Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Artist Terry Ritter gradually removed the furniture from her spacious living room and replaced it with three panels of a 50-foot canvas. Her mission was to create a painting that says Las Vegas like nothing else can: a stage scene of leggy ladies decked with ostrich feathers, jeweled neckwear and fan-shaped headpieces.
The mystique of the Las Vegas showgirl is so deeply embedded in the history here that high-tech architectural and cultural transformations of the Strip can’t erase it from the imaginations of today’s tourist. Officials at McCarran International Airport knew this when they commissioned Ritter, a former showgirl-turned-painter, as one of six artists to create pieces for Terminal 3, which opens in June.
Ritter couldn’t be a better choice for an airport mural invoking old Vegas. She spent 20 years performing on the Strip and more than 30 years backstage painting the experience. Her richly colored portraits and stage scenes that capture the motion and celebration of performing garnered her the nickname “Renoir Ritter” by her entertainment industry pals.
After retiring from performance in 1993, she took up painting full time as a way to transfer her career and a disappearing Las Vegas era onto canvas. The redhead, who started performing in 1975, danced in several shows, including several Jerry Jackson productions such as the Sahara’s “Pin-ups at the Movies.”
Ask Ritter about the women featured in her paintings and she’ll tell you stories of the longtime friends with whom she stays in contact.
“We really were a family,” she said. “We worked six days a week, spent our days off together. We all had families at the same time.”
Ritter’s mural, “Folies in Flight,” reflects a number from the “Folies Bergère” show in 1983, which was also written, choreographed and designed by producer Jackson.
The 50-foot-long, 8-foot-high painting features smiling, lipsticked showgirls dressed (barely) in yellow and blue under golden stage lights and will hang in an inset of the wall. Six cutouts of dancers she painted will be placed before it, adding dimension. The piece, Ritter said, is designed to capture the relationship of the women onstage.
“I know how it feels to be there and that expression of love,” she said. “We play off each other, and we’re all one. You feel special; you bring joy to people.”
Dusty, Ritter’s husband of 30 years, was an acrobat in the “Folies,” and he, too, appreciates the desire to capture those moments: “After shows started disappearing, we realized, ‘Hey, all this stuff’s going away,’ ” he said.
But at their house, those days live on. Nearly every room on the first floor of their home includes paintings, framed and hung salon-style, of dancers and the different kind of magic Las Vegas once offered. Driving by their home at dusk this month, an open garage door offered a glimpse at the sections of mural.
Ritter said she had never done anything as large as the airport mural and originally thought about having a large giclee version of a smaller painting printed for the space, but she then decided the mural needed to be original, so the self-taught painter spent three years working on it intermittently, adding textures and swooping strokes to create motion.
Dusty Ritter said they knew the mural would need to be special — something as “spectacular as the imagination of what Las Vegas is.”
He was right. Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County deputy director of aviation, said the airport should offer an “appropriate sense of place” to visitors from the moment they arrive.
“Artwork that showcases local artists or depicts this area’s many diverse attractions is a great and effective way to let people know they’ve arrived in Las Vegas,” Vassiliadis said.
Ritter’s mural was installed last week in Terminal 3’s U.S. Customs area, where airport officials say as many as 2,600 international visitors could pass through daily.
Ritter said she’s planning another mural, one that depicts the dancers of “Jubilee!,” and hopes to find a place in the valley to hang it.
“It’s timeless,” she said of painting the excitement of the Las Vegas showgirl. Unlike dancing, she said, “I don’t have to be onstage, and I don’t have to be a certain age to do it.”