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Sunny, Bright and Dark

Athens artist captures an unflinching look at life and its imperfections



Sunny Taylor has soft caramel eyes that remain steady and calm even when she describes unspeakable injustice.

Her paintings are steady and calm, too.

Her subjects peer out from a world of darkness. They emerge from shadows that they wear like a mantle of anxiety or ennui.

"There's this idea of the tortured, depressed artist. Which is real. But then at the same time there's the tortured, depressed lawyer," says Sunny.

"But it seems true. I paint my best when I'm sad."

Sunny lives in Athens, in a funky, cluttered wooden house with her boyfriend, also an artist. You walk a short distance on a one-lane, beat-up street and cross a railroad track to get to her studio. It's in a bright, modern complex so close to the tracks that you know the conductor's shirt color when he passes.

Stacks of finished canvases are propped against one wall, their backs turned like errant schoolchildren.

Against another wall, facing out, is a self-portrait over which Sunny is currently fretting. It's an image of the artist standing on a tree trunk in the forest, the amputated trunk like an extension of her own legs. Above her are fantastic -- and for Sunny, uncharacteristically vibrant -- swaths of color in various hues, as if enormous butterfly wings or a stained glass window looms behind her. Sunny works on one painting at a time and has been working on this one since March.

She is hoping the oil paint will dry because the finished canvas is due in Atlanta on Monday for a group show of artists whose work deals with the body at Agnes Scott's Dalton Gallery. It's called Limbs Heart Tongue & Teeth.

A more representative work rests next to it, another self-portrait. An unusually poignant, gothic baby portrait, "Jolly Jumper" features Sunny -- at an age when other babies might be toddling -- hanging listlessly in a cloth swing. Her eyes are glowing black, full of sentience but also remote and haunted. There is that darkness again, worn like a halo around the child.

Sunny's paintings have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been profiled on NPR's "All Things Considered." At only 23, she is still an emerging artist, but one with a remarkable painterly style and the kind of technical proficiency that is rare in such a young, self-taught artist.

Sunny's favorite painters are dark, too: Rembrandt, Odd Nerdrum, Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville, Francis Bacon.

Not a daisy picker among them.

There are reasons, maybe too pat and reductive, for the blackness that surrounds her figures and the vibrations of pathos that emanate from them.

In her non-painting life, Sunny would rather not dwell on why -- beyond her skill -- her work is so memorable, so unique.

Sunny doesn't want to be one of those pity painters who make you feel good for peeling off an Abraham Lincoln for a pack of greeting cards.

"I'm so sick of people asking me if I paint Christmas cards when I tell them I'm an artist."

But it's an uphill battle. Sunny is aware of a stereotype she struggles against. Unlike gay or African-American artists, who have all had their day in the sun, "it's uncool to be disabled, and disability art is uncool."

She wants to be acknowledged as a real artist, without qualification.

She also wants to advocate for the disabled. But she doesn't want to be reduced to the Girl Artist in the Wheelchair.

It's complicated. Her life is defined, she believes, by the stew of chemicals used to clean airplanes that were improperly disposed of at an Air Force base in Tucson and which she says leached into the groundwater and were ingested by her pregnant mother.

Sunny believes the chemicals caused her joint and muscular disability, arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which explains the wheelchair and work such as "Self-Portrait with Trichloroethylene," an 8-foot-tall painting of the artist nude, her truncated arms a sign of her condition. Sunny has also painted portraits of a crying baby with tiny, bud-like appendages called "Depleted Uranium" and of a woman with a contorted spine she has titled "Spina Bifida."

The current self-portrait she's laboring over is turned on its side to provide access when she lies on the floor to paint, a brush gripped in her teeth.

"I've never felt bad about being in my body. We grew up in this environment where we were just individuals and didn't necessarily belong to any sort of identity group," says Sunny of her upbringing by progressive parents, an artist mother and a scientist father, who raised four children outside traditional schools. Sunny was allowed to develop at her own pace, learning about painting from hours spent poring over art books and practicing her technique.

That's why Sonny has a hard time defining herself as disabled, when she could just as easily describe herself as a theoretician or an activist or an artist or a resident of this imperfect, lovely, sinister world.

What she likes about painting is what she calls "the love of seeing things.

"Whether it's disturbing or whether it's beautiful, when that happens, it's very meaningful to me."

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