Painting pages

The Arts

March 1, 2021

Artist Cynthia Flaxman Frank’s first commercial exhibit opens this month at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art.

by Vanessa Infanzon

Cynthia Flaxman Frank ate lemons when she was a young girl to see what kind of response she could get from the people around her. It was a source of pride to do something no one else could do.

“It was part of my identity as a child,” Frank says. “I would always get some type of reaction like surprise or delight or looking at me like I was a curiosity. Nobody could believe I could eat lemons like other people could eat oranges.”

The lemons from Frank’s childhood appear in her “Overprint” series. She explores the act of repetition by changing the background, colors, foreground and shape of the fruit. 

This month, Frank’s paintings will be on display at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in South End. Cynthia Flaxman Frank: on the mezzanine is her first commercial show and features 14 to 16 pieces. The exhibition opens March 5 in conjunction with South End’s First Friday Gallery Crawl from 5-7 p.m.

Gallery owner Sonya Pfeiffer balances the offerings at the 6,000-square foot gallery with works of art that open dialogue and address challenging topics with others that bring calm and respite. She describes Frank’s work as an antidote to chaos. 

“As soon as I saw her work, particularly the lemons, and the other ones where she repeats things, they had this meditative quality to them,” Pfeiffer says. “I also felt they were an expression of beauty but not necessarily a traditional beauty — not a classic floral or landscape. The beauty is in how she executes it.”

‘Type is powerful’

Frank, 53, began painting just four years ago after a 30-year career in graphic design. Her three children are grown, and she works from her home studio near Myers Park High School. She started in mixed media and moved to oil. 

“I’m a very new painter,” she says. “It’s been an interesting evolution of my artistic life.” She grew up in Providence, R.I., and spent summers in Wellfleet, a small town on Cape Cod. While Frank always created, when she was young it came in the form of singing and songwriting. She began her career in design after graduating from Yale University with an English degree and an MFA in graphic design. She moved to Charlotte from Connecticut in 1998 and launched Cynthia Frank Design. 

Frank developed an advanced typography course for Central Piedmont Community College and taught it for five years. Typography is the language of designers, Frank says. It’s utilized alone or with images, and it communicates tone, content and message. 

“Type is really powerful,” she says. “Fundamentally, most of what I make as a fine artist relates back to my love of and lifetime association with language and typography.”

Since 2018, she’s taught design methods and beginning and advanced design classes in the art and art history department at UNC Charlotte. Adam Justice, director of galleries for the College of Art and Architecture at UNCC, met Frank two years ago. In early 2020, he asked Frank to exhibit her work in the Rowe Arts Building. Written Image was a chance to show how Frank encapsulates graphic-design typography and her image-making with painting and collages. 

“She teaches graphic design at UNCC, but in her private studio practice she does a lot of painting. I wanted to explore the links between those two different creative processes that she has. I think Cynthia’s work is a really great example of how design really permeates all processes of art-making.”

Meticulous repetition 

The pieces from “Excerpt” evolved from a fascination with illuminated manuscripts, the ancient art form of illustrating text and integrating drawings. An intricate design is added to the first letter of a word or in the margins on a page with gold, silver or bold colors.

“I’ve always loved them,” Frank explains. “[I] started thinking about what would happen if you zoomed in and blew little pieces of them up. That’s where the idea of ‘Excerpt’ comes from. An excerpt is a piece of something, a piece of a page.”

Frank wondered how she could apply her own aesthetic and modern understanding of type and typographic texture using a page’s grid, borders, edges, margins and the structure as a foundation. If there’s a suggestion of a letter form in her artwork, it’s obscure because she’s made it that way.

“In the series, I translate the qualities of these old manuscripts into modern paintings with my own indecipherable text,” she says. “Often I tease that through the meticulous repetition on a single meaningful symbol that, to me, is a personal memory.”

The lines between graphic design as an applied art and fine art are blurred for Frank. She builds up a surface with a repeated form to make the texture of repetition obvious and uses handmade stencils of a simple symbol, an icon or her favorite — the lemon.

“By repeating it over and over, the expression of that one form becomes my personal story,” she explains. “I’m writing it. I’m rewriting it. I’m printing it in a way that all [comes] out of the language of graphic design. Then imprinting it on the canvas, which is in a sense, my own page.”  SP

Cynthia Flaxman Frank: on the mezzanine will be on view from March 5 – May 22 at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1520 South Tryon St. There will be an artist reception on March 26 from 6-8 p.m.; for more information visit

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