Like everyone else, local artist Becky Drager was handed a box of lemons when COVID-19 made its presence and caused many businesses to shut down.
But instead of letting those lemons sour, Drager chose to turn them into lemonade and create a portrait series of Topeka leaders and community members that inspire her every day.
Drager created 20 portraits from April 1 to Sept. 25, and the full collection will be on display from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at the NOTO Arts Center during the Decade of NOTO celebration.
The people in Drager’s portraits range in age from toddlers to adults and capture a diverse group of people.
Most notably among the portraits are Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, Washburn University President Jerry Farley, Greater Topeka Partnership President Matt Pivarnik, Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library CEO Gina Millsap and victim services division director for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office Michelle McCormick.
She also painted people like her nephew, Jacob Buchanan, WIBW radio host Danielle Norwood, Carrie Riordan, Martha and Ken Hagen and Barbara Waterman-Peters.
Drager, who has been a professional and full-time artist for 10 years now, has never done a portrait series based around people.
"I’ve done portraits of people, of pets, of buildings, house art," Drager said. "I’ve done portraits over the years but never a series like this."
If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, Drager doesn’t think she would have had the time to complete a project like this one.
"I think what it gave me was time, because otherwise I’m always preparing for another show or a gallery opening," Drager said.
Because communities were strongly encouraged to stay home and not interact with others outside of their home, Drager thought what better time than a pandemic to paint people.
The project began with Drager collecting photographs of people who inspired her.
The process of creating the portraits started with Drager outlining on a canvas how she wanted the painting to look.
Many of the photos she used as inspiration had busy backgrounds so she chose to eliminate those and use a more simple, but vibrant backdrop.
All of Drager’s portraits contain pops of color, making each individual and unique. The small details, from wrinkles on someone’s face to the print on a person’s bow tie, stand out and bring the painting to life.
Each one of Drager’s portraits inspire her in a different way.
The portrait of Farley shows the Washburn president decked out in white and blue, proudly showing off his support for the Ichabods. He is smiling while his hands grasp onto the bow tie around his shirt collar.
Drager said she wanted to create a portrait of Farley because he inspires her to continue educating herself and to reach for the stars.
"I think Washburn is a really good asset for Topeka and I wanted to highlight his contribution to Topeka and to the Washburn campus," Drager said. "I think my purpose of this is to tell people that we still love Topeka. We had such a big momentum going before (COVID-19) happened (and) we are going to still continue to reach for our dream of what Topeka can be."
Drager calls the portrait of De La Isla "Superwoman" because that is what the Topeka mayor is to her.
The portrait of De La Isla shows her smiling with her hands on her waist. "Ad Astra De Per Aspera" is written across her T-shirt and the background is painted a fiery orange.
"I think this picture shows somebody who had to have a lot of strength," Drager said. "She was leading us really well before, but she got thrown right into the fire. The red is the strength that it takes to be somebody that’s in a leadership position during these times. She’s done a really good job and she inspires me to fight for the people."
Drager wanted to include someone young in the series and decided to paint her friend’s daughter, Vida LeClair.
LeClair is painted sitting in a pool of water. A yellow bow adorns her head and pink, heart-shaped sunglasses that show a reflection of the water rest on her face.
"This picture inspires me to pursue my inner child," Drager said. "I think even now, during this time, all of us adults are under so much pressure and stress."
The portrait series also features couple Lee and Alice Wright, who Drager said have always supported her art and other local artists.
"They bring love and kindness and they are very spiritual," Drager said. "Alice advocates for children. She is a writer. Lee is a musician and has spent many years with KTWU. They are a really special couple to me. I call this one love birds because they are like a perfect couple. They just adore each other. They inspire me to be good, spiritual and a loving human being."
Drager said the project has been a personal one for her and hopes that it sheds light on those who continue to be a positive force in the community.
"I thought it was important to talk about people in a positive way with all the negativity that’s going on," Drager said. "It’s really important that we show people that they deserve recognition for all their special qualities."