The Otherworldly World of Katherine Gianaclis
It took the death of Katherine Gianaclis in 1999 for Las Vegas to realize what it had. This unique painter was given a posthumous showing at the Las Vegas Art Museum in 2000 and was proclaimed “an artist of the highest order.”
Katherine Gianaclis (1924-1999) was born with an innate talent. Growing up in Hollywood her art made an impact on the world at the young age of fifteen when she won the Hollywood Bowl Community Easter Sing poster contest, open to all students in Los Angeles. The winning work depicted the proud flame of Lady Liberty in front of a cross done in a modernist style.
She went on to study at the Art Center School in 1943 and 1944 in Los Angeles and eventually did exactly what she proclaimed she would do when she told the Los Angeles Times after the Hollywood Bowl experience that she was going to go and “paint a town red.” That town turned out to be Las Vegas during the latter era of the Rat Pack.
She moved to Las Vegas in 1959, married and started a family. By 1965, now with three children five and under, she painted at a furious pace. These 1960s works were the paintings that most thrilled the museum’s curator Dr. James Mann. Mostly figurative, these were somewhat disturbing works that often depicted the psychological landscapes of the women of her day. Always, she would place you within a dream.
Her work was driven by a love of story, perhaps a by-product of having grown up in the shadows of Paramount Studio. Whether it was the deeply psychological works just mentioned or the depiction of the dreams swirling around the dreams of Christopher Columbus or the story of the old west, her by-the-myth pictorial tale would always be masterfully told.
When Gianaclis was discovered by Dr. Mann he stated that these 1960s works were confirmation that “this zoo animal called Las Vegas had the potential to generate great art and it did so, and nobody knew it. It’s like vindication, almost.”
Not only did he proclaim her an artist of the highest order but also that she was twenty years ahead of her time, her style pre-dating its popular emergence during the 1980s by twenty years. He also said that his discovery of her was the highlight of his career.
Dr. Mann did his job. He made sure to dust this jewel off and present it to the people of Las Vegas by giving her two shows at the museum, one for her early work and one for her later work. But Mann had only rediscovered Gianaclis. Las Vegas of the 1960s already knew who she was.
By the late 1960s she had become, in fact, the foremost muralist in Las Vegas. Nearly every hotel/casino in town commissioned her to paint major works for them. The list is long: The MGM, Caesar’s Palace, The Desert Inn, The International, The Sahara, The Dunes, The Showboat, The Aladdin, Circus Circus and others. How many olives did the Ratpack twirl in their martinis while contemplating a Gianaclis?
All good things must come to an end, however. Just as she was about to sign a contract with the MGM Reno to paint all of the murals in their soon to be opened hotel/casino her father, Nicholas Gianaclis, died. His death had a profound effect on her and she lay down her brushes, became a “born-again” Christian and opened a Christian store on the property that her father left to her in Las Vegas. She called it Alpha Omega. The beginning and the end.
Her 1960s works remained in storage for the remainder of her life. She ran her store for twenty-three years and raised her children. She had put her paints away. The only art she did from this period were some Christian drawings, but for all intents and purposes she had retired.
This was her life until 1995 when she was suddenly jolted back into the realm of art. Breast cancer, in remission since the late 1960s, returned in 1995. She had been a thirty-year survivor. She did not let the diagnosis destroy her. She started a holistic health regimen and, perhaps aware of the psychological benefits of practicing art, unpacked her brushes. She would paint again.
She started by drawing and coloring her ideas on paper before realizing them fully on canvas using oils. She only ever painted with oils. One thing was very striking about these works. She no longer delved into dark subject matter. In fact, these new paintings were stupendously bright and beautiful, the closest academic parallels perhaps being Fauvism and Orphism which highlight color and oft abstract form.
She now painted colorful abstractions with figurative elements which mostly included beautiful women. She always loved to paint the female form. Beauty seemed to keep her spirit alive.
Gianaclis left the world with one hundred and fifty of these newer style works between 1996 and 1998. By 1999 she had relegated herself to painting in bed with a homemade easel over her lap. She passed away on March 7, 1999 while surrounded by her family.
When asked where he thought that Gianaclis stood in the hierarchy of most important Las Vegas artists Dr. Mann said “one or two.”