Photographer Sheila Pree Bright documents social activism and is often described as a “cultural anthropologist.” She is widely known for her photographic series #1960Now, Young Americans, Plastic Bodies, and Suburbia. Bright earned an M.F.A. in photography from Georgia State University and received the Center Prize from the Santa Fe Center of Photography for Suburbia. Her work was featured in the documentary films Through the Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People and Election Day: Lens Across America.
Bright has exhibited nationally and abroad at venues that include the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and the Leica Gallery in New York City. Her work is held in many private and public collections including the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut; the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, Washington, D.C.; the Oppenheimer Collection at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland, KS; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; the de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara, CA; King & Spalding, Atlanta, GA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH; Time Inc., New York, NY; FotoFest, Houston, TX; and the Sprint PCS Art Collection, Overland, KS.
From Atlanta, Ferguson and Baltimore, to Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, photographer Sheila Pree Bright documents civic response to police shootings and systemic inequity. She observed #BlackLivesMatter activists taking a stand against the same struggles their parents and grandparents underwent during the Civil Rights movement and the era of Jim Crow. Through photographing the living leaders of civil rights activism, Bright makes connections between present day protests and the demonstrations of the 1960s. This work inspired her book #1960Now: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and the Black Lives Matter Protests and is the basis of her ongoing project #1960Now, first featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia. #1960Now examines race, gender and generational divides to raise awareness of millennial perspectives on civil and human rights. Bright says that her “objective is to capture images that allow us to experience those who are unheard as they contemplate or voice their reactions to ideas and issues shaping their world.” While her work is a painful reminder of the continued racism and injustice that plague us today, it is also an example of the enduring courage and conviction of citizens working to create a more perfect Union.
Imagine a world where civility is commonplace. What would that world look like? Chelsea Ryoko Wong envisions such a citizenry with colorful paintings that depict people of all ages and colors happily gathered together or walking lockstep. The poetic text accompanying her imagery often conveys the collective intention of building community, supporting one another and being “our best selves”.
In Freedom and Sea of Change we see empowered groups confidently celebrating the future and one another. Wong says that “these paintings reflect a sense of hope and joy. 2020 has been a series of unfolding, seismic events, producing anxiety and demanding change. To conquer fear, I jump optimistically into the unknown. With figures, I evoke a sense of familiarity and celebrate the magnificent diverse beings that we are. I use bright colors because they make me happy and tickle the spirit. I paint small poems that are hopeful wishes. These paintings conjure the senses, ushering in this new era, I am sending hope into the world, filling the void with unrestrained optimism and exultation.”
About the Artist
Chelsea Ryoko Wong (b. 1986, Seattle) is a painter and muralist whose vibrant figure compositions reflect the diversity and style of her home in San Francisco. Through the use of watercolor, gouache and acrylic techniques, Wong creates busy scenes of co-mingling people drawing from real-life events and her imagination. Her work is known for celebrating racial and cultural diversity, promoting working class communities and evoking a sense of curiosity and wonder. Through heavily stylized and idyllic imagery, Wong creates an encouraging visual statement promoting joy, acceptance and openness to one another.
Wong began her studies at Parsons School of Design and finished at California College of the Arts with a B.A. in Printmaking. She is the first recipient of the Hamaguchi Emerging Artists Fellowship award at Kala in Berkeley, CA and has recently completed a mural for the FB AIR Program in San Francisco, CA.
Sandow Birk (b.1962) is a well-traveled graduate of the Otis Art Institute of Parson’s School of Design. As the recipient of many grants and fellowships, his work has brought him to locations around the globe, including: a NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995 to study mural painting, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Fellowship for painting to Rio de Janeiro for 1997. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting followed by a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001. Birk was awarded a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2007 and in 2014, he was named a USA Knight Fellow. Recent artist residencies include the Auckland Print Studio, New Zealand (2017); McKinney Visiting Artist at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN (2017); Ballinglen Arts Foundation, County Mayo, Ireland (2016); University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA (2014); Alila Villas Soori, Bali, Indonesia (2012) and Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, NM (2011).
Birk’s work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; among many others. Recent solo exhibitions include the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Eugene, OR (2017); Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, CA (2017); University of Anchorage, AK (2016); SDSU Downtown Gallery, San Diego, CA (2016); Thatcher Gallery, Univ. of San Francisco, CA (2016) and Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA (2015).
Sandow Birk has collaborated with his wife Elyse Pignolet, a practicing artist, on several projects, including American Procession (2017). He is represented by Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Seattle, WA, P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York City and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA.
The Rupture of Civility
At the start of the COVID19 pandemic, Los Angeles based artist Sandow Birk began a series of metaphorical marine paintings reminiscent of European history painting, which has inspired his work since he was a student in art school. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, these grand paintings often depicted battles, tragic events and disaster, emphasizing heroic action and suffering to impart lessons to viewers.
In this 21st century painting, the actual size of The Rupture of Civility belies the dramatic view of a once powerful and united ship, now broken in two, adrift and tossed about as it sinks in a vast stormy sea. What appeared to be mighty and indestructible is actually quite vulnerable. Was the disaster the result of misguided navigation? A divided crew? Birds circle ominously overhead and spilled cargo is lost, as neither side of the ship is able to help the other.
A Few Bad Apples (Killed by Cops)
In recent years Sandow Birk created a series of detailed paintings that illuminate social and political issues such as police brutality, mass shootings, white terrorism and civil unrest. In A Few Bad Apples (Killed by Cops), Birk compresses such events into a panorama that spans night to daytime, a reminder of the constant 24-hour nature of violence in our country. Big city high-rise buildings yield to rolling green hills and intersect with streets lined with small businesses and homes. Interspersed is a church, a penitentiary, The White House, recognizable landmarks such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and locations associated with police brutality.
Throughout this varied American landscape there are many people and there is much conflict. Life and death happen all at once in dramatic detail. Flowing one into another, Birk paints multiple historic events depicting excessive force and murder at the hands of the police. Citizens not under assault stand nearby capturing evidence on cell phones. While some people seem stunned or desensitized, others protest with signs in hand demanding accountability and change.
Born in San Jose, California, Phillip Hua was raised in the city that would eventually become the heart of Silicon Valley. As a child, he spent his days wandering the many fields and creeks now replaced with redevelopment, fueled by the tech industry. He eventually received his BFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Hua’s work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, and art fairs nationally and internationally. In 2016, he was awarded a public art commission from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for the redesign of the 19th Street Oakland BART station and a public art commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2018.
His work has been featured by Art Practical, The San Francisco Chronicle, SFWeekly, California Home + Design magazine, White Hot Magazine of Contemporary Art, Huffington Post, Interior Design magazine, and 7×7 magazine, among others.
Hua lives and works in San Francisco and is adjunct faculty at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where he teaches Digital Media.
We Are San Francisco
Phillip Hua envisions a community where differences don’t define what is possible between us. In this shared life in the city, citizens meet and are present with one another. Hua explains, “In this series, I created bisected portraits of the people of San Francisco, merged with another. Plumbers with bankers, techies with tattoo artists. From the Presidio to the Portola, and the Marina to the Bayview, these portraits were a way to connect, literally and figuratively, the rich cultural diversity of the city. Everyone from the freaks to the geeks, to the hipsters to the homeless. The open arms of the city embrace all who reach for it. This series serves to bring people together into the same ‘space’ as a way to urge unity through turbulent times.”
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe is an artist, designer and historian specializing in textiles and costume. Dr. Hedayat Munroe received her Ph.D. from University of Bern, Switzerland and M.A. from San Jose State University in art history, specializing in historic textiles from the Early Modern Persianate World. Dr. Hedayat Munroe is currently Director of Textile Technology and a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Business & Technology of Fashion at CUNY – NYC College of Technology, where she lectures on textiles, historic dress, and contemporary issues in the fashion industry. From 2011—2016 she worked at The Metropolitan Museum as a textile specialist, publishing several articles and teaching courses at the museum in her area of expertise.
A nationally acclaimed textile artist and NEA grant recipient, her installations and research focus on expressions of cultural identity expressed through clothing, ranging from complex woven designs to digitally printed and smart textiles. She received her M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art and B.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design in textile design and fiber art. She has exhibited her garments and textile-based installations at several museums including the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cranbrook Art Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, and The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.
