Judith McCrea uses bright color frugally she often lets the colors fly across the top or middle of a large oil painting, briefly disturbing her basic blues and purples.
But it's not the colors that bring life to McCrea's work: It's her figures. Sometimes they embrace, sometimes they slop over bars, sometimes they stand or lie naked. In those forms, McCrea, one of Lawrence's newest artists, finds a great deal of magic.
"I think painting deals with illusion," McCrea, said. "That's the difference between sculpture and painting. In sculpture, you're dealing with something that's real. Painting deals with illusion and magic. I'm very interested in magic, and I want to get those magical elements into my work."
MCCREA BEGAN teaching at Kansas University in August, the result of a nationwide search by the art department. She already had built a reputation as both a teacher and an artist in central and southern Kansas before heading northeast to Lawrence. She had collected a series of honors and prizes, including a 1990 Kansas Arts Commission fellowship and first prize in the 1989 Kansas Eight contest at Topeka's Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka.
Two of McCrea's works will be on display starting today in the art department faculty show in the Art and Design Building gallery.
"She was selected from among 200 candidates who qualified," said Bob Brawley, art department chair. "She's clearly an excellent artist, and we felt she'd fit in very well here. I personally heard from students who knew her that she had a lot of energy and is a strong teacher."
MCCREA, 44, was born and raised in Augusta, just east of Wichita. By a stroke of luck, Augusta at that time had a citizen named Belle Boucher, an art teacher who influenced McCrea's life.
"She was a self-taught artist and a first-class draftsman," McCrea said in a recent interview. "She was a brilliant person, she taught herself to read so she could read books, and she taught herself drafting. As a teacher, she would take very few students, and you had to be very serious to come to her house to work. I started that when I was 11 years old.
"A lot of people she taught went on to study art and earn degrees, but she didn't take very many students. I'm the only one I know of who's still in art. I think the whole Augusta community supported her at that time."
AFTER HER formative years in art and a stint as a barrel racer in teen rodeos, McCrea went off on a creative writing scholarship to Emporia State University, where she spent two years. She then transferred to Wichita State University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in drawing and painting.
Her paintings, chronicled in a box of slides in her KU office, give an account of her wanderlust, which has taken her out of the Flint Hills and onward to the American Southwest, Mexico, the Caribbean, Venezuela and Paraguay. Those Latin American sites hold sway over her inspiration.
"For me, South American is an enormous enigma," she said. "But I did know that there was something vital there that's missing in our culture. You have to fight in the U.S. to have a real experience. Part of what I saw in Venezuela was how the culture is sometimes brutish and sometimes gentle. The fact that this culture is so close to the earth interestes me."
HER WORK also has political overtones. In one painting, a rather rotund man sitting against a yellow background looms over a nude, half-formed woman lying on a table.
In another, a bar scene, men lounge at a table while a topless woman hovers off in the background.
"I am definitely interested in confronting power and sex," she said. "There is some autobiographical elements in my work, but it's not a direct relationship."
Often working from drawings, McCrea sifts those experiences through her imagination, a process that produces some haunting images on a broad, expressionistic canvas.
"An expressionist is one who uses forms and color for an intense personal expression," she said. "There's an immediateness to the images. I'm often putting paint on the canvass right from the tube."
THAT QUALITY of immediateness attracted Bob Brawley to her work.
"She has a very lucid, unaffected way of painting," he said. "The imaging is both whimsical and energetic. There's a great feeling of energy in her work, along with a strong sense of narrative."
McCrea moved from Wichita, after having taught most recently at the Wichita Art Museum and before that as an assistant professor at Bethany College in Lindsborg. She has a son and a daughter both currently enrolled at KU.
She said teaching is more than just making a living while she paints.
"It's a prvilege to work with students," she said. "They're self-motivated and serious about art, so I'm enjoying myself. I like working with students of all ages. The situation here is really what I wanted, where art is part of the job. Not all art teachers' jobs entail that, but this one does."
AS FOR THE future, McCrea said she plans to keep painting on a large scale, as soon as she can find some studio space that will give her room to work. And she'll go on teaching figurative art.
"To me, life drawing and drafting is the core of my work," McCrea said. "Life drawing and figurative drawing is important even if you're going into abstract expressionism, because the forms become a source for your shapes."