I have always used art as a tool to process what is going on around and within me. I believe what I now call the landscape of the mind has always been the focus of my work despite my having painted many different subjects. I consider making art a journey, and mine seems to be cyclical. It takes time for themes to emerge as I continue to discover, the seeds for what I am doing now were in my previous work. I often have ideas about what my work means as I am creating it, but it is time and distance that bring true understanding. I continue to re-work old themes but in new ways. Cloud forms and silhouettes, for instance, have made appearances in my work repeatedly, but always in a different contexts. Being able to paint what’s on my mind allows me to make sense of the world, to take things apart, re-arrange them, and reimagine them differently.
As a child, I drew and painted things I was interested in over and over again. In high school, I began my journey with watercolor by painting signs I drew for pep rallies with a cheap set of Prang paints on copier paper. I can’t think of more frustrating tools with which to work in watercolor, but something clicked for me . . . the transparency, the flow, that lent itself to tiny details, and the jewel-like color. In college, I began painting self-portraits from blind contour drawings. They were odd and surreal. I distinctly remember painting them in a stream of conscious manner, which is something I’ve returned to recently. Although I feel I’ve always had the soul of an artist I certainly didn’t always have the skills. I spent many years learning to draw and paint and I am still continuing to do so. This is something I stress frequently in the classes I teach. That art is like anything else, if you want to become good at it, it requires a lot of practice. It isn’t a magical inborn gift, although some of us are born with more facility to begin with.
For many years, I drew rather than painted with watercolor paints. I used them to create miniatures of a sort, surreal landscapes inside silhouettes of women. I started this series in the last year of my MFA program with a painting called Winter Within. My best friend and painting partner had recently committed suicide. She was someone with whom I felt I would have had a lifelong friendship, as we had an understanding of one another that I consider extremely rare. The silhouettes were a way to turn my dark and depressing experiences into something beautiful, and to deal with crippling loss. I find art that rides the line between ugliness and beauty is the most powerful and satisfying to me, as it jolts and soothes the system simultaneously. I painted my friend over and over again, I filled her silhouette with butterflies sucking the life-blood out of flowers, poppies alluding to the glass being half empty, birds in flight and even painted her with a crow on her shoulder in My Dark Side.
|My Dark Side, Watercolor on Arches HP, 15” x 11.25”|
I think of watercolor like walking a dog in which the length of the lead can be controlled by the push of a button. In the silhouette series, I had the leash in close and the button locked. The watercolor was forced to do my bidding and stay exactly where I put it. In my current work, I’ve let go of the button. Although I still maintain hold of the leash, the watercolor is allowed more freedom to do what it chooses. This interplay between tightness and looseness has taken me years to achieve, as I think it was both a psychological and technical issue. I had to grant myself permission to loosen up. I used to think that if I didn’t paint realistically I wasn’t proving my worth as an artist, despite the fact that I had long admired the work of many artists who weren’t realists.
At some point the constraints of working tightly and representationally became so painful that I realized I could no longer continue to make work in that way. I had solved most of the problems with the silhouettes, and I was tired of transcribing visions I saw in my head. Of course, what came out on paper never looked like it did in my mind, and on rare occasions it was better! I found it difficult to leave the Silhouetteseries behind and move into the unknown. I no longer had fully formed paintings appear in my mind’s eye. What was I to paint? What would it look like? For some time, I created very little, and I worried I would never paint again. I felt stuck and wasn’t sure how to proceed. I needed to learn to experiment again.
In 2011, I had an artist residency in the Luce Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, for which I will be forever grateful. It gave me the time and space to make work simply for the sake of creating. The stipend allowed me to give myself a pass on making paintings that had to be sold, and it opened the door for experimentation. I had a palette cleanser of sorts. I worked in conte crayon and charcoal on grey paper without much color, which led to the watercolor paintings in the Actus et Potentia series. Looking at them now, I can see a battle happening between the tight and loose manner of working. The twister form became more and more prominent in my work, and would eventually lead to Twists and Falls, a series that explores relationships with others and my battle with chronic pain.
|There be Dragons Here, Watercolor on 4ply gray museum board, 40” x 32”|
In 2013, I was invited to teach and use the studio at Welsey where I once again embarked upon experimental work, this time on yupo, which is a synthetic paper made of polypropylene plastic. The Wayfarer and Map for the Eyes series are both painted exclusively on this surface. Yupo’s non-absorbent surface allows for nearly endless paint removal. It facilitates additive and subtractive painting in a way that the smooth and delicate hot press paper I’d used for many years cannot. I let the paint pool on the paper, dropped-in color, and worked in a manner I refer to as controlled chaos. The fact that I could make corrections or wipe everything back to nothing emboldened me in my application of paint. If I didn’t like it, I could start again! In contrast, some of the silhouettes took me upwards of 90 hours each and there was no place for experimental painting in those works.
|In my Head, Watercolor on yupo,18” x 26”|
|Sin Options, Watercolor on yupo, 26” x 40”|
Despite the fact that I paint quite differently now, I still remain attracted to lots of negative space around a subject. The white of the paper serves as a resting space for the viewer’s eye. I have (surprisingly to myself) returned to the silhouette recently in Bodies of Water, but they are looser, amorphous beings pulled from my subconscious. Now I start by laying down a few strokes of paint on the paper. I let the focus of my eyes go fuzzy and I begin to see a loose silhouette, sometimes they change position before my very eyes. Being back on hot press paper is a less forgiving surface, but I still employ the additive and subtractive methods I usedon yupo to try and carve the figure from the pool of water. It was recently pointed out to me that I am making monotypes, but not printing them. This method of working depends a lot on chance, the weather and temperature can affect the way the paint moves and dries.
|Storm is Coming, Watercolor on yupo, 8” x 5"|
I’m excited to see where this series goes. I recently bought a large roll of watercolor paper and plan to make paintings that are scrolllike and roughly five feet tall. I can loosely envision what it might look like, enough of a daydream to spur on my exploration, yet undefined enough to leave room for chance and exploration. I will attempt to paint these works vertically on a wall rather than flat on a table, something I have never done before in my 23 years of watercolor. This will cause all sorts of new problems to solve and embrace.
|Drifting, Watercolor on Fluid HP, 12” x 9”|
This is Week 2 of Artists Tell Their Stories in 2018. Thank you for reading and sharing Alexandra’s story today. To connect with Alexandra and see more of her work, please visit the following links: