Studio Visit with Linda Simmel

Linda Simmel

Linda Simmel (born in Los Angeles) is a Bay Area artist; her art practice includes painting, drawing and printmaking. Simmel’s dark landscaped-based paintings and historically-based etchings explore the influence of history on a psyche and subsequent feelings of longing. Simmel received her BFA from the University of California at Berkeley and was represented by Takada Gallery. She spent a decade traveling to and showing in and around Berlin, becoming an international participant in the newly formed artist collective “Atelierhaus Panzerhalle e.V., which was set in a tank repair workshop and ruinous surrounding barracks of a military base in the forests of Potsdam, Germany. In 2012, Simmel was an artist resident at the Baer Art Center in Iceland, in 2013 an artist at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, and she has been an artist in residence at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California since 2007. Linda Simmel is included in the permanent collections of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art, Moraga; and the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara. She currently lives and works in Sonoma, California.

Linda Simmel
Infinite Longing 10, 2018
oil on canvas
42” x 42”

An Interview with Linda Simmel

MKM: Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up?  

LS: I grew up on the west side of Los Angeles, just a 10-minute drive from the ocean. The ocean played a large part in my growing up and reaching for something infinite/ineffable, outside of family and societal expectations. 

MKM: Were you always creative?

LS: Yes, I remember always wanting to make things. My first strong memory was when I was five years old. In Kindergarten we had an assignment to paint a valentine’s heart. The two sides of my heart did not match, so I kept going from one side to the other, attempting for it to mirror its other half.  Eventually the whole sheet of paper was red.  When I was 10 years old, in grade school I’d go to Betty’s art classes. I took 2 buses (one transfer) to get there. At 13, Betty told me I had aged out of her children’s art classes. I begged her to allow me to stay! (She did).  

MKM: When did you realize that creating art was something you had to do? 

LS: I attended University of California at Berkeley for two years as an undergraduate. I then went to Israel with the intention of immigrating.  After 11 months I knew I would be returning to the USA to settle and finish my college degree. I had to declare a major at that point, but I wasn’t sure what to do.  My father suggested I declare an art major as I had previously wanted to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. Then upon graduating with a BFA in fine arts, I realized my focus was art making and I’d need to try to find a way to financially support that. 

MKM: Did you have any memorable teachers?

LS: I was not able to relate much to the art department’s focus on Funk and the Light and Space movement of that time. However, I do remember a Professor Tibbs that offered a life drawing class; also Karl Kasten. I had a hard time painting in a room with 30 other people, so I spent most of my time in the ASUC darkroom that was manned by Roger Minick and Dave Bohn.

MKM: Did you focus on painting and printmaking at UC Berkeley?

LS: My first form of expression was photography. I guess I simply loved looking, seeing.  As I began combining negatives (yes! negatives at that time!) and wanting to create sets or props for the images, my photographic process became more and more complicated and so I switched to the direct method of mark making via painting.  The sensate quality of painting is what has kept me there.  The way my body feels when making something is like wearing a favorite very worn and soft cotton dress. It’s taken me decades to come around to what I’m trying to say conceptually.

MKM: What jobs have you held other than being an artist?

LS: After graduating from UC Berkeley I started off as assistant to the director of the Physically Disabled Students Program at UCB, which later became the Center for independent living in Berkeley. 

I went on to being a cowgirl in Colorado, taxicab driver, working in the darkroom at my local newspaper and finally becoming a free-lance bookkeeper for more steady financial support. Although with almost biennial trips to Berlin in the 1990’s for research and exhibitions, keeping the bookkeeping stream going was also challenging.  

MKM: When you’re creating what’s your daily routine, rituals, patterns?

LS: Lots of pacing!  Typically, I have to circle around doing house or garden chores before settling into the studio. Then if I’m particularly engaged with what is going on I have to pause to absorb it, as contrary as that sounds! Thereby more pacing around the property… suffice to say the works progress slowly. And works always have to lay about for a period of time until I’m sure I’m really finished with them.  And then often, I’ll take up a canvas started years earlier.  There are probably 5 paintings – 5 different iterations underneath every canvas I stop working on.  Now with the cell phone I can document as I go along and sometimes I wonder why didn’t I stop at that earlier state?

Linda Simmel in her painting studio

MKM: When do you know a work is finished? 

LS: As I am building up the canvas, certain sections may be coveted, but in the end the whole surface has to come together as a whole.  It’s an intuitive decision.  In my particular practice most times the surface doesn’t make sense to me unless it is densely saturated.  

MKM: Do you focus on a specific medium or multiple mediums?

