Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
Same goes for painting them.
Lisa Ocampo and Tiffany O’Brien are sisters from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with the same sweet-as-pie Carolina drawl and the same Southern gothic style.
Everything about their Southern upbringing manifests in their joint art show, Biscuits, Beehives, and the Boogie Man, now showing at Gallery Espresso through November 2. The works include a variety of girls that range from sweet to spooky, Burt Reynolds at a garage sale, and even a demonic Elvis.
Even their opening reception embraced Southern hospitality in favor of traditional stuffy receptions. The sisters served up hot biscuits with plenty of jams and homemade banana pudding ice cream, and they did their hair up in beehives complete with bumblebee pins.
“On our first shows, we love to have them as events,” O’Brien says.
“I love the artists here, and we go to a lot of shows, but it’s always crackers and cheese and house wine,” Ocampo adds. “You can always dress up when you come to our shows. It’s kind of an event.”
The sisters inherited their artistic talent from their father, a photorealistic painter whose style Ocampo says is a bit like Andrew Wyeth.
“I’m self-taught, he’s self-taught, Lisa’s self-taught,” O’Brien says. “I’m sure we’ve had a class or two here and there. I’m glad we got that gene. He didn’t do it for his career whatsoever; it’s a hobby for him. We didn’t get that photorealism gene, but I guess I’m glad I didn’t.”
In fact, O’Brien’s and Ocampo’s artistic styles are nearly the opposite side of the spectrum from their father’s, though they’ve been painting all their lives.
“[Lisa] started before I did because she was born before me, but we started when we were little bitty,” O’Brien explains. “A lot of it was necessity because we wanted toys, so we made toys out of what we had around the house and decorated our toys so they’d be pretty. We didn’t want lame toys.”
That childlike artistic style still dominates their artwork. It’s almost too cutesy to be true, but their styles match, a discovery they made after living apart for years.
“This is the first time we’ve lived close to each other in our adult life. So I didn’t know what she was painting, and she didn’t really know what I was painting until just a few years ago,” says O’Brien, who just moved to Savannah from New York.
Both women paint in bold acrylics, and the majority of the work showing at Gallery depicts childlike innocence interspersed with Southern gothic gloom.
As far as gloom goes, the sisters were inspired by their grandmother.
“[Our art] is just kind of our childhood. Our grandmother was a little on the creepy quirky side,” Ocampo explains with a laugh. “In a very kind and loving way, I’m calling her a little on the creepy side.”
“Like, she painted the outside of her house black,” O’Brien adds solemnly.
“She was the first person I saw doing assemblage, like a collage, like she’d cut her head out of a photograph and put it on Elizabeth Taylor’s body,” Ocampo continues, and O’Brien notes the excessive use of glitter crayons in the piece.
That creepiness generated by many Southern grandmas is exactly what makes Ocampo and O’Brien’s work so much fun to see. Southern gothic style is steeped in dark, weird characters, which is a clear favorite in this show.
In “Suzy Lost Her Head” by Ocampo, a young headless girl in a blue dress jumps rope, her neck spurting blood against a bright red background as her head floats with the clouds.
O’Brien has a collection of four girls with their pets, the most striking of which is a dark-haired girl holding her black snake. The idea came from the uniquely Southern phrase “hard-headed as a black snake,” O’Brien explains. Her style is clear in this series: the girls all have huge eyes and tiny mouths and noses. This girl smirks and purses her red lips as the snake also seems to glare and sticks outs its red forked tongue.
“Helvis,” another one of O’Brien’s pieces, is a portrait of Elvis Presley imagined as a demon — his eyes are black and bleeding, and there’s an upside-down cross on his forehead right below his slicked-back hair.
Much of the show is acrylic on canvas or wood, but Ocampo breaks the mold with a few mixed media pieces. “Dixie” has a doll head with a larger-than-life beehive and a frilly collared dress stuck onto a painted canvas, and “Bless Her Heart” has a red stuffed heart in a tin attached to an acrylic painting of a solemn-looking girl.
The show is a playful look at the Southern gothic style; even the more macabre scenes are offset by a little whimsy, making this a show not to be missed.
Biscuits, Beehives, and the Boogie Man is on display at Gallery Espresso (234 Bull St.) until November 2.