Amid the hustle and bustle of Commercial Street, we all watch other people. Grabbing what we can from someone’s bright yellow shirt, leather chaps, or bald spot, we invent a whole story for them in our minds. He’s a real character, we say, nodding our heads. But the thought slips away.
Artist Daphne Confar doesn’t shy away from making stories out of strangers. Confar works mainly on small, thick panels with gold leaf edges. She starts with a black-and-white tonal underpainting, then adds color with oil paint. The lines are deliberate, the colors opaque yet soft. A woman’s eye glints knowingly. A man averts his nervous gaze. Each piece exudes a feeling of familiarity.
The Provincetown Art Association and Museum has already acquired some of Confar’s work for its permanent collection. At the William Scott Gallery, newer works will be on view from June 24 to July 6. Along the walls of the gallery, Confar’s vibrant characters appear in two-dimensional form. The subjects of pieces in the show range from old men to red robins to reedy ponds.
Each painting captures a soul — whether the subject is animate or inanimate.
Confar grew up moving from one Navy base to another until her family settled in Plymouth and then in Carver. Now, she lives in Milton. She received a B.F.A. from Laguna Beach College of Art and Design and an M.F.A. in painting from Boston University. But this rigorous artistic education isn’t the source of her unique style.
“I have always painted the way that I paint,” she says. “It’s just the energy that’s in me.”
In her portraits of people, the subject often sits or stands alone against a muted backdrop. They seem to glow, as if in a spotlight.
“These people come out of my imagination,” Confar says, though she started out painting people she knew. When she was 23, after her grandmother had died, Confar painted her from photographs. “I tried to put all this love into them,” she says of those paintings.
Her father owned a photography store, and she began painting people she saw in pictures there. Body language fed her imagination.
“I would like the photograph for a certain reason,” she says. “There are ways that people sit and that’s just them.”
In one painting, a woman smirks, sporting a yellow polka-dot bikini and yellow floral swim cap. She’s illuminated by the bright blue pool behind her. Smile lines crease her mouth and eyes, yet she has a rosy glow. Her posture gives off an air of impatience. The piece is titled Melva Just Can’t Sit, which could read as the gossip of a neighbor, or perhaps a murmured self-description.
For 30 years, Confar stuck to painting people. The concept of “place” overwhelmed her. The number of items present in any given place seemed like too much to her. But during the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, things changed. In her back yard, escaping the pandemic doldrums, she painted a bird’s-eye view of her family on the landscape.
She had always assumed that landscapes came with rules, she says. In her portraits, the person is always the focus, and backgrounds are minimal. Landscapes would need to balance foreground, background, and other elements, she thought. To combat a possible deluge of information, Confar focuses on the little things to convey character.
“It might just be the way a tree is leaning,” she says. “It’s the same way in people: I look for the thing that makes them lovable.”
In Ptown Town Hall, the building itself slants to the right. Small white-flowered trees sway to the left. In the foreground, a person in rainbow pants occupies a bench. Nothing sticks out as the focus of the piece — instead, every little thing collaborates.
Although Confar says she draws mainly from the familiar folksy feeling of a Grant Wood or Grandma Moses painting, she spent a large part of her career studying art by early Northern Renaissance painters, appreciating their focus on the individual and on ordinary people.
Though Confar’s subjects are usually made-up characters, they seem entirely real. There’s a presence in the sideways glare of an old woman, the awkward posture of a middle-aged man. Leaning trunks and ruffled birds are personified, too.
In Provincetown, we gallery-hop. We look at Daphne Confar’s Sideways Swim. The bespectacled lady in her red swimsuit looks back, daring us to let her slip away.