Two girls walk under the water. One has lassoed a shark. The other looks as though she’s ready to take your hand and lead you on an adventure, as kids do. Fish swim nearby, and a submerged Ferris wheel and cityscape are hazy in the distance. Everyday meets surreal, and like the artwork’s creator, it offers more questions than answers. For artist Charles Lawrance, it’s just another day at the easel.Charles Lawrance outside his FinArt gallery in Annapolis. Photo by Joe Evans
After 15 years in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, Lawrance has settled at Finart, his bright blue studio-gallery on West Street in Annapolis. And yes, the name’s a play on words and a homage to his favorite subjects. The space, home to 11 local artists, pops with vibrant artwork. The pieces on the walls form a well-traveled passport, stamped with the places and faces (human and aquatic) Lawrance has known over the years as well as those he’s plucked from his imagination. Whether the work stems from a trip to the Susquehanna Flats, Tangier Island, Panama or Brazil, the product is colorful, mind-bending, and engrossing.
From his childhood in New York to student life at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Lawrance was keenly aware of both the natural world around him and visions pulled from his mind. “I was always outside, still am, as much as I can,” he says. His passion for fish emerged early on, and they have almost always been present in his work.
I asked him what type of subject he enjoys most, and he wouldn’t identify any one thing. He says it’s all about “creating something that’s never been seen before, which is challenging.” He says it feels good to push art to somewhere it might not normally go.
Lawrance’s inspiration for a current painting, Pure Vita Water Walking, came from photographs of a trip to Costa Rica. Two young girls he met there found their way into a simple sketch which turned into a scene snatched from a dream. And from dreamy scenarios to woodsy landscapes to fish busting out of the blue beneath, Lawrance paints with such vibrancy and detail that it’s nearly impossible to look away. It’s unconventional, and it’s wonderful.
Lawrance makes fish prints based on the ancient Japanese gyotaku method whereby the artist paints directly on a freshly caught fish and pulls an impression onto rice paper to create a portrait of the catch. Sounds easy, but it’s not. He treats his fresh catch carefully by wrapping it in a wet towel and placing it in a cooler. In the studio, he cleans the protective slime off until the fish is dry enough to accept paint. He selects colors and paints the fish. Then he quickly rolls the paper onto the wet paint to make the impression. When the paint is dry, he cuts and paints a wooden silhouette for mounting the image and glues the paper to the board. He paints the eyes in and touches things up to complete the piece. He says he can pull about eight prints off of a fish.
Lawrance enjoys and records where angling takes him. “From brook trout to offshore tuna, salty or muddy, it’s really about the place and its people,” he says. He loves it here for the easy access to the Bay and good local fishing, which he does almost daily by kayak. Plus, the Annapolis art scene is hopping. “Art in the city is thriving,” he says. In this pocket of West Street, known as the arts district, designer and illustrator Sally Comport and painter Nancy Hammond are next door and just a stone’s throw from the Finart studio. “This town’s just getting its groove on,” he says.
In addition to oil and acrylic on canvas and the fish prints, Lawrance enjoys creating found-art made of common objects, which some might consider junk. Murals are also part of his diverse portfolio. If you take to the Baltimore roadways or weave your way through Annapolis, you’re likely to spot his colorful, larger-than-life scenes such as the giant sardine on the frontage of the hip Sailor Oyster Bar in Annapolis.
While admiring his work at Finart, I tried to get a jackpot answer from him about a painting that I found to be moving and perplexing. I wanted to know its story and its meaning. He began to describe his process for creating the vivid scene, which included sketching and capturing pieces from waking dreams, but he stopped short of an explanation. Lawrance isn’t in the business of providing shortcuts. Instead, he encourages people to slow down and observe. “Especially in society today, they want stuff so quickly. Just sit with it a while,” he urges. There’s a lot to discover.
Laura Boycourt is a freelance writer, mom to two little pirates, and lifelong boater from Annapolis who’s perpetually in need of a large coffee and a salty breeze.