What does it mean to be a muse? In Greek mythology, the muses were nine women, daughters of Zeus, who presided over and inspired creations in art and science. But what of the modern-day muse, not an ethereal goddess, or a Socratic vagabond roaming the countryside? In our modern disconnected world, where artists’ circles aren’t what they used to be, how can one person find a way to spark the creative light in others, to cut through the dark shadows that modern society and its struggles try to dim?
Lana Gentry, a self-taught artist and writer from Virginia, has a collection of over 500 portraits that have been done of her by other artists worldwide, for free, without commission. They vary in form and style, abstract sketches, sculptures, realistic paintings, bizarro, beautiful, and everything in between. She owns many of them but not all. I set out to talk with Gentry, wanting to understand this phenomenon, and how she had become something of a muse.
Sitting on her cozy couch, beneath a wall display of the vivid and boldly mind-expanding paintings done by her husband, artist Donnie Green, I immediately feel Gentry’s warm inviting laugh carry across the space continuum of our video call. “There wasn’t a time in my memory bank when I wasn’t writing or dreaming,” she says, and in the way that a muse can lift the creative’s spirit, I think: yes, me too! She tells me about her vast and cosmic connection to creative people. “Other creatives seem to feel this way about me too,” and she considers this an honor.
Above: Lana Gentry “Lovebird” Artist © Robert Mcneill
Gentry’s discussion of her creative work and processes feel as intimate and inspired as her creations themselves. She classifies her work as “outlier” art and she herself an outlier who operates outside the mainstream and without traditional schooling. Her art, she says, is developed in the absence of influence. Because of her sensitivities and learning differences, she really had to learn everything in life on her own and in her own way. Things that easily made sense to other people were like “a foreign language” to her and she had to keep “shifting gears” to eventually learn the skillsets of life.
Gentry considers herself a writer first and talks passionately about the wonderful artists she collaborates with, writes about, and features in the magazine loBURN, for which she is the managing editor and lead writer. She says that even with her visual art, it is always words that come first. When she began bringing written worlds into her drawings, creating a journal feel to her work, she says, “I felt like it was cheating.” As if visual art is supposed to stand alone without words being needed. But then, she never created within the confines of rules. Using words feels authentic and her art is a journal of her journey through life.
“It’s always shocking that people buy it,” Gentry says of her work, “because it’s so intimate to me.” I think that her pieces work because they are intimate to others as well. Her work strikes me like a classic folk song, Dylan, or the more modern and southern Jace Everett, a mirror into the individual soul, and at the same time reminiscent of something so familiar, universal, and connectable. Her work is reflective of the modern sadness, beauty, and magic of the feminine, but also pulls on the past, the eternal and timeless.
Finally, I get to ask Gentry about the hundreds of portraits done of her and she’s excited to tell the story… Years ago, there was a small group of art friends in Gentry’s circle who did portraits of each other on Myspace to hone their craft. Around this time there was another artist that Gentry admired, who would post portraits that people had done of her, and Gentry was fascinated by this. This artist (now a close friend of Gentry’s but a private person whose name Gentry protects) seemed to be a sort of muse, inspiring others to create art based on her image and art. One day this muse sent Gentry a portrait she had drawn of her, Gentry, thrilled, posted it up for all to see. Then, seemingly overnight, other artists began creating portraits of Gentry as well! At first, it was always people within her circles, but soon it spread beyond, and she would wake up in the morning to find a portrait posted of her by a total stranger. Sometimes other artists would request pictures from her in certain settings or poses to draw from, other times they’d use selfies she had posted, or draw from other artists’ portraits of her. Once the portraits of Lana Gentry began, they never stopped. Gentry had been kissed by the muse and had become one herself.
A great influence on Gentry was editor, agent, and artist Leslie Barany. “He was a tough mentor,” she says, who taught her about connecting with other artists. He told her that it wasn’t interviews that she was performing when she set out to speak with other artists, but deep conversations. This struck a chord for Gentry, who says she wants to be talking to artists all the time, to always be in conversation with them. In this way, I think, life is reflective. You call out and something answers back. All these portraits of Gentry are a kind of answer to her outreach, support of, and interest in artists of all kinds.
At this point, the portraits done of Gentry feel to her like a long-term cultural project and simultaneously like little gifts that light up her own artistic spirit and life. She says it’s, “fun to see myself through the eyes of others.” She seems to admire and enjoy each depiction and rendition, grateful that her image can spur creative acts. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of self-esteem, [and I had] a lot of hurdles to work through,” Gentry says. She says that each portrait “feels like this mystical wonderful thing.” She told me about this crazy moment when she had just pulled herself out of a deep depression, and she got back on her computer to find a portrait done of her by the artist Robert Bauder. He had painted her crying as if he could feel the truth of her emotions, though he had no way of knowing. Cosmic connection. The world answering back.
So, what’s next for Gentry? How does she plan to keep her muse energy flowing, to continue to connect to other artists? A podcast, of course! Gentry and her husband Green are at work building a podcast that will explore marginalized masters, past and present, shedding a light that shines way beyond politics, to illuminate art that didn’t or wouldn’t get its chance to be seen. I look forward to listening!
After talking with Gentry, it seems to me that a muse is simply a person in constant conversation with the world. Other creatives can feel this and want to answer the call. A muse is the exact opposite of someone who is checked out, following the herd, the norms, basic. A muse can see the magic and never lets fear dim this curiosity. From the word “muse” comes “museum,” a place where the muse’s work can be admired. I imagine a museum made up of the 500-plus portraits of Lana Gentry, with all the artists gathered inside sharing their passions and inspirations. If only in my mind, it’s a space that inspires me.