LS: Painting, drawing and printmaking

MKM: Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?

LS: I’d love to pursue clay and glazes but feel taking that up would disperse my energies too much.  It would take years to master and develop a vocabulary and I wouldn’t want to give up my painting practice to allow time/energy for that to happen.

MKM: What is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

LS: Nothing is terribly precious; brushes are mostly from the hardware store, they are never cleaned, and they just stand in terpenoid for about 3 months. When it’s no longer easy to clean them as I’m using them, the brushes get tossed and off to the hardware store I go. My most precious material is the roll of gampi paper that I use in printmaking. Every print has chin collé. I love the stuff.  

MKM: How has your practice changed over time?  

LS: In both the painting and printmaking practices there is recently a return to starting with a photo as a jumping off point. I’ve begun to project images onto a canvas. Occasionally the painted image stays true to the projected image, more often it provides a jumping off point for composition. My paintings have always been expressive; however, they are a bit more content driven now.  It’s taken me decades to move from expressing pure sensation or inner emotion towards more of a narrative.

MKM: What themes do you pursue?

LS: The weight of history on our everyday psyches.  How that history can color interpretation of landscape.  

MKM: What art do you most identify with?

LS: Work that is quite expressive, painterly, bold, colorful.  

MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

LS: After presenting a power point presentation of my most recent project at the time, a fellow resident at the Djerassi Residents Artists Program had tears when trying to express how moved he was by my large drawings of the sea.  He is someone I have greatly admired, and someone opposite my nature.

MKM: What do you like about your work?  

LS: The painterly aspect. Knowing how to move color around; feeling comfortable with color. 

MKM: What quality do you most admire in another artist?

LS: A commitment and drive to keep working.

MKM: What was your first work of art that really mattered to you?

LS: Of mine or someone else’s? (MKM: Yours) “Infinite Longing 1” has stuck with me and steered me down a path I still follow today (although that is fairly recent). 

Linda Simmel
Infinite Longing 1, 2014
oil on canvas
66” x 72”

MKM: What inspires you?  Other artists?  Your process?  A theme?

LS: Other artists’ work.  I get “art crushes” on work that I respond to strongly.  Something resonates when I look at their work and I want to go running back to my studio and start working myself!  I also get inspired when I hear of colleagues speak of a new project and are explaining their theme(s) to me.  

MKM: If there is an artist that inspires you, is there a specific work that you find particularly interesting?

LS: I am currently looking a lot at Joshua Hagler’s work.  I have been drawn to his work since I first encountered it a few years back when I went to a lecture at UC Berkeley given by Maja Rusnik (his wife, whose work I am also entranced by) and himself.  I was very taken by that first group of work I saw from both of them, however like even more the current more abstract work Joshua is doing now, from the look of his website.  

MKM: What are your interests outside of art?

LS: Gardening.  Lots of gardening.  Walking in nature.  

Linda Simmel
An der Nute, 1929/2019
photo etching
image size: 6” x 8″

MKM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

LS: “This too shall pass”

MKM: How has COVID impacted your practice?

LS: I was about to put painting aside and concentrate on printmaking….but the opposite happened as I hunkered down in my home painting studio and concentrated on painting and drawing.

MKM: What is your dream project?

LS: My dream project is to design a stage set for a dance company, OR to create a room installation, an installation that makes use of the whole space inside the walls & floor and that offers an immersive experience.

MKM: What can we expect from you in the next year?

LS: I am starting to lay out plans for an artist book that has been running around my mind for a very long time now, with parts already started.  It is something quite personal, using artifacts and letters from my father and great uncles during the time of fascism’s rise to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.  It is really meant to be a piece for my daughter, so that she may ponder her history from my side of the family.  I will make a concerted effort this time to pull it together and have something cohesive within the upcoming year. Oh yes, and of course more painting; deeper dives into current themes. 

The Hiking Club: A Vocabulary of Yearning

Linda’s upcoming solo exhibition, The Hiking Club: A Vocabulary of Yearning, will open spring 2023 at New Museum Los Gatos.

The Hiking Club: A Vocabulary of Yearning intertwines the story of being the daughter of an immigrant with landscape, trees and the sublime in nature. It pairs reverie of a father’s youth with a daughter’s yearning to walk in nature. The works in the show, Linda Simmel’s Infinite Longing series, are in part homage to landscape, trees, and the histories they’ve lived in, as well as to Simmel’s immigrant father and the time in which he lived. 

