Mothers at Home, on the Porch, at the Door: Caroline Ryan

Mothers at Home, on the Porch, at the Door
Summer Studio Work-in-Progress: Caroline Ryan
by Stephanie Cheung, Photos by Stephanie Cheung

With the lid of a storage box as her palette, Caroline adds a layer of green onto her canvas. It is almost fluorescent, as bold as the portrayed sitter’s unreserved exposure of a very private moment. A senior painting-cum-psychology major at the University of Houston, Caroline is especially interested in figurative painting. “It is very different from standardized tests,” says the painter who volunteered in a psychology lab, “every painting is individualized.”  

Previously, Caroline’s works were mostly portraits of herself and her close family. This is her first time to paint new acquaintances. The shy newcomer to Project Row Houses and Third Ward sent out invitations to tenants in the Young Mothers Residential Program. Three young mothers replied, and together with their children they became the models for this series. “They are actually excited about having a portrait of them painted. They never had that opportunity before.”

As the painting process unfolded, Caroline got to learn about these families and what Project Row Houses really is. Her installation features three acrylic paintings. Each of them captures a slice of motherhood in this place. Nursing her baby daughter Lotus in their colorful household, free-spirited Danielle lets her new friend snap the intimate scene. Jquay and Jaela sit on the porch; Jaela would never let go of her dolls, just as Jquay keeps a motherly watch over her. Myesha is graduating from the program this summer. “I like the gesture of Drew,” Caroline points to the painting of the mother and son at the doorway of their residence. One hand on the pillar, Myesha looks to the front. 

Beside these larger pictures of motherhood, a number of watercolor paintings and acrylic gouache sketches will also be exhibited. While the former are studies on the mothers and children, the latter are quick sketches Caroline did for people she met at Project Row Houses. The paintings are all named directly after the people, and document their lives and encounters here in this summer. When Caroline shares her work-in-progress on Instagram, they are all happy to see their own faces.  

These vignettes of young mothers bring to mind John Biggers’s women outside shotgun houses. If the earlier paintings offer a vision of Project Row Houses, these brand new portraits, flashing confident smiles as bright as the colours on Caroline’s palette, are testimonies of what this place has created. 

About Stephanie Cheung 

Stephanie Cheung is a Hong Kong based curator and writer. She is Lead Curator of the non-profit Make a Difference Institute, an Asian platform dedicated to building a creative civil society. With a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council, she is currently researching on socially engaged art in different cities in America.