Thursday, January 18, 2018

Alexandra N. Sherman, Watercolorist, Tells Her Story

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 Silhouette series 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 used on 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 scroll-like 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:

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