Mabrie Ormes’ portraits of Chico faces on display at the Chico Museum

Mabrie Ormes: Face painter

Mabrie Ormes: Face painter

Photo By matt siracusa Painting by mabrie ormes

Chico Museum

141 Salem St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 891-4336

Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.
–George Bernard Shaw

Well-known Chico plein-air, jazz-scene and portrait painter Mabrie Ormes offered up Shaw’s famous quotation as a succinct confirmation of her job as a painter, and the power of art to transform a sometimes harsh reality into something thought-provoking, even beautiful.

Ormes wasn’t feeling compelled to justify her choice of profession, but was simply expressing in a recent interview what to her is obvious, especially in her new Faces of Chico portrait series. Now showing at the Chico Museum through Dec. 20, Ormes’ Faces is in its second incarnation. Her first collection of nearly 200 portraits of Chico faces showed at now-defunct Moxie’s Café in 2001.

“We’re just looking at the human condition,” Ormes said, seated in the kitchen of her West Second Street studio sipping tea. “Life isn’t easy. We all put the best face on it—that’s how we suvive.”

Ormes has had the opportunity, in the process of painting each of the 170-and-counting Faces of Chico 2009 portraits, to closely study the human condition and how it presents itself on a person’s face over three hours’ time as he or she sits talking to her while being painted

“I act as a listening ear,” Ormes said. “I do minimum talking or I can’t focus on painting.”

She paints each person—some local celebrities, such as Chico Mayor Ann Schwab and jazz saxophonist/photographer Rudy Giscombe, and some not—in the same way: very close-up, focusing on eyes, nose, mouth, face.

“I avoid [painting] accoutrements—the fancy hair-dos, the not-so-fancy hair-dos, the earrings,” said Ormes, adding that she believes “it builds community for everybody to see themselves [in a painting hanging alongside other similar paintings] with everybody else that way. I mean, you don’t even see yourself that close except maybe in a makeup mirror.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, there are a lot of angry faces,’ or a lot of sad faces—those are the two most common ones,” but each portrait, said Ormes, “is a distillation of personality as it expresses itself over three hours. I may be working on one eye when it expresses anger, and the other eye [later in the sitting] might be recalling the birth of their first baby.”

The result is a collection of portraits notable for Ormes’ uncanny capturing of each subject’s emotional life. Even if a face is not familiar to the viewer, the painting of it offers a look into humanity, into emotions that we all recognize.

On a recent visit to Ormes’ exhibit, I tried to identify portraits of people I knew, from a printed list of names. I had a difficult time in a number of cases. Once I consulted the “cheat sheet” (available at the museum desk), I could easily see the resemblance between the painting and the actual person.

What was recognizable was not necessarily an exact reproduction of so-and-so’s nose or to-scale placement of facial details—because in many cases, the features in these portraits do not have photographic exactness (they are paintings, after all).

But I was struck by how easily I could recognize that Ormes had captured the familiar way a certain person’s sadness travels across her eyes when she talks, or the way another person I know shows a depth of kindness through his eyes no matter what he is saying.

“I painted the wife of the CEO at Bank of America,” said Ormes, “and three weeks later a young man walked in straight out of prison … but I had stuff in common with him.

“[Painting these portraits] has made me much more relaxed with people,” said Ormes. “I realized that I have much more in common with [all of] these people.”