Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am still in the early stages of a large pastel painting.  After visiting Peru and Miami for three weeks, it has taken a few days to readjust and get back into my work routine.

In case you’re wondering, the undistinguished gray shape, roughly center left, is a placeholder for a stone figure found at a shaman’s shop in Chinchero, Peru.  When I took this photo, the figure was at my apartment instead of in the studio (and I need to see the figure to paint it).

 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you think living in New York affects your work?

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

A:  Arguably, life in New York provides an artist with direct access to some of the best international art of the past, the present, and probably the future.  It is possible to see more art here – both good and bad – than in any other American city.  

Just pick up any local magazine and scan the art listings!  Our problem is never that there isn’t anything interesting to see or do.  It’s “how do we zero in on the most significant local cultural activities, ones that might contribute to making us better artists?”   

Certainly a visual artist’s work is consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by what she sees in museums and galleries, but by walking around the city.  That’s partly why I am an inveterate walker.  I never know what amazing things I am going to see when I leave my apartment.

Although living in New York City is a rich and heady mix for anyone, it is more so for sensitive artists.  Artists are virtual sponges, soaking up experiences, processing them, and mysteriously expressing them in our work. 

New York lets an artist ponder excellence as we see and experience firsthand what is possible.  The best of the best manages to make its way here.    

Undoubtedly, my own work is richer for having spent the last eighteen years in this fascinating, wild, and crazy city.  For a visual artist New York is an infinitely fascinating place to live.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Do you have any favorite memories of visiting museums when you were a child?

Calder's circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

Calder’s circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

A:  Yes, I loved seeing Alexander Calder’s wire circus at the Whitney Museum of American Art when I was a child.  The circus, and the charming movie that he made with his long-suffering wife (to me she always looked bored and embarrassed that her husband was playing with his toys!) used to be on permanent display in a glass case on the ground floor.  For many years Calder’s circus was in storage.  

How thrilling to see it again, when the new Whitney Museum opened in May, just blocks from my apartment!  Now any day of the week I can visit Calder’s circus – and other favorite works that have not been on exhibit for many years! 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: How do you experience art in New York?

 

 

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

 

A:  As a New York artist I am very fortunate to live in a city with a vibrant, exciting cultural scene.  Simply put, art is in the air here and I take inspiration from everything I see and experience:  painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance art, public art, dance, theater, film, opera, jazz, etc.  This city itself is an endlessly fascinating place.  Visually it is always thrilling!  I never know what I am going to see – good and bad – whenever I leave my apartment.  

I have been living here since April 1997.  The city provides a heady mix to ponder and this mix mysteriously enriches, influences, and somehow finds its way into the work.  I have been an artist for nearly thirty years and I continue to be intrigued with watching the intricacies of how my creative process evolves and grows.    

Comments are welcome!                

Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

A:  Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens.   Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places:  our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium.  Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.  

Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too.  I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older.  More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work.  Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later.  For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and beyond (ending in 2007), I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.  After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you listen to music while you work?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  I always have the stereo on when I work in my studio, either tuned in to WBGO (the Newark-based jazz station), WNYC (for news and talk radio; Leonard Lopate, Fresh Air, etc.), WFMU (Fordham University’s radio station, to learn what college kids are listening to) and other local radio stations.  I still listen to cd’s, I read the lyrics and the liner notes, and I prefer to listen to music the way artists intended it, meaning that I listen to entire albums from start to finish instead of jumping around between single tracks by different artists.  When it comes to music, I’m interested in everything:  jazz (especially classic jazz artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, etc.), blues, classical, pop, rock, world music (especially artists from Brazil, Cuba, and any country in Africa), electronic, indy, experimental, ancient music, etc.  You name it, I probably listen to it, and if I don’t, I’m eager to learn all about it.  When I’m working, certain artists are better to listen to at particular points in a painting.  For example, one of my favorite artists to start a new painting with is Lady Gaga.  The beat, her energy, and sheer exuberance are perfect when I’m standing in  front of my easel with a blank piece of sandpaper in front of me.  Gaga’s music gets me moving and working fast, putting down colors instinctively without thinking about them, just feeling everything.   

It’s a different story when I am at my apartment and am shooting a photo setup.  Then I might or might not listen to music. Lately it’s more about working fast (I shoot 24 images in about 15 minutes), choosing a variety of interesting vantage points, getting surprising effects, etc.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you elaborate on the series title, “Domestic Threats?”

"He Urged Her To Abdicate," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her To Abdicate,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A: All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or New York apartments, i.e., domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure who is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures. So I named the series “Domestic Threats.” Depending on what is going on in the country at a particular moment in time, however, people have seen political associations in my work. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, many people thought the title, “Domestic Threats,” was prescient. They have ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to it, but that is not really what I had in mind. For a time some thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I had intended. “Domestic Threats” seems to be fraught with associations that I never considered, but it’s an apt title for this work.

Q: In your earlier “Domestic Threats” series, you liken your paintings to scenes in a movie. Is there an audition process? What qualities must a figure possess to be cast in one of your paintings?

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

A: There’s not an audition process, but I do feel like the masks and figures call out to me when I’m searching the markets of Mexico and Guatemala. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the better – plus they must have lots of “personality.” I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for tourists. How and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the process. Getting them back to the U.S. is always an adventure. For example, in 2010 I was in Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a mask store. This store contained many beautiful things so I spent a long time looking around. Finally, I made my selections and was ready to buy five standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. Not having enough cash, I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no. I can’t bring these home.” However, thanks to my friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, Tomas and she came up with a plan. I would pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and once the owner was paid by the credit card company, he would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was completed. Packing materials are not so easy to find in remote parts of Guatemala so the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour. During the negotiations Tomas and I became friends. We exchanged telephone numbers (he didn’t have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door). When I returned to New York ten days later, the package was waiting for me.
While setting up a scene for a painting, I work very intuitively so how the objects are actually “cast” is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, move it around, and develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. I shoot two exposures with a 4 x 5 view camera and order a 20″ x 24″ photograph to use for reference. I also work from the “live” objects. My series, “Domestic Threats,” was initially set in my Virginia house, but in 1997, I moved to a six floor walk-up in New York. For the next few years the paintings were set there, until 2001 when I moved to my current apartment. In a sense the series is a visual autobiography that hints at what my domestic surroundings were like.

Q: What makes you just want to run back to the studio and start something new?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x24″, edition of 5

A: I work in series, which means that one pastel painting generally leads into the next. Considerable thought goes into it before I ever begin, so it would be rare for me to just start something new out of nowhere. Sometimes after a day in the studio I run home to my apartment to set up a new photograph. I arrange a group of my Mexican and Guatemalan figures on a black cloth, light the scene, and when everything is just right, photograph it. I love the fact that I can come home, shoot a roll of film, and then have 24 new images – more bad than good, but still – the next day! It’s such a departure from the slowness of my work in the studio, considering that in a good year I make 6 pastel paintings.

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