Vanessa Prager is happily nibbling on a cheese cube and sipping white wine from a plastic cup. Walking into the Jenkins Johnson Gallery just a few minutes earlier—promptly on time for her 530PM reception—with her mother and sister Alex at her side, she momentarily greets the managers before making the requisite trip to the refreshment table in the far right corner.
Today marks a lot of firsts for the 27-year-old artist from Los Angeles: Her first time showing with the particular gallery, her first solo show (entitled The Moon is Down), and her first time in San Francisco. “We’re staying in Noe Valley,” she shares. “It’s been really nice so far… I wish I could stay longer, but we’re set to go to Hawaii for vacation.”
For the moment, though, Vanessa seems quite content partaking in bite-sized refreshments and chatting with the guests, media, and random passers-by whom have started trickling into the gallery. “I’ve had people cry—the good cry—a couple times. That’s pretty intense and kind of awesome to see an emotional response of that magnitude,” she says. “But I think relating to a piece is pretty personal and subjective. I love seeing people just feel moved one way or another.”
This freewheeling approach to art is one that Vanessa has nurtured ever since she started drawing seriously at the not-so-early-age of 16. “My reference material was fashion magazines, so I did mostly portraits of fashion and perfume models,” recalls the artist who, with waves of corn silk-colored hair, a willowy physique, and ready 100-watt smile, actually spent some time in front of the camera herself.
“Every kid growing up in L.A. at least dabbled in it,” she explains of her early commercial appearances. “Acting was nothing special to me, it was never a good fit. All I knew was I wouldn’t have a regular day job. That was never going to happen. So I spent my teen years finding out how to make that work.
Colorful! That’s pretty much all I can say… and that they should be viewed. I think the reason I work with images instead of words is I feel they convey things I cannot get across any other way.
—When asked to describe her work
“Art wasn’t really a ‘decision’,” muses Vanessa. “It was just something I started messing around with and happened to be good at. I made pieces purely because I wanted to.” This “messing around” led the self-taught artist to her own organic style of drawing and painting, pieces which were placed in the exhibit circuit and picked up by the likes of Ryan Gosling, Melanie Griffith, and Harvey Weinstein.
The invitation for Vanessa’s current exhibit features a work created in her medium of choice: the Bic ballpoint. “It’s basic and simple and it gets the job done,” she states matter-of-factly. “It’s so fast, you can get something down in a matter of hours. I like how you can’t erase and really have to work with what have. The colors are so intense. I use only blue and red ink to hold the cool and warm tones.” As for the music sheets? “The black lines sit behind the drawings, breaking it up in a subtle way and adding another layer to the whole picture.” Plus, they have a warm vintage color she likes.
With a little over five years under her belt, Vanessa is quick to point out that her entry in the arts has just started. “There was a lot of fumbling around for a while—just learning how to put down the idea that was in my head,” she recalls, comparing her experience to learning a new language. “Now, I’ve hit a level technically where I can focus on what I want to make as opposed to how I’m going to make it.”
A refreshing statement, and one that goes far in explaining the young artist’s industry appeal. In so many words, Vanessa has no formal art education (it’s the first thing written on her bio, in Bic blue, right below a picture of her holding what looks like a bag of ice cubes over her eyes), started teaching herself oil painting “a bit awkwardly, at best”, and until recently, “didn’t really know what [she] was getting into at all”.
In the minds of viewers, however, these distinctions reveal not only a captivating body of art, but an artist they can at long last relate to.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN. FILM PHOTOS BY GINO DALAO.