Gemma Amorelli scruffs her pet ferret Margy on Monday, Feb. 22 near Soldotna. Like kittens, ferrets become relaxed and docile when held by the scruff of the neck.

Making Faces

Have an old boat or outbuilding? Gemma Amorelli may offer to paint it. Not with industrial or house paint, but with spray paint.

“I had (an advertisement) aout a while ago that was like, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a dilapidated boat or shed, and you can choose the subject.’ I just want to paint it,” said Amorelli, a spray-paint artist living in Soldotna. “I put that ad out and didn’t get one response.”

Since then, Amorelli has stayed busy with her usual line of work: spray-paint stencil portraits on sheets of wood or paper. However, she’s still looking for a chance to do a large-scale outdoor piece, something she’s never done either in Alaska or her native Los Angeles.

“I’ve always wanted to,” Amorelli said. “I’ve done murals, hand-painted, just for friends and stuff like that, but it would be cool to do something in the community.”

Amorelli is careful to point out that she does all her work on surfaces she owns, or with the owner’s permission. She’s been making graffiti-style art since her freshman or sophomore year of high school.

“I had a friend I went to high school with who did a really crude kind of one-color stencil,” Amorelli said. “I saw it and I really loved it. So I tried to do my own and got really good at it. I guess I was good at looking at a picture and seeing what colors need to be cut in what places.”

In Los Angeles, Amorelli grew up looking at graffiti even before she started making it.

“The place that I moved here from, this kind of stuff is on the sidewalk, on every sign that you walk past,” Amorelli said. “I’ve always loved the art. I’d much rather look at a wall with someone’s art. … You don’t expect it when you’re walking around. In LA there’s a lot of it, and you’ll still discover it if you go out and look this way and that way.”

During Amorelli’s childhood, her family took regular summer vacations to the Kenai Peninsula, visiting her grandmother in Clam Gulch. Three years ago, Amorelli moved here to stay.

“I kind of just wanted to not live in LA anymore, and this was the only place that seemed interesting that I had family,” she said.

Although she stopped painting for a while after moving to Alaska, Amorelli said that about a year ago she “dug out an old stencil and got really into it again.”

Amorelli’s portraits are of friends, acquaintances and clients. The process of turning a face into a colorful graphic icon begins with a photograph. Amorelli uses a digital projector to cast the subject’s face on a sheet of cardboard, where she begins tracing the shapes she sees within the face.

The areas of the shadows, highlights and midtones are all cut out of different sheets, creating a series of stencils which, layered on top of each other, will produce the image Amorelli wants to paint. Laying them down one after another, she chooses a color to spray through the cardboard holes. At this stage, Amorelli said that she usually loses sight of the original image.

“When you’re doing big-scale stuff like this, it’s hard to see it all come together while you’re doing it,” she said. “The lines in the eyes, the sides of the noses, don’t really look like anything, just like little holes in the cardboard.”

When the cardboard is removed and the face revealed, Amorelli finishes by spraying in embellishments, usually improvising. Because stenciled images are easily reproducible, she does several versions of a piece to experiment with colors and free-hand additions before deciding on a final version. Afterward she keeps the stencil, or may give it to the subject.

Amorelli estimated that she’s done about 20 or 30 commissioned portraits, ranging from larger-than-life faces to smaller family scenes that are made to be framed and hung. Not all her subjects are clients or people she knows — they include Pee-wee Herman and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

“It seems like a cool pop-art twist on somebody you respect,” she said of her portraits.

Amorelli sells her art through the online shop Etsy, as well as seeking local commissions. She said she’d also like to do murals for local businesses, though she has yet to find any interested. While seeking portrait commissions or a mural opportunity, she has other speculative projects in mind. One is an offer to create free stencil-style portraits of people who have recently passed away, giving the art to their families. The offer is open, she said.

Amorelli, who describes herself as a “dabbler in all sorts of things,” also silk-screens clothing, paints by hand, plays music and makes wire sculptures. One new artistic goal is a byproduct of her stenciling productivity.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all my empty spray cans,” she said. “Some artsy thing to do with those. When I’m really going at it, doing all the art stuff hardcore, I have so many empty cans all the time.”


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After spraying a layer of black lines, Amorelli lifts her cardboard stencil from a fresh portrait on Monday, Feb. 22 near Soldotna.

Spraypaint artist Gemma Amorelli adds free-hand embellishments to a stenciled portrait of a friend on Monday, Feb. 22 near Soldotna.

Spraypaint artist Gemma Amorelli sprays in the black outline of a one-color stencil of a friend’s face on Monday, Feb. 22 near Soldotna. “I like people with a lot of wrinkles and character in their face,” Amorelli said. “I picked this one because it’s a picture of somebody I know with his face kind of crinkled up in the middle, like he’s smelling something gross.” Amorelli

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