the designer in New York, and she referred me to a gallery in San Francisco. She sent me a slide, and it was by a painter named Stanley Boxer,” she remembers. “When she sent me the slide, the painting was so expensive, I thought, ‘Well, shoot. I can do that.’” So, she did.
Her version of the painting, an off-white and minimally colored canvas marked with strokes of oil paint that look like scoops of icing, currently hangs in her living room and inspired her to remain at the Academy of Fine Arts — and not just because it took about nine months to dry. (“Everybody at the Academy was so mortified that I was squeezing the tube out as if it was toothpaste, and they just could not believe I was wasting all of that paint on this abstract painting,” she explains.) Instead, it drove her to learn more and find more people she enjoyed painting with.
“I got there because selfishly, I wanted a painting, and I was going to take color theory, learn about color theory, and then I was going to paint the painting,” she says of the beginning of her time at the New Orleans art school. “That’s what got me there, but what kept me there is working on the artwork, getting the satisfaction of producing something that I’m interested in hanging on the wall and hopefully that someone else wants to hang on their wall.”
Saporito continued to take classes at the Academy for the next 18 years, continuing to seek growth and knowledge. She says she perseveres by learning about color, process, and materials, even the ones she uses less frequently. “When I was in college, I did everything I could to skip a class; I never had perfect attendance. If it was a beautiful day, I’d be cutting class. Now that I’m a long time out of college, I don’t want to skip a class; I want to be there.”
Saportio’s commitment to learning and being there seems to have paid off. Simply take one look at her Curriculum Vitae and see how far she’s come since her first color theory class. Thanks to her commitment to perseverance, learning, and trusting the process, the wife, mother, and grandmother has wound up with a rather successful career. She has attended several residencies, been showcased at duo and solo shows, including an exhibition at the Degas Gallery that was cleverly named “Rhenditions,” and has been featured on the lineup of a few group exhibitions, most notably the 2018 Ogden Museum of Southern Art Louisiana Contemporary Juried Show, where her piece “Got GPS, Fore!” ranked third in show.
Her abstract paintings hang in both public and private collections across the country, and if you have ever spent an afternoon strolling and shopping in Monroe’s Park Avenue garden and design shop, Parterre, chances are you’ve caught a glimpse of Saporito’s work for sale; perhaps you even purchased a canvas or two!
The artist credits each experience she’s had, from showing and selling her work in galleries to being painted in her former instructor Auseklis Ozols’ mural for the Windsor Hotel, to art, believing it’s the thread in the fabric that has made up much of her life for the past three decades. As she steps through the doors art has been kind enough to open for her, she doesn’t get so distracted by opportunities that she forgets about the relationships she has established in this industry.
“The community is huge,” she says. “It’s just amazing, particularly in New Orleans; we’ve got the most amazing art community here. But when you get to go to these residencies, you get to meet people from all over the country. So, if I travel to New York or San Francisco, I have friends there that are artists I could go visit with.” These friends include her mentor, New York-based post-painterly abstraction artist Gary Komarin, whose work is collected across the globe.
Saporito values the creators she’s met because of how they influence her own work, whether by offering constructive criticism or creating a piece that sparks a flame of inspiration inside of her. “All of that brings a whole other level to my being because I’m so enriched by all of these other people and their work,” she says. “And it comes into my work, and I hope my work projects itself to those who collect my work, and I hope they have a certain feeling of the internal feelings that I have coming out on the canvas.”
Aside from being inspired by her beloved art community, Saporito also says she is drawn to certain elements of nature, especially water. “I love the Caribbean water. And I’m not really looking for blue water; I like the light, aqua teal. I’m looking for more of the green water. And I love a lush garden, you know, tropical plants, that kind of thing.”
The passion that perseverance, learning, community, and nature ignited in Saporito burns strong as she continues to create. She paints, of course — mostly abstract mixed media on canvas — but she can also be found working with pastels and even sculpting with clay and cast bronze; in fact, sculptures of her grandchildren are among her current projects. She’s had some of her work made into silk and cashmere scarves as well as pocket squares that are available for purchase on her website, and even dreams of one day having her art turned into carpet for a large space, like a casino or hotel.
Both Saporito’s successes and dreams are the results of the process that began when she enrolled in color theory, which was the first mark on the then-blank canvas that was her art career. “All of these experiences I’ve been telling you about have all come through the art — every single one of them,” she declares as she shares her current projects and aspirations. “The common thread is art.”
To keep up with Rhenda Saporito’s work, visit www.rhendasaporito.com or follow her on Instagram at @rhendasaporitoart.