On a recent afternoon, Rebecca Dayan is perched on the doorframe of the Catherine Ahnell Gallery casually taking a drag from a cigarette. It is one of those noisy afternoons
in SoHo — sirens are blaring, dogs are barking, tourists are lollygagging — but the commotion from Grand Street doesn’t seem to disturb her.
“You’re the first human contact I’ve had in a week!” she says, her French accent barely discernible, the cigarette still dangling from her fingers. In fact, not much seems to get to Dayan. She’s as cool as they come.
Though she’s been sequestered inside the gallery for most of August working on an exhibition of watercolor portraits set to open in early September, she doesn’t mind. Her days consist of sleeping, eating and painting, “mostly in my underwear,” she says gamely, twirling a paint- brush as she talks with that je nais se quois pretty French girls have in spades.
“I’m an easily distractible person, so it was a really great opportunity to have a month completely locked in to just [paint],” she says.
Dayan, 30, has already checked off a number of career boxes. First a design assistant at Sonia Rykiel, then a model — Karl Lagerfeld shot her for Maison Michel — and later an actress, she’s now turning her attention to art. This will be her first show. Her hazel eyes darting around the studio, Dayan explains her living accommodations: Over there is a makeshift bedroom, which holds a suitcase spilling over with clothes and a wheeling rack with a single Reformation dress. The other part of the venue is her studio, which is littered with sketch pads, paint palettes and canvases depicting various women as Madonna figures, the subjects of the show.
After reading an article about the evolution of the word “virgin,” she set out to reclaim its original meaning, in her telling, “a young woman who does not belong to a man, who’s free and one in herself.” She tapped friends, including photographer Petra Collins, the furniture designer Ana Kras and the artist Rachel Rossin, to sit for her in classic Virgin Mary poses but wearing items such as a hoodie or T-shirt instead of a veil.
“I think that a woman having a right to own her own body is a relevant subject,” she says.
After photographing the women, she paints loosely based on those images, though it’s not an exact replica. “I subtract some things so it’s like, floating on the page,” she says.
“I like the medium because it’s fast and it has a fragility to it that I think applies to the work that I do. I use watercolor almost like a stain.”
Dayan’s interest in painting is a homecoming, in a way. It’s what she originally studied in Nice, France, at Villa Thiole before moving to Paris, where she pursued design and modeling. In 2009 she took a leap of faith over the Atlantic Ocean to New York, eventually breaking into acting with small parts in the Bradley Cooper thriller “Limitless” and the Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg rom-com “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” But it was during her sojourn in the movies that she returned to art.
“There’s so much free time in acting, and [drawing] was just kind of my private thing. I wasn’t particularly keen on showing anything to anyone and then I started posting some of my work [on Instagram] and people responded to it,” she says.
She started doing commissions for friends and eventually she was tapped by Ahnell, who seems to specialize in high-profile first-timers — Tali Lennox also showed here. “It’s very daunting but it’s cool,” Dayan says of the process. “The first week I moved in here I was really worried because you get all these thoughts, like all of a sudden you’re being handed the mic to talk and you’re like, ‘What do I want to say?’ ”
“Eventually I thought, I’m going to spend a month doing things that I like doing and if people like it, great, and if they don’t, at least I will have enjoyed myself.”