On her easel, Cynthia Packard turns a huge wooden panel on its side, then upside down. She might just flip it again, gaining a different perspective with each turn as she slaps on generous quantities of oil paint mixed with wax and swipes it across the surface with a trowel. Then she turns the panel again and applies another color—right before taking a blowtorch to it.
The paint melts, and Packard flips the panel once more to watch it drip. It melds right into a rather realistic version of a human figure she has already sketched out in charcoal.
“It’s always a delicate search for meaning and emotional expression,” Packard says of her creative process, “but it can also be quite aggressive. The act of painting itself, for me, is a very physical, aggressive act.” The artist is referring to the forceful manner in which she applies paint to panel. The process then turns delicate, she says, “as I sit and contemplate what that action was.”
Known for her dynamic interpretations of the human figure, Packard sometimes creates a series of paintings around a theme or an event she is passionate about. When Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high-school student, was fatally shot in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer, Packard created a series of 12 paintings on large wood panels, each depicting a faceless figure dressed in a “hoodie,” a tribute to Martin and a statement about tolerance. She’s currently creating a series using varieties of cloth from around the world as a tribute to the women who make and wear them.
The scale of Packard’s panel work ranges from 4 x 5 inches, to 10 x 20 feet. Her work is sold throughout the world, and her large-scale installations can be found in such businesses and public buildings as Biogen in Cambridge, and the Red Cross building and Yale-New Haven Hospital, both in New Haven, Conn.
After graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design with a degree in sculpture, Packard recalls that she had no money for sculpture supplies, so she taught herself to paint by copying the masters. Borrowing a little here and there from artists such as Cezanne and Matisse, she developed her own style. She works with a variety of materials, including oil paint, wax, paint sticks, charcoal, tar, and plaster.
She recently returned from six weeks in a village in Uganda where she, her children, Zach and Emma Luster, and her sister, Leslie Packard, participated in a project to help bring clean water into the village. She also taught painting to the local children. “They had never seen a paintbrush before, or even paint,” she says. “They were amazed by the colors, and when I began mixing them—you would have thought I was a magician.” – Marina Davalos