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It’s All Relative

Painter Sarah Refvem uses large-scale paintings to examine family dynamics
‘Disney Vacation, 1996’ by Sarah Refvem

There’s no better time to reflect on family dynamics than after the holidays, for many a time of family harmony and family madness, and that’s exactly what artist Sarah Refvem is doing with her First Friday ArtWalk solo exhibit Familiar Dynamics at the Woodpecker’s Muse on Jan. 4. Refvem’s last show explored group dynamics through painting photographs of school classes or swim meets her impressionist and expressionist style rendering the subjects just vague enough to be relatable to a wider audience. Now she is diving further into her subject matter and narrowing her scope to the family.

Since graduating with a BFA in painting last spring from the UO, Refvem has been ruminating on group dynamics within a family structure and how these roles stick with us well into adulthood e.g. once the baby always the baby. “I’m figuring out how to exist as an adult,” she says. “I’m re-evaluating relationships with people in my family — which parts I want to hold on to and which parts aren’t as healthy to hold on to.”

For the past several months, Refvem has been asking anyone who is willing to donate pictures of his or her childhood. It did not take long for a theme to emerge people kept offering snapshots of their families with Disney characters. “A childhood trip to Disneyland is such a classic childhood memory a lot of people can relate to,” she says. “I look for where you catch a little glimpse of something accidental — someone looking away. It wasn’t what the photographer intended but it was accidentally captured.” And perhaps what will be this exhibit’s most arresting piece is Refvem’s personal version of this; “Disney Vacation, 1996” is a 7-foot-tall impressionistic acrylic painting based on an image of Refvem, her brother and sister posing with Winnie the Pooh. The painting, done on printmaking paper, is so tall that its bottom edge will curl upon the gallery floor, and that’s exactly what Refvem wants.

“I love working large,” she says. The paintings, on both stretched canvas and paper, place the figures against white backgrounds, “making it so the white background and the wall blend together. The only things that come forward are the figures themselves … It pushes them forward into your space.” The effect is to not only to have the painting cross the threshold into the viewer’s personal space (rather than say, a viewer “losing herself” in a painting), but for these figures to be life size, as if they were standing right there returning the viewer’s gaze.

“I’m not trying to preach anything,” she says. “All I’m trying to do is pose a question, spark some sort of thought process that may lead someone to their own understandings.” Maybe that understanding is “Wow, my family is great,” or “Wow, my family is crazy” or maybe it’s just “Wow, those Disney characters are creepier than I remember.”


Familiar Dynamics opening reception 5:30 to 9 pm Friday, Jan. 4, at The Woodpecker’s Muse Art Gallery, 372 W. Broadway, 310-909-3518.