Characters once lost to time find surrealist homes in Tracy Greenwalt’s ‘Stone City’

Old photographs provide inspiration for the artist's eerie and playful mixed-media paintings, on view through Aug. 5 at Studios on High Gallery

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Arcadian Sleight of Hand" (mixed media) by Tracy Greenwalt

Tracy Greenwalt established her artistic vision early on, when she found a box of old family photographs as a child. She became obsessed with the photos, an interest Greenwalt eventually combined with her lifelong love of drawing as she scoured local antique malls for photographs from the late-19th and early-20th century, then used the images as inspiration for her illustrations.  

“I like to take old photographs and give them a story by adding my own weird iconography,” said Greenwalt, who has often had to put her passion project aside in place of contract illustration work. “It’s so hard being freelance and constantly trying to send your stuff out. I wanted to go back and just do the stuff that I’ve always wanted to do.” 

When the opportunity arose to show her work at Studios on High Gallery in the Short North, Greenwalt seized the moment, setting aside freelance work to focus on creating mixed-media portraits for new exhibition “Stone City,” on view at Studios on High through Aug. 5.  

"Johnny Buttles Lofty Purchase" (mixed media) by Tracy Greenwalt

For this new series, Greenwalt craved more inspiration from the past, but the artist said she has “cleaned out every antique mall in the surrounding area” looking for interesting faces. So instead, while working amid the pandemic, she found an online trove of century-old images from a Washington, D.C. photographer in the National Archives.  

“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of old photographs that are free to use. I actually went through every one of them,” she said. “I'll sit and look at them, and they'll tell me a story. If I look at them long enough, they'll start saying things.” 

In one photograph, a gentleman with a finely waxed mustache wore a top hat and a big, heavy coat. To Greenwalt’s eyes, he seemed to be a wealthy traveler prone to crossing oceans. Typically, Greenwalt begins her pieces in watercolor and then adds oil pastels, and as she began illustrating the well-to-do mustachioed man, she painted half of him in faded shades blue and the other half in sepia brown. The contrast brought to mind magnetic poles, which led to a ship in the background and the subtle outline of an iceberg at the top of the man's hat. She titled the piece “Bipolar Expeditionist.” 

Greenwalt’s evocative pieces can be eerie, playful or both. In another image titled “Intercepted Transmissions,” a little girl reminded Greenwalt of Princess Leia from "Star Wars," prompting the artist to give the painting a planetary theme, complete with an Imperial Walker hidden among a stand of trees.  

“I don't mind telling the stories [behind the pieces], but I also like people to come up with their own interpretation. … They're all very personal, but when I talk to people, they'll find something in there that they can relate to,” Greenwalt said. “I guess that's my way of communicating with people and communicating how I feel.” 

Greenwalt imagines all of these characters from the past as inhabitants of the imaginary world of Stone City, a name that sprang forth during one of Greenwalt’s drives through Ohio as she contemplated the name and meaning of the village of Lithopolis. The moniker also plays into the idea of cemetery, i.e. a town full of gravestones, populated by people from the past. “Stone City,” then, is a way for Greenwalt to make connections to the past — “finding the sameness in all of us through time,” she said.  

"Our Mothers Have Secrets" (mixed media) by Tracy Greenwalt

Initially, Greenwalt had grander plans for “Stone City,” with printed, overlapping backstories for each character and multimedia displays. But COVID threw a hitch in the plans. “Last year was just incredibly hard on me. I lost my mother, as well, so it was really hard to concentrate,” Greenwalt said. “I realized, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’” 

But even without the bells and whistles, taking in the paintings from “Stone City” is an engrossing experience, the pieces rewarding patient viewers with embedded clues and fanciful stories. The creative process was rewarding for Greenwalt, too, as she learned to embrace a new way of working outside of her freelance projects, which often require fastidious attention to detail, especially in her illustrations of wildlife for the Ohio Division of Natural Resources. "I did a whole series of fish for [ODNR]. You had to count the spines on the fish. You have to get the right scale, and everything had to be exact,” she said.  

“Stone City,” on the other hand, was an exercise in not overthinking things. “I was forced to let go of my preconceived notions,” Greenwalt said. “I always plan things out, but I like it better when I just go with what my gut tells me, even if it seems ridiculous.”