The Painting Perceptions blog was started in early 2009 by Larry Groff. This site started with an emphasis on painters who had some connection to observed vision in their work but over time the blog grew to become more inclusive; as much perceptions on painting as it is about perceptual painting. We examine a wide range of stylistic approaches from extremely loose abstraction to precise realism a
Oakland Studio 18, 12×12 inches, oil on panel, 2018
I’m pleased to share this interview with the wonderful Bay Area California painter Gage Opdenbrouw where he talks at length about his background, process and thoughts on making his landscapes and views of his studio in Oakland, Ca. I would like to thank him for his generosity in responding to my email interview questions.
His website’s general statement is a great introduction for those who may not be familiar with him and include it here:
…painting is a way of drawing close to moments, and an attempt to pay homage to the fleeting beauty of everyday observations. Regardless of the subject, whether a figure or a moment of light in an interior, the sweep of a sky above an industrial neighborhood, the goal is, as Joseph Campbell once put it, “to reveal the radiance that lies hidden just beneath the surface of every day”. I’m hoping to use a brush to create some poetry from mundane materials, and if the paintings resonate with the viewer in the eye, the heart, the gut, then I feel I’ve been successful in sharing some small aspect of my experience.
His list of solo shows includes: John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA, 2017 and Luna Rienne Gallery, San Francisco in 2016, and has shown widely in group exhibitions.
Larry Groff: How did you first decide to become a painter?
Gage Opdenbrouw: I always drew a lot, as a teenager I found that I couldn’t paint in a way that equaled my command of drawing. So I found myself frustrated because I was lacking an understanding of the concept of masses. My work was essentially linear, just drawing in color. But at the same time I had some great teachers. I was one of those smart but somewhat maladjusted kids in high school that was always getting in trouble–the type that was capable of getting A’s–but mostly getting detention.
I was in a group show a few years ago that Kyle Staver had several paintings in, and her artist statement recounts someone pulling her aside, a teacher, I think, and saying, ‘I know what’s wrong with you, you’re an artist!’ Her remark really cracked me up because it was a similar experience for me, only I had to figure it out myself.
My last year of high school was at a sort of alternative program at the local city college, where I got to take college level art and philosophy classes. I’d always been a big reader, and had been really drawing a lot and keeping a sketchbook, looking at a lot of art since my early teens. So I think a couple of the teachers that I had at San Jose City College were really big influences in encouraging me to dig deeper. I had several figure drawing and painting classes with an artist named Luis Guiterrez, who, as far as I knew from his classes, was sort of a Franz Kline-like painter. I was shocked to see after knowing him for a couple years that he had done Frederic Remington type cowboy paintings in his youth, very well, at that. But he always encouraged us to work loosely, to collaborate with the material, to draw in ways that were barely within out control. We worked from a model frequently but he encouraged our response to the model to be more intuitive rather than descriptive. I started to see recruiters from art schools in San Francisco and Oakland on campus, I was very receptive…I had both enough experience, and enough encouragement; to dare to think that maybe I could be a painter.
Walnut Lane/Philly Window #1, 16×16 inches, oil on panel, 2018
Oakland Studio 8,rainyday,bluedrapes,
LG:You studied painting at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco? What was that like for you?
GO: It was interesting. Going into it at 18 or 19, what I really wanted was a very traditional education…I think I saw being able to draw what was in front of you as a certain sort of visual literacy…not to say I valued realism especially, but it seemed to me important somehow as a place to start. it still does. Anyway, it was, and still is, a very commercial school. I started as an illustration major, as some sort of nod to practicality. I admired a lot of illustrators, and loved graphic art, especially Goya, Kollwitz, and the like. My taste was dark and dramatic, romantic…Turner and Friedrich were both revelations. At the time illustration was still seen as a viable option, when in a lot of ways it was really beginning dying off from a much healthier period. Anyway, the illustration program was great as a foundation–we drew from life constantly, mostly the figure, clothed, nude, and mostly quick drawings…I had some really great teachers. After a couple years I switched my major to painting, which was a much smaller department–between painting, sculpture, and printmaking majors, there weren’t more than a couple hundred fine art students, and really there was a core of several dozen that was super dedicated. I hung around that group and soaked up as much as could, often with a bruised ego. It was great. We would have 6-hour studio classes, and then draw or paint the figure another 3-4 hours in the evening, be back at it by 9 the next morning. It was immersive, and competitive, and I met a ton of very talented artists I’m still close with today.
On the downside, the education itself was as close to purely technical as it could be, which was great in a lot of ways–but there was, I think, no real intellectual rigor or philosophical discussion as part of painting classes…in some ways that was good, to my mind, that was what drinking beer with my friends was for, and I think we have all found what we need in that respect since, but I’d say that was the big glaring deficiency, but it’s not like it wasn’t obvious going in. I got what I wanted out of it. But it’s just now, 20 years later, that I can stand Sargent, or Sorolla, or Zorn…everyone emulated those guys with the slashy brushstrokes and a little too much cadmium…by the time I was done with school I was painting from memory and imagination primarily, as I was really sick of the idea of a painting having to be this particular kind of photographically derived, brightly colored, modern day impressionism. But I had great teachers, Craig Nelson’s quick studies class taught me SO much that is still a fundamental part of my daily practice…we would do 4-6 paintings a day in that class, usually from life, some as short as 20 minutes. I think we did 20-minute paintings before lunch and 40s in the afternoon. Just building mileage. I learned a ton about economy, paint handling, focus–how to make an observation count in one mark. How much you can do quickly, if you can attain the right level of focus. That’s still important to me–not speed for its own sake, but the keenness of observation that sort of work teaches you.