Simmel’s father wandered the woods outside of Berlin and greater Germany with his hiking club in the late 1920s. The trees, among which he and his friends wandered, were witness to their discussions about the possibilities of a new social order under the Weimar Republic. As we know, that progressive state did not last. As a result, her father had an intense idealism and large loss, a romantic pull as well as dark experience. Inherent in an immigrant story is the “if only” question and its subsequent residue of longing. What if there was no abrupt change, what would the story have looked like then? 

Before emigration it was among trees that the psychic tone of Simmel’s father’s life was formulated. Hiking in nature is a national pastime in Germany; May 14th is national “Hiking Day”. The forests provided the physical cauldron in which Simmel’s father developed his “Weltanschauung”, his philosophy of life. Simmel returns, or rather moves forward into that “cauldron” of landscape and trees; walking there to meditate on the gaps and absences in her own life and to simply walk toward her life. 

The Infinite Longing series has affinities with Romanticism of the late 1800s, an aesthetic that portrayed a metaphysical experience of nature. Likewise, Simmel values wild places because they inherently allow our minds and psyche to connect with the infinite; to be anchored in the universe and to surrender and rest in the power of nature. 

Linda Simmel
Dark Wood 1, 2019
oil, house paint, shellac on canvas
66” x 96” overall

To learn more about Linda Simmel, please visit:

Artist Interview: Amalia Mesa-Bains

Amalia Mesa-Bains

Amalia Mesa-Bains is an internationally renowned artist, scholar, and curator. Throughout her career, Mesa-Bains has expanded understandings of Latina/o artists’ references to spiritual practices and vernacular traditions through her altar installations, articles and exhibitions. In 1992 she was awarded a Distinguished Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Her work has been shown at institutions that include: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, and the New Museum, as well as international venues in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ireland, Sweden, England, France and Spain. In 2011, her work was featured as part of NeoHooDoo: Art for A Forgotten Faith, and in 2013, she recontextualized objects from the collections of the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles in New World Wunderkammer. As a cultural critic she has co-authored along with bell hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Mesa-Bains founded and directed the Visual and Public Art department at California State University at Monterey Bay where she is now Professor Emerita. Mesa-Bains community work includes board of trustee positions with the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and advisory boards for the Galeria de la Raza, and the Social Public Resource Center in Los Angeles.

Amalia Mesa-Bains
New World Wunderkammer 
©Photo courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA; Installation photography by Joshua White/

An Interview with Amalia Mesa-Bains

MKM: Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up? Were you always creative?

AMB: I grew up in Sunnyvale California in 1943 when it was rural and an agricultural center with orchards and canneries. Yes, I was creative and the third generation of artists in my family.

MKM: You began your education with a degree in art and ultimately earned a PhD in psychology. Can you tell us about this multi-disciplinary journey and how it informs your work?

AMB: I began with an art degree in painting, but eventually turned to new media and materials that include spray painted constructions. When I began my master’s degree, I was part of Teacher Corps, a program that recruited minorities to serve in minority communities. Because of Teacher Corps at San Francisco State University, I was lucky to be on a team assigned to schools in the Mission district with fellow Latino team members and a veteran educator Yolanda Garfias Woo, who became my mentor. She was good friends with many of the Chicano and Latin leaders in the Mission. Through her I was drawn into the Chicano Movement and dedicated my art to the cultural work of the movement. While teaching I began to realize the emotional and psychological needs of my students, so I began taking night classes in psychology. At the same time, I was in an artist’s dream group guided by my mentor and friend Renaldo Maduro, which led to my interest in clinical psychology. Eventually I went to the Wright Institute which moved me toward a multidisciplinary approach to art, culture and women’s development. This disposition has informed much of my work as an educator, artist and activist.

MKM: You are an artist, curator, educator, author and activist – how do each of these practices inform, inspire and support the other in your varied projects and your work in general? 

AMB: I think my curiosity has driven much of the interconnected fields that I work in. Many of the themes and directions in my work are also present in my curating, writing and activism. In particular my commitment to making visible the work of Chicana and Latina artists. 

MKM: When you’re creating what’s your daily routine? Rituals, patterns?

AMB: I generally gestate on projects for quite a while which involves a great deal of reading, research, and even interviews to put together the guiding concepts. This will lead me to image collecting – all of which eventually helps me frame the final project. I always keep a drawing project book as I go along where I paste in images, notes and drawings as the project unfolds. I don’t work in the morning, mainly the afternoon, and particularly afternoon and often middle of the night note taking. I have no rituals other than being sure the studio is ready with tools and art supplies in order and tables cleared.

MKM: Has your practice changed over time?

