The Creation of An Artist
Most artists can articulate one time in their career when it all clicked, whether it was a first painting that truly realized their imagination or coming across another artist whose work influenced their style for the rest of their life. For Wilmette artist Marla Friedman, it was the latter that helped her attain her career-changing epiphany.
After studying in Chicago and New York, Friedman’s thirst for knowledge drew her to the Loire Valley of France. There, she studied late 19th century academic painting at L’Ecole Albert Defois and became familiar with the work of many French painters, although one in particular made an enormous impact: Léon Bonnat. Bonnat, known for his vivid portrait painting of contemporary celebrities, taught a long list of famous painters, including Gustave Caillebotte, Edvard Munch, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
In Paris at the Musée d’Orsay, that moment happened for Freidman. She discovered Bonnat’s portrait of Jules Grévy, President of France from 1879 to 1887, and was entranced. She spent two days transfixed in front of the painting and even received the opportunity to have a private audience with it. Bonnat’s combination of both French and Spanish sensibilities in his style and his use of light was unlike anything she had ever seen. “[His work] really elevated my concept of portraiture,” she explains. “When I work on my portraits, I often have his work in my studio so I can measure how I feel about my work in comparison to his.”
While she had never found anything like his artistry prior to this, Friedman had plenty of influences and training that conditioned her for this “eureka” moment. Growing up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Friedman and her family lived in a building across from the Museum of Science and Industry. She attributes this to her natural gravitation toward late 19th century work. First called the Palace of Fine Arts, the museum was originally constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t see the museum—it was the view from our balcony,” she fondly recalls. “I think this influenced my sensibility.”
Her talents were discovered quickly. Friedman’s kindergarten teacher recognized her artistic aptitude, and by second grade, her mother enrolled her in classes at the Art Institute. “All of the wonderful feeling that was involved with my work really defined me at an early age,” Friedman says. “There was never any question about what I was about.” As she grew up, she began taking classes at The Academy of Art in Chicago, and in her early 20s, Arnie Morton commissioned her to do several paintings, which still hang in Morton’s to this day. It was this attention that pushed Friedman to leave Chicago. “I suddenly received some exposure that I didn’t feel prepared for. That’s what brought me to New York. I felt I didn’t have the training I needed.”
For the next 13 years, NYC was her home. She studied at the Art Students’ League and the National Academy of Design under an assortment of extraordinary painters. But, from these artists—unlike her studies of Léon Bonnat in France—she only incorporated bits and pieces into her work. “I didn’t want to be a copier,” she says. “I didn’t want to stay with anyone too long, for fear that I would really start adopting their style.”
In New York, Friedman was attracted to another monolithic landmark. Built just three years prior to the Museum of Science and Industry, Carnegie Hall quickly caught her eye. After years of studying, she was lucky enough to obtain one of the few studios in the Hall. “It was very inspiring to walk into that type of creative community with dancers and artists. Plus, I was in a structure that was built during the early 19th century,” she says, which further fortified her interest in that time period.
Eventually, Friedman had her fill of bustling New York City, and after finishing her studies in France, she returned to the Chicago area. She’s been in Wilmette, where her parents transplanted, for the past seven years. “When I lived in New York, it was so intense,” Friedman says. “I’m at much calmer point in my life now.” With the Baha’i Temple framed in her picture window, even in the suburbs of Chicago Friedman has managed to include the sight of an awe-inspiring building in her daily life.
On the North Shore, Friedman works as a commissioned portraitist and has been expanding her craft beyond the medium of painting. After doing numerous paintings of Abraham Lincoln for her clients over the past two decades, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation turned to her to create a portrait of Lincoln, which is now on permanent display at the Illinois Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. Most recently, she has been honored with the opportunity to paint the Foundation’s Lincoln Leadership Prize winners’ portraits.
Thus far, Friedman has depicted prize-winners Tim Russert, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Astronaut James Lovell, all of which are on permanent display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. “It’s been an extraordinary experience to be able to spend time with these people and in the process be transported to the time and place they impacted history,” she says.
Her work with national hero and North Shore celebrity Captain Lovell has granted Friedman the opportunity to dabble in a new medium: sculpture. In October 2010, The Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center was opened in North Chicago to ensure that nearly 40,000 Navy recruits who transition through Naval Station Great Lakes each year are medically ready. To honor the Captain, she was commissioned to sculpt a bust of him.
For now, Friedman’s paintings still characterize her work. In comparing them to the French academic master Bonnat, you can see some similarities, but there are clear elements that make her work entirely hers—defining her as an artist. She could never imagine herself as anything else. “I’ve been painting forever,” she says. “I can’t think of a time when I didn’t think of myself as an artist.”