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Published on January 25, 2021

Laura Elkins

Laura Elkins Self as Salma as Frida, 2017/2020, oil on cardboard mounted on acrylic on Tyvek, 78x48 inches.


Laura Elkins graduated from the University of Virginia School of Architecture in 1974 (the first UVa class to admit women), where she also studied figure painting and drawing. Having had her fill of the institutional sexism that dominated UVa at the time,  Elkins opted out of attending graduate school in art and, instead, returned to Oxford, Mississippi, her hometown, to develop her painting practice. She was inspired, in part, to follow this independent path by Theora Hamblett, who opened her Oxford studio to Elkins. Later, the artist shared Hamblett’s earlier patronage by Betty Parsons, who became Elkins’s mentor and exhibited her work in 1980 when she moved to New York.

Laura Elkins has developed the self-portrait-as into a distinct genre of figure painting that embraces the complexities of contemporary life. The artist is best known for her self-portraits-as First Ladies, which she has painted for over twenty years. By dangling between the images of First Ladies and her own reflection, an inherently performative act of painting, Elkins explores the American riddle. She subsequently has added other personae to her self-portrait-as portfolio including Christine Blasey Ford, Frida Kahlo, Greta Thunberg, and now, Kamala Harris. Through these self-portraits-as, Elkins explores hot-button topics such as global warming, social justice, handguns, and abuse of power.

The Covid pandemic nudged Elkins to broaden her exploration of portraiture — portraits of actors as their characters. After seeing The Line, a riveting piece about frontline workers by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that streamed through The Public Theater site, Elkins created portraits of all the actors who performed in The Line. Painted from video stills, the paintings are as much about the emotions the actors evoked in Elkins, as they are portraits of the individuals. To emphasize this dynamic relationship, Elkins looked for frames with a sense of movement to catch the actors mid-thought, mid-sentence, and played the video, as long as it was available, while she painted. This and other work is available on her website — and through her Instagram handle @lauraelkins.