Conversing with canvas and paint

Inspired by global travel, alumnus Lavar Munroe creates dreamlike versions of our world.

Lavar Munroe paints in his Baltimore studio. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar)
Lavar Munroe paints in his Baltimore studio. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar)

“Make ugly paintings.” That was the advice that Lavar Munroe, MFA ’13, received from his professors in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

“My graduate experience was simultaneously challenging and fulfilling,” he says, as he recalls his days as a graduate student and burgeoning artist.

Munroe (Photo: Alyssa Schukar)

Munroe, who originally trained at the Savannah College of Art and Design, arrived at Sam Fox to pursue graduate work after a few years spent as a freelance illustrator. “At that point, I probably hadn’t painted for two or three years because I was doing mostly digital work,” he says. “It’s like I had to relearn how to paint.”

At heart, the advice was to allow imperfection into his work. “I would take a knife, stab the canvases and cut out the areas that I didn’t like,” he says. He would then sew the canvases back together, often incorporating objects like old shoes or hair pieces found in the streets of St. Louis. Today, his work includes mixed-media painting, cardboard sculpture and drawings, all of which he says evoke an “otherworldly, dreamy, theatrical space.”

Munroe’s upbringing in the Bahamas introduced him to color, line and shape early on. “I come from a culture of decoration,” he says. As a child, he participated in the Junkanoo festival, an annual event that features elaborate cardboard costumes embellished with materials like glass, sequins, feathers, glitter and synthetic silk flowers. “These are Junkanoo materials, but these are also the materials that happen in my work now,” he says.

A prestigious 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship will aid his travel to Zimbabwe, where he has recently turned his attention. “I’m doing a project about an all-night ceremony I witnessed called a ‘bira,’ through which the spirit of a recently deceased. person is called back home,” he says. The ritual ends when the spirit speaks to the community through a mediator, who is usually able to channel the deceased’s voice. Munroe has already exhibited paintings based on the ritual at Larkin Durey in London and the Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago.

‘A MID-NIGHT DANCER’, 2023. Acrylic, spray paint, house enamel, synthetic flowers, glitter, rubber, tape, beads, earrings, glass and hair braids on canvas 89″ x 72″. Image courtesy of Artist and Larkin Durey gallery.

Travel has served as a crucial source of inspiration throughout his career. Five years spent on and off in Senegal — particularly in smaller cities and villages like Saint-Louis, Tambacounda and Sinthian — culminated in a series of paintings titled Red Bones. “During this time I would gather material in Senegal and then come back to the studio in the United States to make work about those experiences. Instead of writing in a journal, I made paintings,” he explains.

Munroe thinks of his process as akin to anthropology. “Research, in my instance, is travel research,” he says. “I go into a space to observe and learn.”

Yet the visual inspiration collected during his travels soon transforms into something larger. “When I’m painting, any sort of reference goes away, and it becomes like a conversation between myself, the paint and the canvas.”

Editor’s note: At press time, Munroe was chosen as a 2024 Stone & DeGuire Contemporary Art Award winner.

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