The stark white walls of the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery were meticulously transformed last week to showcase a display of carefully crafted and shockingly life-like oil paintings, chalk drawings and photographs of cave paintings, all by artist Robert January.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, a number of students and visitors meandered into the opening night reception of the exhibition — some were received with an inviting smile and handshake from the artist. As the crowd mingled or perhaps balanced a goblet of wine as they meandered thoughtfully through the gallery, many paused to study the stark proficiency, realistic colors and raw detail seen in the works. The artwork, which will be shown until Dec. 6 in the gallery at the Quick Center for the Arts, is all part of internationally known artist January’s solo exhibition, “Art & Human Consciousness.”

The show, which features large figural drawings and paintings, was inspired by prehistoric art from the Sahara and Chihuahua deserts, according to Diana Mille,  director of the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery and art history professor at Fairfield University. After visiting these remote locations, January had a revelation that he wanted to pursue an artistic career. Although his previous career paths were diverse — freelance reporting from Jerusalem and, before that, being scouted by the Atlanta Braves for as a baseball pitcher — he had no formal training and essentially taught himself the skills he needed. He was uninspired by many modern painters who did not really understand the subjects they painted and he wanted, like the ancient cave painters did, to paint realistically by drawing from life. Thus, as in “Art & Human Consciousness,” he painted people and places that he knew and which told a significant story.

“I paint from life, uncommon in today’s contemporary art world,” said January in a catalogue that accompanied the show.

“The great prehistoric art was made by humans who understood their subjects from the inside out. That’s why it feels so alive and fuels our imagination … so unlike the empty husks of fruit of so much of contemporary art. I paint where symbols won’t go,” he added.

In one of his paintings, “Tracey in Black Dress,” a woman poses seductively in a tight black dress. Although her pose appears to be bold and confident, her shoulders seem to slouch forward and her expression appears to be hesitant and somewhat troubled. Here, January has captured the expression of a real person — the model attended the exhibition — in a very realistic, raw expression.

In another painting, January depicts an elderly man on the canvas, his eyes suggesting that he is tired, weary, and troubled. This is not just a disheartened man, however — the man is a then cancer-fighter and friend of January’s who stayed in the artist’s home for a while until he recovered and fought off his cancer completely. Again, there is a significant and true-to-life story behind the precise swirls and brushstrokes of oil.

“Like the greatest figurative painting that endeavors to get behind all symbolic thinking of the figure, philosophy pursues the essence of the thing itself. And I honestly believe my experience in the Sahara desert was the result of a lifelong process of poetic discovery,” January added in the catalogue.

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