News & Politics

Local Artist Tells Tales of Luck and Love

With a dash of the spiritual and a hint of humor, Renée Stout creates mixed-media works that tell stories of luck and love and the search for comfort in a chaotic world.

In dreadlocks, sweats, and a hurry, Renée Stout has spent much of the past year holed up in the century-old fixer-upper in DC's Shaw area that doubles as her studio.

She has not been alone. By her side has been Fatima Mayfield, a fictional alter ego who is the central figure in Stout's recent work, exhibited in a series of shows around the country this year. Her latest, "Fragments of a Secret Life," is at Hemphill Fine Arts in DC until October 29; part of that show and other works will be on exhibit at Sidwell Friends School from November 8 to December 11.

An artist who is as much storyteller as craftsman, Stout dabbles in the spiritual worlds of fortunetellers and herbal healers and storefront churches, telling tales about luck and love and, on a grander scale, politics and feminism.

People are often surprised to learn that Stout, 47, started out as a realist painter inspired by the work of Edward Hopper, whose famous "Nighthawks" charmed the young Carnegie Mellon art student with its mystery and melancholy. In Hopperesque manner, Stout started painting her friends in front of their hangouts. But in time she began creating more three-dimensional works and found doing so "more of an adventure than painting ever was." By the mid-1980s, she had stopped painting.

The change coincided with her move to Washington from Pittsburgh, where she grew up. Here she made frequent visits to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and became intrigued with ceremonies and religions related to the art she saw.

Stout's interpretation of African themes–including a life-size nude of herself as a nkisi figure, a statue of power–caught the eye of museum curators. In a reversal of an artist's usual climb to success, Stout exhibited in museums before showing in commercial galleries–first the Dallas Museum of Art, then the Anacostia Museum and, in her biggest break, a solo 1993 show at the National Museum of African Art.

Her interest in religion evolved into a fascination with healing. She collects all sorts of oils, roots, herbs, and soaps–sometimes just for the packaging, which often shows up in her work. "People are looking everywhere for answers, for comfort," she says.

Stout returned to painting several years ago, creating collages that are nearly as narrative as short stories. Mayfield, her heroine, is a sort of "community person," the artist says, who owns a root store filled with age-old remedies such as Don't-Leave-Me Powder and Jinx-Removing Bath With Herb.

After a year of creating new works for one-person shows in Kansas City, DC, and Atlanta, Stout says she'd like to spend some time experimenting with performance art and video.

She knows it may not pay the bills. But the High John root, which has figured in her works, may take care of those worries. "It supposedly brings power, protection, and luck," she says as she pulls an earthy brown bulb out of a glass jar. "I put one in my pocket when I go up the street to play the lottery."

So far, the only magic it has worked has been on

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].