I had a great anatomy instructor, for several semesters, got to do a lot of sculpture, which really informed my way of seeing and translating forms, I made prints…All in all it was a great education, and it gave me the time and foundation I needed to begin to develop as an artist.
Studio Sink, oil on canvas, 22×24 inches, 2009-2010
Oakland Studio 23, 18×20 inches, oil on panel, 2018
Oakland Studio 19, 18×18 inches, oil on panel, 2018
LG: What have been some of your more important influences that have led you to paint the way you do?
GO: Expressive artists who were also great draftsmen heavily influenced me; such as Goya, Kollwitz, and Daumier…their drama and the sense of visual force has had a major impact. German expressionist painters, Munch, etc. were also huge. I was a pretty alienated kid so the sense of social critique, the angst, all clearly spoke to me.
Cezanne, Giacometti, Vuillard, Bonnard, Degas …Morandi…the Bay Area figurative painters have all been important to me. There was a show at Santa Clara University last year, that was really great, it was a juried show of figure paintings, “Honoring the Legacy of David Park”, they had a great panel, including Jennifer Pochinski, and several members of Park’s family. My painting “Garden”, from the series “Garland of Hours”, won a prize, and that was one of the greatest honors I’ve received thus far. It was amazing for one for his daughters to say she thought my painting was lovely and the one her father would have chosen. Fairfield Porter and Matisse have been big for me lately. Edwin Dickinson is another, we have that incredible big The Cello Player painting in the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and that’s a treasure. Andrew Wyeth is a giant for me. I grew up with books of his work, and that 100-year retrospective last year was incredible.
nude Study, 2009, oil on Canvas
SB-backlit, 17×17 inches, oil on panel, 2017
LG: How important is working from observation to your painting process? Would you say you spend more time looking at the motif or the painting?
GO: It’s important, absolutely! It remains a touchstone. But I don’t have any dogmatic feeling about it, and I use photographs and drawings, usually all in some sort of combination. Initially, I tend to spend more time looking at the motif, but overall, yes, looking at the painting dominates. So observation is important as a source for inspiration, rather than a be and end all type of philosophy… and so that’s really just an everyday habit of looking, noticing. In that sense, I think it is all truly from memory, even when we work from life or a photo. Just in looking away from the canvas, and looking back. And I think that’s good. Working from life I find it easy to be overwhelmed by too much information…it’s rich, and amazing, but I need to take some distance from the motif at a certain point, and just develop it as a painting. It should get to a point where it begins to have its own momentum, its own internal logic; that starts to tell me what it wants.
I find sustained painting from life to be a bit overwhelming in the amount of external input…that pressure is good in forming the first session of a painting, but it can often cause me to lose focus in later sessions. So often I will only work from memory or photos or drawings from that point, going back to life only if I’m stumped on something, something where more information is needed, or need a new input to force a more radical change.
Twilight Blooms, 18×24 inches, oil on panel, 2017
Sing Out, Sing Out, Garland of Hours, 24×24 inches, oil on panel, 2015-2016
LG: What are some of your considerations for deciding on what might make a good painting?
GO: The most important thing is getting a strong feeling for the motif or sharp idea that I am excited to dig into. It’s all dominated by light; the subject matter is incidental in a way and not necessarily my driving concern. Right now I’m most drawn to landscapes and interiors, both focused on color and space. And in certain ways these paintings are formally driven. I’m driven by simple arrangements of shapes of color.
There’s such joy for me in the visual world, such frequent surprise and resonance, that I think being able to put some of that down, just the pleasure of a few simple shapes, a chord of color, a visual rhythm, something very abstract in nature, that drives it as much as anything. But ultimately it’s a matter of being receptive to whatever I may notice, and respond to. I suppose compared to my earlier years, I don’t look for drama–I look for quiet, peace, radiance. The famous Matisse quote about a painting being “…something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” seemed decadent when I was younger, now I find it refreshing.
I think that quiet art–small, modest with everyday themes–is becoming a radical notion. I read a review of Rackstraw Downes’ most recent show recently that was entitled something like “the radical possibility of seeing what’s in front of you”. I loved that. I want to be radically engaged with the small things of every day life, incidents of light and shadow. I feel pretty strongly that for me, art has a very particular purpose, and that’s to keep us engaged with wonder and joy. Beauty does that. It calls attention to the miracle of our lives. And that joy is what will sustain us through the storms. That probably sounds corny. Art helps me, in a very deep way, to stay connected to what’s important. But there is a Mary Oliver poem that says this much better;
Don’t Hesitate –by Mary Oliver (from ‘Swan’, 2010)
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant’
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Oakland Studio 7, 12x12v, oil on panel, 2017
Oakland Studio 4, 20×20 inches, oil on panel, 2016
LG: Do you make a lot of drawings before starting?
GO: Not usually. Or if I do they do not bear a very literal relationship to final painting, although sometimes I’ll do a thumbnail or two. However, time spent drawing, as a way of getting close to the subject, is never wasted. I love to show students Andrew Wyeth’s drawings, they way he would do sometimes dozens of quick pencil drawings, before doing a tempera. He’d draw a room 20 different ways, and in the painting it would be different yet again, but synthesizing all those impulses, and responses. And all those observations just seep into the intimacy, the empathy with the subject. And that quality, I think is key. For me it’s all about that depth of feeling.
