Ashfield artist’s work graces the cover of The New Yorker for sixth time, featured in book of 100 portraits of women

  • Ashfield artist Gayle Kabaker. Contributed photo/Ellen Augarten

  • Ashfield artist Gayle Kabaker. Contributed photo/Ellen Augarten

  • Xiye Bastida. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • The August 2020 New Yorker cover art by Gayle Kabaker, of Ashfield. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • A sketch from a live model session. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • Donna Langley. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • A sketch from a live model session. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • Amanda Gorman. Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • Dr. Amani Ballour, one of 100 portraits painted by Gayle Kabaker for “Vital Voices: 100 Women Using their Power to Empower.” Collection of the artist/Gayle Kabaker

  • The March 2019 cover of The New Yorker, by artist Gayle Kabaker. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A painting by Gayle Kabaker. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Gayle Kabaker in her studio in Ashfield on Wednesday. November 1, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Published: 4/1/2021 9:12:22 AM

Staff Writer

Gayle Kabaker’s most recent cover for The New Yorker magazine, published last August, depicts a young girl surfing in Bali. White waves crash against a blue sky, foaming onto black sand. The surfer wears a red swimsuit and one arm is extended in motion.

“It may be my favorite New Yorker cover,” said Kabaker, 62, a freelance illustrator and artist who lives in Ashfield. She made the painting, titled “Out of the Blue,” about three years ago while on a solo “painting retreat, alone in Bali for about a month. … That little girl, her name is Made, her family owned the Airbnb compound where I was staying.”

It’s a scene painted with strong strokes and in bold colors — a style that has come to define the Ashfield artist’s notable illustrative career. Her work has been featured in many national publications including the Washington Post and Conde Nast magazine, for which she regularly paints. Since her first New Yorker cover in 2012, a painting of two brides in recognition of New York state making gay marriage legal, her artwork has graced the iconic magazine’s front page six times.

While unique in subject matter, the paintings evoke a characteristic nostalgic mood.

As in much of her work, the subjects depicted are faceless and the details are sparse, allowing the viewer to imagine the scenes for themselves. Strong lines invite viewers to step into the frame and experience life through Kabaker’s artistic eye. In her estimate, Kabaker has painted her way through more than 20 countries.

She was born in Okinawa and grew up in Japan and Hong Kong before moving to Maryland. Her father worked as a correspondent for Voice of America during the Vietnam War. Kabaker attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco and, for several years after graduation, worked as a fashion illustrator.

“I always was drawn to fashion kind of stuff — drawing clothes, beautiful clothing, women,” she said. “When I decided to go to art school, I always knew I wanted to be a fashion illustrator.”

This early foundation in fashion is evident in Kabaker’s color choices, composition and style. She uses an acrylic gouache to create vivid travel scenes, tranquil New England settings and impressionistic portraits of people — the latter of which has been a recent focus professionally. Last year, Kabaker was commissioned to illustrate 100 portraits over eight months of notable contemporary women for “Vital Voices: 100 Women Using their Power to Empower,” which was published by Assouline in September.

The book was put together by Vital Voices, a nonprofit organization that promotes female leaders and is advertised as “A celebration of women’s suffrage and gender equality through the use of visual and anecdotal storytelling as told through the eyes of 100 global women leaders who are redefining power, and using their power to strengthen female relationships across the globe.”

Those featured in the book include Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Greta Thunberg, Samar Minallah Khan and Amanda Gorman, who Kabaker says she met three years ago at a Vital Voices event. “When she spoke at the inauguration, it was extra special to those of us who knew her.”

Working on a tight deadline, Kabaker said some of the portraits were easier to complete than others. A depiction of Donna Langley, a British movie executive who is chairwoman of Universal Pictures, for example, required two renderings.

“I painted her at the beginning of the eight months and I painted her at the end. The one that I painted at the end came really fast. When I paint a portrait, I never know how it’s gonna go,” Kabaker said.

Another memorable portrait Kabaker did is that of Amani Ballour, a Syrian-born pediatrician who set up a hospital in a cave during the Syrian civil war. Her story is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Cave.”

“When I paint a portrait of someone I try to get into who they are,” Kabaker said. “It was very emotional painting her, and I think that came across in the portrait.”

In conjunction with the book’s release, Kabaker’s portraits were displayed in an exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The project required a “Huge amount of work in eight months because (Vital Voices) wanted it to be out by international women’s day this past year,” Kabaker said. “We ended up moving deadlines and the exhibition got hung at the Kennedy Center. Two days later, the pandemic started,” she said, noting she’s confident the project will continue in one form or another for years to come.

Even though the Kennedy Center exhibition was put on hold because of the pandemic, Kabaker says she has been incredibly busy during the last year.

“I’ve been really busy. I’ve probably had one of the busiest years I’ve had. My life hasn’t changed that much. I live in the country. I like being alone,” Kabaker said. In addition to illustrative commissions, she’s starting to show her work in galleries.

“I’ve been dipping my toe in the fine art world, and now I’m jumping in,” Kabaker said, highlighting a show in Los Angeles that’s scheduled to open in May. And when she’s not painting professionally, “I try to paint as often as I can for myself.” In the last year, Kabaker says she has also started “drawing from a live model over Zoom. That has become a complete surprise for me” as it’s something she hasn’t done since college.

It’s an opportunity to push herself creatively.

“I experiment with these live drawings,” Kabaker said. “I’m drawing with an ink dropper. That’s really fun and something I’ve never done before.”

“Vital Voices: 100 Women Using their Power to Empower” can be purchased on Amazon or at bit.ly/3fvJuGg. A portrait of Gorman painted by Kabaker in collaboration with Silver Screen Design, a Greenfield-based printing business, can be purchased on various types of shirts at bit.ly/3cgKSKY. A portion of the proceeds benefits Vital Voices. Kabaker’s work can be viewed digitally at gkabaker.com.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.




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