Debra Clem’s “Surfaces” exhibit features nine paintings. | Courtesy of Swanson Contemporary

Nine intricately detailed, large-scale oil paintings hang on the walls of Swanson Contemporary Gallery, and each has a story to tell. While some are obvious portraits of strong women who populate the Louisville community, others are more abstract observations of places and things.

“Self-Portrait” by Debra Clem

The tie between them all, says artist Debra Clem, has to do with her interest in and exploration of surfaces.

Hence the title of the exhibition, “Surfaces,” which opens Friday at the NuLu gallery.

Clem, a professor of fine arts at Indiana University Southeast, has been working on the pieces in this show since 2015, and her impeccable attention to detail can be seen in each.

Five of the nine paintings are portraits of women, including a self-portrait, and the subjects ooze confidence and strength.

In her artist’s statement, Clem says she chose the women “because of their personal strength, intelligence and honesty in the way they live their lives, as well as their determination to confront the challenges they have experienced.”

She believes strong women often aren’t portrayed in our culture, and her goal was to paint them as they are — “and celebrate them for who they are,” she says.

Each piece takes time, as you might assume, but if she were to put a number on it, she says each painting probably took around 120 hours to complete — and much longer than that for the larger ones.

Clem’s “Self-Portrait” is so detailed and realistic, we had to ask the artist if it’s easier or more difficult to paint yourself than another person. Her answer: It’s all the same.

“The trick to realism is to see forms purely as shapes, lines, colors, etc., keeping an observational approach that’s objective and focus on what you see,” she explains, noting that the tediousness of the details and the background shapes were the most difficult. “The portrait itself, the likeness, is all about measurement, proportion, etc. It isn’t that emotional for me, it’s really just a visual practice.”

“Scheri” by Debra Clem

The other pieces in the exhibit depict inanimate objects like scrap metal or junkyard cars, but what connects them all is the process Clem utilized on each.

“The theme ‘surfaces’ is what unites these two bodies of work — some paintings are really thick, some are smooth, some are nearly abstract, others are recognizable portraiture,” she explains. “I had to experiment with various materials and approaches to develop the surfaces.”

“Lisa” by Debra Clem

Also, she points out, another unifying force of the exhibit is the energy that exists between a person and her things, an artist and her creations.

“There’s a psychological layer to the word surfaces that comes into play, dealing with the external and internal nature of people,” she says. “And the wrecked cars and debris from scrap yards also tell stories about people.

“There is perhaps a ‘virtuoso’ element in my psyche that pushes me to try hard stuff, but I always wish I could be better. I just do the best I can. I figure that’s our calling in life, to use your mind and do your best.”

“Surfaces” opens Friday, Jan. 12, with a reception from 6-8 p.m. There will also be a reception on Friday, Feb. 2. The exhibit continues through Feb. 24. Swanson Contemporary is located at 638 E. Market St.

Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville. She's known around town as the Bar Belle and updates her blog ( daily. She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."


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