+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
Joanna Bigelow lives below her studio, a creative’s dream space designed for artists, specifically her mentors, renowned local portrait artists Joanette and Cedric Egeli. Soaring windows capture light rays, which illuminate and shadow the space within. When clients come for a portrait sitting, Bigelow first walks them about the studio so she can study the interplay of light with the planes of their facial features. The most flattering light determines where she’ll place them before she plunges her paintbrush into oil paint pigments and begins filling a blank canvas with their likeness.
The Egelis own a large property in a bucolic setting just outside of Annapolis, and spend the summer in Florida. Over the years they have brought in apprentices in to study art with them and live on the property. Bigelow, who apprenticed with them for two years, is not a renter and has the space to herself.
Though she paints a variety of subjects, portraits are Bigelow’s bailiwick. Her painting style and technique are heavily influenced by the Impressionism art movement of the late 1880s. “I’m not as picky about color as other Impressionists in portraiture,” she says, “but [I] am in landscapes. I’m more focused on form in portraits.” She found that, while learning, her paintings too clearly portrayed the look of a study. “There was no agency in it,” she explains. “I’m moving toward my own unique style and developing it, but it’s a million different choices that make . . . how I do textures and angles. I want to maintain a level of authenticity. If you become too focused on style, you can become kitschy.”
Bigelow considers herself an intuitive painter who makes many subconscious decisions rather than sets out with a specific goal for her work. But she also considers an individual’s pose and position and the colors and the personal aspects that subtly reflect that person. To aid in capturing someone’s personality, she searches for the rhythm and structure of the individual’s face—especially through the eyes. This is reflected in the various works, in progress and finished, set on easels about the studio—eyes captured in a way that could give a viewer pause. Bigelow finds that, during those stitched moments she spends, painting a portrait, she focuses in with such intensity that she introduces idealization into the details. This reflects her personal concept of beauty, which she believes is seen as a commodity in society but also believes that everyone possesses it. “I’ve done so many portraits, I’ve never seen any face that’s not insanely beautiful,” she says.
“I’m all over the place,” says Bigelow, describing her overall approach to creating. “Sometimes I want to do portrait work, then landscape, even a skeleton as part of a mood that needs creative outlet.” Her energy comes in bursts; her working threshold is two hours, during which she’s immensely focused, ready to go, and she likes uninterrupted time while in the creative flow. She doesn’t paint during structured times. Instead, she has developed discipline, the result of sometimes having trouble in returning to a painting but pushing forward and seeing the work through to completion.
Bigelow took her first art class at age 12 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. She found that being in a classroom, sitting with a teacher, and getting feedback was beneficial. “I thought, ‘This is my niche!’” she says. She attended Salisbury University for a semester, but the curriculum wasn’t as art-centric as she’d hoped. An instructor mentioned that students already know everything, but Bigelow disagreed. A mutual friend of Bigelow and the Egelis told her about the apprenticeship opportunity. She told her parents of her interest in pursuing art professionally. “My dad said, ‘Are you sure?’ He’s a practical person,” says Bigelow.
During her apprenticeship, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. she was taught art. The curriculum included nude models, portrait models, and a summer up in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to study light and color. The Egelis’ personal pursuit of knowing the human form, Impressionism, and color greatly influenced her work. Once she completed her apprenticeship, she attended University of Maryland Baltimore County and finished with her bachelor’s degree in graphic design.
Nineteenth-century artist Vincent van Gogh was Bigelow’s earliest artistic inspiration and influence. Starting out, she copied his work frequently. In her first portrait class, she learned about and particularly liked the portrait artist John Singer Sargent. “I feel like I’ve lived under a rock as far as art is concerned. I don’t know many contemporary artists except for local artists like Rick Casali (read his feature on page 33) and the Egelis,” she says.
The expressive act of painting evokes various personal responses for Bigelow. Some pieces provide mental clarity, and sometimes a piece serves as a tool to process life events. “There are different intelligences, and with visual intelligence, I cultivate it and work to understand how it breaks down. You look outside and see the colors in the shadows, or on what might be considered a non-pretty day, you see it differently,” she says.
Bigelow isn’t married to one particular art medium. In addition to using oils for portraiture, she uses charcoal, and for what she terms her “more weird paintings” she uses acrylic paints because they’re easier to clean up. She’ll work with pastels, on printmaking—sometimes whatever’s close is what she grabs. She draws the line at one medium; “I hate colored pencil,” she says with a laugh.
Also a teacher, Bigelow began instructing children whose parents attended weekly Bible study alongside her mother during church services. She gained experience by teaching art to her younger sister, who, she proudly notes, has become great at her work. Other teaching experience includes a stint at the Bates Middle School Magnet Program, volunteering at Annapolis Middle School’s art club, and tutoring in Latin. Her first year of full-time teaching, in 2021, was at St. Mary’s High School as the fine arts teacher. “I enjoy being the sole teacher because I get a lot of time with the students,” she says. “I really love being with the students who have the drive for it.” Her approach is to help them do what they want to do and not push. For budding artists, Bigelow points to the wealth of resource sharing that’s available, such as on TikTok. Her concern is that the students may need a curator of what’s good versus what’s a waste of time.
While Bigelow has found that students are curious about how others see them and often ask her to draw them, her experience working with people sitting for their official portraits is different. People may be more comfortable in front of a camera, but being drawn is generally foreign to them. “Getting your portrait done is not about ego but solidifying oneself in time,” she explains. When a subject is sitting, they do so for two to two-and-a-half hours, maximum, with breaks throughout about every 15 to 20 minutes. Some things take longer to capture, and a portrait may take four or more sittings. The time goes by quickly, though, because there’s talking during the session. Bigelow observes the face in motion and is able to perceive more of the person’s essence in this way than she could from a photograph. At times, she must work from photographs when that’s her only option. Then, her workaround for tapping into a subject’s dynamism is to schedule a phone conversation, to gain a sense of the individual’s personality. This helps her winnow down the photographs and choose the one that she’ll ultimately use as a reference to create the portrait.
Her interest in people was the foundation for Bigelow’s connection to portraiture over other artistic expressions. “I was homeschooled, so I didn’t get out a ton. Through portraits, I have a connection, without connecting,” she says. “And I enjoy teaching—the human connection, helping, but not forcing. Focusing them on what they can do. I tell them I care about the effort they put in, not whether it’s good or bad.”
Bigelow’s goal is to build her art business, though she admits that the business side of art is an annoying goal to focus on. She’ll continue working on commissioned portraits, teaching, and making space for business work as well as noncommissioned, personal pieces. Long-term, she dreams of owning her own studio space to paint, teach, and hold workshops, and finding a way to incorporate her interest in farming and holistic healing. Bigelow wants to continue finding areas of her art to strengthen, being cautious not to focus on or bring up discontentment. Ultimately, art will be a lifelong apprenticeship. █