Anita Bryan knows a good beard when she sees one.
And though she can’t grow one, she can certainly paint one.
“It sounds crazy, huh,” Bryan said with a laugh.
A resident of Denham Springs, Bryan has spent more than a year painting beards of all shapes and sizes, creating life-like works of art from inside her studio despite never taking any kind of formal training.
After many months with a brush in her hand, Bryan’s work is ready for public viewing.
The “Great American Beards” exhibit — the first exhibit of any kind for Bryan — is currently up and will run through the month of November at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch of the Livingston Parish Library.
On display are nearly two dozen watercolor pieces, with as many different kinds of beards. Some beards are long, while others are short. Some are well-groomed, while others are unkempt. Some are bright red or blonde, others are dark gray or brown.
But all, Bryan said, tell their own story.
“Everyone has a way of expressing themselves, and these guys take pride in their beards,” she said. “For different reasons, they’ve all grown their beards, and to me, it’s a great American expression.”
Bryan said “the beard project” was first inspired by the folks she saw coming to shop at 4-H Equipment, the outdoor equipment store her husband owns on 4-H Club Road. While Bryan worked, she couldn’t help but notice the people who walked in — as well as the beards on some of their faces.
“Some were long, some were short, some were light, some were dark,” she said. “Eventually, I wanted to try to paint one, so I asked one man if he’d let me take his picture so I could do a portrait, just to see if I could paint his beard.
“He said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s how I started.”
After painting her first bearded portrait, Bryan had a new project on her hands, and she was constantly on the lookout for interesting goatees, sideburns, mustaches, and all varieties of facial hair. She’d spot them at her store, at the bank, at a restaurant, anywhere she went.
When she found a beard she wanted to recreate in a portrait, she’d walk to the man and ask if she could take his photo, telling them of her growing fascination in painting beards.
“I’d say, ‘Don’t ask me why, I just like painting them,’” she jokingly recalled.
Most times, they’d agree.
“They’d let me take 5-6 angles,” she said. “At one point, I had too many pictures, and I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do with all these beards?’”
Eventually, Bryan had a full stack of portraits that her friend, Janelle Trosclair, felt needed to be on display.
“Janelle looked at that stack and declared, ‘It’s time to plan a show,’” Bryan recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean,’ and she said, ‘It’s time that you let others enjoy your talent.’”
After some more prodding, Bryan eventually decided to put her work on exhibit and booked a month at the Livingston Parish Library, which regularly displays the work of local artists. Bryan hung the pieces over the weekend, lining up multiple walls with her framed, bearded images.
And like real life, they come in quite the variety.
One piece titled “Red Big” shows a long, flowing red beard, the subject smiling directly ahead. Another piece, titled “Jerry,” features a beard tied tightly in a braid underneath the subject’s chin.
Bryan also included portraits of people in her life, such as Alirio Medina, the tractor mechanic at 4-H Equipment, and her son, Brady, who needed to grow his beard a little more before mother put it on canvas.
“My son grows a beard when it’s time to hunt in the fall… and I told him it needed to be a little bit longer for me to paint,” she recalled. “He kept saying he didn’t want to grow it anymore because it itches, but I said, ‘No, it has to be longer so you can be in my show.’
“He let it grow a little bit longer for me to take his picture. The next day, the beard came off.”
Bryan, who started drawing as a child but had never displayed her work publicly until this exhibit, said, “It was easy to get intrigued by the variety of beards in our world. Bearded men are all around us.”
She called it “a great honor and blessing” to meet the gentlemen and paint their portraits, adding it was a pleasure getting to know “some great American gentlemen that loved life and loved their beards.”
“It was quite an endeavor to take on this exhibit, and my husband really encouraged me through it,” Bryan said. “But for me, the theory was I had never done anything like this, and I probably never will again, so just have fun and go for it.”