The way I work, the drawing often comes in last, edges are often the last thing I..
Summer Pond, 24 x 30 inches, oil on panel
Garden from Above, 30 x 24 inches, oil on linen
I have had the pleasure of meeting Dean Fisher once, by accident, in the Frick Museum in NYC during a visit to the east coast. As I recall, I was staring at a Degas when he tapped me on the shoulder asking are you Larry Groff of Painting Perceptions? This was remarkable as we had never met but he recognized me from a photo he had seen online. I had written several years prior about a painting show I saw of his in Anaheim, California–in one of my early humble attempts to write about painting for this site. Talking with him at the Frick was unexpected but a delightful conversation with someone who cares deeply about painting and with expansive knowledge and insight. I’ve been a great admirer of his paintings and the way he viscerally transforms paint into painterly monuments to nature and art. I am very appreciative of his willingness to answer my questions to him by email and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts and experience with the readers of this site.
Dean Fisher studied at the America Academy of Art in Chicago, and since, has been exhibiting nationally and internationally in prominent galleries for more than twenty-five years. Some of The galleries he currently shows with are: Susan Calloway Fine Art in Washington, DC, Thomas Dean’s Fine Art in Atlanta Georgia, George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, CA, Tregony Gallery in Truro, Cornwall, UK and Jessica Carlisle in London, UK.
Dean teaches painting at Silvermine Art Center in New Canaan, Connecticut and privately. He also teaches an amazing landscape painting workshop in Dordogne, France (see the link to his workshop website https://deanfisherworkshops.com/ ) and has plans to offer it again in 2019. He also plans to teach in Tuscany, Italy in the Spring – details to be announced soon.
Dean Fisher painting in the Dordogne Valley Workshop in France
Larry Groff: What led you to become a painter?
Dean Fisher: My father Shell Fisher is an artist, kind of a Jack of all trades in the visual art world, with interests in painting, drawing, the graphic arts, illustration and cartooning. He’s an especially wonderful draftsman. One of my fondest memories as a child was watching my father create a drawing; with a very deft hand and a few economical marks, a convincing realistic image would begin to appear. It was like magic seeing a three dimensional figure or portrait begin to emerge on a completely blank piece of paper.
I think this was the initial spark, creating something from nothing, in such a skillful manner, which inspired me to begin drawing and eventually start painting.
He was my main teacher throughout my childhood and youth, always instilling in me the importance of developing a sound technical language.
LG: Can you tell us about what art school was like for you?
DF: I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago, it was and still is a school with a strong focus on commercial art. I wanted to go there because, at the time, it was one of the only schools in the country offering life drawing and painting as a major component of the instruction. There were a couple of very inspired and knowledgeable instructors in the fine arts department, Fred Berger and Bill Parks who gave so much to their students.
But actually, the most enriching aspect of being at school were the interactions with a few other talented students who were studying painting at the same time. Several times a week we would go to the Art Institute museum, which was a couple of blocks away. We looked intensely at the paintings, did drawings of them and had fantastic discussions about what we thought about the work. They were a major influence on me and without this interaction and sense of camaraderie, the time at school would not have been nearly as interesting or educational.
Silvius Krecu, one of the most talent people I’ve ever met, was one these students and is still one of my closest friends. We had a very healthy rivalry in terms of pushing each other to develop our skills and understanding of art further. We would stay at school after everyone had left and draw plaster casts and when they kicked us out head over to coffee shops to sketch people for hours.
Garden, 24 x 14 inches, oil on panel oil on panel
LG: What are some ways your paintings have evolved since art school?
DF: At art school our focus was somewhat limited but at the same time pretty intense. The primary aim was painting and drawing the model from life with a heavy emphasis on a painterly a la Sargentesque approach, it was about very careful observation of the model and translating what we saw into paint. This is still a major part of what my work is focused on, a faithful perceptual account of what is in front of me.
A major flaw of this school is that there was virtually no discussion about image making, what inherent aspects make a painting interesting and successful. But fortunately, I did have some of these discussions with my art school friends. Silvius was very open minded and was the first of us to embrace twentieth century movements in art. He always expressed himself very eloquently and helped to open my eyes to these things.
The most pivotal aspect of my artistic education was moving to Madrid, Spain after art school and setting up in the Prado museum to copy paintings, this was fantastic in so many ways. I went with Silvius and our primary focus was an investigation of the work of Velazquez.
An unexpected part of being in the Prado were some of the young artists from different parts of the world who were also there to study paintings. Their art school educations were very different from mine and their artwork was too, with many more modern influences in their work.
I had excellent interactions with many of these people and started to look at a lot of 20th century art. I soon began to let go of my 19th century approach to painting to experiment with paint, shape and color much more…approaching abstraction but never fully letting go of representing real forms.
I also spent a year in Paris copying at the Louvre and two years in London at the National Gallery. Along with the continued copying, I was also developing my own work., working from models and painting landscapes.
While in Madrid, I met Josephine Robinson who was living there and teaching English. She had a background in history and filmmaking and was preparing to move to South America to make documentary films. Soon after we began spending time together she became interested in painting. I was very impressed with her ability to put colors and shapes together beautifully and encouraged her to continue painting. Several months later she returned to her home town of London, England to continue with her film studies. Shortly after, I showed up at her doorstep with my entire studio in my van…yes, I was planning on staying.
Josephine soon picked up painting again and decided to study it full time.
