From the moment a child is handed a pencil, she begins to draw – it’s our first foray into the world of art. For Lori Earley, her artistic instincts exceeded mere scribbles, and as she aged, her creativity became her voice and eventually her identity.
“I always knew I was an artist and when I held a pencil in my hand I never questioned who I was or what I did,” Earley remembered of her earliest interactions with paper and pencils.
Growing up in the small town of Rye, New York, Earley didn’t have much exposure to the art world.
“I never went to museums growing up. I had no artistic influences and I didn’t even know of any other artists,” Earley reflected. “I kept to myself in my room upstairs. I was just quiet and shy but I think in the long run it helped my technique. Because I had no artistic influences, it made my style very rare, because it was totally my own.”
Earley’s parents were concerned that a career in art wouldn’t pay the bills so they convinced her to major in Illustration at The School of Fine Arts in New York City rather than the Fine Arts major she wanted. However, Earley didn’t have a passion for illustration.
She quickly learned how her professors wanted her to paint, practicing the techniques of the “masters” such as Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh. Realistic depictions were the focus of her training; after all, they were prepping her for illustrative work.
“I was taught technique-wise how to paint like them [the masters] and I liked the technique, I thought it was cool and I did want to learn how to paint realistically, but these paintings to me were boring,” Earley admitted. “I could appreciate the technique but if it was just somebody sitting in a chair or a still life, it was just boring to me. I could see the technique, but there was nothing behind it. So what I started doing, behind everyone’s back, was I would take the technique but made everything distorted.”
Earley’s paintings were not exactly realistic, as she would elongate the necks of her subjects and focus on large, deeply expressive eyes. Many of her teachers were confused, if not a bit disappointed in her work, as all of them expressed a concern with her method. They could see she had learned the technique, but questioned her decision not to paint the human body in its natural state. Earley was never deterred by their skepticism.
“I always felt like I had this world that lived inside of my head that I couldn’t get out,” she said, “and that was my world, it was my own style and it was just coming out no matter what.”
Soon after college she found steady work as an illustrator, creating book covers for romance novels and children’s books, but hating every minute of it.
“That, to me, wasn’t art, it was just being told what to paint basically,” Earley said. “I absolutely hated it.
“I did a lot of children’s books and I’d have to paint little kids with kittens or these little sappy scenarios and they always had to look happy,” Earley added, “and I got this one art director who I had been working with for a long time and she just said, ‘You know, your paintings are dark.’ And I thought, what does she mean, at first I thought she meant the colors, that they were too dark … meaning they could see right through what I was painting. They could see the misery. I guess it was showing through no matter what.”
Earley then began working on her own paintings outside of work. She also enrolled in a seminar to learn how to break into the fine art world and once she had amassed a big enough collection, sought out galleries to display her work. Earley decided to start her quest with the top galleries in Manhattan, walking in without an appointment, to show off her work and hope someone would give her a chance.
Unfortunately, Earley found out that without a “name” in the art world, no matter how good a reception she got for her work, no one was going to take a risk and give her a show.
“It was upsetting,” Earley remarked, “but I took those [rejection] letters and taped them to my wall. That gave me the ambition to keep going until I got noticed.”
Acting on the advice of a friend in 2005, Earley contacted Juxtapoz magazine about featuring her art. Not only did she get a feature, her work made the cover along with an interview and an eight full-page spread.
“That was my big break,” Earley said. “It literally happened overnight, it was surreal.”
Suddenly Earley found her phone ringing non-stop and herself open to a world of endless possibilities. Now she was her own boss, free to create her art as it came to her and people loved it.
Ever the perfectionist, always believing she could do better, learn more and evolve, Earley never let herself feel as if she had “made it” but in 2009 she came close. In preparation for the upcoming Grammy Awards, Will-I-Am, of the music group, The Black Eyed Peas, wanted to put together a group art show for fellow nominees. A friend of Earley’s was working on the exhibit and before she knew it Earley found herself being commissioned to paint Madonna.
“That was a really great moment,” Earley said. “I hung up the phone and just said, ‘Is this real?’ It was the coolest moment in my whole career, but it was after that time that I started with my stupid health problems. Everything was taken away from me.”
Earley is speaking of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, described by the Mayo Clinic as “a group of inherited disorders that affect your connective tissues – primarily your skin, joints and blood vessel walls,” something that took nearly 20 years for Earley to be diagnosed with. She had many doctors tell her that the source of her pain was psychosomatic.
Earley now has her answer – thanks to four geneticists in New York City – but it isn’t a good one. Afflicted by such a rare disease, so rare that most doctors haven’t even heard about it, Earley suffers daily, sometimes needing hospitalization. At this time she can no longer paint without excruciating pain, something that has been very hard to deal with, but not something she wasn’t able to express before it was too late.
In 2009 over the span of about six months, Earley worked tirelessly on one of her last paintings. Titled, “Pinnacle,” it features a woman, barefooted, with tortured eyes, grasping at her skin. Surrounded by rock and desert, the woman is alone, dozens of swirling tornadoes behind her. The painting stood about six feet tall and was Earley’s voice of frustration and heartache.
“I can’t even look at it anymore,” said Earley, who had hit a breaking point and no longer wanted to sketch or draw.
“But I know it will come back,” she declared.
Needing this time to concentrate on her health and getting back to a state where she can express herself through art, without pain, Earley finds herself some days in what feels like a “permanent funk” but is determined to fight through it.
Currently Earley creates jewelry, incorporating past paintings into gothic-style necklaces and the like. She is also working on a book about her life, her successes and her struggles.
“It’s hard to be positive all the time,” Earley admitted, “ but this happened for a reason and it could inspire a lot of people.”