By Aimee Serafin
The playful sophistication of Laura Duke’s art with pops of color and impressionable imagery makes her paintings hard to ignore. Duke’s expressive work has caught the attention of clients like Amazon, Augusta National Golf Club, Capsule and individuals across the country. There’s just something about the application and design that engages patrons — not to mention the lemonade-and-blue-skies nostalgia she captures of sunny days at the beach or green and white scalloped umbrellas in the shade at the National. Her paintings are similar to a coastal joyride with the top down — they bring on good vibes.
Duke displays her vibrant art in many non-traditional mediums. From designing to developing and branding, she has her hand in it all from start to finish. Although she is an expressionistic painter, Duke also creates top-shelf purses, scarves, coasters, one-of-a-kind drink trays and playing cards, all with details from her paintings. During a visit to her home studio, she points out a silk pajama set covered in wine bottles (a trademark image from one of her first paintings) and color-splashed sarongs. But that’s not all. “There are talks in the works of an upscale fashion line with Ashley Kelley of Gertrude Knowles on Monte Sano Avenue. She and I are teaming up for a line where I will be creating print designs for her fabrics,” she says with a smile, aware of the excitement that means for locals in the Savannah River Region. The duo intend to unveil a sampling of rich fabric caftans at a pop-up show hosted by Augusta magazine in the late fall. It will be an exclusive event showcasing local artisans, Duke and Kelley among them, with irresistible items for personal (or early holiday) shopping.
A variety of product lines fits seamlessly in Duke’s highly productive wheelhouse. One could view her approach to art as emanating from a hub of interest (in her case painting) which then branches out into many other equally beautiful and lucrative art forms.
“My dad is an engineer. That’s where I get it from … the ability to work out the mechanical side of the practical art forms I create like the purses or scarves. When I first started [the purses], I learned how to sew and I sewed each one by hand because I couldn’t find anyone who could do it precisely the way I wanted,” Duke says, admitting her high standards. “The first purses were large with tassels, and I used gessoed canvas for the [bag] material. But I noticed when I saw friends with the purses over time that the canvas didn’t wear well. That bothered me. So, I switched to a heavy cloth that now stands up to the paint but wears better.”
At the center of Duke’s creations are her acrylic paintings, in various sizes, that contain her signature trademark: paint drips. Artists grow into styles or motifs that, over time, identify their art. Claude Monet had lilies. Edgar Degas had ballet dancers. Jackson Pollock had paint splats covering the canvas. In Duke’s case, her motif is the thin wash of vertical drip lines that fall down the canvas. They coalesce with her landscapes, lifescapes or cityscapes and render a “not-too-perfect” final look. “I often start with a photograph of a place or person. Then I build up the paint — there are about 15 layers using bright, contrasting colors. I usually do the drips first, to see where the color goes and then build up the images, layer on layer, through shadows and light,” she explains.
Duke is careful to put away the photo after capturing the initial elements so she can incorporate the broad abstracted strokes that render the buoyant mood of her paintings. Whether a vermillion bathing suit and matching headscarf or grayscale Italian gondolas bobbing in the Venetian Lagoon, the loose strokes and relaxed imagery assimilate into la dolce vita, the sweet life, or all the things you’d expect to enjoy from each scene. Strolling the cobblestoned streets of Charleston, a lazy afternoon poolside or floating down the sun-kissed Savannah River — Duke captures the mood as if it were in real-time.
Although her application of paint evokes an artistic maturity beyond her years, Duke took her first art class on a whim as a senior at Lakeside High School when she needed an extra course. The class became her first serious exploration into the world of paint and design, which led to her majoring in art at then Augusta State University. About seven years ago, after making ends meet as a real estate agent, a break came for Duke in the form of a social media post. “I had purchased a house that had a huge wall. So, I grabbed a canvas [and did a painting]. After the painting was posted online, people started contacting me about painting them something,” she explains.
Duke got several commissions from the social media post that enabled her to gain traction as a working artist, placing her trademark paint drips in high demand. “Now, especially with commissions, if people don’t see the drips in the paintings they ask, ‘Where are the drips?’ It’s become a thing,” she says. Those kinds of aesthetics garnered her the top choice of Amazon executives last fall when the worldwide company was searching for an Augusta artist to paint a special live event. Duke landed the coveted spot.
Today, a continuous trail of monthly commissions makes it easy for Duke to enjoy her passion. “I probably pump out, just from gradual growth on Instagram and online, at least 10 [works] a month. I have several pieces in an apartment complex in Nashville and here in restaurants in Augusta,” she recounts. There is seemingly no creative challenge she won’t tackle, and her eye for color and design secures even more exploration in the future.
Duke is confident about the possibilities. Her sights are on commercial home design products, signature wallpaper and grasscloth, in addition to the fashion line with Ashley Kelley. Clear objectives are formed where Duke’s artwork and inspiration merge — a marriage of sophistication and fun, particularly benefitting Augustans, so keep a keen eye on Duke Fine Art.
Duke hand paints her “one-of-a-kind” artistic clutches in different styles. The five-step process starts with securing the frame and painting the canvas. After choosing a liner, then trimming and spraying the clear coat, she completes the products with zippers, tassels and crossbody straps or wristlets.
Clutch styles have varied from traditional squares with gold frames, wooden angular ones, clear “game day” ones including specific team colors, minis with knob fasteners and larger double-fold handbags with tassels.
“The purses are popular and the most time-consuming. Right now, I only have the traditional clutches in stock,” Duke says.
View more of Laura Duke’s art at lauradukefineart.com
Photography by Amy J. Owen and photos provided by Laura Duke
Opening photo provided by Laura Duke/Capsule
Appears in the August/September 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.