Beyond the unique compositions, stirring colors, splashes of texture and bursts of pattern, Vian Shamounki Borchert’s 15 figurative paintings on display through Dec. 6 at Kentlands Mansion are variations on a theme—that of breakthrough.
Consider Borchert’s “The Conversation.”
The figure stands defensively, gazing out at you with arms crossed across her chest. Bright yellow and turquoise give way to darker hues around the painting’s edges. Lines are gestural and you can feel the artist’s application of paint to the canvas. The figure engages you in a conversation that you can, perhaps, almost hear. What she is talking about and feeling intrigues and breaks through the two-dimensions of canvas.
In fact, the model is someone Borchert knows well, as she used to babysit for her family. “She’s a beautiful young lady. She’s six-feet tall and she’s from Germany,” Borchert explained. “She has a vivacious kind of personality, very positive, but there’s also a sadness to her.” The model’s father had died from cancer at a very young age, and she was talking about him when the portrait was done.
“I don’t like to tell people (about the origins of a painting),” Borchert said. “I like the paintings themselves to have a dialog with the people and to stand on their own and be strong on their own. People come and bring in their own interpretation or feelings toward it.”
The conversation goes one step further. Not only do the inner worlds of subject and viewer interact, but the artist puts herself into the painting. “The way I work, people ask me, “do I think about a painting beforehand?” Borchert said. “But no, I kind of allow my subconscious to come through the art, so I have no preconceived idea of what I’m going to do ahead of time. I surprise myself.”
Her paintings surprise, too. So much so that at an Oct. 25 solo exhibition at The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown, a group lingered for an hour or so in front of Borchert’s “One Eyed Man.” Borchert said she didn’t want to go over and explain the painting to them, but “when I went over there and started talking to them, one person, I told her she could have written a paper like a Ph.D. on it. … I was very happy. My husband was there and he was very happy because people just went to the art and they were talking.
“It was a wonderful moment where each person had their own perspective on how they felt about the piece, and I think that is what I want,” she emphasized.
Borchert gets real joy out of sharing art with others, not only in seeing viewers engage with her paintings but also as a teacher passing along her love of art and her skill. Borchert has been teaching for more than seven years, offering classes in watercolor, acrylic and drawing at the Arts Barn and drawing and painting at the Yellow Barn Studio & Gallery in Glen Echo.
“I’m an art teacher and also an artist. I’ve been doing this all my life,” she explained. “My mom’s an artist. I grew up in an art household.”
Borchert was born in Beirut, but civil war soon caused her family to move to the more peaceful Amman, Jordan. There, she attended a French Catholic School that was very supportive of the arts and Borchert’s talent. When she was 14, her family moved again due to the Gulf War, arriving in this area. She went to Quince Orchard High School, graduating in 1992, and attended the Corcoran College of Art & Design on scholarship, earning her Bachelors of Fine Arts in 1996.
She credited the late Tom Green, longtime professor at the Corcoran and famous abstract artist who was influenced by the Washington Color School, with opening the world of art to her. “He actually was the one who reviewed my portfolio and gave me the scholarship. … It’s funny how sometimes you meet people who open up doors, as they say, or open up chances, and he was one of those people in my life. He was quiet but with a very keen eye on art and understanding of art. He was always coming around my studio,” she recalled.
Borchert’s professional life has included many group and solo exhibitions, and her work is in the permanent collections of The National Gallery of Art in Amman, Jordan, and The Jerusalem Fund Gallery in Washington, D.C. She has also been part of some fun art events like the June 2012 Art Metamorphosis at Georgetown’s Washington Harbour. There, she painted with 25 other artists for nine hours straight and created two paintings, one of Andy Warhol and John Lennon and the other of David Bowie and John Lennon.
“I love art and I love people who love art,” she said.
In the last year alone, Borchert created about 100 paintings. “When you do that much, eventually new styles start appearing and new things start to happen,” she explained.
On the second floor of the mansion, you’ll find five paintings of her daughter. One, “Love,” is done in Borchert’s signature expressionist style. The other four represent a breakthrough with more abstract elements and a use of paint and texture more illustrative of the process of making art.
“I love paint, I love using the brushes and I love using the color. I love the feel of the paint, and I wanted to play with paint while also making something meaningful,” Borchert explained. Her breakthrough pieces are entitled “Been Looking So Long,” “Fun Again,” “Courage to Let It All Out” and “Joy of Music.”
“Life can change how you look at things,” Borchert said, mentioning artists with long careers like Picasso and Braque. “Art reflects what an artist goes through. You develop, you grow.”
Creating, she believes, is important for everyone, not just professional artists. “Art is very important … for your mental being and physical being, but it’s also good for your soul and one should not ignore these things. It’s not like we should just go to work 9 to 5, make money, eat and sleep. There’s more to us. We’re thinking, creative beings. My students who come in the evenings, they come because it’s a creative outlet and it actually changes lives.”
Vian Borchert’s work is at the Kentlands Mansion through Dec. 6, part of a group show with artists David Hawksford and Chris Luckman. For more information, visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov/kentlandsmansion.