An Interview with Nazanin Hedayat Munroe
MKM: Why did you pursue art? Were you always creative?
NHM: I was always creative; from the age of about six, I spent many hours writing stories about characters who traveled back in time. Then I would draw and paint their elaborate wardrobes by looking at history books. I started making clothes around this time too, I had a little miniature sewing machine.
MKM: You are an artist and scholar – Can you tell us about the interchange between your fine art practice and your academic, art historical work?
NHM: In retrospect, it makes sense that I became a textile and garment designer who also studied art history, bringing these two disciplines together in my work. I research my garments pretty extensively while I’m designing, and when I’m writing about historic objects, I experiment in the studio to put myself in the place of the artist. These two approaches fit together nicely for me.
MKM: What inspires you? other artists, your process, research, a theme?
NHM: Most of my work is inspired by Persian culture and literature, contemplating themes such as destiny and divination; as well as issues pertaining to women and their idealized representations in art and literature as passive beings, when in fact they were often master strategists and mediators. The ideas become distilled into key words and images (I usually include text in my work), and then I create my installations to invite viewers into the psychic or physical space. If there is a common goal with all my work, it’s to take ideas from Sufi poetry and give them physicality, so the viewer is walking into a poem.
MKM: In your fine art practice, what is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
NHM: I like to think of tools and techniques as a means to an end; I start with a vision of a piece, which usually consists of an installation and a garment(s), and then apply the technique that will express that vision. I work with paintings, sketches and textile samples before making the larger piece. Some of my favorite techniques are silk painting, dyeing and screen printing; color and motif are major elements in my work. I started as a weaver, but it’s difficult to make large work without an appropriately sized loom, and in New York I just don’t have the space for it.
MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
NHM: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by viewers, who are truly so generous with their enthusiasm and willingness to contemplate the ideas in my work and share their responses. The most memorable responses have been at venues in California and New York. The “Permanent Madness” performance and exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles (2006), which played out a scenario from Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, and included audience participation; this was also displayed at The Metropolitan Museum (2012). The performance/exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, in which I displayed the “Destiny House” (2007) and gave live Hafez destiny readings (a form of fortune telling with Persian poetry)—viewers were lined up throughout the museum! My artist residency and exhibition “Animedallion” at the de Young Museum (2008) had a great turnout for the closing, which included a live musical performance by a Sufi group. “100 Destinies” (2015) was shown with the Westchester Arts Council in New York at Persian New Year to an enthusiastic audience, with a musical performance of Persian poetry; and the Graduate Theological Union’s Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley, CA (2017) had a lot of great press, and a beautiful catalog by Carol Bier. The common thread was that these works all involved silk textiles and Persian Sufi poetry as the basis for the work, and included an element of audience participation. I think there is some universal truth that those poets tapped into that comes across to viewers, which is really enhanced by the visual and performing arts.
MKM: How has COVID impacted your practice and teaching?
NHM: COVID-19 has impacted everything. A virtual exhibition, as accessible as it is to global audiences, is not the same as having a live opening and meeting other artists and viewers. There is something magical in that, and the human connection is really missing. As far as teaching—same thing! Online teaching has some advantages, but I miss being in on campus with my students where we can connect face-to-face.
MKM: What can we expect from you in the year ahead?
NHM: This year (2021) I am wrapping up two major publications: a book on Sufi poetry and textiles from the early modern period; and on the other end of the spectrum, a book on the history of fashion from the mid-19th century to the present. Publishing works on these seemingly extreme opposites, I see now that the universe gave me a chance to explore my career as a former apparel designer in tandem with my career as an artist and historian, and find connections between the two.
The Talismanic Garment Series
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe’s recent artwork comes from her Talismanic Garment series. In describing her motivation for this series, she tells us: “I began the Talismanic Garment series in January 2017, prompted by the changes we started seeing in our society—particularly the increase in overt prejudice and scorn. Making a series of protective garments based on the idea of sacred symbols combined with text, I drew upon my research of early modern garments from my own heritage. I felt that protective icons and Sufi poetry by Rumi was the cloud of psycho-spiritual armor that I need to cloak myself—literally and metaphorically—from the evils and hazards lurking in the world. Both garments incorporate Rumi poetry as the protective prayer. I hope someday to live in a world that doesn’t feel overrun by spiritual and physical illnesses and social discord, but I’m not sure we will ever set our talismans aside.”
