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Alumna aims to document digital self-expression, virtual interaction through painting

By Jiana Smith, The Commonwealth Times

When the COVID-19 pandemic kept classes online in fall 2020, VCU communication arts alumna Marisa Stratton said that creating paintings of her Zoom classes and her friends’ Instagram stories became a form of comfort for her.

“Painting these people and these images really got me through the pandemic,” Stratton said.

Stratton is a representational artist whose art explores how people document themselves and interact with others through various social media platforms. According to Stratton, representational painting depicts subjects that can be easily recognized.

Stratton’s paintings have been featured in galleries like Shockoe Bottom’s Shockoe Artspace and went viral on multiple social media platforms.

Stratton’s painting Zoom Class gained popularity on Twitter in August with over 18,000 retweets and over 140,000 likes. Zoom also featured the piece on its Instagram on Oct. 25. Since then, Stratton has received commissions from Zoom employees for more paintings, and she was invited to speak to Zoom’s Art + Zoom Club, which connects Zoom employees to artists and curators.

The VCU alumna said the experience of going viral was beneficial due to the opportunities it gave her, such as her interactions with Zoom. 

“They [the people at Zoom] were really full of appreciation and that was super beautiful,” Stratton said. “That wouldn’t have happened unless it went viral on Twitter, which is pretty crazy.”

Stratton said it is important to preserve digital moments, such as Instagram stories and Zoom classes, because they function as ways people express themselves and interact with others in the digital age – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know that in 10 years, we’re going to look back and be like, ‘Wow, this is how we functioned every day,’” Stratton said. “It feels normal now, but preserving these moments is going to be really valuable later on.”

Stratton, who began drawing when she was younger, said she did not start painting until her sophomore year at VCU after her professors encouraged her to do so. By her senior year, Stratton enjoyed painting so much she switched primarily to the medium.

Stratton created her Instagram paintings in response to a prompt from her junior year Painting Strategies course. She then started painting Zoom classes to further document digital interactions during the pandemic. 

Garreth Blackwell, design and communication director for Richmond art gallery Shockoe Artspace, stated that Stratton’s paintings became especially relevant during the pandemic shutdowns because of their focus on human interaction through technology.

VCU switched to online classes in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, many Richmond art galleries, such as Shockoe Artspace, closed temporarily to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Shockoe Artspace opened again in October 2020. 

“Once we all experienced lockdown, quarantine and the never-ending cycle of Zoom interactions, the subject matter became extremely poignant,” Blackwell stated in an email. “Her technique and style, paired with the subject matter, made something so impersonal as digital life actually feel human.”

Stratton’s Zoom pieces were recently accepted into Made in VA, an upcoming group show at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. The show, which highlights local Virginia artists, opened on Nov. 27.

Stratton first showcased her Instagram paintings at Pressed Together, a submission-based group show that opened on Dec. 6, 2019, at Shockoe Artspace Studio.

She said she was encouraged to submit her art to the show by Ryan Lauterio, the founder and director of Shockoe Artspace. Lauterio was also one of Stratton’s art foundation program professors during her time at VCU. 

After Pressed Together, Lauterio approached Stratton with the idea for a solo show based on her Instagram paintings, which Stratton said shocked her.

“I was like, ‘You’re joking right?’” Stratton said. “It didn’t feel real until a couple months before the show.”

Stratton’s solo show, My Screen Time, opened June 4 and featured more than 90 paintings based on Instagram stories and Zoom calls, which she decided to add to the show when the pandemic began.

Though preparing for the solo show was stressful, Stratton said that being able to show her work to others was a great experience.

“It was so beautiful to see people gathered in a space full of portraits,” Stratton said. “It allowed my whole undergrad experience to culminate into something that was really beautiful.”

Lauterio said he believed visitors enjoyed the exhibition due to the relatability of using social media platforms to interact with others, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the show, Shockoe Artspace sold a 90-page catalogue featuring paintings from the exhibit. The catalogues sold out during the exhibit’s June to August showing. 

Lauterio said Stratton’s art stood out because it combined the traditional art of painting with modern technologies like cell phones and social media.

“Painting has always been a communicative medium,” Lauterio said. “I thought it was a very interesting historical conversation related to the phone and to Instagram, which is a very interesting way I think we curate our lives and the way we communicate with each other.”  

Stratton said she hopes to fully support herself through art in the future with more exhibitions and collaborations with other artists.

“I’d love to be in gallery shows in New York or Europe or something and be a fine artist,” Stratton said. “But I’m open to anything that would allow me to keep doing what I love, which is painting.”

Lead Image: VCUarts alumna Marisa Stratton’s “Zoom Class,” created during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Zoom Class” went viral on Twitter in August 2021, and was featured on Zoom’s official Instagram page in October 2021. Photo courtesy of Marisa Stratton