Tell us about yourself! What kind of artist would you define yourself as. How did you get started? Is this a hobby or a career for you?
This past May I graduated from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, where I received my B.F.A. in painting. I moved to Brooklyn in June and currently have a residency at Brooklyn Art Space.
I’ve always been an artist, but it wasn’t until I learned how to paint with oils my second year of school that I knew that this is what I want to do. Oil painting is my passion. I do contemporary realism, works that may seem photo-realistic from a distance but break down with proximity, where the texture of the paint becomes the tool that builds the subjects, brush strokes or layers of glaze become abstract moments within the world of the painting.
This is a career for me. My goal is to be able to support myself through painting. Currently that means part time jobs, a tight budget, and doing commissions, but eventually I want to just be painting and comfortably survive.
Obviously humanity and the human form is important to you. How do these two things connect for you and how do they connect in your work?
When I began my exploration of painting, I would stage specific and intimate compositions, navigating through my interest of the human figure and the female. My life experiences and self- and societal- perceptions became visual explorations. I sought to create images that intruded upon usual bodily boundaries, like closeness normally reserved for intimacy. I wanted to create stimulating, yet unnerving, images by pushing closer in towards the flesh in a composition, cropping the figures, removing identity.
The mouth came to me as a subject as I zoomed closer in on the human, landing on this space of attractive and repulsive actions. Painting cropped mouths on a large scale allowed me to push the disorientation I want a viewer to feel upon gazing at one of my figures – a delay in recognition, as the viewer is lost in a space of sex and consumption, of violence and expulsion.
Instead of carefully arranging my models, shooting hundreds of frames to create even one painting, I turned to images I had captured in an unplanned moment. I shifted from reflecting my own perceptions to capturing the fragments of my life that were recorded in a single photograph, taken without intention but with affection. By translating these images to a viewer, I am presenting a more honest reflection of humanity as opposed to a construct of my imagination.
Recently, I have turned toward capturing traces of the human presence as opposed to direct flesh, as a way of exposing more truth behind the human form. Our environment, which absorbs, reflects, and captures our behaviors and actions, becomes a mirror for human condition. I am really excited about the possibilities of this new approach to my work as I continue to collect references.
Tell us about your writing. Can you share something with us?
Like my painting, my writing derives from a personal place and is highly descriptive. I write memoirs to savor specific moments, where I can find the words to create the candid image of a person, object, or interaction. The realism in my paintings aligns with the honest description of my writing. Through both mediums, I seek to create an accurate depiction, enhanced by my words or brush strokes, to yield a more emotive image for the viewer and to ultimately reveal my deeper psychology.
Below is the opening few paragraphs to a short piece I recently wrote of compiled stories about my baby blankets, titled “Blankies.”
“I’ve had them for as long as I can remember, 21 years now. My older sister has two blankets just like mine, the only noticeable difference is that hers are white. My mother told me she got my sister a second blanket because she became attached to the first, brought it everywhere, and my mother feared that it would become lost or forgotten. My sister became wise to the duplicate blanket and began to ask for both. When I came, not long after my sister, my mother got me two blankets, because things had to be equal. I remember when the blankets used to be bigger than me, or rather I used to be smaller than them. Tiny tears and holes are scattered across the soft yellow blankets. Sometimes I find them twisted together, revealing the slightly different shades of grey-yellow they have faded to.
A silk trim adorned the knit blankets in my first years with them. The edges began to wear, the silk became torn and scratched, the shiny fabric muted with scraggly pulls. When my sister tore off the remaining silk border of her blankets, the fabric separated with ease. I ripped off the edges of my blankets, although much more intact than hers, after I saw her do this. I was no longer able to feel the smooth border against my cheek as I clutched them close to me at night, and I regretted the thoughtless copying of my sister’s actions. The finished edge was gone, leaving a crooked and malleable border. The blankets were now merely stretchy and soft squares of yellow, waffle-textured fabric.
Hers are much more ragged, a mosaic of holes, despite her relinquish of them years ago. I maintain my dependent clutch.
* * *
Every night, before I turn off the light, I first locate my two yellow baby blankies, floating somewhere amidst the pillows and sheets and comforter of my queen sized bed, never resisting the momentary panic that accompanies not being able to find one. I need both. I hate when one has sunken below bed level and I must melt my chest against the bed to allow one of my long arms to reach down between the wall and the bed. My face descends further into the supple mattress as I brush my hand cautiously around the slick, dusty wood floor until it meets the soft blanket and I can rescue it.”
What is your favorite piece that you’ve done? Why is it significant to you? What do you wish people would see and appreciate when they look at it.
One of my favorite pieces I’ve done is “Lather,” the last piece I did in my undergraduate career. I enjoy responding to happy accidents and subjects I stumble upon, as I think they hold more honesty than the composed images I have done in the past. The subject for this painting came from a photographic study I was doing for a possible series of paintings of hands. I snapped a few pictures of my hand interacting with my bathroom sink’s faucet, only to discover the unarranged reflection of my nude torso in the slick metal. I re-photographed the faucet numerous times with more purpose, removing the hand with the goal to just capture the reflection, but I could not find as striking or pleasing an image as in the original picture with the accidental reflection, leading me to use that first image as my reference.
I like that the scene holds a quiet beauty, as opposed to an obvious intention. The discovery of the figure reflected is secondary to the recognition of the scene, and becomes a satisfying reward for the viewer, making the painting continually interesting. I love the subtly of the painting – how the flesh is represented in a removed way, how the human presence is not through flesh but the trace of it. The running water and title “Lather” insinuate action, yet the image is a still, quiet moment. The malformed boutique soap, also un-posed, becomes a stand-in for flesh, and the faucets curves mimic the female form.
I see many tiny moments in your work that carry a lot of weight (emotionally). How do you come up with the concepts for your paintings? Do you find yourself clinging to particular themes?
I’ve turned toward spaces and details in our built environment that have been altered because we ignore them. These unclean, unkempt spaces show a truer reflection of ourselves, unlike the perfected and cleaned spaces we prefer to present; a façade of newness or pureness, like how we present ourselves as less altered and jaded by time. Like these spaces, we are imperfect, withered, and wilted by time, scratched and scarred by the action of each day. I celebrate the personal character of these moments, like in flesh, memorializing the beautiful quiet detail through paint.
I am constantly looking, collecting references as small moments catch my eye. I am also excited by the challenge of capturing a new surface, figuring out how to paint flesh, saliva, fabric, reflections in glass, metal, crumpled paper, and finding compositions and subjects that combine numerous types of surfaces.
What is your dream? What do you want to convey to people with your art? Are you looking to say something, make people feel something, expose new beauty, or something else entirely?
I want my work to be accessible to everyone. I want anyone to recognize something in my work that is originally visual but then opens up more psychology as a viewer absorbs the intimate details. I’m creating a visual experience that hopefully drives a viewer to reconsider the subject, whether that is seeing the human form in a different way through a surprising crop or scale shift, or noticing the delicate beauty in the cracked paint of a door jam. I want my paintings to allow people to see the world in a different light, as small moments are celebrated with brush strokes across a canvas.
Portraiture is another passion that remains prevalent in my work. Most recently I painted a portrait of my grandfather, “Lomax,” as a gift for my mother. Making my grandfather come alive, as if he is about to speak, through paint, was a magical moment, and presenting the painting to my mother made me understand the power of painting. With paint I can capture the essence of someone, like how Irving Stone writes in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Michelangelo’s sculpture, “You have created a Soul.” Another special moment for me was when I did a commission of a painting of two little boys, and when I delivered the painting to their home, the youngest, around three years old, came up to the work and pointed at himself. He recognized himself in the work, and that to me was beautiful.
Can you give some advice to the aspiring artists in our community? What should we be concentrating on? What was the biggest mistake or lesson you’ve learned so far?
Stay true to your passion. I am constantly defending oil painting as a relevant medium, especially with realism. In school I found myself in a painting major where I was one of few painters, with most exchanging the historical medium for more conceptually based installations, mixed media, video, and performance pieces that fit specifically into contemporary art. But I love the process of painting, mixing precise colors for unique moments in paintings, livening the canvas through my decisions and application. Sticking with what I want to do, not giving in to pressure of the times, has helped me be a strong artist, while the act of defending my work has enriched my dialogue and defined my goals.
Surround yourself with other artists. Being a member of the open studios at Brooklyn Art Space has been so beneficial to me. Just being around other people creating art, having the opportunity to open up conversation about the pieces I am working on, is invaluable. Reading about art is also so important, something I wish I had been less stubborn about in the past. Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a tremendous source for when you are feeling stuck, uninspired, or hopeless, as is easy to feel this way as an artist. It’s comforting to know people share the same anxieties and frustrations.
What music is inspiring to you?
I am always listening to music when I paint. With my headphones in, I remove myself from the distraction around me, and rock out in my own little world. Long shifts in the studio have made me a huge fan of Pandora, Internet radio. Right now I am all about the Sublime station as it moves through great Pepper, Slightly Stoopid, and Nirvana, as well as some oldies like Steve Miller Band. I also am a fan of the Kid Cudi station, including artists like Chiddy Bang, and Mac Miller. You can often catch me mouthing the words and dancing a little with paintbrush in hand. It’s important to have fun.
Are there any upcoming shows we can go to?
I have two paintings (“Protect Us” and my newest work, “City of Dreams” that I’ll be finishing up this week) in a group pop-up show at Rogue Space / Chelsea, 508 West 26th street, Gallery 9E-9F on November 1st, 2012 6-9 pm.
See more of Rachel’s work online on her portfolio website.