painting

Looking for a brighter day

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Lakwena Maciver’s studio

I walked past endless stalls of vegetables, a black and white dress I really liked, patterned fabrics of every sorts. It was crowded enough to make it hard to walk. I spent £1 on raspberries as I made my way to Lakwena Maciver’s studio toward the end of a Dalston street market in east London. Inside her studio it was still filled with bright colors and voices, but they were on the five paintings she was working on for her exhibition, The future’s gold.

Lakwena herself is quiet with a lot to say. Her work comes from political promises. They are cutting in what is promised, yet sincerely optimistic. The work points to how the state of politics are far from the way they need to be.

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My visit to her studio was a few weeks after another election in the United Kingdom which destabilized Theresa May and the Tories’ grasp of power, and a year after the Brexit vote--a process looming over us still. There is always the sympathetic look of knowing when the conversation turns to American politics.


LTB: What is your normal, ‘working size’ for your paintings?
LM: There’s something political in filling up space.

And there is political weight in filling space. Lakwena shares that she usually works really large, filling as much space as she can. Lakwena’s voice is undeniable in the work as well as in the space it takes over. The vibrancy of her paintings fill the space. The largest of her five pieces seemed about 4’ x 4’, yet feels much larger than that given her palette. Lakwena has also completed several murals in various locations internationally that also envelop the entire space. For The future’s gold she has painted the walls as well as installed her work.

Lakwena’s work seems to need to spread beyond the frame. Even in her studio, it feels like they have oozed onto the floor--it is covered in black and white checked utility rubber mats.

Pictorial space has always felt political to me: when else does someone have complete autonomy over an entire world? As a woman who was taught it was “good manners” to be quiet and invisible, I can’t help but appreciate the sass in taking up space. Voices need to go beyond their allotted space.


LTB: What’s the relationship between the image and the text?
LM: I think a lot about mirrors. There is a quote: “For now we see through a glass darkly,” which ends with the idea that “now we see clearly.”

A collection of fabrics and books fill up Lakwena’s studio. A small black and white necklace finds itself in the edge of one of her paintings. Her desk drawers are painted in a day-glo gradient. The patterns feel like they just naturally emerge from Lakwena, standing next to me in her lime green dress.

The paintings draw on her experiences as a sign painter, and she subverts the connection to commercial advertising with her politics. There is the analogy of commercialism with politics: selling a message that the future will be better if you buy this or vote for him. There’s also the analogy of a mirror--how advertising reflects desire. The way the patterns frame the text echo a sort of mirror in the work. It’s a biblical reference to our lack of vision into the future as Lakwena quoted: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12). 

The gold in the paintings also reflect poorly, a vinyl imitation of something far more precious. Lakwena opted for vinyl instead of gold leaf--it’s more commercial, less referential to history painting, and non-elitist. For a moment I’m lost in imagining all the Renaissance cathedral paintings and the apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation. In that book there are promises of a “new Jerusalem” paved with gold, but the gold is so pure it is perfectly clear. Again: what we see here feels inferior. How clear is our vision of reality?


LTB: Where do you find the phrases that go into the work?
LM: For this painting, there’s a song by Gil Scott-Heron that says, ‘Black people / will be in the street looking for a brighter day. / The revolution will not be televised.’

The sort of discontent with the status quo and push for the newly imagined is a huge part of Afrofuturism. Lakwena herself likes to blend Afrofuturism with a messianic philosophy: waiting for, longing for, imagining a promised and better future. 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised goes on:

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers;
The revolution will be live.
— Gil Scott-Heron

The future and the revolution take on this mythical quality.  When are people more empowered than when they are creating their own myths? Myths are about making the ordinary, extraordinary--beyond and outside of the quotidian--as well as unrecognized by capitalist interests. Advertising has nothing to do with changing power dynamics.

Lakwena's paintings as contemporary work feel alive, living in both the present and the future. The text could easily become sarcastic or glib; but I found myself being spurred on to imagine what a golden future would maybe be.

She pulls out books about Oakland’s Sun Ra, a musician and artist whose bright aesthetic echoes in her studio. He took on his persona as a prophet and never deviated from it, becoming a pioneer of Afrofuturism itself. The small artworks inside the book are themselves mythic and feature characters wielding unworldly powers. This too is an imagined world grappling with extraordinary powers. There’s a similar sincerity in Lakwena’s work: optimistic but not removed from the realities of present day. 

That is after all what we are constantly promised: for the future to be great again, strong and stable. And the best slogans promise what we want. I remember “hope” being so important after the Bush years. For whom are these promises? Her son napped quietly next to her work, a reminder that politics and power dynamics aren’t at all theoretical. 

The present isn’t gold; let’s hope that the future could be.



Lakwena Maciver lives and works in London. Her exhibition, The future's gold, is at KK Outlet, London N1 from 7 July to 31 August 2017. You can also see more of her work at lakwena.com or follow her on Instagram @lakwena.

Warm chairs

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Lucia Dill's Berkeley studio

Lucia Dill, Beyond what I knew, 18 by 24 in, 2015. Image via www.luciadill.com.

Lucia Dill, Beyond what I knew, 18 by 24 in, 2015. Image via www.luciadill.com.

Folding chairs don’t exactly sound inspiring or really deserving of any sort of dialogue. Nevertheless, they are everywhere and most specifically at every large gathering -- the miscellany of the chairs in church basements, the “fancier” white, plastic version at weddings, office meetings, gatherings in people’s homes when there aren’t enough regular chairs, endless critiques on cement floors within art school’s repeated painted white walls. I can hear the ding of two hitting each other as I try to carry as many chairs as possible in some small, personal celebration of my own bravada while my mom supervises the clean up in a church basement where men are supposed to move the heavy things. Yes. I know these chairs well.

A single folding chair leans against the wall of Lucia Dill’s Berkeley studio. Is this one of her models? She confesses that she doesn’t need the chair anymore to make her paintings. Lucia Dill has been making this work since her final year in California College of the Arts’ BFA program. I met her and her chairs when our work was paired together in an exhibition, and it was like finding a painting-sister.

Lucia Dill in her studio at Makers Workspace in Berkeley, CA

Lucia Dill in her studio at Makers Workspace in Berkeley, CA

These are the uncomfortable seats for gatherings like in her paintings that she considers family portraits. There’s a necessity to them, like the necessity of relationships in our lives. Lucia is a self-proclaimed introvert, and I imagine that experiencing so much presence in these chairs feels slightly less overwhelming. Initially the work seems to indicate an absence; but I find them to be more of a continuation of that presence. Someone was here, now they are gone; the chair remains. Then the presence can remain even beyond the chair as a painting. I’ve found the process of painting to be akin to spending time with a person--it’s spending time in a space that may be gone. It makes a singular moment continue.

The chairs have a certain quiet to them. It’s a relief to someone like me who’s an introvert -- that it’s a presence without the requirements of actual interaction. It’s a reminder that someone is there.

Lucia also includes tags with her paintings and has created several artists books. The repetition of the chairs, the long lines, and continuation in the books seems to point toward language. These pieces bridge painting with books: books hang on the walls as paintings, painting and printmaking find its way into books. One project, On the Line, is a series of long, power lines which operate almost as music staffs. The black and white images relate the power lines closely to the text Lucia wrote. In these books, the hand relates so closely to language: as writing, as art making, as holding a book.

On The Line, one of Lucia's book projects

On The Line, one of Lucia's book projects

The forms construct a sort of code. I’m left wondering what happened in the space. The chairs moved to create vestiges of interactions, and Lucia’s repetitive use of imagery highlights all their subtleties.

The code also finds itself in her palette. Lucia chooses the colors based on her own personal associations--soft navy, Cal colors for her grandmother, cool teal patterns that echo the plants she sees during the day. There’s a strong connection between her work and the everyday. Bits of papers end up in her work. Lucia tries to live sustainably, and sometimes even mixes colors on her panels within her painting. Some of her work then makes its way onto bags and coffee cup holders.

Lucia doesn't need a chair "model" anymore.

Lucia doesn't need a chair "model" anymore.

Right now she is working through her body of work for an exhibition featuring daily created work for fifty days. The repetition of the chairs makes them almost characters. Lucia likes to think of their positions as body language. As part of her practice, an intense investigation like this can make you feel like you’re trapped but also provide a sandbox for experimentation. Her previously established language allows for new experimentation. Their dark forms walk across her paintings almost like letters. Lucia has been sewing and collaging to add a new area to her work, fusing the soft, lyrical line of embroidery thread with the hard edges of cold metal chairs.

These functional chairs, endlessly repositioned in circles and rows and aisles, absorb our warmth, and then slowly cool the longer our absence. Lucia’s facture and her consistent return to these chairs similarly linger.


See more of Lucia Dill's work at www.luciadill.com or via her Instagram.


Somewhere between Mulder and Scully

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Katie Dorame's studio

Dorame_studio_talking

Your headphones tell you it’s 1812. The sounds of mass at Mission San Juan Capistrano quietly rise and fall. Suddenly there’s a roar, screams; the bells toll violently.
 
This is Katie Dorame’s favorite part of the audio tour.
 
Maybe that’s because this is the only time the audio tour of the mission actually points toward any sort of trauma, and individuals cannot in any way be responsible for an earthquake. Or maybe it’s because the audio tour is really hokey. We laughed together just imagining it.
 
A studio visit with Katie is a breath of fresh air. She is a rare friend for me as we share an intersection of painting strategies, indigenous politics, a complicated relationship with religion, and an offbeat interest in monstrosities. Katie grew up in southern California and is a member of the Tongva (or Gabrieliño) Tribe of California. Her studio in Oakland is filled with paintings, drawings, a sculpture here and there, and newer installation work.

Katie poses a question in her work, “What if westward expansion went all the way into the ocean, into outer space?” Her question lands her in the rich territory of science fiction. In comics, books, and movies, indigenous people have these special connections to nature, to mythical spirituality, and to other equally strange aliens. (If that’s true, I am missing out.) Space travel always seems to be about manifest destiny anyway.
 
Her recent body of work, Alien Apostles, empathically puts that strangeness onto the Franciscan priests who colonized what is now California in the 1800’s, when the Tongva and other tribes California experienced multiple waves of invasion. (The Franciscan priests only enslaved and converted the indigenous people in the area instead of committing outright genocide, which is argument the Vatican is using to declare Junipero Serra a saint.) Many Tongva artifacts have been lost, and much of the history left was written by the padres themselves. A reality for Katie is that she must learn about her people through books, making history and research a painful and dark experience—one I can definitely relate to. Katie verbalizes the disconnection between well. Someone had asked her if the padres were just the bad guys then. She responded, “If they’re aliens, then they’re new and they don’t know the rules.” The alien padres remain monstrous, bloodied, and cruel, but they are the strange ones. Her work attempts to make sense of it all, to comprehend how these events took place. What’s Katie’s stance on these histories and religious institutions?
 
“Somewhere between Mulder and Scully.” She wants to believe, she wants to take part, she wants to inhabit that world; but there’s still so much skepticism.

Like with most science fiction, Katie has an attraction and a repulsion to history. You keep watching the carnage, but through your hands covering your face. Cinema has a big voice in how the public views history. Katie’s connection to film harkens back to her own childhood in southern California. The last painting she made during her MFA was titled Hollywood Indian. Fictions and histories infiltrate one another. In another body of work, Shifting Screens, Katie juxtaposed images of Tongva artifacts found by archeologist’s sifting the dirt with screens with images of non-indigenous actresses portraying indigenous characters, which pointed to shifting identities. The film stills are seductive, yet the artifact looms over them leaving you to wonder what is happening. Katie points out how Hollywood loves to strip imagery of its history. I have found myself watching movies filled with questionable takes on indigenous identity, being both horrified and fascinated. Her Shifting Screens paintings are perfectly lit, slick, super smooth, and gorgeous—just like Hollywood.
 
Katie’s Alien Apostles paintings take an agency that I love: she is making her own stories. She has always found the stories of Jesus to be violent and bloody, an aspect often disregarded in Renaissance paintings of a peaceful Jesus seemingly relaxed on the cross. Her paintings possess the same structure, but with an unsettling, ethereal nature. There always seems to be something lurking. Katie uses oil paint like watercolors, thinned and mostly as washes. Her paintings are simultaneously disconcerting and hilarious. They glow, but I like to tell myself that it’s actually because of these unearthly (radioactive?) alien padres.

Dorame_installation_doorframe

I asked, “Where do you see these paintings living?”
 
This is a question Katie has long been wondering. She’s also begun to create her own setting for her work. Her painting installation in her own studio draws on the Spanish and early colonial painting in the missions. Local indigenous people constructed and painted the missions, and their own designs snuck their way onto the walls despite the padres actively attempting to anglicize them. She feels a connection to these other indigenous painters through this physicality to create her work. The paintings on the wall feel defiant and secretly political to me. A book details what seems to be two deer facing one another, when in actuality one is a deer, and the other is a hunter disguised as a deer. Katie has begun creating her own versions of these paintings to remember these moments and create a space for her own work. The space also has a conversation with history.
 
There is something disconcerting in the question of where work needs to go. The ugly histories of displacement for indigenous people still echo in the lives of contemporary indigenous people. Katie’s solution to frame her own space is both challenging and a relief. Katie’s work looks back, an unpopular viewpoint in a San Francisco Bay area that is in love with forward progress but one also struggling with the neocolonial undertones of gentrification. Our conversation seems to take place in the past itself—we let the histories we talk about transport us to somewhere else, a strategy I find undeniable in her work. It’s as if the Spanish invasion of California, the Inquisition, Goya’s life, early Baroque painting, and 1950’s B-movies are all happening at this very second.
 
You can see it in her palette. I asked how she chose her colors. It seemed to be somewhere between academic painting and the items that she just likes to keep around. Books out on the table are filled with images of the missions’ interiors and their tawny stucco. Burnt sienna and coral echo throughout all of her work and in the artifacts, shells, and earth-toned fabric scraps in her studio. A piece of translucent vellum appropriately covers a painting from Shifting Screens. There’s an alien padre sculpture in a box that stood near the door of her recent exhibition in Ithaca, NY to beckon (or frighten away) viewers. His face is that glowing terre verte. Katie uses oils as a vehicle for color—she finds it the only way to achieve the richness and luminosity she needs.
 
I look back at the padre sculpture. He is so creepy. But Katie made him only 30 inches tall and sort of sad looking, especially as he lies powerlessly on his back with his scaly hands raised in the air.


You can see more of Katie Dorame’s work via her website, katiedorame.com. Images from her recent exhibition, Alien Apostles, in Ithaca, NY can be viewed on Handwerker Gallery’s Facebook page.

Jon Chapline visited by Nick Naber

I met Jon a few years back, when I was a graduate student at Pratt. He came to do a studio visit with me for his blog ffffffwalls. I have admired his paintings ever since. Jon and I met at his Bushwick studio on a cold snowy Sunday night. As I was led up the stairs of this warehouse building I couldn’t help but notice the fluorescent glow of the lights that in some ways harken to Jon’s paintings. We had a long and varied conversation about his process and how he divides his time between two-day jobs and his studio practice.

What kind of images are you searching for? What kinds of things are attracting you? The paintings you were doing before were paintings of interior scenes with shades/blinds and lighting.

Those paintings were from cell phone photos. They were not found, other than me taking the image as I was walking past or put in a place and taking a picture, then using that to paint from. In these new works, I am inventing the space and the characters. For the space, I usually Google search when looking for specific objects, like a chair or specific types of things that I want to talk about.  The spaces are coming from domestic magazines likeHouse and Garden, old Sears catalogs, that type of thing. I do look online if I can’t find a physical magazine of it.

The figures for the most part are not found online. They are mainly found from screen captures of television shows or portraits that I take. I use the screen capture as the base composition, then taking multiple pictures and collaging them together. It becomes this disjointed anamorphic image of someone. Different elements are stripped away, retaining  composition, lighting, and the mood of the sources.

The thing I immediately think about, specifically with the portraits is a cinematic feeling, and they also have this feeling of something from 1980’s. Not to say they look like a Nagel painting but they have this kind of flatness. Could you talk about that a little bit more, is it coming out of the collage or is there a real effort to create these flattened forms with paint?

Yeah, it is coming from that digital subject matter that I am painting from. I consciously push it as far as it can go. I’m always trying to find new ways of pointing that out. Obviously, the gradients are a computer-derived thing for the most part and it’s a computer’s way of making space in the most dumbed down way possible.

For instance in Simulation and Mirror the gradients create this space and you can tell that the gradient is describing a back, but it’s not quite right. Where the backbone should be it is shifted off. The gradient on her pants and t-shirt and the overall shape of the swatch, it all snaps together. It’s these three different elements in the simplest of terms creating something but also referencing something completely flat, and not what it’s actually supposed to be describing.

Looking at the landscapes, are these also coming from the digital realm or are they images you are creating yourself?

Emulated Landscape  came from this old 1980’s test landscape of one of the first CGI based simulations. It didn’t look real at all, but at the time everyone thought ‘how is this even possible?’ It’s a beautiful and weird image, and that’s where I took the composition.  There are these two hills coming out of the water. It didn’t even look like hills or water. It referenced it more than anything.  I had already been working with these sort of water droplets as a screen and I thought it was a funny idea to bring together.

From there I’ve started others. In one, the mountains are coming from an old Sega Genesis game called Echo. The video game designers found the easiest subject matter and described it in this digital shorthand. I’m interested in exploiting this idea and and appropriating the subjects that come with it.

The portraits are not so easy to represent and inherently pose different problems. They are the opposite of the landscapes in the lack of simplicity therefore becomes funny or awkward in trying to describe it in this flat language. That hand should never look that way or be described that way if you are trying to describe a hand; they are like these sausage things. The same with the lips, they become these tube shapes. To me that’s what makes it funny.

It creates more of an interest if it is off, because it makes me question more about what is going on.

It’s also one of those things where intentionality is key. Describing the lips in red, and the flesh a certain way. Those choices become more and more apparent. I painted this painting 5 times to get the surface and the colors right. With each time I get closer to arriving at my idea.

By using the colors you are choosing you are creating additional shorthand. If you were using red to describe lips, most people would use that color to describe lips. The skin tone is this peached out white kind of tone which most people don’t have.

Right, but in this character it becomes the most obvious thing.

It becomes identifiable for a viewer, how have people found these paintings?

I don’t know actually. I think people have different reactions to them. Some are opposed to the figures but the landscapes or the interior scenes are ok. Some are more drawn to the figures. My hope is that there is this kind of familiarity that is received. I think for the most part people get that.

I definitely have multiple associations. Is cinema playing a big part in what you are doing?

That’s what I see and that’s what is reverberated. I watch TV constantly. It’s terrible. It’s something innately part of who we are and these kinds of tropes or archetypes are a way to describe the world.

With all of these paintings they are all in the same space or they close to one another. Especially with all the landscapes and interiors they are all part of the same house, you are navigating through this house. If you are playing Mist you see an image and you click and move 20 feet. I am repeating the same plants in various paintings. There is a vocabulary in mark making but also in terms of objects that are repeated.

Growing up as a kid in the late 80’s and early 90’s is this in a way for you to understand your world now through the lens of childhood?

I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I am painting my childhood, but I definitely think these things and the things we are dealing with now will continue to deal with the rest of our lives come from our childhood. We are still dealing with choices that our parents made in terms of the economy and everything. Those are choices and decision we have grown up with that we will pass on.  Whether it be a potted plant that I am holding onto through multiple paintings or a certain vantage point I think we are all coming from there. Hopefully that is what is coming to the forefront.

With the portraits, do you think of the people doing specific actions, or do you see them as frozen in a specific time?

It depends on the portrait. With the painting of this woman it was very much that she was looking at something. You know she is looking at something and getting some sort of reaction. She is described in this nonhuman idea. In terms of that there is a base narrative.  For the guy smoking, it’s more about describing him.  Specific ideas of masculinity, it’s more of a portrait. I can navigate through those in different ways.  I can let go of a narrative or pull into a narrative, yet they still connect to one another. I like that freedom.

She is much more active than he is. The guy in green is more active in the way he is painted and the light that’s coming into his forehead. There is something that is happening that I am not privy to but I want to know.

I like that, I want to starve the viewer of that action. It’s these in between moments, if you were to play an action film but then pause it at a standstill right before something is to happen.

Something else I am conscious of is the objecthood of these paintings. I am referencing backlit screens; with this green one I wanted to describe the idea of looking through this technology like a screen. That’s where this glow is coming from, that one is more like he is looking at a screen and that’s why there is that reflection. It’s describing a screen but it is also a screen at the same time.

There is always this kind of play, because they are collages that are coming from a computer. There are multiple layers of this digital realm.

Yea, also when the wood comes back up. It becomes obvious that I am just painting on a piece of wood.

It seems deliberate that you are painting on these floating panels. They become something in our space more than a typical stretched canvas.

That’s important, to have them be these floating images but also tangible things. That is the overall message these opposite, polar opposite ideas being in the same object.

I find it compelling that you start digitally, then you go to something that is so completely analogue which is painting. Can you talk about that switch from digital to painting?

These are sketches for the landscapes, I will start there to get a composition and then I will use different photographs of sunsets to get colors. I already have the concept and overarching image. This sketch I will scan it in then I’ll start working with colors in Photoshop. I know how to make these gradients with paint and the textures change. It gives me a basis or a starting point for it. There are decisions I can make in the computer that I could never make just drawing or painting. A mouse click or a vector tool or pen tool in Photoshop gives me certain lines or line quality. Those things give me this vocabulary that I can start using in the painting. It gives me this separation or other vocabulary.  That’s the integral thing for using Photoshop; it gives me a vocabulary that is innate to that program that I can then use in the painting.  

It goes from analogue to digital, from digital to analogue.

Yes exactly, It goes full circle.

Is that important to the object that you are making? That it goes through all of these stages?

Definitely, I know I couldn’t get to the same place otherwise. At a certain point, once I get everything that I can get out of the Photoshop file I’ll put that away. That’s the worst part in the painting is when I am using Photoshop then working back into the painting because sometimes I can’t make the decisions because they have already been made in Photoshop. I am repurposing those decisions. The most exciting part is letting go of those digital decisions and responding to the painting.

I’m going to be making more of these portraits. I’ve been getting a little sick of making these interior scenes. I want to start doing  portraits that have spaces behind them, but making it more about the portrait. I want to intertwine those two things. The portraits came out of the idea of how would these people look in this world. That was something I had to get through in order to start creating this overarching world.  I had to figure out what these things would look like.  

Do you think these characters will come back, when you start creating these new paintings?  

Maybe not the specific characters, I like the idea of switching it up a little bit and creating new identities and troupes that I can deal with. Maybe it’s the same sort of archetype but it gets handled differently. The characters I create are not going to stick throughout, I’m not going to create 5 characters like a Sims environment and try to play out their lives. I’m not interested in doing that. I am interested in placing certain ideas together creating the different characters that way.

When you see them from far away they look like this pristine flat surface, but when you get closer it’s visible that it’s painting and that it’s made of wood.  Are those multiple readings important to you?

Yeah, that’s always a struggle. How much do I need it to be intentional or how much do I want to let paint be paint?  It’s something I’ve always dealt with. At a certain point you need to let things exist. That’s an exciting decisions you can only make with paint. You can’t do that with an inkjet print, or with airbrush. With paint there are these imperfections and these variables that are things you need to push against or embrace. That’s something I am always working through or trying to figure out.  

What is a typical day in the studio for you? How are you arranging your time here?

I work two different jobs. They take most of my time, unfortunately.  I have had to get strategic, “Ok, I have 3 hours, what can I do in 3 hours?” It used to be that I would sit here half of that time just trying to figure out what to do.  That’s where working it all out in Photoshop or sketches and collages help when I get into the studio. It allowed me to do exactly what I needed to do when I got here.  I have 5 or 6 paintings going and I know 3 of them I can touch today, and 3 I can touch tomorrow. It becomes this way of pushing through ideas and letting them go and revisiting them in a quick succession. The decisions have to be made relatively quick. I kind of have to roll with it in a certain way, which allows for that immediacy without going through too much hesitation.  It’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way. If I am going to make these precise things how can I do it without being too controlled? It’s all about setting up time in the way that I can prop myself up to create these images in an efficient way. 

 

jonathanchapline.com

Additional Images:

Rachel Sanders visited by Jenna Wilson

Rachel Sanders is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) with a BFA in Drawing in 2012. She is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Milwaukee Art Museum. She has an energetic and playful spirit that shines through her work and illuminates her role as an avid local arts supporter. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Rachel’s adventurous nature is the catalyst to the creation of a bevy of evolving drawings and paintings.

Rachel shares a studio space with her father in an industrial district of Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood. Situated across from the Kinnickinnic River, the large unassuming-looking warehouse affords views of the boat marinas and Horny Goat Brewery. It’s a cavernous labyrinth of huge doors and wide hallways housing everything from glassblowers to recording studios, web start-ups to small batch food and beverage, and just about every other creative venture you can think of. After sliding across the black ice of the parking lot I was greeted by Rachel, and we promptly ascended to her 3rd floor studio. 

www.rachsanders.com

Jenna Wilson: Is there a standout piece in here that you are proud of right now? And if there is one could you explain how it exemplifies you as an artist?

Rachel Sanders: Yes. Actually, I know what I will show you. I biked to Madison in the fall. I’ve done it before but this time I did it alone and I remembered seeing these cows along the way - you are going through farmland the whole time. I wanted to make so many drawings on this trip and I only made two or three, but this was one of them. 

I had been riding all day. I was picturing a certain place in my mind, but I couldn’t remember where along it was. Then I saw all of [the cows]. They were back at the barn and there was just one standing right there. I said to myself all right, this is it, this is it! I got out my shit - I think maybe this guy was the first one and then all of them started coming by. It was wonderful. It felt good and I got a little teary eyed. [Gesturing at cows] …What was the question? [Laughing]

JW: Getting out and doing [drawings] in an outdoor space, is that something you would say that you do?

RS: I’m always drawing. I was thinking about that. I always have to be [drawing], and I love to be outside. Adventures like that feel good and I like the challenge. 

