‘Hanging by a Thread’: Portrait of Hannah Lawson in Belay

Hannah Lawson was the teacher for aerial silks level 2 classes that I took at Aerial Artique. I was impressed by her fun and approachable teaching style which made students feel very comfortable to ask questions and created a community atmosphere. The reference image perfectly captures the way a simple pose done with intention and grace can be stunning. That clean femininity is what I wanted to express with my portrait of Hannah in belay.

‘Hanging by a Thread’: Acrylic on canvas (portrait of Hannah Lawson in belay)

Inspiration

I really loved taking Hannah’s classes because not only did I learn really fun sequences and improve my technique by learning from her, but she also made me feel like I was part of a community. During her classes, Hannah often asks the students about their weekend and if they have any recommendations of things to do in San Francisco. She also starts each lesson with 100 sit-ups as part of the conditioning warm-up, which she completes as part of the group.

I learned the Rebecca Split from Hannah which is one of my favourite moves. I love it because it is not very difficult but can have great impact and makes me feel great about myself. This is just one example of the way that I always came out of Hannah’s classes feeling confident and excited about the new things that I had learnt. These are the types of feelings I wanted to convey with the portrait of Hannah.

Photo of me doing the Rebecca Split that I learned from Hannah at Aerial Artique

Q&A with Hannah:

What led you to try aerial?

I always loved circus shows and was getting into fire poi at the time so I just searched all over to find a studio. I lived in the farthest south city in SoCal at the time and to my dismay there was only one studio I could find. I then moved to Santa Barbara for a year and when I returned I ended up living within 5 minutes of 2 studios. I just jumped in to training and was obsessed ever since.

What is your favourite apparatus and why?

Well that depends on the day for me. I’m constantly jumping around and changing my favorite. I would have to say hammock or tissu is my favorite right now, but I have had such awesome times making doubles routines on cube with my partners Amber Wang and Hillary Bassoff.

How do you feel when you perform?

NERVOUS….. at first. I really enjoy all the parts leading up to performing. I love to make routines and think of how I want to link movement to music. Performing used to be really nerve racking for me because I felt I couldn’t easily embody the style I wanted, but as I practice and let go of inhibition it has become much more fluid.

What do you think is unique about your performance style?

My aerial mentor was Ruby Karen in southern California and I really can’t begin to thank her enough for all the amazing things I have learned from her. I have continued to value her lessons and a lot of my styling comes from what I have learned from her and Luca. I also strive for my performance to have a lot of power but also be graceful.

What motivated you to start teaching aerial?

Ruby my mentor asked me to become a part of her studio. She trained me in the IATTP program to become a certified instructor. It took me about a year to complete. I also was a swim coach before and I guess I have a thing for explaining things and sharing my passion with others.

What is your teaching style?

Technique! There are so many tiny things that make a move so much easier and safer. I really want to see correct form and safety in the air. I also like to talk to my students… or should I say friends. I try to make my class into a community and have everyone leave happy.

What do you hope your students will take away from your classes?

Enjoy the ride and have some fun. It’s okay to not be good at something right away. Aerial is hard and takes a lot of time and dedication to progress. Create your own personality in the air, and then learn to embrace it. Think of why you wanted to try this so badly and then just go for it.

Reference Image

The reference image for this piece shows Hannah reclining in belay. Her torso is supported by a loop of bright red silk, giving her back a lovely arch. I love how this image looks relaxed and elegant at the same time.

Photographer: Sari Blum

Progress photos of ‘Hanging by a Thread’

Artistic Process

This portrait was the most challenging one that I have ever done. There were several parts that I had to paint over several times until I was happy that they were just right. Even though I struggled through the process, this is my favourite painting that I have done so far. So all of the effort was worth it!

Challenges

Leg Angle

Firstly, I think that the shape of the pose in belay is deceptive in its simplicity. In the progress images you can see how I had to wipe off some of the paint after the initial layer of grey. At first I had the angle of Hannah’s legs wrong. This meant that they ended up being too short for her body. Additionally, this difficulty with the leg angle made her bottom the wrong shape and made the painting look bottom heavy. Thankfully I was able to re-paint this with the correct angle to make her body back into the correct proportions.

Hands

Secondly, I encountered another challenge when painting Hannah’s hands. I think that the beautiful shape of her hands in the reference image adds a lot of the interest to an otherwise fairly simple pose. I wanted to capture the delicacy and elegance that Hannah shows in her hand placement. This was another part of the painting that I had to paint over several times. Initially I had the hands too far apart from each other. This threw the angle of her upper body and the length of her arms out of proportion. After many attempts I was able to correct my mistakes.

Inverted Face

Thirdly, I have realized through working on this piece that I have a lot of trouble painting faces upside down. I think I painted Hannah’s face a full 5 times before I realized that was the problem. Her features were going all over the place and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get them to look right. Luckily, there is an easy way to remedy this issue. I just turned the painting and the reference image upside down. Thus, the face was up the way my mind obviously expected it to be. Thankfully this solved my issue. I was then able to paint Hannah’s face without making her look like a toy that had been savaged by a small child ;p

Background

I chose a dark background with vertical lines of blue and silver. This background reminded me of a stage with the curtains pulled back to reveal a performer. For this piece I really wanted to make the red silk belay pop. I think I achieved this by contrasting the bright cadmium scarlet agains the dark background of cool colours.

I feel like things that I struggle with are sometimes the most rewarding. This was the case with Hannah’s portrait. I am so happy with how it has ended up and learned so much by overcoming the challenges. Hopefully I will continue to have challenging pieces to work on and will be able to grow in the process.

If you want to follow along as I tackle new challenges, enter your email address into the subscribe box. I will describe the process of trying to improve my figurative painting and drawing techniques.

If you would like to see Hannah perform, she will be in the teacher showcase at Aerial Artique on September 30th.