A: Except for many hours spent in life-drawing classes and still life setups that I devised when I was learning my craft in the 1980s, I have always worked from photographs. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate “Domestic Threats” setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive (film) camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and needed to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.
Early on I discovered that the sense of composition, color, and form I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was, and is, just another medium with which to express ideas. Pastel painting will always be my first love. However, pastel paintings take months of work, while photography offers instant gratification, especially with my current preferred camera, an iPad Pro.
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A: Without a doubt I am most proud of “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger.”
After Bryan was killed on 9/11, making art again seemed an impossibility. When he was alive I would spend weeks setting up and lighting the tableau I wanted to paint. Then Bryan would shoot two negatives using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera. I would select one and order a 20″ x 24″ reference photo to be printed by a local photography lab.
“She Embraced It…” is the first large pastel painting that I created without using a photograph taken by Bryan. This painting proved that I had learned to use his 4 x 5 view camera to shoot the reference photographs that were (and still are) integral to my process. My life’s work could continue!
Certainly the title is autobiographical. ‘She’ in “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger” is me and ‘It’ means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
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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.
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Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?
A: When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera. For my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.
I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects. The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos. Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.
I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common. It takes approximately 3 months to make each one. During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.
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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.
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A: After I lost my husband, Bryan, on 9/11 – as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bryan photographed most of the setups for my “Domestic Threats” series – I needed to find a way to continue making art. In June 2002 I began studying photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. I took a one week 4 x 5 view camera workshop because Bryan had photographed the setups with a Toyo-Omega view camera. I was surprised to discover that I had absorbed quite a bit of technical information just by watching him. Once I completed the workshop, I decided to start over and to learn as much as I could about photography. So I enrolled in Photography I. Over the next several years I completed about a dozen courses at ICP, eventually learning to make my own large-scale chromogenic prints. Around 2007 I began working seriously as a photographer, creating my photographic series, “Gods and Monsters,” with Bryan’s Mamiya 6 camera. In October 2009 HP Garcia Gallery in New York gave me my first solo photography exhibition (see “Exhibition catalogue” under Blogroll).
I’m busy getting ready for my next solo show there in October. This exhibition will be fairly comprehensive and will include recent photographs (diptychs and single images), new work from the “Black Paintings” series, and a selection of Mexican and Guatemalan figures. There will be an exhibition catalogue and later in the fall, the gallery will publish the first book about my work. I am particularly thrilled about the book, a new, but long overdue, career milestone!
A: From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition and color I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York. It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. Photographs – from the initial impulse to create a setup to hanging a framed chromogenic print on the wall – can be made in weeks.