Visual Arts

Hairdresser overcame career crisis one portrait at a time

Madelaine Enochs-Epley has painted more than 600 portraits since 2011. Many are in her exhibition, 500 Faces, at the Downtown Arts Center. She says she never tires of painting portraits.
Madelaine Enochs-Epley has painted more than 600 portraits since 2011. Many are in her exhibition, 500 Faces, at the Downtown Arts Center. She says she never tires of painting portraits. Lexington Herald-Leader

Sometimes the urge to hit that "delete my profile" button on Facebook can be tempting. Then you hear about someone like Madelaine Enochs-Epley, the artist behind 500 Faces, an exhibition of acrylic portraits now at the Downtown Art Center.

In 2011, Enochs-Epley, a hairdresser who was working a second job, realized one day that she was overwhelmed and unfulfilled by her daily grind. She quit her extra job, kept cutting hair and put out a request to her Facebook friends to keep her busy during her down time.

"I was sort of at a point where I did not know what I was going to do with my life at all, and I thought the one thing I don't want to do is sit around," says Enochs-Epley, 49. "At least I can do something I like doing while I figure out what to do with my life."

What she has liked to do since she was a child is to study the human face by creating portraits.

She posted this query on Facebook: "Would anyone like to come and sit for one hour while I paint you? In return I will offer a delicious cup of coffee and conversation."

She says she was shocked when 20 people responded right away. Then more.

Folks who sat for portraits didn't see the finished product until it was revealed on Facebook.

And that's where many people in Lexington and beyond, not just the subjects, are seeing her work. The expressive acrylic face portraits, with their strong lines and bold use of color, are hard to miss.

Many people have made Enochs-Epley's portraits their profile pictures on Facebook. It became so widespread that some people unaware of the project thought there was a new app or Internet meme taking over social media.

At first, she painted the portraits for free. But when her schedule became swamped with requests, she started charging $100 for each portrait — a $50 sitting fee, and $50 to buy the finished piece.

As demand increased, she turned to a website to manage booking appointments online.

Her subjects have been wildly diverse.

Among the hundreds of people who have sat for her have been Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a 105-year-old woman who goes by Sally Blue Eyes, a homeless man, and an entire family of eight boys and their parents for the couple's 30th wedding anniversary. She also has painted "at least a dozen dogs," she says.

"I painted a boy who has severe autism who I really connected with, and when he left, he wanted to go to the art store and get paints," she says. "He still paints and remembers me."

One of her portrait subjects, Maury Sparrow, the communications manager for LexArts, which manages the Downtown Arts Center, suggested that Enochs-Epley put together an exhibition of her work.

That's how 500 Faces was born.

Enochs-Epley has now painted more than 600 portraits and she's still going. She says her career as a hairdresser helped train her to make conversation with strangers or acquaintances. Some of those conversations have led to rewarding friendships.

"I love to talk to people, and I love to hear their stories," she says.

But she also looks for stories in her subjects' faces and is sometimes surprised by what she captures.

"People will say things like you capture my mother's eyes or my father's expression," she says, "or sometimes their favorite colors will end up in the paintings, and we hadn't talked about that."

She says that even after hundreds of portraits, she is happy to keep painting. She says she is "swimming around" ways to do another portrait exhibit or project.

"People often ask me if I get tired of it," she says. "I say, 'No way. I love it.'"

"I would definitely like to go deeper into my art and explore other things," she says, pausing for a moment to talk about her interests in photography and performance art. "But I'm still going to do portraits, probably forever. I never tire of it."

"There's so much expression in the human face," she says. "It's our humanity, through our eyes, our smiles — we're fascinating creatures."


'500 Faces: Portraits by Madelaine Enochs-Epley'

What: Portraits of 500 people done in one hour each.

When: Through June 4. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., 2-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.

To schedule a portrait sitting: Go to Enochs-Epley's scheduling website,