Ask The Artist
Why do you paint?
When I was younger, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer the world. Painting was something where I started to get recognition from teachers and others. People would say: oh, you’re good! Encouragement is a great catalyst. Another reason is that it allows me to visually organize my feelings. Both my brother, John, and my longtime boyfriend, George, died in the AIDS epidemic. So, when my mother died, in 2003, I went back to working with older images, family photos and such. The point of a picture, for me, is to summon those people, spiritually, into my presence. Then I build out from there. Oh, and a final reason is that at some point painting became part of my identity. A big part...
What’s changed in the last 20 years?
There’s more confidence. I’m willing to take risks I probably wouldn’t have taken before. Also, for a long time my preferred materials included acrylic paint, pastel, chalk, and pencil. I don’t use chalk anymore, but I do use charcoal and pencil to draw the image on canvas. Then I’ll go back in and define some key element. A facial expression or the angle of an arm for instance. I take care to get the details right with charcoal, then I paint. For instance, I did a triptych of a guy on the subway. When I work on a multi-panel piece, I leave about 2 inches of breathing room between the panels. The painting then becomes something like a puzzle.
You start from color?
Once I’ve completed a sketch, the next step is finding and creating a color palette that correlates aesthetically with that sketch. I search photos, including photos of paintings, to find colors that will work, that I can use. I want colors that move me. Then I file them away. For instance, I saw a picture of Liz Taylor where the picture was brown, her skin was creamy, and there was red on her lips. I recreate those
emotionally charged colors, of course, via mixing. But I don’t necessarily want the color to be the thing that evokes intensity. It’s one component. One element among several.
If you could identify a point in time where you began to be interested in pictures, images, color, line, when would that be?
I was always interested in Christmas lights. My uncle Joe, my mother’s brother, gave me Christmas lights once for Christmas. He was born in 1909. They were a lot older than my parents. I’d go down into the basement and pull the lights out of the box and plug them in. I loved Christmas because it contained all these bright, intense colors.
Were there people who took an interest in the art you were making?
At Philadelphia College of Art, I shared a studio with this woman who did everything in neat, small, precise brush strokes. Meanwhile I’m hurling paint onto the canvas. I knew implicitly that her technique was not for me. We just had very different ways of expressing ourselves. I honestly feel like I wish I were capable of doing what she was doing. We had to critique our classmates’ work. It turned out she liked what I did. We mutually respected one another and what we were
doing. It was also enlightening to see how other people approach expression. For me it was very emotional and physical, even cathartic, which may have had to do with the fact that I was involved in sculpture before painting.
What would you say is most important in pulling off the kind of painting that satisfies you?
Speed. My mind moves quickly, to get everything down. I move fast because I’m an impulsive person. That’s not bad, it’s my strength. I’ve relied on it not only in painting, but to get me through difficult situations in life. Working quickly forces my mind to summon the emotions I need, the ones I can make use of. A part of me realizes that if you rely solely on that—speed—it can work to your detriment.
Which is why a plan [for the picture] must first be in place.
What percent is planning it and what percent is executing the plan?
Depends on the picture. People will ask: how long did it take you to do that? I say: about 30 years. They don’t understand it’s a cumulative process. They want to know the timeline for how long it takes to make a painting. My feeling is that timeline includes coming up with an image, scouting for the appropriate palette, and executing preliminary sketches. All factor into the finished picture.
Do you paint from an easel, or position the picture on the floor and go at it that way? It could be both, but more often, these days, on the floor. It’s about having some control over the painting process. If you’re working on a vertical surface—an easel—you’re employing a process that risks dripping. You take it off the easel so you can control where that pigment goes. It’s not going to bleed into areas where you don’t want it. I’m working on a painting now that’s on a vertical surface, but at a certain point I put it on the floor because I like to walk around it, to see what’s going on. I can stand above it, look at it from above, walk around it. It’s a physical experience. I control how the paint is going to lay.
Self Portrait I
Your subject matter is usually people. Figures and faces. Why?
The artists I’ve been most interested in are portrait painters. Such as Alice Neel.
She blows me away. I feel like her work is very personal. I feel like that’s true for what I do. They’re about people I’ve known or am close to. I’ve had people approach me and say: will you do a portrait? And then, a little further along in the conversation they’ll say: what if I don’t like it?
Who are some other painters you like and has that changed?
I like Andy Warhol. I used to like Renoir but later I ceased to be attracted to that work. I’m drawn to abstract expressionists, to the New York painters like Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, and, later, Warhol. I like Picasso obviously. And Joseph Cornell.
What’s more important in creating a picture, thinking or feeling?
Can it be both? Like 50/50. But going back to that woman in art school, I learned something by watching her. That it was important for her to define the space before she went into the painting of it. Her method was systematic, mine was chaos. I realized I could learn from her, which is why I start out sketching, putting the image on canvas to create the composition. But along the way I have to find some kind of emotional connection to it. That excitement helps me make
something that has presence, helps me bring an image to life.
Can you describe your research process?
Here’s an example. I did a series of images of my grandmother. I did one from 1900, 1910, the 20s, the 30s. She was in her mid-40s when she had my mother,
and 76 when she died. I was about 4, so I didn’t know her. My sense of her came through looking at these images I found after my mother died. The first thing I did was a drawing of my mother and me. Then a black-and-white painting of my mother when I was a child. All I remember about that was that the Christmas before she died, everyone came over.
Besides your transition from sculpture to painting, how has your work evolved?
Early on, I might sometimes feel I didn’t have the skills to take a picture to completion. Some paintings were “temporarily” abandoned…for a dozen years. I thought about my abilities, my thought process and how it changed as the painting progressed. I thought about what I wanted to do and my ability to do it.
My craft improved from experience, from practice. At that point I began to finish paintings I’d abandoned. The risk of wrecking a painting didn’t stop me. What’s happening now is that there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to leave things undone. I want to resolve them if there’s any way possible.
You’ve been at it for a long time.
I could’ve given up like a lot of people who are my contemporaries. I remember complaining about being stuck in a job and a friend said one of these days all these skills and experiences are going to come together for you in a way you can’t imagine right now. Then it did. I realized he was right. I feel like a success just for having continued.
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