Jo took to painting very naturally, I really think it was her calling. We eventually moved back to the US and got married and have been together for more than twenty five years. Artistically and in many other ways she has played a major role in my development, with her unique, independent and very sophisticated way of looking at the world. Her excellent paintings are a reflection of that.
After returning to the US after living in Europe for eight years, I went through a period of painting figure compositions from photos while under the spell of Balthus but after a period realized that my true love, is having the forms I’m interested in painting in front of me. Now I almost never paint from photos.
So in a sense I’ve gone full circle and am painting from life exclusively, but now filtered through a great appreciation of modernist movements as well as the entire history of art.
In Between, 36 x 30 inches, oil on panel
Tightrope, 48 x 32 inches, oil on panel
Amandacera, 20 x 16 inches, oil on panel
LG: How do you decide on what is the right subject for a painting?
DF: This for me is fairly easy. There are certain things I see which I know I have to paint, this can be many different subjects but is usually an assemblage of forms and colors which create a compelling compositional structure.
Just about any object bathed in light is extremely beautiful to me, this can be difficult because I want to paint everything…but I try to keep it limited to those subjects which scream “paint me” the loudest.
I really don’t want to analyze beforehand why a subject speaks to me so much because this is very complex, so many things enter into this equation. By defining the reasons too much I fear that my response to the subject will be too pre-meditated, based on assumptions and a fragment of what is really there, all which I believe can inhibit the outcome. Instead I just jump int and with my knowledge, experience and skills try to put everything I see, think and feel about the subject into the painting.
Vertical Still life, 42 x 18 inches, oil on panel
LG: Do you work out the structure of the painting with studies and drawings first or do you prefer to let it evolve more spontaneously while working directly on the canvas?
DF: Once I decide to paint something, I usually can’t wait to get started so I don’t do a lot of preliminary work, except perhaps a thumbnail sketch or two in pencil . As I mentioned, I don’t want to dissect or analyze the subject too much for fear of limiting myself, I feel my intuition is much more powerful than my rational mind. As the work unfolds, many of the important qualities which are present in the motif begin to reveal themselves to me and I work hard to make sure these things are clearly communicated in the work. The painting also begins to take on it’s own life and then things get really interesting, it then becomes about making decisions based on what the painting is asking for as well as responding to the motif.
Over the years (decades!)I have undergone a long process of coming to realize which qualities I feel must be present in the work for me to feel connected with it. I’m mainly talking about the quality of the mark of the brush, edges, thickness of paint, transparencies all those things which make up a painting language.
I also want the canvas to be a place of investigation and discovery and am very happy when this sense of searching and process is present in the painting, I think this is very interesting for the viewer as well.
I want the painting to look as if it’s being painted before one’s eyes, with a very active surface…the search for a resolved image is all part of that.
Portrait of Josephine, detail, 48 x 24 inches, oil on panel
LG: What do you think about with regard to getting a feeling of light and space in your work?
DF: Well, if it wasn’t for the challenge of trying to capture light and space in my work I wouldn’t be a painter. These qualities are the main subjects of my paintings. If the light and space doesn’t end up working in a particular painting, I usually consider it a failure.
I concentrate on color and tonal relationships as well as using all optical devices available to me in the painting to capture a sense of breathable air and the type of light which is present. When I decide to paint a subject it has so much to do with the quality of light which i see. I find these aspects of perception fascinating and am not interested in capturing an approximation of it. This is why I haven’t worked from photos in years.
I strive to keep all the forms open while developing a painting. When I feel that the edges around things are becoming too uniform, which I feel inhibits air and space, I’ll take a palette knife to it and by scraping the area or entire painting. This almost always greatly improves it and suggests new directions that the painting can follow.
Summer Pond II, 6 x 18 inches, oil on panel
Autumn Pond, 12 x 36 inches, oil on panel
Figure by a Redbud Tree, 48 x 40 inches, oil on panel
LG: How important is direct observation in your work? Have you always painted from life?
DF: As a child, I did a lot of drawings and pastel paintings from photos, but as I remember the best work was done from life. I did a carefully observed and rendered drawing in graphite of a milkweed seed in the 5th grade which won an award and was published in a regional arts magazine. This was memorable for me and fueled my enthusiasm for representing things I found fascinating from my surroundings.
In art school we worked strictly from life and while I was in Europe I was only doing observational painting. After returning to the US, for a period of about five years I often worked from photos doing Balthus inspired figure compositions. I learned a lot during that period but eventually came to realize that I’m always more inspired and do my best work while in the presence of the subject.
During the past ten years or so I haven’t worked from photos at all. In fact, I’ve grown to wonder why figurative painters would choose to work from photos rather than life. Why someone would want a machine to do the editing for them rather than feasting ones eyes on the subject and employing all ones senses while painting or drawing.
A trained eye sees so much more than a camera does, why only work with 60% of what is present in the subject. That coupled with the fact that an artist’s vision becomes sensitized to observing nuance while working from life, this takes many years to cultivate and is an ongoing process.
I was gratified that Antonio Lopez Garcia said almost exactly the same thing which I’m saying here and tell my students, while I was recently working with him at his workshop in Pamplona, Spain.
I also feel there is a tendency for artists to fall in love with a particular photo, so the work becomes about doing a rendering of the photo rather than an investigation of observed reality and the resulting trail and error process over time which, in my opinion, always results in richer surfaces and a more interesting work of art.
When an artist paints a painting from a photo, I rarely feel their presence in front of the subject, there’s almost always a disconnect because of the above mentioned reasons. These are qualities which cannot be faked.
In short, being in front of the subject while painting is a completely different experience than working from a flat, 2 dimensional photo. I do think however that a very experienced artist who has worked from life for years can work creatively using photography as the basis for a work. Degas is a prime example of this. But if that experience isn’t there, the artist’s shortcomings are usually clearly revealed.
March Still life, 24 x 12 inches, oil on panel
LG: Would you say you have a more tonal approach to color in your work?
DF: When I’m attracted to paint a particular subject, it’s usually because I see a strong compositional structure in the subject as well as beautiful color harmonies. I’m often so enamored with the colors relationships I see in nature, I strive to get as close to them as possible. To really come as close as possible to capturing the subtle nuances of the colors which are present and how they relate to each other is a real challenge….it’s so difficult. I’m not sure if that..
I’ve long been intrigued by Carol Heft’s drawings and paintings that she frequently posts to Facebook. Many of her landscape drawings are spontaneous creations that begin from rapid observations of tree configurations seen out a bus window on her long ride to work from NYC to Allentown, PA. I’m particularly intrigued by the relaxed way she traverses the borderlines of abstraction and representation–observation and imagination; it feels as natural as breathing in and out. Her abstractions are imaginary worlds lyrically filled with light, atmosphere and life.
Heft has several solo shows at Blue Mountain Gallery in NYC where she is a gallery artist. She has had solo exhibitions at Dakota State University, Mattera, Italy, University of South Carolina and LaCuca Gallery in Easton, PA. and Fairleigh Dickinson University among others. She has also been represented by the First Gallery Grassina in Florence, Italy. She attended the Madison Art School where she studied with Robert Brackman, N.A., studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her B.F.A and Hunter College for her M.Ed. She teaches at the Muhlenberg College, and Cedar Crest College, in Allentown PA, and St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. She currently lives and works in New York.
I’m delighted that she agreed to this email interview and want to thank her for her time and generosity in sharing her story.
Larry Groff: What was art school like for you?
Carol Heft: I started studying when I was about 12 years old. My first painting teacher, Anne Tuttle, brought me to a school in Madison Connecticut where Robert Brackman did a summer residency program. Brackman was an American master of traditional academic painting, who taught at the Art Students League in New York. I was his studio monitor for the next three summers, and made lunches for the students, mostly adults from his New York class. I was very lucky to have had that experience at such a young age. A follower of Eakins and Bellows, Brackman’s teaching style included demonstrations. Watching him paint was like watching a great dancer, inspiring and beautiful. My high school had a lithography press and an intaglio press, and my teacher and mentor, Gary Stanton, encouraged me. I always loved to draw and paint, and when I started learning about printmaking, I thought I had found my calling. I was a printmaker. I loved it. Later, when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, I returned to painting under the tutelage of Leland Bell, Louisa Chase, Lorna Ritz, Victor Lara and other great teachers and classmates. In spite of my difficult passage from adolescence to adulthood, which included some personal trauma, I liked school very much. I have always loved being in an environment dedicated to learning and study.
LG: What were your first few years like after getting out of school?
CH: I moved to New York in 1976 after I graduated from RISD. I moved into a loft on the Bowery and went to meetings of a group of artists known as the “Alliance of Figurative Artists” or the “figgies” as Lisa Chase called them. I painted and drank a lot as I clumsily negotiated my way through a failed marriage, and various survival jobs. Finally, when I was about thirty, I came to a turning point in my life; a spiritual awakening. It seemed to me that I had been in a daze for most of the past decade, and now, with eyes open, I was able to look at my work with some sense of humility and understanding of what was (and was not) important to me.
42 x 84 inches(approx.) Bowery drawing, 1977-8
LG: What artists do you most often draw inspiration from in your work?
CH: Too many to mention here. The Paleolithic cave artists, Paul Klee, Pieter Breughel, Rembrandt, Kandinsky, Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Berthe Morisol, Mary Cassatt, deKooning, and some contemporaries: Karen Kappke, Ginny Greyson, Heidi Rosin, Vered Gerstenkorn, Francois Dupris, Jean Pierre Bourquin, and Martin Campos, to name a few.
Incident #19, Homage to the Masters of Lascaux, Altamira and Pech-Merle, ink and wash, chalk, and colored pencil on paper Diptych, two sheets, full size 18 x 48 inches, 5.28.18
Study of Breughel’s, Dulle Griet, 9 x 12 inches, pencil on paper, 3.31.18
LG: How do you start a new painting? Please tell us something about how you go about making your art?
CH: When working from observation, I usually follow the traditional approach of working out a composition with charcoal (Brackman used to say that composition was the most important part of the painting; “no matter how badly it’s painted, if the composition is good it will be worth looking at, and no matter how ‘well’ it is painted, if the composition falls apart, the painting falls apart.” Next I work up a chiaroscuro underpainting with yellow ochre, still composing, establishing shadow patterns and tonal descriptions. I think that is my favorite part. You can see the painting, its essence, its orchestration of shapes and movement in this phase. It is the most beautiful to me. The drawing disappears, and there is a tonal impression of what is possible left on the canvas.
Chiaroscuro underpainting of my sister Heidi, 1970 (?)
When I am not working from observation, the first step of looking at the subject is replaced by making marks. The subject is either on the paper already, and I have to find it, or it is in my head or heart, trying to get onto the paper through my hands. I usually make a few marks and then look at them, and go back and forth like this until I feel I can’t learn any more from the work. Then I stop. It’s very different than finishing a portrait, for example, where it is often clear when the last stroke is applied, that no more need be done, and any more would be counterproductive.
