The beautifully discomforting work of painter Kyla Zoe Rafert

Andy Downing
"Severance" by Kyla Zoe Rafert

For the better part of eight years, Kyla Zoe Rafert all but abandoned art, finally returning to the practice two or three years ago after a former high school classmate called out of the blue to inquire about a commission.

“And I said yes, and that commission turned into two paintings, which I guess re-triggered my creative instincts,” said Rafert, reached at her home in Amanda, Ohio. “And the response was so positive and encouraging that it motivated me to make more, and as I was making more, people were reaching out about buying pieces and [requesting] commissions, and it created this sort of momentum. … Basically, I’d lost confidence in my ability to create, and the response and encouragement from people got me going. I’m loving making art now, but I needed that jumpstart.”

This newly uncovered momentum has done little to speed Rafert’s process, though, and she said each painting generally takes at least three to four months to complete. Rafert typically begins with the central female’s face, describing the character’s expression as essential to the overall theme that develops on each canvas. She’ll then focus on detail work, such as the intricately patterned Victorian dresses, which she enjoys painting because the repetitive, finely tuned nature of the brushwork can have a calming effect. “Growing up, I always had a busy mind,” said Rafert, whose new exhibit iscurrently on display at Sarah Gormley Gallery in the Short North. “Drawing patterns is a way to slow it down.”

For the final step, Rafert masks out the areas that she has painted so that she can screenprint the floor and walls using historical patterns.

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Rafert said that each element on the canvas is carefully plotted and placed, from the figures to the frequent paintings-within-a-painting that appear in the background and often add context to the central theme of the piece. These miniature canvases also create an indoor-outdoor point of tension, paintings of ships at sea and horses standing stationary in a sunny field highlighting that these women tend to be confined to a room.

“I try to be intentional with the placement of everything to the point where it’s almost so orchestrated that it creates a sense of the unreal. … In the past, I’ve added more things, but what I really like is having minimal objects in the room, so that the room is essentially empty, but it’s also full, in a sense, from the patterning,” said Rafert, a screenprinter by trade who studied the form at the University of Delaware and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I feel like almost everything in the paintings is a counterbalance. I put a little in, and I take a little away. They’re bountiful and they’re empty. Interior, exterior.”

The paintings also tend to center characters in visually stunning spaces these are rooms that could exist in the ornate wing of some lushly appointed country manor that contrast with often darker underlying themes. Witness “Severance,” in which a woman’s hair fuses with the tail of a nearby horse, highlighting the “show pony” aspect of her beauty. 

“The women [in the paintings] are as much objects of beauty and enticement as they are people,” Rafert said. “These are definitely works about what it’s like to be a woman and the double standards we’re often held to. We’re supposed to be independent and increasingly doing the things men do, but we aren’t seemingly able to cast aside a lot of the other standards that come with womanhood, like being beautiful and being good mothers.”

In a way, Rafert’s DNA is interwoven into each canvas. Her work has centered on the concept of femininity since she started drawing princesses as a child, and the artist even traced the prevalence of the Victorian dresses in her work to a fascination with Victorian- and Edwardian-era fashion she developed while scanning old family photographs for her father a decade ago. But on an even deeper level, her canvases tend to revolve around a trio of concepts: history, psychology and narrative, which are subjects she can trace through her bloodlines.(Rafert’s father is a historian, her mother a therapist and her sister attended graduate school for creative writing.)

“It’s almost like the paintings are tying together all of these interests into one piece,” Rafert said. “I would play around with some of those ideas before, but at some point it all just kind of clicked and now it’s automatic. I’m really just painting the pictures that have been popping into my head for my whole life.”

"Dreams of Thalassa" by Kyla Zoe Rafert