There’s an old saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and while it’s undoubtedly a cliché, it’s also true. Art lovers in Louisville will get a chance to stare deeply into the the eyes of 24 new works by Louisville native Todd Fife starting Friday, March 3, when the Tim Faulkner Gallery presents “Oculi.”
Fife spoke with Insider Louisville about his process, his work and getting a late start on his art career.
At 52, Fife has spent most of his life avoiding his creative instincts. Though he majored in art in college briefly, he ended up with a history degree and abandoned artistic pursuits for many years. Then, family tragedy led him to re-evaluate his life.
“Last year in January, my sister died, and she always encouraged me to try to do something with art, not try to make a living or anything, but just be great,” says Fife.
He made a promise to her on her death bed, and since then he’s been creating every day.
“It’s a weird thing. I made a promise to my sister and found the desire to create,” he says. “If there’s a day I’m not doing something now, I feel like like there’s an opportunity wasted.”
Fife specializes in portraits, and his process begins when he splatters an art board with coffee.
“It adds a dimension,” he says, noting that while the coffee stains can occasionally resemble freckles or even age spots, they frequently just give the work an antiqued look. From there, Fife works in graphite to create the bulk of the portrait. He then uses acrylic paint, ink or gold leaf to add small embellishments or pops of color.
While working on a series of more standard portraits, Fife decided to start focusing on his subjects’ eyes.
“It started with a portrait I did of a friend, and she has really intense eyes,” he explains. “And I happened to have an oval frame I wanted to work with.”
The oval of the eye inside the oval frame spoke to the artist, and he went on the create a series of similar images. He believes the resulting works engage the viewer.
“Everyone is looking directly at you, and it forces you to look back at them, so there is kind of an interaction,” says Fife.
That interaction echoes an experience many people have every day, but also one many people avoid.
“In public, it’s an awkward situation when you stare someone in their eyes,” he says. “And in this series, it’s kind forcing you to interact … and some of them you can tell by their expressions, it can be an awkward stare.”
While some of the gazes portrayed are staid or gentle, many are confrontational or difficult. You can just sort of tell — it’s all in their eyes.
For each portrait, Fife sourced an antique oval frame.
“They are all old frames I found in secondhand stores,” he says. “I like the imperfections of the old frames, the dings and dents.”
The aged frames reinforce the coffee-splattered paper, giving the portraits a relic-like quality. It leads to an almost paradoxical reaction. The eyes are the eyes of strangers, but the works almost seem like old pictures found in your grandparents’ attic.
This is Fife’s first full show, though he’s had pieces hanging at Faulkner Gallery for several months. A friend convinced him to start taking his work around to galleries to see if there was any interest. He was surprised when he found a taker.
“We went around to Faulkner, and I showed them my stuff, and they said, ‘We’ll take this, this and that,’ and I said, ‘Really?’” Fife says he’s had a great relationship with the gallery. “Margaret (Archambault, gallery co-owner) has been … I can’t imagine anyone being more supportive to someone trying to do this.”
“Oculi” is a complex and mature series for an artist who just got back in the game 13 months ago because of a promise.
When Fife thinks of his sister, it conjures a mix of pride and regret.
“I know she would be thrilled to see what’s going on — I never tried to show my stuff before — so I know she’d be thrilled, but I’m also, like, well shit, I shouldn’t have waited so long. She could have seen it.”
The exhibit’s opening reception is Friday, March 3, from 6-10 p.m. at the The Tim Faulkner Gallery, 1512 Portland Ave. The show will hang through March 30.