ENCINITAS — If Letty Nowak’s father was still alive, he’d be proud and maybe just a bit envious of his daughter.
Walter John Nowak loved the surf culture so much that he owned several surf shops around the Great Lakes region of Michigan — even though there wasn’t much surfing. He modeled his stores after the original Banana Republic stores, but with a beach theme.
“He sold the surfing lifestyle,” Nowak explained. “Beginning in 1984, half the store was bikinis.
“He was also known for the lost art of sign painting, and did silk screening as well. He introduced me to the basics of line, form, composition and color at an early age, and never let me take art lessons because he didn’t want me to be influenced by anyone other than myself.”
Nowak enrolled as a merchandising student at Michigan State in the late 1990s. When her dad passed away after her freshman year, she changed her major to painting and graphic design. There, she found a love for what she describes as “the intensity of painting faces.”
After graduating in 2001, she picked up where her father left off by fulfilling her own fantasy of living in a resort town and moving to Key West. She only had $50 in her pocket.
“The first four months I waited tables, then began showing my portraits,” she recalled. “A gallery owner said, ‘Maybe you should paint locals.’ After a week, I started painting full time.” That body of work became her Faces of Key West series.
Like her dad, Nowak paints on a large scale using 4- to 5-foot canvases to create oversized oil portraits, each comprised of hundreds of individual, one-inch squares.
“I see my portraits as abstract pieces of blocks of color that come together to create the recognizable image of a face,” she said. “I work to make each piece more about the actual painting through my marks and color even more than the subject I am portraying. This is an intriguing challenge to me — especially when painting recognizable people.”
In 2005, Nowak began working part-time on a new Faces of Surfing series. In January 2011, she committed herself completely to the project after being inspired by an article written by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel in The Surfer’s Journal.
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