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Katherine Gianaclis was the foremost muralist during the latter period of the Ratpack era of Las Vegas, Nevada in the late 1960s. No other artist in Las Vegas history has been more sought out by the major hotel/casinos.
Gianaclis’ earlier work from the 1960s had been stored away, however, and upon her death in 1999, garnered a posthumous showing at the Las Vegas Art Museum. Dr. James Mann, then curator of the museum, proclaimed that his discovery of her had been the highlight of his career.
“I don’t think, as long as I live, I’ll find greater art in a more unlikely place,” Mann says. “The experience it has left me with has been good for my ego and my altruism. It was one of the great moments of my life.”
Gianaclis was born in Hollywood, California in 1924. She studied painting at Art Center in Pasadena before moving to Las Vegas in 1959 where she started a family and continued painting the individual canvasses that would later establish her historical importance for the city of Las Vegas.
These early to mid-1960s works were often deeply disturbing psychological masterworks. They include such 1965 paintings as “Marilyn’s Smile,” a psychologically horrifying work that attempts to depict the tormented soul of Marilyn Monroe. Another, “Rake’s Cold Heart” or “The Suitor,” is a magical yet dark look at what can best be described as a woman’s fear within a relationship that is half beautiful and half terrifying.
Mann believed that these paintings proved that Gianaclis was twenty years ahead of her time because she practiced the borrowing of images, placing them in a mosaic form. He also said only a small number of artists, mostly in New York, including Larry Rivers and Francis Picabia, had somewhat comparable styles.
Gianaclis’ story-telling ability and masterly touch made her a unique addition to the world’s pantheon of modern artists. Her pre-mural, 1960s style, he said, came into prominence during the 1980s. Little did those 1980s artists know that Gianaclis was helping forge their paths in near obscurity in the desert of Las Vegas while raising three small children. She sold works to Kirk Kerkorian, Shirley Maclaine and others.
Gianaclis painted murals for nearly every major hotel/casino on the strip in the late 1960s. Most of these murals, however, have been lost to the designer’s pencil. One major mural work remains, a depiction of an “Elizabethan” woman which was painted for a British-themed prime rib restaurant next to the Riviera Hotel/Casino.
The oil painting, 8×5 feet, was actually a reproduction of Peter Paul Rubens’ 1606 work “Portrait of the Marchesa Brigada Spinola-Doria,” a part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The only difference that you can make, even on close observation. is that Gianaclis replaced the face of this Italian Marchesa with the face of a younger and prettier woman, quite British-looking, in fact.
This twist takes the work into the realm of the surreal, begging questions. Was this other, prettier face from a real person or fully from the imagination of Gianaclis? The painting remains because it was on canvas, framed, and lovingly cared for by a restaurant worker for 40 years.
Her life was as interesting as her work. Gianaclis gave up her paints in 1973 after the death of her father, embraced Christianity, and opened a Bible store on the Las Vegas property left to her by her father. This property is now an artistic complex named in her honor: The Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts.
It wasn’t until 1995, while Gianaclis was in the throes of battling breast cancer, her second bout with the disease after being a thirty-year survivor, that she picked up her paints again. She threw herself into her work, at 70, with a ferocity typical of her earlier days, a ferocity manifest in profound patience for the task at hand. The large scope of her mural work in the 1960s is clearly seen in these beautiful works obviously meant to glorify the “feminine mystique.” She utilized wide swaths of color and form. She claimed that she now painted from her “sub-conscious.”
The work is somewhat Fauvist and Orphic and could be considered a completely new direction than that of her 1960s works. She painted for three years more until her death in 1999 at the age of 73.