Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
A: My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive.
First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice.
My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work. As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too.
One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next. Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.
In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows. Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.
In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera. In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.
Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper. They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York. Now I go to Duggal. Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.
Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper. The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.
Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting.
Comments are welcome!
A: In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City. At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand. Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns. The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history. On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice. I was astounded! Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently this past March to study Olmec art and culture.
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* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
The times in between things are always very hard for me, and there have been times when I felt that I’d never have an idea again, or that I’ve explored everything that I possibly can because as the years go on you have the backpack of your history. How do I find something new to work with? I read a beautiful book by Mable Dodge Luhan, who lived in New Mexico and started Ghost Ranch in the 1920s. She married a Native American, Tony Luhan, who lived in the Taos pueblo. She said that she noticed in the pueblo that in the winter everybody had very soft moccasins and they tiptoed around. They hardly talked at all and it was very, very quiet. She asked why they did that, and they said, “Mother Earth needs to rest. We are making it so that Mother Earth can rest so that in spring she can come forth.” I felt that that was so comforting; to actually nurture those times where it seems so empty, to have faith that something will happen if you savor those times, not try to push against them or fight them.
Meredith Monk quoted in Conversations with Anne: Twenty-four Interviews, by Anne Bogart
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