Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?
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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Q: During one of the most gripping times of your life, you were personally affected by the 9/11 attack on our country. Your husband was killed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Would you mind telling us about it and how it has shaped your work?
A: In the summer of 2002 I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do. More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.
Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Bryan had always taken reference photos for me.
In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for several years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!
In 2003 I resumed making my Domestic Threats series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
Having had a long successful run, the Domestic Threats series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.
Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and especially for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful time. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.
My next pastel painting series was called Black Paintings. I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background – one critic has dubbed it my “blackground” – is always there.
Still the work continues to evolve. In 2017 I began my third pastel painting series called Bolivianos, based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!
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Q: Is there a pastel painting that you are most proud of?
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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Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?
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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