Incident #21 or On the Surface, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on watercolor paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches 5.23.18
LG: What role does your mark-making play with your work? Is this a way to access or deny your mood or is it more exploratory investigations of formal art concerns – are there connections between these two things?
CH: I don’t really think my mood plays much of a role in my work. Self-expression is not necessarily connected to a person’s affect. As a professional artist, I think of my work as an ongoing organic series of events in which I participate, but do not entirely direct. The decisions I make while painting or drawing are intuitive. It is only afterward, during reflection, that I begin to understand what those decisions mean, how marks, tone, value, texture, color, how they all work together to create a world, a universe really, with its own parameters.
Automatic Drawing #11, watercolor, pen and ink, and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches, 5.7.18
Papier-mâché, yarn, and “shrinky dink” plastics, oil paint, 20 x 22 inches 1992
LG: I’ve read where you’ve talked about your work being an interactive process. What helps you to better listen to what your work might be saying?
CH: Spending time reflecting on the impact of what I am doing has had or will have on the work. It’s such an enigma, two dimensional art. It’s flat, and you see it in an instant, but it exists in time. It is made in time, can be looked at over a period of time and has visual space and movement, all with temporal analogies. Sometimes I try to visualize a specific change or revision in a piece, but often I need to physically make the change in order to really understand the impact it has on the total. The whole is different than the sum of its parts. Photographing a drawing or painting and putting it in a program like Photoshop is helpful, you can change colors and move things around instantly. It speeds up the thinking process, but to me, it is not a substitute for the physical pleasure of getting paint and glue on your hands and feeling it move from the brush to the paper or canvas.
automatic drawing #4, 12 x 9 inches, 4.24.18
LG: What things might you consider when you start re-working a piece you hadn’t looked at for some time?
CH: When I go back to a piece after many weeks or months, I see it differently, it gives me a chance to integrate ideas that span a period of time, creating temporal layers, while keeping my eye on the unity that is intrinsic to the world of that particular work.
Incident #22, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inches 5.23.18
Visit to the the Veterinary Physician’s Office, pen and ink and watercolor and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 11 x 15 inches, 4.29.18
LG: Many people, especially those with limited art backgrounds, tend to judge representational art by its fidelity to what they think something appears to look like, its photographic likeness or if it follows expected visual conventions. What are some similar ways people wrongly judge abstract works and how would you try to dissuade them?
CH: I think helping people develop an open mind about art is a critical aspect of art education. One of the things I am grateful for having had the opportunity to teach art history is that it forced me to look at and study work that I may have overlooked or dismissed otherwise. This is compatible with having good taste and good judgement. With my traditional academic background (Brackman) it was hard for me to look at non-representational art. For years I could not see Matisse or Leger, or even Picasso. It wasn’t until I had teachers like Lisa Chase, Judy Pfaff and Lorna Ritz, who helped me see beyond the limited scope of what I had been taught. I never judged work by its fidelity to the subject though. In fact, I always thought “realism” was silly. It was painting the surface of something, rather than finding its essential qualities. A great photographer knows the difference between “taking pictures” and composing with the camera. A painter has the same kind of aesthetic choices to make with his or her eye, brush, and heart.
I think of most of my work as figurative and nonobjective at the same time. The figure ground relationship fascinates me in and of itself, but also as it serves the subject. Relationships between shapes, colors, line, all play a role in how the work is experienced. It takes an open mind and engaged viewer to appreciate any work of art, and often these qualities are a function of education and willingness to see things from diverse perspectives.
Larmor Plage (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm
Summer, the Seilleraye (2017) Oil on linen, 35 x 50 cm
I’m delighted to share this email interview with Beth Bernhardt who wrote from her home in France. I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times in the JSS in Civita program in Civita Castellana a few summers ago and wanted to find out more about her life as a landscape painter in France. I would like to thank Beth Bernhardt for sharing these highlights of her background and thoughts about how she goes about transforming pigment into these stunning visual celebrations of light and air.
from her website…Beth Bernhardt has lived and worked in France for the past seventeen years. After earning degrees from Yale University and Boston University she moved to Jerusalem where she spent a year as artist in residence at the Jerusalem Studio School. The sharp contrasts and brilliant contours of the desert light shifted her attention to the landscape where her focus has rested ever since. She subsequently moved to France where she established her studio in Lyon for a few years before moving to Paris for a decade. Recently she settled in Nantes with her family and began painting the surrounding Loire Valley and Atlantic coast. Landscape has remained the center of her work, seeking to capture form and light and achieving a painterly description of place. She has exhibited widely, participating in various group exhibitions throughout the United States and Israel, and in France has had solo exhibitions at the Ile de Versailles in Nantes and the Nabokov Gallery in Paris. Her paintings and prints are held in various private collections worldwide.
Worth Matravers, (2016) Oil on linen, 100 x 120 cm
Larry Groff: What made you decide to become a painter and what early influences were important to you?
