For more than 70 years, the artists of the Portrait Society of Reno have captured the visages—and the personalities—of hundreds of Northern Nevadans who have sat in their studios.
Most society members have been women, so it’s fitting that the Portrait Society’s current show at the Sparks Museum and Cultural Center honors the women’s suffrage movement, while at the same time spotlighting three local artists who are pivotal in the success of the group.
The exhibit, Passage of Women’s Suffrage of 1920, in the museum’s upper gallery, runs through April 29. The show was originally planned for 2020 but was postponed because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The subjects of the portraits are local men and women. Some are well-known movers and shakers; others never got their names in a news story. All have sat, trying to remain motionless, as Portrait Society members captured the sitter on canvas using paint, pencils or charcoal.
“We all paint the same person, but we each see a different personality,” said Kay Genasci, the society’s president.
At the opening for the show in February, artist Roianne Hart displayed her portraits of Reno lawyer Margo Piscevich, fellow painter Eileen Fuller and journalist Lenita Powers.
Hart tries to capture the portrait under the skin. She has painted people throughout her life, but she didn’t focus on portraits until she joined the society, she said. She finds it challenging to not only make her paintings look like the subject, but also “to capture the essence and feeling” of who they are.
“(Piscevich) is so stunning, a handsome woman, so assertive, powerful, confident,” Hart said.
As for Powers: “I like her smile. I think she smiles without even knowing it.”
Influential women artists recognized
Honored at the kick-off event for the show were longtime Portrait Society of Reno members Marilyn Melton, Renate Neumann and Joan Shonnard. Ray Freeman of Carson City remembered how Neumann was “so encouraging to get me involved” when he joined the group in 2005.
The three women were fast friends, said Ann Carpenter, daughter of the late Joan Shonnard. Her mother loved the camaraderie of the eight to 10 members who would meet for lunch after the sessions.
“She loved painting people and painted a portrait a week religiously,” Carpenter said.
Other painters credit the society for helping to expand their talents.
“I learned so much from the group by looking at the other portraits,” said Heather Reynolds, who joined two years ago after moving to the area from San Jose, Calif. “It is such a supportive, friendly group.”
Mimi Sanchez of Reno has been painting since she was 15 years old, but still finds it a challenge to create a complete portrait in less than three hours during the posing session. Sanchez used pencils in her early work, before progressing through pastels, oils and acrylics. “With watercolor, you must move quickly,” she said. “It is so exciting.”
To streamline the process and give her portraits an “upbeat” feel, she doesn’t use black paint and minimizes wrinkles. The water wash and the colors flow quickly to create a fluid portrait.
“I try to capture the person as beautiful,” she said.
Her portrait of Marshall Fey—who wrote books about his grandfather, Charles Fey, the inventor of the slot machine—shows “what a sweet man he is. I so enjoyed him.”
A 20-year career in typesetting and graphic design led Beverly Finley of Golden Valley to the portrait group after she took up painting in a small community in Idaho.
In a portrait of friend’s child backlit by a golden sun, “I enhanced the ‘halo’ of light,” Finley said. “She is definitely a bright shining star.”
Painting from photos and from life
Freeman, who serves as the Portrait Society of America’s Northern Nevada ambassador, said he prefers painting live models rather than using photographs. “A photo doesn’t give true colors or skin tones,” he said. “I like to start with life.”
He is a retired police officer who began his art career as a police forensic artist. After he does a portrait in a three-hour session, he continues to work, adding layers of watercolors to give the finished piece a dense and complex texture.
In a landscape, a tree could be any tree, Hart noted, but people are different. As a result, he usually needs six to nine more hours to properly capture the likeness of a particular individual, he said.
He and other artists often enhance portraits with background additions. A bass in the background of a musician defines her interests, for example.
“Portraits are my favorite,” said Marilyn Melton, one of the three veteran local artists honored in the show. “I’ve been painting ever since I could pick up a crayon. I always knew I was an artist.”
Being successful at portraying a person on canvas is satisfying, Melton said. “Every person is unique and interesting and different from everyone else—and you know when you’ve got it (the personality),” she said.
Women’s history preserved
The Portrait Society of Reno invited the Nevada Women’s History Project to participate in the show by providing women’s biographies. Genasci painted the portrait of NWHP founder Jean Ford which was displayed at the opening event for the show in February.
“Our work supports each other’s,” said Patti Bernard, the history project’s past chairwoman. “Both groups preserve current and past history of Nevada. The Portrait Society preserves history through portraiture, and we research and write biographies of individuals.”
The Portrait Society of Reno’s exhibit Passage of Women’s Suffrage of 1920 will be on display through Saturday, April 29, at the Sparks Museum and Cultural Center, 814 Victorian Ave., in Sparks. Admission is free, and some portraits are available for purchase. The Portrait Society meets Wednesdays at Nevada Fine Arts, 1301 S. Virginia St. For more information about the Portrait Society, call Kay Genasci at 775-359-2465.