A mysterious and dreamlike quality infuses the work of Lisa Ballard. There are faces -- usually female -- that blend photographic realism with cartoon-like illustration, expressions that combine reflection and absorption, alternative anatomies with arms that narrow into ribbons or hands grown large, clothing that melds into the background as if both were liquid, overlays of water or bubbles. They suggest a story, but without a clear verbal narrative, like a song without words.
The Anchorage artist will have her first solo show in several years next month, "The Places In-Between" at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art.
"I took a five-year break because my mom was ill in Texas," Ballard said. "And I had breast cancer."
Ballard came to art fairly late in life. Born in Abilene, Texas, she picked up music early and headed to California to play with road bands. One trip brought her to Fairbanks in the 1980s. The band returned in 1993 and was asked to stay on for a full-time multi-month gig in a place that most musicians would consider the middle of nowhere and the end of the road.
Ballard turned it into an opportunity.
"I got to thinking, 'Well, I shouldn't work in bars for the rest of my life.' So I enrolled in college."
She wasn't thinking of art at the time. "Actually, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was going into anthropology. Or maybe accounting."
She took a drawing class "just for fun."
"I always loved looking at art, but I wasn't one of those kids who could just draw. I always thought I didn't have the skills," she said.
But the teacher assured her that anyone could learn the rules of drawing and that once she did, her ability to compose images and ideas would tell whether she was an artist or not.
"I thought, 'Maybe I'll be a graphic designer. That's more practical.' But I never took one graphic design class."
She moved to Anchorage and continued her courses, though she would be in her 40s before she finished her degree in 2003. She entered and won top awards in several Alaska art competitions, including UAA's No Big Heads portrait contest in 2000, the All Alaska Juried Art Show in 2004 and the statewide photography exhibit, "Rarefied Light," also in 2004.
"I always tell people: It's never too late," she said.
Ballard's art odyssey has been accompanied by a parallel track as a pop musician, a line of work she never gave up.
"I'm playing quite bit lately," she said. Ballard's a former member of Barbarella 54, the so-called cult band that retreaded '70s disco styles and became a staple at Chilkoot Charlie's in the last decade. She's now part of the four-piece band Bob From Accounting that performs and hosts the open mic night at Humpy's on most Sundays. She has also done a lot of solo gigs and says music paid her way through college.
Playing music also played into her art. "Working as a musician in bars, you come across people with no inner barometer regarding their actions or words," she said. "Especially after midnight or 1 a.m."
The 13 pieces in the International Gallery show may reflect some of that experience. Ballard said the images are "universal figures inspired by quirky people who may be familiar."
In addition to rock 'n' roll, she's found an artistic sideline that also helps pay the bills -- pet portraits. She's made paintings of dogs and cats for patrons from Anchorage to Europe and has a waiting list. "It's not that I'm such a great painter," she said. "But people love their dogs."
She gets ample inspiration from her own household. She and her husband, Chad Worcester, rescue and find homes for abandoned dogs, specifically spindly, high-strung Italian greyhounds, a distinctly non-Alaska breed.
"They're hard to potty train, they break legs and they have no coat," she said.
She and her husband have four.
"The bad thing about fostering dogs is you end up adopting them," Ballard said. "It's sort of the side effect, but we love it."
Her pet art is "a little more commercial," she said. "But it's kind of fun. And you know that people are going to cherish those paintings."
Ballard's dog paintings have some of the same dream-like qualities as her human images. The approach and style seem to be entirely her own, and even the artist can't quite understand its source.
"It's such a unique thing. I don't know where it comes from. I don't have it planned out. When I start a painting I don't know where it's going to go. That's sort of the magic of it," she said.
She sometimes uses photos of friends or models. "I have a pretty big collection of photos I've taken over the years. But I use them as sort of a jumping-off point for the paintings. The piece that won 'Rarefied Light' was a photo montage, but the new work is all oil paint on wood."
While she's maintained a presence in the Anchorage art scene, with work hanging in alternate venues like coffee shops, the International Gallery show will be her first solo exhibit in a long time.
"It's great to be getting back to figurative work," she said. "I think it's good to take time out and experience other parts of life, then go back.
"And it's really been great having the music. I can do that on the weekends, then paint during the week. It's like two different worlds, but it feels so good because you're not in a grind."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM