Painter and muralist Isabelle Ewing has achieved something that many artists twice her age haven’t—a powerful signature style. Much of her work foregrounds women as its subject, rendering them in bold, marbled colors. Ewing achieves this effect by layering paint upon paint before sanding her piece to reveal the hues beneath, creating results that sometimes surprise even her. “I love the unexpected,” she told me when I visited her Bushwick studio. She’s brought that openness to walls from Brooklyn to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Though many artists’ careers started with a childhood passion, Ewing’s creative path extends back literally to the beginning. “It all began from a learning disability that I was diagnosed with when I was born,” she said. “The left hemisphere of my brain wasn’t fully formed. It’s really hard for me to memorize names and certain words don’t come to me easily.” This caused her to struggle with certain subjects, but fortunately supportive administrators in her school system allowed her to substitute those classes out for ones in art.
When Ewing realized that her interests and talents lied in the visual, she went on to study fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design. The industry wasn’t quite a match for her, though. “My inspirations were always conceptual, a nod to contemporary art,” Ewing remembered, “I was designing these wild elaborate outfits that weren’t even wearable.” Still, she persevered, and after graduation, found herself spending her days unhappily designing textile prints for Macy’s (“no spontaneity, no creativity,”) and her nights working on the fine art projects she really cared about.
Her career took a turn about five years ago when she met another artist who rented a studio in Bushwick. “I was completely blown away,” she said, laughing. “I’m like, you get to come here to this magical space every day and do this?” Ewing knew she needed a magical space of her own and the time to occupy it, so she left her job, scraped together some money working at an art supplies store and as an artist’s assistant, and rented a studio of her own across the street from her friend’s place.
In the years since, her vision has stretched from canvases to city walls. Whatever the surface, though, she’s got a favorite subject: “What drives me to paint women is the motivation to have equality between everybody.” And the women she paints practically vibrate with life and color. Ewing’s portraits frequently incorporate patterns that subtly suggest her fashion background, and they often stare back out at the viewer, claiming an equal right to the gaze that has traditionally flowed only in one direction, from audience to subject. “I hope my paintings help people feel less alone, bring joy, and most importantly bring respect to not only yourself but to others” she said of the women she depicts.
Ewing’s biggest break came in 2019, when Tim Okamura, an artist she assists, put her name forward to do a mural for the kids’ room at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. “It was totally surreal,” she remembered. “It was incredible.” But she’s far from done. When I asked her where she saw herself in five years, Ewing didn’t hesitate: “I imagine myself traveling all over the world, painting ten-story buildings in Paris, Berlin, everywhere. I’m on the lift, ten-stories high, painting these massive beautiful murals, and I’ve got four to five solo shows in one year.”
When you check out her mural on the side of 49 Wyckoff Avenue near Starr Street, it’s not hard to imagine how Ewing’s vision might scale up. A pink-haired woman, both feminine and assertive, stares out from above the dumpsters. The crown of her head radiates a pastel halo of blues, yellows, and rose. Her expression appears confident, ready to take on the world. That’s to say, it’s not so different from the artist who created her.
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