Talismanic Ensemble for the Era of Covid-19, 2020
“The Talismanic Ensemble came from my research of talismanic garments inscribed with astrological symbols and Qur’anic text, used as protective garments during the early modern era in the Islamic world. These garments protected against the “evil eye” (warded off with the image of an eye), black magic, wounds and illness, by creating a barrier with positive language. Words can protect in folk tradition too: mothers in Iranian culture pray for the well-being of their children by whispering protective verses and blowing the words around their heads like a magic cloud—something that my own mother did for me as a child.This ensemble is my attempt to create a protective cloud in this era of COVID-19, which is marked not only by illness, but also by fear and anger—things that have been present in civilization for millennia. These talismanic garments were traditionally worn underneath regular clothes, as if they would lose their power if exposed. In this series, I am reversing this practice by putting the protective images, and verses—which include mystic poetry and personal supplications—on the outside of the garment. The dress is printed with a pattern of a head sprouting positive thoughts, representing the inner self. The cloak is a physical barrier representing the social distance that separates all of us into bubbles of fear and isolation.“
Talismanic Kaftan, 2018
“The Talismanic Kaftan is based on my research of cloth and garments as protective devices in Middle Eastern culture. It is based on a warrior garment, representing my outer life working as an artist and professor in New York City, photographed on site for the performative image “NY: Struggle for Space” (2018). For this piece, I constructed a “Smart textile” that speaks to the viewer, rather than the wearer: if the viewer gets too close, the colors change and blink. Using a proximity sensor, the lights turn green, yellow, or red to indicate safe, close, or too close. They hold a steady light in green when the viewer maintains a safe distance. Although this piece was constructed before the 2020 pandemic, the concept of social distancing has added additional challenges to establishing individual comfort levels with physical interaction, making it that much more important to communicate with visual symbols. The use of light here is also a reference to Divine protection and enlightenment. The digital print on the kaftan is based on a “Khamsa,” a talismanic symbol usually made of metal and carried on the top of a standard when soldiers went into battle or worn as jewelry around the neck. Protective talismanic clothing was also worn on the body, inscribed with Qur’anic verse or Sufi poetry. Here, I have united these separate practices by creating a repeat pattern and printing it on the fabric. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media. The poem is translated to English, but I have kept the Persian word Khamūsh: in Rūmī’s medieval poems this means “silence” and is used by Rūmī to indicate the end of his ecstatic rantings; in contemporary vernacular, this means “to turn off,” i.e. lights. Essentially, the garment in this context functions as psycho-spiritual armor.”
Talismanic Gown, 2018
“My inner life is about supplication and the search for internal peace, as seen in the Talismanic Gownand the performative image “CA: Supplication for Serenity” (2018). The gown is my West Coast prayer dress, photographed in California as I stood in a gesture of supplication at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The Talismanic Gown is based on my research of garments as protective devices and images on clothing as a powerful tool for communicating identity. The sheer overgarment is digitally printed with a design inspired by a 17th century Safavid velvet, referenced as the “Supplicant” pattern by scholars. The supplicant depicted on cloth is in a traditional pose of du’a (supplication) as she converses with the Divine. By donning the garment, the wearer becomes the supplicant by displaying her image on the garment, indicating her piety to the viewer. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media, digitally printed here on cotton. The poem creates a protective forcefield around the wearer, whose prayer becomes mingled with Sufi mystic expression. Sometimes we communicate the most through silence.”
The title of Squeak Carnwath’s painting THEN WE MUST demands our action IF WE KNOW, which is emblazoned in large letters across the canvas. These words are a fragment from James Baldwin’s An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis. Baldwin writes, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own”.
Behind the large letters are banner-like swaths of color, along with telling images of a sinking ship, the planet earth, a cell phone, a clock alerting us NOW is the TIME, symbols and drawings rendered in paint, and much more. We are bombarded with words – layers of text, from the news, quotes, protest chants, demands, and journal-like thoughts, which fill the space with the same energy and urgency as the passionate speeches and marches which engendered them. Carnwath paints with the language of our times so that we may hear, compelling us to respond to our world with empathy, duty and determination.
