AJ Vanderelli forges a personal connection for ‘Conjuring Roots’

The artist and gallery owner teams with fellow creators Rob Jones and Marcus Blackwell for a new trio exhibit opening at the McConnell Arts Center today (Thursday, Sept. 14).
A figure study by AJ Vanderelli
A figure study by AJ VanderelliCourtesy the artist

For years, AJ Vanderelli, an artist and the driving force behind Franklinton gallery the Vanderelli Room, has abandoned her own studio practice, unable to carve out the time alone she described as an essential part of the process amid the day-to-day grind of operating an art space.

“I’m limited these days, because I don’t have the solitude, and I don’t get a lot of studio time,” Vanderelli said in a late-August interview in her gallery. 

So instead, the artist has embraced the small windows available to her, including the gallery’s weekly figure-painting sessions, each of which affords her two hours to complete a portrait start-to-finish, a number of which will be on display in “Conjuring Roots,” a new trio show opening at the McConnell Arts Center tonight (Thursday, Sept. 14). (The exhibit also includes works by artists Marcus Blackwell and Rob Jones.)

As a result, an interesting dichotomy arose from the paintings and dioramas that surrounded us as we chatted in the gallery’s back room – the solitude required of her studio practice giving way to deeply humanistic works that seek connection and communion. More than figures or anatomical studies, the models painted by Vanderelli capture personality traits and emotions, strengths and frailties. 

This feel is augmented by a series of playful dioramas, which she started creating because she was gifted hundreds of small wooden boxes, and which gradually developed into personal tributes to the friends and fellow artists who are now closer to Vanderelli than family. These include the likes of Chris Sherman, formerly of 400 West Rich, who the artist depicted dancing beneath a glittering disco ball, and artist Dana Lynn Harper, who stands positioned beneath playful, hanging sculptures reminiscent of the otherworldly works she displayed at the Vanderelli Room in December 2022.

Vanderelli said people have always been central to her artwork, directing me to a portrait she painted of her late grandmother, which has since been framed in a shadowbox beneath a palette knife, a piece she inherited from the elder when she died. The artist attributed this pursuit of connection within her work in part to the difficulty she has building emotional ties with people in her day-to-day life. “I’m super friendly, but to be intimate with someone takes me a lot of time and is very uncomfortable,” she said. “I think spending those moments with people, painting them, it does allow me to connect with them and see them for who they really are.”

For Vanderelli, both her practice and her gallery have in some way evolved as a response to her upbringing, where parents, grandparents and other relatives frequently repressed their artistic urges, forcing themselves into societal boxes which they weren’t always well-equipped to handle, which led some to turn to drugs and alcohol.

“The mantra in our household was ‘doctor, lawyer, Indian chief’ – and I don’t know why the ‘Indian chief’ part – but it was like, 'You will be this successful thing.' And with my mom and her brothers, I think they were more creative people,” Vanderelli said. “And I think that’s why I’m so attracted to [expression], because I grew up with people not being able to freely express themselves. My grandfather didn’t even know I had tattoos. My whole life it was like we had this false identity that we presented to [outsiders]. And now I don’t live around my family anymore. I don’t even really have a family.”

In some ways, this is what Vanderelli’s contribution to “Conjuring Roots” captures: a rebuilding of community and a gathering of the chosen family members whom the artist has surrounded herself with in recent years. The motley crew now existing in the various dioramas littered on the gallery's desk and in the dozens of paintings lining its back walls ready to be displayed at McConnell Arts Center.

“Spending time here helps me grow in my own identity. … Spending time in this space with such a variety of people and personalities, and the stresses and successes and all of that, it helps validate me, it helps validate my identity,” Vanderelli said. “Also, I think this space has helped me grow in community and in being able to find that family… Even the things I’ve collected and the artwork I have all through here, I can look at it and it reminds me of all the people in my life.”

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