After more than fifty years working as a professional artist in Columbus, Georgia, Gloria Mani has a perspective like none other. We visited Mani (and her lovable studio pup, Wolfie!) in her gallery on Garrard Street earlier this year. What we expected was a tour and a quick interview, but what we received instead was an incredible morning, spent with the kindest of souls, and a memorable, enchanting, walk down memory lane.
Read on to encounter the beauty that is Gloria Mani, and to discover her unique perspectives on local history, her career, and her hope for the future of art in our community.
Gloria in her gallery on Garrard Street in Midtown Columbus, Georgia.
Gloria, would you please tell me about your childhood? What was it like?
I was born and raised in Columbus. I have lived here my whole life, except when I went off to school. Growing up, Daddy used to take me to all of the art shows and to the museum. I went to his art school with him all of the time. I’d watch everybody paint and draw, and every now and then
I’d draw a little, too.
I was exposed to art from the very beginning. I didn’t realize everyone else didn’t have all of that stuff
going on. But I did, it’s how I was brought up, and it’s made me who I am. It’s engrained in me. It’s part of my life. I eat, drink, and breathe art. I have since I was a baby.
What a special man your father must have been. I love that you shared a love of art together. What was the biggest way he specifically impacted your career?
He was so special, and taught me everything he knew. I learned so much from him. The biggest thing he taught me was to be diversified as an artist. So I’ve always done art
restorations, taken commissions, and painted
Gloria Mani points to a treasured photo in which constantly. You have to be diversified to make
she and her father are pictured attending one of his a living as an artist.
art shows together when she was a little girl.
What has it been like for you as an artist living and working in Columbus? How long have you been a professional artist working here?
I’ve been doing this for about fifty years now. I opened my business in 1978 over at Highland Hall. I bought the house and moved in and started my business there. Of course, I was very shy and meek back then.
You were shy and meek? Really?! I can’t believe that.
Oh, yes. I was shy and meek. Really. I’m not anymore, but I was then. I was a mouse. I’m glad I’m not anymore. I’ve gotten old enough that I can say what’s on my mind now and not care what people think. You know? Women need to take control, and if there’s something they don’t like they need to voice it.
But anyway, I was over at Highland Hall and had started working for my father some back then. I was about 20. I would help him do art restorations, and helped him teach classes.
How has our community supported your work through the years?
I’ve had wonderful people come and bring me wonderful projects to work on over the years. For example, Elaine Amos came to me in the 80’s and asked me to paint all of the furniture that she had in her house on Steam Mill Road from when she and John first got married. She wanted to use her furniture that meant something to her to go in the penthouse. She wanted me to paint it all so they could put it in there.
Really? That’s amazing. What did you paint on the furniture for them?
I made art furniture out of it all. I painted landscapes, bouquets, and all sorts of things like that. I did probably 40 pieces of furniture for her.
Mani's gallery is filled with her art and meaningful mementos from family and friends.
This is a fascinating story. How long did the Amos project take you?
Well, she came to me right before they were ready to start moving in, so she wanted it right away. I was young enough and able, and I worked to get it ready for her. She was incredible. Always so kind and generous.
That’s all I’ve ever heard about her. What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing that with me.
I’ve had many wonderful people in my life I’ve gotten to know. After I painted all of the Amos furniture, I was approached by Jan Miller who worked for the Bradley Company. They had just started Sugar Hill Catalogue, and I don’t know if you know anything about that.
I don’t. I know Sugar Hill, but I’ve never heard about the catalogue. Would you mind sharing about it with me?
Well, they named it after Sugar Hill at The Farm. It was Jan’s idea to do a catalogue where they would have a Southern flair. The catalogue was full of all these handmade things from the South. She’d come to me and we’d dream up all of these designs to put on furniture and boxes and such.
Did you make the items?
I painted them. I think the first thing I did was a box with a little magnolia on the front of it. So I’d do the design and paint the box and then six weeks later, the catalogue would drop and then I’d get all of these orders and handprint every one of them. So they taught me how to paint fast. That was fun and exciting, and I worked for them for about four or five years. Jan and I became great friends. I think I did probably eight or nine-hundred pieces for them.
What? Eight or nine-hundred hand-painted pieces? That’s an incredible amount of work.
It was very exciting. We had some famous people order from us, too. Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, Natalie Cole. People like that.
Amazing. As I’m not from here, I’ve never heard this story, so can you please give me an idea of when this would have been?
Yes. This would have been in the 90’s. Jan and I got to know each other through that time, and we’re still best friends today. We still brainstorm and collaborate all of the time. She’s my very best friend.
I love that, and I’m thankful you have each other after all of this time. May I ask you now about your process? Do you often paint in your studio here?
I prefer to paint from life. I do paint from the studio when necessary, but I like to get out as much as possible. In the studio, I feel like I’m in a box. I get frustrated. I like going out and just enjoying expressing myself through art while I’m out in the middle of nature. It’s like I just become a part of all of it. That’s what it feels like to me. I’m just a vessel, and its flows through me.
It’s the same with my life drawings. I’ve always been fascinated with life drawing and the figure. Daddy had a book called Figure Drawing for What It’s Worth. It was at the house, and I was always looking through it. That book is what started my love for wanting to draw the figure.
Mani paints at a figure study class in the Historic District of Columbus, Georgia.
What about it do you love?
I love pushing the envelope by constantly changing mediums and color palettes. Changing it keeps the work fresh and fun. I love just expressing myself through those changes.
Your use of color in your figure studies is one of my favorite things about your work.
