Oprah as Muse: Five Unexpected Ways That the Talk Show Legend Impacted Art

Courtesy Getty Images
The final episode of Oprah's 25-year run aired on Tuesday.

By Julia Halperin

Courtesy YouTube
A brick wall welcoming Oprah to Australia

Courtesy Leo Kesting Gallery
Daniel Edwards's "Memories of Sophie and Gracie: A Puppies’ Memorial," 2005

On the penultimate episode of Oprah Winfrey's beloved television show, aired today, actor Tom Hanks tells the TV icon in a video tribute: "Your show has turned surprise into an art form." Over the course of her 25-year-old show, Oprah — who will depart on May 25 to run her new cable network OWN full-time — has gifted cars to her entire studio audience, introduced stars to their biggest fans, and reunited Rwandan refugees. She likes surprising her celebrity guests, too: her no-holds-barred interview with James Frey contributed, in its own way, to establishing the author's rebel-artist persona. 
But even Oprah's most avid followers may not know that while she herself is an artist of surprise, she is also the occasional muse for visual artists and a frequent patron of art institutions. In 2010, she served alongside Vogue's Anna Wintour as co-chair of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute gala, while the stage door she donated to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago is currently on view through July 15. From her own deeply personal donation to a Wisconsin museum to a West Village gallery show memorializing her late dogs, Oprah's adventures with art are best described as eclectic. To honor Oprah's final show, ARTINFO has compiled a list of the top five moments in Oprah-inspired art, from the positively uplifting to the downright creepy.

Art students at Lafayette University teamed up with visiting painter and feminist art great Faith Ringgold to create a limited-edition print in honor of Oprah's final show. The students at the school's Experimental Printmaking Institute worked with Ringgold to produce 25 silkscreen prints, a reference to Oprah's 25 years as talk show host. The exercise isn't quite as random as it sounds: Ringgold has been a guest on the show, and her work is represented in Oprah's personal art collection. The artist will present the prints — colorful, geometric renderings of the phrase "Oprah We Love You" — along with photos of the students, at the final taping.

When Oprah took her show to Australia for a week in December 2010, she certainly made her mark on the local art community. The Sydney Opera House was temporarily renamed the Sydney "Oprah" House in honor of her arrival, and her guests were granted access to the remote Aboriginal rock art formations in Australia's Northern Territory. But Oprah was also welcomed by a group of devoted local contemporary artists and artisans. For what appears to be no reason at all, a brick company spent four days and over 7,000 bricks building a wall emblazoned with a portrait of the talk show host. (The multicolor bricks create a close-up of Oprah, wearing gold earrings and some kind of brimmed hat; the Australian flag waves behind her.) Even creepier, Sydney body painter and make-up artist Eva Rinaldi started an international campaign to convince Oprah to pose for her in a bikini at various iconic Australian locations. "I have always wanted to body paint her," Rinaldi told an Australian newspaper. To promote her futile quest and presumably come as close as possible to living out her twisted and very unrealistic fantasy, Rinaldi ultimately found a Winfrey look-a-like and painted her as a lifeguard at Sydney's Bondi Beach.

In honor of her final season, the New York African American Historical Society curated a retrospective of Oprah's career, compiling fan letters and props from her films alongside five original artworks by local artists. The exhibit, which opened in Harlem in October 2010, included such treasures as the original box LP album from "The Color Purple" as well as painter Cynthia Burgos's acrylic, black-and-while painting of Oprah as a child and Musa Keita's photo collage of Oprah and the many guests she's hosted on her talk show. "I wanted to represent Oprah from a Harlem prospective," Musa told the NY Daily News.

In what may be the loveliest Oprah-and-art story, the television mogul donated 700 black angel figurines to the Angel Museum in Beloit, Wisconsin 10 years ago. Oprah's collection began accidentally: during an on-air interview with singer Cher in 1998, the host mentioned offhandedly that she loved angel statuettes but was unable to find Black ones. "I wonder if Black angels exist?" she asked. Her question inspired viewers to send Black angel figurines by the hundreds, until Oprah had to ask them to stop. (Awkward.) Once the flood began to subside, Oprah donated her collection to the small Wisconsin Angel Museum.
What constitutes the all-time best Oprah-inspired artwork? Without question, weirdo sculptor Daniel Edwards's show "Memories of Sophie and Gracie: A Puppies' Memorial" at New York's Leo Kesting Gallery a few years ago (Edwards, of course, first came to fame with his sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth on a bear rug, seen at the gallery's previous incarnation, Capla Kesting Fine Arts, in 2006). Edwards also created an Egyptian-style gold Oprah sarcophagus, and a queenly Oprah burial mask as "a tribute to her inner beauty," but his most inspired Oprah work was a response to the TV host's announcement of the passing of her dogs. Her golden Labrador Gracie fatally choked on a ball in 2008, and her cocker spaniel Sophie died of liver failure only a few months later. "To represent Sophie and Gracie together, joined in Oprah's memory as they were in life and in Oprah's heart, the artist depicted them as conjoined at the hip and sharing a common tail," explained co-director John Leo of Edwards's sculpture. The golden sculpture depicts the dogs standing atop Oprah's head, a design, Leo explained, that suggests the extent to which the deaths may have been weighing on Oprah's mind. Yet the exhibition was not merely a memorial to pets lost — like so many episodes of Oprah's own show, it also aimed to teach viewers an important lesson: "Sophie's kidney failure may have resulted from natural causes, but we hope the Puppies' Memorial will remind everyone that Gracie's choking could have been prevented," Kesting said.
To see a video of Australia's brick-art tribute to Oprah, click on the video below:

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