JW: Do you work in a series? Along with the adventures - do you just work as ideas come to you? Is it random?

RS: That’s a good question. If you keep making things you end up with a pile, and if you keep going you get into a good rhythm. That’s how a series can happen. With these drawings, if I felt stuck I’d say - if I just keep drawing something good is going to come out of it. 

JW: What intrigues you about interior spaces? The skewed perspective you have in those drawings is visually interesting. 

RS: For me, it is nice to draw what is in front of you. I’m surrounded by this shit all the time and the possibilities are kind of endless. I enjoy seeing that if I make a squiggle it ends up being that bottle there. Observation – that’s my biggest thing, observational drawings. I  think I have a bad imagination sometimes. If you said draw a dinosaur it would be terrible unless there’s a dinosaur in front of me. [Laughing] Does that make sense? Which is funny, too, because these [drawings] aren’t photo-realistic. 

in progress

in progress

JW: How do you know when a piece is finished?

RS: It just kind of feels right. It may not be. Some of these paintings I didn’t work on for about a year and then I went back to them. I just get in a rhythm and then when that stops, it’s done. 

JW: The interior spaces paintings with the faces imposed on top, it seems like they are extensions of the drawings you were doing. How did that come about? What is the progression that happened there?

RS: They were really playful. Those have a lot of variations of marks. The faces were an interesting addition because each of them is so different. I used a bunch of different colors and different materials and eventually it kind of happened. 

JW: Do you do sculptures? I saw the chess sets that you had made. That’s a cool project. 

RS: Thanks. Well, I have all this clay over here that I need to recycle if you know somebody that is into that. I do. I like clay but I don’t have the means right now to do it. I did in college, with figure sculptures, which was fun. But right now it’s Sculpey and the oven. [Laughing]

JW: Did the idea for chess pieces come from figural work you had done in college? They are little torsos, little people. 

RS: I wish I had it here but I made this little guy out of clay that looks like the pawns, just bigger. After that I started to make these types of little things. I was making weird jewelry stuff and then they kind of developed into – I don’t know if you saw the pins or necklaces I made but they look like that, that’s a painting of all of them.

JW: The falling, chaotic people.

RS: Yes and now I make chess sets. 

JW: Nice. In my research of your work and other projects I discovered a fundraising event called “The Fastest Painter in Milwaukee”. What was that all about?

RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Do you know Waldek Dynerman? He was one of my teachers at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design], and he posted something on Facebook - he was being a little shit, being cocky but on purpose. He posted a picture of all these paintings he made and he’s like, “I must be the fastest painter in the world, I just made all these in like a half an hour” or something.  I was like, “Oh yeah? Let’s bet on that”. Then somehow that turned into us actually having a battle and dueling to be the fastest painter in Milwaukee. The space [for the event] was next to his studio in Bay View, and the girl running it at the time, Jenie Gao, she let us use her space, which doubled as a gallery – a gallery and living spot. Then we raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer [Action Network], and we made five hundred or six hundred dollars. It was cool because at the end we just auctioned off the pieces starting at two dollars. It was totally fun. [Laughing]

JW: On top of volunteering you are an instructor at several art institutions - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [MIAD], Milwaukee Art Museum, and also the Charles Allis Museum. 

RS: Yes and the Villa Terrace, they’re connected. 

JW: Can you describe your roles at those jobs?

RS: CAVT – Charles Allis Villa Terrace, there I’m visitor service staff so I open and close the museum and it’s pretty boring - but I get to be around art, so that’s good. At the Art Museum I do the Kohl’s Color Wheels. We go around Wisconsin to different schools and events and make art with kids, and teach them about the museum. Then at MIAD I teach continuing education classes. 

JW: How does being an instructor to what I assume is a wide range of ages and kinds of students inform your work?

RS: It is fun; I love it. I keep saying that’s the best job, at MIAD, because it’s what I’m most excited about – to work with people and get them excited about working, too. It feels good. 

JW: What courses do you teach?

RS: Drawing. Observational drawing. The one right now is called Improvisational Drawing.

JW: Is that music-influenced?

RS: That’s where it stems from, yes. Actually, I always tell my class that the way a read artwork is kind of how you would read sheet music. But I guess that’s because I play music.

JW: What do you play?

RS: I play the saxophone. That’s the main thing.

JW: Do you play with any bands or ensembles?

RS: Sometimes. [Laughing] Sat. Night Duets had me play with them. 

JW: With all this stuff going on how do you make time to paint?