AMB: Only in so far as age and illness have required more planning for other fabricators and scheduling of supplies etc.

MKM: What is your most important tool when you are making art? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

AMB: Only my imagination, since I depend more on fabricators such as glass blowers, box builders etc.

MKM: Is there an artwork/installation you are most proud of? Why?

AMB: My favorite piece as an experience and process has been the “New World Wunderkammer” which allowed me to work with all the departments at the Fowler UCLA Museum, including their extraordinary collections. It was a two-year project with multiple visits and direct work with specialists, designers, education folks and others.

MKM: What has been a seminal experience?

AMB: In my early years as an artist, I was mentored by Yolanda Garfias Woo who introduced me to the Meso American world, as well as the traditions of Mexican folk forms including the Days of the Dead. My long mentorship and friendship with her has been life changing.

MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

AMB: I have had many reviews and recognitions. The recent review in the New York Times for the opening of the new Kinder building at Museum of Fine Arts Houston was especially positive, but my very first review in “Art in America” in 1987 when my show “Grotto of the Virgins” at INTAR in New York was acclaimed as one of the 10 best shows in alternative galleries that year, it was inspiring. 

MKM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

AMB: Hang on and stay with your purpose.

MKM: You often work with objects and collections – Do you maintain any of your own collections or live with other artists’ work?

AMB: Yes, we have an extensive collection of Chicano, Latino and Black art.

MKM: What is your dream project?

AMB: I have always imagined a residency in a museum where I could rearrange my objects into different installations each week.

MKM: What are you working on right now? 

AMB: I am currently working on a project for the Mac Arthur Fellows 40th Anniversary which is called “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago.” It will be at two sites and tell the story of the invisible history of Mexicans in the building of Chicago as well as an homage to my own family who were very active in the Mexican communities of Chicago.

MKM: Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?

AMB: I am always interested in the issues of the immigrant experience and also in the change in the natural world.

MKM: What do you have planned for the year ahead?  

AMB: Completing the Chicago project, writing and readying myself for a potential retrospective in 2023. 

New World Wunderkammer

One of Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite projects, for both the experience and process, was New World Wunderkammer. She was invited to create this installation at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in honor of the Fowler’s 50th anniversary, fall 2013 to spring 2014. New World Wunderkammer featured more than 75 rare and historic objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The objects were combined and recontextualized with many of Amalia Mesa-Bains personal items from previous installations. 

Mesa-Bains is well known for her groundbreaking work creating altar installations reminiscent of the ofrenda, a traditional home altar intended to honor and memorialize the departed. Along with the spirit of the domestic ofrenda, Mesa-Bains incorporated an age-old institutional method of display for New World Wunderkammer: the “cabinet of curiosities” or “cabinet of wonder”. The cabinet of curiosity has its origins in Renaissance Europe as a mode for storing and displaying collected items intended to illustrate an owner’s knowledge of the world.  

The Fowler Museum provided Mesa-Bains access to all of its collections and the freedom to compose New World Wunderkammer as she envisioned. Over the course of two years, she became familiar with thousands of precious objects and ultimately assembled three connected cabinets of curiosity, representing “Africa, the indigenous Americas and the complex cultural and racial mixture (Colonial mestizaje) that typifies the New World.” 1 In this setting Mesa-Bains invited viewers to explore the “collision” of these colonized cultures while offering new paths of understanding and healing for the objects, the people encountering them and the museum in which they reside. 2 

In addition to composing the cabinets, Mesa-Bains created eight giclée prints featuring images of specific objects in the exhibit. The object image is situated within compositions that include photographs, maps and plants that illustrate the context and history of the object’s origin. The prints were installed in proximity to the actual objects in the gallery cabinets. Study tables provided an interactive component within the gallery space, inviting visitors to participate in examining objects and history together.

Amalia Mesa-Bains
New World Wunderkammer
The Map of Loss. Giclée print. 32 1/4″ x 26.” 2013. 

It is easy to understand why New World Wunderkammer is Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite exhibit for the experience and process. Through her vision and inspirational creative process, Mesa-Bains produced a profound, multi-layered, inclusive and interconnected exhibition. New World Wunderkammer, brought together communities and cultures to create connection, honor memory and history, cultivate understanding and promote healing.

1. “New World Wunderkammer: A Project by Amalia Mesa-Bains” 4/11/21
2. Lucian Gomoll, “The Performative Spirit of Amalia Mesa-Bains’ New World Wunderkammer.” Cultural Dynamics 27, no. 3 (November 2015): 359.
3. Ibid., 374.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 362.
6. Ibid., 364-66.