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Performing Art
"They tell stories," Dominic Avant says of painting his wife and children. "They bring beauty to ordinary things. It moves me as a father and as an artist."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, May. 4, 2011 6 years ago

The human touch

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

These are Dominic Avant’s favorite subjects: his sons, his wife, his backyard and the beach.

It’s a simple list that provides endless material for the artist.

With his family, it seems every moment is a painting, even the mundane ones. Or, as Avant says, “especially the mundane ones.”

It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and Avant has just returned from Ringling College of Art and Design, where for five years he’s taught animation and visual development, an extension of his former life as an animator for Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Today is, by all accounts, a mundane day.

If Avant were to paint it, the scene would include a washing machine running through its spin cycle, a little boy with damp hair escaping from his bedroom without wearing his pants. A harried wife running to retrieve the child and an artist in his garage studio tidying paints and canvases.

“I sometimes feel like I’m juggling a lot,” Avant says. “Teaching full time, painting at home, raising two kids … it can be tough. I’m just keeping my head above water, I guess.”

Not all artists are solitary creatures plagued by social phobias. Avant, a 43-year-old East County resident, has built a portfolio on his people skills, in particular his ability to capture the nuances of people’s personalities.

“I’m the opposite of a lot of artists,” Avant says. “I like camaraderie. I like being around people. I’m social. I think it makes me a better artist.”

His studio is brimming with paintings, most of which are of people, their facial expressions ranging from noble to commonplace, pensive to bewildered, bored to exuberant.

Many of the works depict his 10-year-old and 4-year-old sons.

“My boys,” he says gesturing toward a framed portrait of two kids playing in the surf at Holmes Beach.

“Just seeing them get lost in a moment is inspiring. I can watch them play for two hours and walk away with 200 paintings in my head.”

Sure beats whipping out a digital camera.

Resting against another easel is a painting of Avant’s wife: she lying on a sheet under a tree in the backyard, hoisting son, Dean, then-6 months old, to his feet.

On the floor is a painting of his older son, Devin, cradling a bucket of oranges, shirtless and grinning.
“It’s the little things,” Avant says of his kids. “When I watch them pick oranges from the tree in our backyard, or when they help me in the garden, I always see them as interesting shapes, patterns and light.”

You wouldn’t know it from scanning his studio, but Avant’s career as a painter began only five years ago.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he spent nearly 10 years working at Disney’s animation studio, in Orlando, drafting characters frame-by-frame for dozens of movies, including “Mulan,” “Tarzan” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

Recruited straight out of college, he was among a dying breed of animators to produce the last string of hand-drawn features to come out of the animation house before it closed in 2004.

“It was a gratifying job,” Avant says. “Especially when you saw your name roll with the credits on the big screen. You got that magical, pixie dust feeling.”

His Disney days were the realization of a childhood dream.

Like many young artists, he grew up drawing cartoon characters and dreaming of becoming a comic book illustrator.

He was 12 years old the first time he toured the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was so infatuated with the exhibits, he had to be dragged out building.

“I was one of those kids who always had the desire and ambition to be an artist,” Avant says. “Kids would trade their Twinkies at lunch for my superhero sketches.”

It wasn’t until one of his college instructors challenged him to move past his love affair with Spider-Man that he began to realize he had more in common with the old masters than with Marvel Comics.

“I’ve reinvented myself since Disney,” Avant says. “I feel like I’m finally in my prime. If I were a baseball player, my batting average would be ridiculous right now.”

His commission workload is on the rise thanks to a number of awards from national art competitions and prestigious organizations, including the Portrait Society of America and the Oil Painters of America.

Juggling act aside, the artist says he’s never been happier.

“I’ve evolved,” he says. “I’ve upped my game. It’s not an arrogance thing. It’s a confidence thing.”

His gaze rises to meet that of a female model he painted two weeks ago during a studio session at the Southern Atelier, in Sarasota.

The model was an African-American woman with a blue scarf tied around a heap of dreadlocks. Her gaze was fixed and intense, her lips neither pouting nor smirking.

Halfway through the session, fellow artists began to inquire whether the portrait was done. It looked complete, but, to Avant, it was still an hour away from being finished.

It was missing something.

“In my head, it wasn’t done until I captured a certain emotion,” he says. “She looked so regal sitting there in the light, and I knew I hadn’t conveyed that. It’s one of those things where you know you’ve got it when the brush leaves the canvas for the last time and there’s a big smile on your face.”

John Singer Sargent
“He was the quintessential painter and he did it with a good sense of bravado and swagger.”

Joaquín Sorolla
“He has a museum dedicated to him in New York. All you have to do is take a look inside and you’ll be blown away.”

“When you see how high the Sistine Chapel is in real life, you can’t believe he did what he did.”

“He was the first painter to paint the way we paint now.”

VIDEO: Avant gets personal about the people and places that inspire his work. 

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