Beth Bernhardt: There was no single event that made me decide to be a painter but a number of influences that pushed me in this direction. If I were to start at the beginning, growing up in Baltimore, I suppose I encountered my first influences at home and also at school where it was normal to talk about and look at art and where creativity was nurtured, it was normal to just make things. My mother taught elementary school art and also gave tours at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore so we went often to the BMA, the Walters and also to the National Gallery in DC to look at paintings from a very early age. I remember falling in love with the Matisse cut-outs in Washington and also as a child liking the Roy Lichtensteins, his blown-up, painted comic strips really appealed to me at this early age. In Baltimore there were Matisse’s Pink and Blue nudes in the Cone collection and a certain aura about them that made me extremely curious. As far as school went, I had always followed the art courses throughout my public school education and was extremely excited to begin painting in 10th grade. At my high school in Towson and in the Art program led by Theresa (Terrie)McDaniel, there were many students who were painting, developing interesting bodies of work, and graduating with the intention of pursuing painting as far as I could tell. The quality and sophistication of this high school program played a critical role in my decision to become a painter. It was exceptional in both the way painting was taught—we were taught to see big relationships (versus learning a technique)—and for our exposure to other painters—Terrie had a library of hundreds of art books for us to consult and take home. So you could say I got hooked on painting in high school and have been with it ever since.
To answer your question about early influences, during this period when I first started painting, I looked a lot at the Bay Area Artists including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Nathan Oliveira and also a lot at Fairfield Porter. Fairfield Porter was interesting to me because of his color choices and also the subject matter that he painted—a world that was familiar to me, almost mine. These are painters that I still love and whose paintings bring me lots of joy.
The Cliffs, Civita (2017) Oil on linen, 29 x 40.5 cm
Interior with Bluebells and Landscape, (2017) Oil on linen, 97 x 130 cm
LG: You studied at Yale for undergraduate degree and BU for your MFA. Were you studying with John Walker then? What was art school like for you?
BB: I knew before choosing to go to Yale as an undergrad that there was a strong art department with a long history of painting. One conversation I remember having in particular before enrolling at Yale was with then chair of the Art department, John Hull. He said that a major asset of attending Yale was the proximity of two great museums (The Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art) and that it was an advantage to study painting at a place that had access to such a great collection. He wasn’t wrong. I did spend a lot of time in both museums and especially with Constable’s landscapes and seascapes.
When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1993, the climate was somewhat different and the art department was in the process of transition. Nonetheless, as an undergraduate I was less directly impacted by the fluctuations of the Graduate School. During my freshman and sophomore years I studied painting and drawing with Robert Reed and Richard Ryan and during one summer worked with Bernard Chaet and Barbara Grossman at the Vermont Studio Center. We were encouraged to spend our summers at places such as the VSC because as art majors in a university setting we did not get as much studio time as students at art schools. There was a major emphasis on drawing from observation and working on a particular subject or theme in a series. If you are familiar with Bernard Chaet’s book, The Art of Drawing, much of the work I did at Yale came from Chaet’s teachings. Another teacher who had a large impact on me was Natalie Charkow. We worked in clay in her class, sculpting from the figure—we were learning how to see and the experience was invaluable. I would have loved to study painting with William Bailey or Andrew Forge but unfortunately I did not get a chance as they were no longer teaching by my Junior year.
I jumped straight into an MFA program after graduating from Yale and working with John Walker was an extremely positive experience. The graduate community was also something of a dream come true upon arriving in Boston—a positive and nurturing environment. At some early conjuncture in my first year at graduate school both John Walker and Al Leslie encouraged me to get outside to paint (I had been working on some invented landscapes in the studio). John had a place near South Dartmouth on Buzzards Bay and I would drive there from Boston and spend half of the week painting outside. Sometimes I would work on very large canvases outside that basically only fit into the back of a pickup truck. The paintings were very energetic and had some interesting passages. Working outside pushed me to synthesize things extremely quickly and nature found its way back into the work. Although I continue to work outside, my approach has evolved since this period.
Chateaurenard, (2006) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm
Civita from the Valley, (2015) Oil on linen 27 x 41 cm
Sand Hill, Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm
LG: You later studied with Israel Hershberg at the JSS in Jerusalem why did you feel the need to go further with your training? What was that like?
BB: When I arrived in Jerusalem in February of 2000, it was thanks to a traveling grant and not entirely a decision to continue studying, although Israel Hershberg definitely opened my eyes in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. It all began out of a desire to travel after graduate school and to create a project that would give me time to paint. I was inspired by a recent trip John Moore had made to Israel and the landscape paintings that resulted from this trip. John put me in touch with Israel Hershberg and I began formulating some applications for traveling fellowships. Eventually it was Israel who came through with funding and managed to put this traveling and painting dream together. The JSS had formed a few years before my arrival and the school was located in Talpiot where students were working in a large north lit studio essentially from the model.
Upon my arrival, I assisted to a few of Israel’s classes but mostly worked from the landscape and brought my work to the school when Israel was teaching and available for critique. From these sessions I definitely got drawn into his teaching because he made sense to me in ways that six years of study at American universities can do just the opposite! He talked about hitting the right note, and about color-spots, a word that I had never heard up until that point in time and also about giving more attention to what I was mixing on the palette. My work started to shift because I became really intent on painting the light of Jerusalem and not just some random situation. I wanted people to look at the work and say, that’s Jerusalem because of the color, not because of something tangible like a recognizable building.
Sunrise in Rehavia, (2000) Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm
Jerusalem Trailer, (2005) Oil on linen, 27 x 41 cm
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve gone through with your work?
BB: I think you could qualify that year in Jerusalem as a major changing point, one when I became quite intent on describing things with more specificity. My landscapes became less concerned with the gesture, or gesture became something I was willing sacrifice in my process in order to move my paintings forward. Otherwise I have periods where I work more outside or more in the studio, but I don’t think you could qualify that as a major change. The approach has always been the same, although I do feel somewhat recently that these two ways of working are finding more common ground.