Thank you. It’ll evolve into something else one day. I don’t know what it’ll do, but it always changes. I love that the changes keep it fresh and challenge me to push the envelope. I’ve done charcoals, pencils, and oil paintings. Pastels and brush and ink. Right now, I’m doing an acrylic wash. I love that I can play around with the color and do it quickly. I can layer it, and the colors are fun and bright.
Your figures are just really beautiful. I absolutely love them, and watching you all work at Garry (Pound)’s Studio was a highlight of my year last year. It’s an incredible thing to witness blank pages being graced with the first stages of a work of art. I do have a question though, how do group art sessions like that impact you?
It’s magical. When you get that many creative people in a room working on their art, it produces this incredible energy that you can just feel. It’s why we host the Sketching Under the Skylight series at the Bartlett Center each month.
I’ve become a broken record, but I can’t say enough how much I believe that the Bo Bartlett Center is the best kept secret in this city. Those of us who have been, can’t stop talking about it, but not enough people have taken the time to go in there. It is a treasure.
It absolutely is. It’s such a creative place, and I love seeing artists gather there for our Sketching sessions. We want the public to come in and experience that as often as possible. It is such an unusual experience to be able to watch artists in action. We’re gathering together and working in a session open to the public that’s held in such a beautiful place, and the public can just come on in and experience all of it for free. It’s an incredible thing to be able to be a part of in our community.
Gloria, you have done so much in your career in Columbus, Georgia, and you’re obviously not slowing down any time soon. The concept your father taught you about being diversified as an artist is such a crucial point. Do you feel like you’re able to pass that knowledge on to the younger artists in our community who are just getting started?
I’d like to. I feel like I can encourage them best by just being an example. That’s also a major reason why I want to support local initiatives like Sketching Under the Skylight. Hopefully, that will continue to reach more young artists.
View our video of artists, including Mani, working in Columbus, Georgia at their weekly Figure Drawing Class in the city's beautiful Historic District.
What’s next for you?
I’d like to start doing some teaching. I’ve still got to figure out where I’m going to teach, but I really want to get started. I have done a few workshops where I’ve taken students out to do some plein air painting, and a few where we’ve done some still life studies. I want to impress upon everyone how important it is to paint from life. It is essential.
Can you explain to me why you feel so strongly about painting from life? Why do you encourage young artists to paint from life and not from a photograph?
You just see things differently when the scene is live and in front of you. A photograph flattens everything and it has no peripheral vision. When you paint, first you have to figure out what is going to be the focal point, and everything else needs to be secondary. In a photograph, everything is the same. Whether the composition is good or not, it’s what you have. A painting is supposed to have rhythm and a lyrical quality about it that a photograph isn’t necessarily always going to have. I really believe that unless you work from life a lot and have that experience under your belt, painting from a photograph is only going to make your work static.
Now, everybody does things differently, and that’s fine. But I just really believe it’s important to learn to paint and draw from life. It has such an impact on the final product.
Gloria, what else do you want our readers to know? Anything come to mind?
I started visiting Savannah about twenty years ago. One of my friends moved to Savannah and I began visiting her. She'd invited me to be in a gallery show, and I went for the opening and I just fell in love with the city. It's just such a special place.
You know, back then SCAD had just started really moving into downtown and buying up old buildings to renovate for their use. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had also just come out, so there were tourists coming from all over the world to see the city. The town was just so beautiful and they've continued to restore and improve on the natural and historic beauty that's there.
I do a lot of work for people over there. I go just about every other month or so. It's been fascinating to watch the way the city has transformed since I first started visiting in the 90's.
Charleston is the same way. It was a sleepy little town until people started investing in the historic buildings and College of Charleston came in and brought creatives to the city. It's another place where the arts have completely transformed a place. Savannah and Charleston are larger cities on the coast, but there is absolutely no reason why the same creative transformation like we've seen in those places can't happen here.
Meet Wolfie, Mani's faithful gallery pup. Ever by her side, Wolfie makes the perfect companion for Mani. He's also got first-rate hospitality when it comes to boosting a guest's experience.
Why do you think it happened in those places? What was the catalyst for the communities reaching a point where they were ready to get there?
It happened because people supported the arts. Artists had people buying their work. Locals and visitors and businesses purchased the work of artists so that they could afford to live and work and contribute creatively to the communities they were in.
Do you see this as a necessary component for the future of Columbus?
Absolutely. If we want our city to grow into a cultural gem in the South, the people who live here have to purchase the artists' work who live here. Organizations need to stop hitting up artists for free work. Every artist in this town has donated work to fundraisers, but we can't eat our paint. We have to live. Expecting artists to donate work for free all of the time is dispicable and an insult. People wouldn't go to their doctor all of the time and ask them to give a thousand dollars towards free appointments. People wouldn't even think about doing something like that, so why would they do that to the artists?
I also feel strongly that some of these larger businesses like Aflac and Synovus need to start collecting the work of local artists.
Like the Bradley Company has done?
Yes. They have, and they have been wonderful about it. But they could add to their collection, too. There are so many talented young artists in this town. But unless people start buying their work, our community is holding itself back because we won't be able to retain the type of talent people travel to a place to see.
What's your dream for our city, Gloria?
For this to be a place where artists are supported to the point where they have the ability to live and work here without worrying about how to make ends meet. I want that for our artists, and I want it for our city, because I've seen what that type of support can do to a place. It's pretty simple.
So your dream is for Columbus to be a destination for arts & culture?
Absolutely, it is. I've committed to staying here for the long haul. I'm here to help. But if our community wants this to become a place where creativity thrives, they're going to have to make a commitment corporately and individually - to do everything we can to make it happen. And it's going to. I just know it.◾️