2020 has been an unprecedented year. Along with a worldwide pandemic there is continued injustice, polarization and antagonism within communities around the globe, such that despite our technological interconnectedness through email, twitter, social and mass media, we often seem unable to truly listen, relate, empathize and solve problems together as human beings.
In response to this discord and division there are appeals for civility. What is civility? The word civility comes from the Latin word civilitas, from civilis meaning relating to citizens. In its early use the term denoted the state of being a citizen and consequently meant good citizenship. An association with politeness arose in the mid-sixteenth century as the meaning of the term broadened and books on comportment flourished. Today, ideas and discourse about the modern meaning and relevance of civility are controversial and unsettled. Much more than etiquette, civility ideally encompasses empathetic and respectful behavior amongst diverse groups; an essential aspect of civility is to listen – to hear, and likewise, to be heard.
In this momentous year, we truly need to hear and be heard. From voting in our upcoming elections to tackling the complex problems of social injustice, the pandemic and the environment, this is a time to re-think and redefine what it means to be civil, to be a citizen, to listen and be heard with our voices, actions and the visual expression and problem solving that art uniquely provides.
Through the art of seventeen artists working in diverse media including ceramics, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, installation, textiles and collage, To Hear and Be Heard considers civility, our life in community, what divides us and what unites us. With visual language, the work in the exhibition invites questions, prompts action, builds connections, and encourages understanding of others and ourselves. Exhibiting artists include: Alice Beasley, Sandow Birk, Sheila Pree Bright, Marie Cameron, Squeak Carnwath, Enrique Chagoya, Brian Dettmer, Julie Heffernan, Phillip Hua, Sherry Karver, Lisa Kokin, Roberto Lugo, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Nazanin Hedayat Munroe, Priscilla Otani, Maria Porges and Chelsea Ryoko Wong.
Marianne McGrath, Curator
Special thanks to Mitch Grieb, Sandy Boyer, Pancho Jiménez, Sandra Jamaleddine, Brian Beams and Santa Clara University’s Department of Art and Art History for their support and for hosting this exhibition.
Florine Stettheimer’sHeat is an apt vision of what we are feeling here in Northern California. It is dry, hot and the air is filled with smoke; our sky is not the usual clear blue. A heat wave has again sparked wildfires across our beautiful state.
I can imagine myself at an outdoor “distanced” birthday gathering in Stettheimer’s painting. Though the elegant figures have comfortable seats six feet apart and a lovely table set with what seems to be a birthday cake, this palette of orange, yellow and murky green, along with the limp tree branches and wilting human limbs, convey the stifling heat and oppressive inertia of a very hot day.
It has been quite a month and then some! I hope that everyone is healthy and safe during this time of uncertainty with the pandemic.
31 Women opened on March 1st and was well received by the community. The reception at Whitney Modern, Los Gatos on March 8th was a huge success and we had festive attendance all day long. It was a wonderful “last hurrah” before we had to retreat into social distancing. The planned virtual exhibit was a fortunate coincidence for 31 Women – it has kept the exhibit alive and brought art to people everywhere isolated at home.
31 Women has been extended until April 30th at Whitney Modern, Los Gatos and a few works are still available. This will give people more time to see the exhibit online and keep our momentum going in showcasing the artists. Women’s History Month may have come to a close, but it is still a powerful year for women as it is also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the United States – and this is an election year! PLUS now more than ever we NEED the power of art to inspire and uplift us during this difficult time.
Highlighted individually throughout the exhibition are each artist’s process and inspiration, as well as her sense of connection to women in history and art history, distilled from dozens of interviews, correspondence and conversations that began last year. Along with the physical exhibition at Whitney Modern, the artists from 31 Women were featured daily on social media, blogs, websites and in the gallery — one woman a day throughout the month of March. With extending the show, posts continued periodically in April with new features and sources of inspiration. This aspect of the show is intended to be a virtual exhibition available to those outside the area, and beyond the timeframe of the exhibit, to provide an individual focus on a particular artist, emphasizing her unique practice and contributions to the art community.
31 Women affirms that knowing one another empowers us. Connections past and present celebrate, support and strengthen the collective creativity of all women. Sharing our stories of women that influence us honors our past, while showcasing the work of women today crystallizes our appreciation of the present. Through such shared perspectives, we can inspire future generations of women.
I want to again express my deep appreciation to the artists for their participation and enthusiastic support. My gratitude goes to Karen Gutfreund for publishing the catalog, for her support on this project and her encouragement as a fellow independent curator. Thank you to Rozanne Hermelyn Di Silvestro for the catalogue and logo design. And finally, a special thank you to Suzanne Smedt, owner of Whitney Modern, Los Gatos for welcoming 31 Women to her gallery and for being a champion of artists, curators and our art community.
I will be looking forward to celebrating Women’s History Month 2021 by curating a new exhibit dedicated to women artists. Until then I have several projects in the works. Check back soon for new artist interviews and projects, plus details about my next exhibit: To Hear and Be Heard, which opens October 16th, 2020!
MKM: Tell me about your childhood, where did you grow up? Were you always creative?
KI: I grew up in Western New York outside of Buffalo. I was constantly drawing as a child. I submitted cartoons magazines as a child thinking I could be a freelance illustrator in elementary school and middle school – I received very nice rejection letters. Beyond that, I never really thought about art as a career, I just knew I would always love and create art.
MKM: Why did you pursue art?
KI: In college I fell in love with painting to a level I had not expected. I was a bit over-extended those years and had committed to the equivalent of 3 majors, held 2 jobs (one as a TA for 2 professors, and one as a rock climbing guide for the University’s Outdoor program), all while playing college Lacrosse. Long story short, by my senior year I was so over-extended that I had to cut something out in order to make sure I didn’t lose time in the studio – the place I wanted to be the most. I thought long and hard. Growing up, I’d always loved the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I believe it was because I actually only heard the first part… “Jack of all trades…” which was something that appealed to me. I loved learning about and trying many different things. My senior year in college, after I had so thoroughly explored the idea of “Jack of All Trades”, something hit me like a load of bricks – it literally felt like it knocked me over…… “Master of None.” I finally heard that part. “Master of None.” I really heard it. It haunted me. You can do everything and become pretty good at a lot of exciting things, but you’ll never really explore one thing to the full capacity, that one thing you truly love, if you’re too busy pursuing other interests. Everything changed for me in that moment. I knew that I wanted to pursue and explore painting more than anything else. I didn’t think it could soon become my full-time job, all I knew was that I wanted to paint and be in the studio as much as I possibly could. I loved it that much. So, I started sacrificing other things for the first time in my life; and it was worth it.
MKM: Where did you study?
KI: St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. A wonderful school that offered me great experiences and opportunities.
MKM: Did you have any memorable teachers at St. Lawrence University?
KI: Any teacher that encourages your natural abilities is a memorable teacher. In college I had several wonderful professors. Two that stood out most were Tom Greene and Melissa Schulenberg. Tom is an Environmental Psychologist that I worked for and Melissa was my printmaking instructor and an artist herself. They were both so encouraging to me in finding my way, pushing me to pursue my unique interests and helping make a path out of those interests during my college career.
MKM:When you’re creating what’s your daily routine? rituals, patterns?
KI: My routines and work patterns have changed a lot over the years. Before kids I could easily work thirteen-hour days and paint until my eyes went blurry. I didn’t have a lot of structure, it was just – go to work. I loved it. Over time more and more structure has slipped into my work routine. A year ago we had our 3rd child. Shortly after she was born I accepted representation into my 7th gallery and wasn’t really sure how I was going to pull it all off. I started setting a specific goal for each week of what I needed to get done in the studio. I try to set realistic goals – but also goals that push me a bit. If I’m working on an exhibition this is how I ensure I have enough time to complete what I need to.
MKM: Do you focus on a specific medium or combination of mediums? Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
KI: I use everything and anything. I consider myself a contemporary collage artist because collage, specifically vintage ephemera collage, has become such a huge component in what I do over that last 10 years. My work often includes vintage ephemera dating back to the early 1900s, even 1800s, fabric, leather, oil, acrylic, graphite, and sometimes resin. I use collage and assemblage that triggers memories in viewers: Vintage erector set parts, McCall’s dress patterns, Hollywood movie magazines from the 50s, New York Times fashion ads from the 20s, matchbox covers, hand-painted vintage signage; the list goes on and on. The work is meant to be a painting from afar, and a treasure hunt of materials upon further investigation.
