Tapestries of Truth

Diverse Portrait series showcases artist’s ability to capture the spirit of her subjects.

By Laura Knight Moretz

Trena McNabb began painting her Diverse portraits series during a lull between commissions.

She Eyed a person-size canvas she had stretched for a cancelled commission and asked her adult son, Rob Joiner, to pose, as he has done for his mother all his life. “I started drawing my son, and just got that old heartthrob feeling,” she said. A pencil sketch on raw canvas became the first in her series. Urban Artware showed 12 of the works, which incorporate both pencil drawings and paint, in the September, and the Stokes County Arts Council gallery hung them in October.

McNabb, 58, traces “that old heartthrob feeling” back more than 30 years, to when she watched a fellow artist prime an unbleached 10-by-6 foot canvas with white gesso.

“I just about fainted. the paint was so beautiful against that canvas,” she said. She began searching for a way to preserve the contrast of the creamy canvas and stark, white gesso in her finished work. The resulting technique, which she calls “white on white,” creates a subtle ghostly image layered with colored images to create a translucent tapestry.

She developed her technique, which is the signature style of her commissioned work from early 1980s to the present.

In her Diverse Portraits series, McNabb draws her life-size subjects on raw canvas, which remains visible as skin and clothing. Sometimes she stains the canvas to match skin tones, but it always shows through.

McNabb wraps full-color paintings of places and things around her life-size pencil drawings to create a psychological environment. “I’ve been told that I’m capturing people’s spirits,” she said.

It’s a method she has used in corporate commissions to capture the essence of institutions and even to portray Winston-Salem in a poster she marketed in 1995. The Truliant Credit Union displays a huge installation of several canvases in its foyer and has smaller canvases behind its teller windows. In another installation, she created emblems portraying Winston-Salem as the city of the arts for th parking garage of the Wingate Hotel.

McNabb’s art reaches far beyond Winston-Salem. she has created art - usually large panels, sometimes made of plexiglass and suspended from ceilings - for corporations, hospitals and public spaces worldwide. This year, she finished 18 canvases panels for Glencoe/McGraw Hill Publishing in Columbus, Ohio. Last year, she created nine canvas panels for the lobby of Hehnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. She has completed major installations for public buildings in Charlotte, a half-dozen hospitals across the United States, a factory in China and a tobacco company in Japan.

Something’s different in the new work. “I don’t think I’ve every done anything as exciting as these portraits” she says. “I’ve been able to meet and get to know some wonderful people. And I am very pleased with the work I’m doing.”

Museum directors are pleased with it too. Some of the portraits have traveled to shows in North and South Carolina and in West Virginia. The Museum of York County in Rock Hill, SC, bought her portrait of James Harold Jennings for its permanent collection.

After finishing her son’s portrait, McNabb asked George SerVance, Jr., a crafts man who lives in her native Thomasville, to pose. She had seen SerVance, who carves and paints dancing dolls, at a crafts fair. In McNabb’s portrait, SerVance’s dancing dolls encircle the 70-year-old man.

Ruth Julian, a 95-year-old art collector, posed for the third portrait, which was selected for the 29th Annual Competition for North Carolina Artists this year and shows at the Fayetteville Museum of Art.

Julian was excited about the project and came to see the finished work at McNabb’s studio. “She said it was the uglies thing she had ever seen,” McNabb recalls. But Julian couldn’t take her eyes off the work and sat in front of it, eating the sandwich McNabb served her. “Then she started seeing her environment,” McNabb said, referring to the elements of Julian”s life that surround the pencil drawing of the woman, and Julian recognized herself.

McNabb does not aim to flatter her subjects. Instead she wants to paint their truth. “If she had been 30 years old, I wouldn’t have wanted to paint her. All those wrinkles is what made her interesting.” Julian is the only subject in the series who hasn’t loved the finished work, “and now she claims to like it,” McNabb said.

Each portrait tells the story of a life, and there’s also a story behind the search for each subject. When McNabb wanted to find a migrant Hispanic mother and her 6-month-old baby, a Stokes county social worker led her down dirt roads to meet Sarah and 6-month-old Gabriella. the director of the Samaritan Ministries prepared Johnny Greene, a schizophrenic homeless man, for weeks to meet with McNabb. He bragged about his “famous portrait when it was finished. Last year, he was hit by a car and killed.

The family of James Harold Jennings opened their family albums to McNabb shortly after his suicide on the recommendation of George Jacobs, a former owner of Urban Artware. McNabb said she felt honored when his family cam to see the portrait on the first anniversary of his suicide, which was also his birthday.

Other subjects include Senora Lynch, an American Indian potter; Meera Clark, a 7-year-old girl; Jack and Rennie Miner, two missionaries to the congo; Ralph Zimmerman, a blacksmith; and Sun-Cha McCoy, a lap swimmer. A self-portrait, in progress, was included in McNabb’s recent shows.

William Huang, a radiologist at Wake Forest University Medical Center, is her next subject. The story behind this choice hits close to home. She met Huang during her husband Tommy’s radiation treatments for an aggressive skin cancer. Tommy McNabb is a knifemaker, blacksmith and photographer whom Trena met when she worked as a commercial artist at AT&T. They married 11 years ago.

When Tommy finished his radiation treatments in September, Trena was facing another lull between commissions. It’s during times like these when she can continue her portraits, which, in the long run, may be the work that is remembered.

Published: October 31, 2001

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Reprinted from the Winston-Salem Journal
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