If you walk into the River House, down into the wine cellar, you notice a dynamic feast of color, a wide landscape painting. Your eyes are coaxed throughout the piece by playful brushstrokes and potent gestures. These colorful expressions are the product of LOJA, a collaboration between two successful Savannah artists, Lori Keith Robinson and Jan Clayton Pagratis, each a successful artist in her own right. What is distinctive about LOJA is their creative process. They paint on the same canvas simultaneously!
Robinson has been making art from an early age. Ever since she won a poster contest in second grade, she has been driven to create. After studying printmaking at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Robinson progressed into painting. She grew up in North Carolina and relocated to Savannah, where she met Jan Clayton Pagratis.
In contrast, Pagratis lived in numerous places – Germany, England, Texas, Michigan, Washington, DC – before finally settling in Savannah. She studied painting at the University of Texas, before renting a studio space in Savannah’s City Market District, where she met Robinson.
Pagratis says her neighboring artist Robinson would meander into her studio every day, sit in her front chair, and just talk and talk and talk. “As a matter of fact,” Robinson said, “Jan told me I drove her crazy. But I guess I wore her down. We’ve been friends ever since.” They started to work together in the same studio.
“Well, one time when we were working together like this [in the same studio],” Pagratis explained, “Lori turned to me and said ‘I just know the perfect color you could put there. It would look so good. You should really let me just show you.’ And I replied, ‘Well, darn it, Lori, if you want to paint on my painting so much, we should just get a blank canvas and start one together.’ I pulled a canvas out and that was how our LOJA collaboration all started.”
The Truth about Working in Tandem
Collaboration was not without its hiccups. Robinson revealed, “I remember I would be working and find a spot I was truly proud of, only to have it painted over by Jan.”
Pagratis concurred. “It certainly left us with some hurt feelings, to have something you’re proud of and be told it needs reworking. What we needed was silence.”
“One day at just one of these hurt moments, I put on a Beatles album, and we started to work without talking,” Robinson related.
“It allowed us to really release ourselves from the process on the canvas and just focus on making marks,” Pagratis explained.
For these two artists, it made sense to settle their hurt feelings and harmonize their brushes with the Beatles’ music. Some of their paintings, like Strawberryfields (shown at right), are named after the music that helped them work.
The collaboration worked out because of Robinson’s and Pagratis’ united vision. “It was not because we worked with a similar process. I have always had a chaotic, underworked way of painting where I work quickly, through gesture. My paintings often look like under-paintings. Whereas Jan works through layering.”
“It’s true,” Pagratis agreed, “I can spend a week just preparing a canvas. Although I believe we have always been united in our sense of color.”
“I would get frustrated sometimes, and whenever I was worried about a piece, Jan would remind me, ‘This will lead you to something else.’”
And that is precisely what happened. By working together, the two artists learned from each other’s styles. “Lori always worked lightning fast. Constantly putting paint down. Whereas I was so used to standing back and deliberating what to do next. But what I found was, during our LOJA painting, if I stood back and tried to think, she’d be halfway through the canvas before I made a mark! I learned to work actively.”
Robinson added, “And I started to learn to layer more and not just be satisfied with the first application of paint. In LOJA we worked with acrylic with two large fans behind us. So our paint would dry as fast as we would apply new layers.”
Their collaboration culminated in going into business together. Pagratis and Robinson opened up Chroma Art Gallery. “A lot of artists have trouble with the business side of things, but we took to it naturally.”
They sure did. They won Best Gallery in Savannah eight years in a row. “Times were good. Not to boast, but work was flying off the walls quicker than our ability to make the pieces.”
The only reason they closed up shop was that their work sold so much faster than the thirty other artists they represented through Chroma. It did not make economic sense for them to continue.
Passion that Drives
Pagratis’ art practice after Chroma is tied to an emotional experience. As a person who has always been afraid of flying, Pagratis was not excited to learn that her husband, Pericles, was given an airplane. One day when he was away for longer than expected, she feared the worst. Pericles arrived home to a distraught Pagratis. He told her if it made her worry so, he would not fly. Pagratis answered that that would be unthinkable! If this was his passion, she could not think of taking that away from him.
Instead, Pagratis bravely joined her husband on his flights, taking photos of the Lowcountry landscape. Facing her fear, she started a series of mixed media of photography and painting. Her process involves preparing the canvas, adhering a landscape photograph, and finally adding paint that she makes herself. The paint’s different hues are in her total control, made from things like wood and grass.
“Art is Life”
Around the time Chroma closed up shop, Robinson’s mother became ill. “It affected my art process. I had
always painted with reds, but I started to create these minty, grey marshes.”
When Robinson started caring for her mother, she stopped painting. “It was a hard time for her. She lost two siblings and a mother in five years,” Pagratis disclosed.
“Painting just didn’t feel right,” Robinson reflected sadly.
She started to work in a medium that brought her closer to her mother, quilting. Besides all of the emotional turmoil for Robinson, the way her art was received was frustrating. “I would say I was quilting, and people would look at me like, ‘Why would you do that? You need to get back to your easel.’”
For a working artist there is a pressure to create what sells and to continue crafting the kind of art that has made one’s reputation. Despite this, Robinson soldiered on and created many more personal, cathartic pieces that were rich in family history. She created quilts for her entire family, each with pieces of clothing from her mother and siblings.
Pagratis said, “That is what art is. Art is life.” It is driven by more than what people want from you. It is about the passion that drives you to create.”
After Robinson’s long hiatus, and about month before this interview, Robinson called Pagratis. “I am ready to paint again.”
Written by Dylan Sell