Visual Arts: Linda Schäpper

The big family
Linda Schäpper: Central Florida Folk Art Painter of Historic and Sacred Scenes
Through Dec. 19 at Hannibal Square Heritage Center
642 W. New England Ave., Winter Park

Storytelling through art perhaps has no better vehicle than religion, and Linda Schäpper has assumed the role of unofficial liturgical artist laureate for the Orlando area. In 1995, she created a 55-foot backdrop for the Pope's mass in NYC's Central Park as well as the 1998 Unicef Christmas card. She is also the illustrator and author of multiple books on quilting, crochet stitching and religious art. Her recent focus on the history of the local African-American community has resulted in a solo exhibition at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center in west Winter Park, courtesy of Crealdé School of Art.

Schäpper, who has moved frequently and lived worldwide, now calls Winter Park home and continues to paint, currently illustrating a book about the life of St. Paul. Her visual approach to the west Winter Park community has yielded a rich story line that deserves to be told. The individuals, their hardships and involvement with their churches connect on human and spiritual levels to the viewer, reminding us that the sacred is everywhere, if we will only open our eyes to see it.

While Schäpper does not exclusively paint religious scenes, she does bring alive the sense of family within her figures. Her style, which she originally developed in Europe, is informed by the universal traditions of religious art: simple scenes, the colors gold and silver, and wide-eyed full-frontal faces reminiscent of early Byzantine religious icons but connected to real people.

For example, we see Pappy Kennedy — Orlando's first African-American city commissioner — brought back to life in "Pappy Kennedy With PTA at Miami Convention." The faces are not anonymous in Schäpper's work, but real people being documented and elevated to honor the events in their lives.

In "Sunday at Church," the empty foreground of a small wooden house of worship is filled with 16 people, a baby, felines and some fish. Schäpper infills the scene with an imagined group; the geometry of the figures leads up and to the right into the church door, and autumn-hued trees beautifully reflect the colors of the people and their garments. In this painting, structured as a pyramid with the preacher at the top, all eyes look to the center, all hands point to the center; even the fish complete the balance, and the alternating colors and patterns are carefully interwoven. None of them, not even the cats, are smiling.

The overwhelming solemnity and power of the group is communicated in a colorful flat style reminiscent of late-19th-century French painter Henri Rousseau. Yet flatness works for Schäpper, allowing her to develop hard-edged patterns that belong to the timeless traditions of religious art, where the story is more important than the painterly yearnings of artists. One admires her resistance to temptation, to give in and get mannerist with her subjects, having painted for so long and so much in this style, but she remains serene, confident, naive — in the most innocent sense of the word — and dedicated to "show`ing` the humanity in religious figures … and the spiritual side of `secular` human figures."

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