MKM: What themes do you pursue?
KI: Memories, nostalgia; the crossover between past, present, and future. My figures have themes of independence, freedom, adventure, strength of women, as well as the unique and innocent imagination and adventurous spirit from childhood.
MKM: What is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
KI: My fabric shears. Collage artists “geek out” over really sharp scissors. I could paint with my fingers if I had to, but I can’t cut with them, or draw with them for that matter. After scissors, I would say a 4H graphite pencil.
MKM: Is there an artwork you are most proud of?
KI: Cornerstone pieces. The pieces that changed my direction because they opened up a new door in my creative world. Magnetique I & II were the first figurative pieces that I did that were entirely collage. A New Daysymbolizes a lot for me and my career. And also, a newer set of panels, Jewels of Narration represents a newer direction in the evolution of my Storyline Panels, a series which I’ve been doing for over ten years.
MKM: What has been a seminal experience?
KI: When I mentioned that in my senior year of college I was overextended, and my studio time was at risk — I ended up making the very difficult decision to leave the college Lacrosse team in my senior year in order to spend more time in the studio. You get very close to team members of a college sports team and I left something very social and exciting to do something rather solitary, but the decision itself was pivotal for me. Without knowing it, I had started down a path of making sacrifices for studio time; Choosing art over many other things. It helped lay the foundation in a career well before I actually knew I would have a career as an artist.
MKM: What art do you identify with the most?
KI: It’s a wide range. I’m tempted to say collage or mixed media, but that really doesn’t cover it. I think that I identify most with art that is layered in meaning. Art that makes my heart race could be anything. Art that you can’t help but walk up to, get really close to it, and immerse yourself in how the artist created it. I’d like my paintings to be one thing from afar, and another up close.
MKM: What inspires you? Other artists, women from history, your process, a theme?
KI: The idea of creating something from life, in a way that is different from what anyone has seen before, that draws people in and then brings people back, or propels them forward is inspiring. Wayne Thiebaud’s landscapes, Andrew Wyeth’s fine detail, Andy Goldsworthy’s leaf and stone formations, Helen Frankenthaler’s uninhibited boldness… There are so many artists from the past and present that are awe inspiring. Making something new and different is more challenging for artists every year, every decade — but that’s what makes it in and of itself an inspiring task, it’s the challenge — and the reality that it’s possible.
MKM: Do you have a sense of connection to a particular woman artist from art history? Is there a specific work from this artist that you find interesting?
KI: I would have to say Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea because of what it represents, both for her, for female artists. She was inspired, set a new path, stood out among men, and the work is breathtaking.
MKM: Who are your female role models from history or present day?
KI: A role model to me is someone who is unwavering in their particular passion; highly capable by choice — a doer because they can’t imagine letting life go by without trying. Someone who is genuinely kind and thoughtful and selfless, but also driven with self-discipline. Someone who isn’t afraid to pursue their dream career and motherhood at the same time. These aren’t always famous individuals, these are people I meet along the way through life that I just want to keep talking to. These are people like my grandmother and my mother.
MKM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
KI: Trust your first instinct. A painting instructor told me that while pointing out my initial painterly gesture in a large abstract piece. He said, “Build the entire piece around that.” He was right. In painting and in life. My first instinct is usually the best choice, and when I choose to ignore it, I usually regret it.
MKM: What is your dream project? What can we expect from you in the next year?
KI: My dream project in the future is to complete a very large-scale collage/assemblage figurative work that includes dozens of individuals interacting through time; 30 feet or more. Either a mural or a work that can be exhibited and moved — several large works that come together. My plan for next year is to keep evolving my work by way of materials and technique and eventually take the panels into sculptural form.
Kelsey Irvin is represented by: Craighead Green Gallery, Dallas, TX; Exhibit by Aberson, Tulsa, OK; GF Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM; Gardner Colby Gallery, Naples, FL; Jules Place Gallery, Boston, MA; Kelsey Michaels Fine Art, Laguna Beach, CA; Studio E Gallery, Palm Beach, FL; and Whitney Modern, Los Gatos, CA