RS: I’m not that busy. It sounds like it but I’m here [in the studio] everyday, or I try to be. And you have to make time. It feels good, and I like to do it so I just do. 

JW: Are there any particular experiences that you’ve done that stand out as motivating or energizing to you? 

RS: School was helpful. I was thinking of [when I] started college. I thought I was bad at drawing and I would always get embarrassed to show my stuff because it didn’t look like anybody else’s. I cried a lot. [Laughing]

JW: I did too sometimes. [Laughing]

RS: Oh God, I always think about this time we had to draw a self-portrait. I don’t know – mine was like Mr. Potato Head meets… it was really fucking ugly. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But school was helpful. [Laughing]

JW: You got past the crying. 

RS: Yes. Because I was like, well, I want to be good at this. I came here to learn so I have to learn as much as I can - and be good at drawing and like what I make. Now, teaching is fun and it’s nice to see what people are capable of doing and making. It’s amazing actually. 

JW: Throwing around ideas and doing projects with the students probably generates a lot of energy. 

RS: I look at a lot of different artists, a lot of different stuff. I think it’s helpful to see tricks other people are using. That happens when teaching too.  I just went to that space Art is for Lovers. That was refreshing, it wasn’t stuffy, sometimes you go somewhere and it feels awkward. But it was cool in there. Everyone should get over there and check it out! It was great. People were excited about it, and that’s important. You’ve got to be like “Yeah, I made this!” If you aren’t excited about it, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to get somebody else to be. 

JW: You mentioned bike riding to Madison earlier. Traveling outside of the city, that’s refreshing to you, or traveling to other places.

RS: Even just exploring weird little pockets in Milwaukee is fun, places that my pals and I would go on weird hikes all the time. Kind of on the outskirts where the hobos have their camps. People are fishing. [Laughing] 

JW: [Laughing] Since you mentioned fishing let’s talk about the boat paintings. 

RS: That came about when I got [into this studio]. We were trying to pick, because we could have been on the other side [of the building], but that view is of the interstate. Maybe I would have made better paintings. [Laughing] It’s good because it’s right there for me. That’s what I’m going to do, I love to make and you can just make something – make a drawing right now, you know?

JW: How long does it typically take you to work a progression of the boat paintings?

RS: Usually I will have about three at a time; for me I have to take a step back. I don’t like to be working on one piece. Sometimes it happens fast, like the one in the window – that was just a day. That was fast. That was with acrylic and these [others] have been with oil mostly, so these are taking a little bit longer, and they are not done yet. 

I work with whatever I can find. That’s the improvisational part, and it’s gratifying. That’s where the challenge is. You have this bag of tricks and you have to throw them out there, and make little ditties with them. I work with house paint a lot. It’s great – I get the “oops” paint, the colors that some dummies don’t want anymore. 

in progress

in progress

JW: What other hobbies do you have? I know you like to DJ parties sometimes. 

RS: Yeah, Anna Deisinger and myself are the hottest DJs in town. [Laughing] No. I like music a lot. We both, all of a sudden, had a lot of vinyl and we thought, “Hey, let’s play this for our pals, we can make money and drink for free!” I also like to go camping and ride my bike. A couple weeks ago my pals and I went down past Sheridan Park and snuck into the woods and set up some tents above Lake Michigan. Stuff like that. We made a fire and it was freezing. Oh, and I just got into football! All my life I hated football. I just ugh - I don’t like it. One day I was in New Orleans and my pals are like, “We have to watch the Packers play, we can’t miss it”, and I said, “Fine, I’ll just drink some whiskey and watch the game”. We ended up at a Packers bar in New Orleans and the Packers won in the last 3 seconds of the game. It was so good. The whole bar went crazy and we were hugging strangers and it felt like we were lifted up into the air. Seriously, and that moment I was like whoa. [Laughing] My friends think it’s so funny because two months ago I’m like, “I’m not watching football with you”. I do love sports – I love basketball so much. That’s a good hobby.

JW: To play?

RS: Yeah it’s fun. And going to Bucks games. It’s cheap too, nobody’s going to those games. 

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Rachel Sanders is an enthusiastic maker that strives to let creativity run into the full structure of her life.  Her jokey buoyancy when speaking perfectly mirrors the demeanor of her work. Her drawings laugh at the sky while her paintings are spin a record at the bar.  It’s evident from the presence of a basketball in her studio that one must periodically remember  - underneath all the passion is a person who is “always wanting to shoot hoops but her pals never want to play”. Perhaps they are too busy enjoying her paintings. 

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