Afternoon by the Cliffs, (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm
The Valley, (2017) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm
The Aquaduct, Nepi, (2014) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm
LG: You have been an artist resident in Civita Castellana, Italy as well as painting in many other locations in Italy. Please tell us something about your experience there?
BB: Painting in Civita Castellana has been a great experience for me on many levels and I have managed to go back every year since 2013. Stepping into the Italian landscape, one sees the obvious correlation with the paintings that were made there by Corot, Valenciennes, Thomas Jones and others I admire. I can’t really underscore enough the impact of such an experience. It is like coming back full circle in my relationship with these painters because it’s possible to see how their language and their mark-making are directly tied to the subject—how the the landscape led to the work…
In Civita I also connect with painters over an intense two week period in ways that don’t seem to happen here in France. I am definitely invigorated by a town that is crawling with close to one hundred painters over the summer. I find myself surrounded by painters with similar concerns and motivations and this community in turn pushes the dialogue forward, brings the conversation to a new level and helps me to stay close to my center, basically what is important to me as a painter.
The Cliffs, Civita Castellana, (2015) Oil on linen, 24 x 33 cm
View of Vignale, Civita Castellana, (2014) Oil on linen, 31.4 x 38.2 cm
A couple of summer’s ago Tina Engels and I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing Dan Gustin in his incredible home and studio in Italy. A number of delays prevented us from finishing and publishing this wonderful interview that Tina Engels wrote until now. I would like to thank Dan Gustin and Tina Engels both for their time and energy in putting together this insightful look at his background, process and thoughts on painting. – Larry Groff
Dan Gustin has been a Associate Professor of Art (tenured) at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago since 1984. He has been a visiting artist for many years at the International School of Art in Umbria Italy. He received his M.F.A. at the Yale University in 1974 and his B.F.A. at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1972. He has had numerous solo shows at the ISA Gallery, Umbria, Italy, Geschiedle Gallery, J. Rosenthal Gallery, and the Lyons Weir Packer Gallery in Chicago, Forum Gallery in NYC and Alpha Gallery in Boston, the Paul Mellon Arts Center, and the Rockford Art Museum. and many others. He has shown in over fifty group exhibitions throughout the United States.
Gustin’s work is in the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Art Institute of Chicago, The Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA and in private collections in New York and Chicago. Mr. Gustin is a recipient of the Purchase Award at the annual Arts & Letters Show in NYC and is a member of the National Academy of Design. He has also won grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Faculty Enrichment Grants and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Dan Sheridan Gustin spends his summers painting and teaching near his home in Umbria, Italy. While there Gustin paints the landscape often working on three or four paintings a day. During the rest of the year Gustin is an associate professor of art at the Art Institute of Chicago. While home in Chicago the artist focuses on his large scale narratives.
William Bailey wrote about Dan Gustin and Langdon Quin in September 2017: “…Each has found challenge and meaning in this Landscape so often painted throughout history. They bring their own histories, as did Claude and Corot in their time. They paint with conviction and imagination, shunning the mannerisms which conventionally assure contemporaneity. Gustin and Quin share a subject but find completely different content….Dan Gustin’s landscapes are typically large-scale, and executed entirely within the setting portrayed in his paintings. Using a full range of vigorously applied color and tone, he fills his canvases with the space, light and atmosphere which characterize each particular place. Gustin’s painterly presence and mastery are his own, but one can sense the extravagant Courbet lurking nearby – urging him on.”- William Bailey
30 x 40 inches
24 x 40 inches
Dan Gustin painting in Umbria
Larry Groff: Please tell us how you came to be to Italy?
Dan Gustin: Initially I was hired by Helaine Trietman, Mark Servin and Nick Carone to teach at the International School in Italy during the summer. The first month I was there, I just stayed in my room and could not paint. I had never painted landscape and I had no ideas or desire to do it. I thought I had to paint large narrative paintings here and I just couldn’t. I was depressed and completely blocked. I didn’t know what to do. One day I just kind of peeked out and started doodling away. One thing led to another and I was soon out in the landscape and totally fell in love with the place.
I think people who paint landscapes are looking for a home. I know I was. I found my painting home was here in Italy. The light the spaces, the land and sky all became familiar in some strange way and it was what I wanted to paint about. Then I had to do hundreds of terrible paintings. But, everyday I am here I learn more.
48 x 84 inches
72 x 108 inches
Tina: You certainly found the perfect place to do this work. These enormous vistas appear cinematic, spectacular. Your translation seems fitting.
Dan: It took me years to do paintings here in Italy, meaning paintings that I could look at or exhibit. I believe you work from where you are. I had many ideas about how I should paint, and while co-teaching in Italy with many terrific painters. One starts to believe in certain rules and devise certain ways of working. You want to fit in. One wants the work to stand up to other painter’s ways of working and painting from the landscape. You get into this thing of what can you do vs. what do you want to do. It took me years to try to even get away from what do I want to do as opposed to what I can do.
Tina: When you go back into the studio, do you imagine or recall the landscape to paint back into your paintings?
Dan: You know how we all tweak things. You pull things out; push things around, little things, but not a lot. I don’t work a lot away from the landscape and I’ve learned only do this in natural light. When I use electric light, the color shifts are all off and I end up with two different paintings.
Tina: I’ve heard you say before that being capable of creating scale is more important to you than the physical size of the painting. For example, a small painting can look big.
Dan: The idea of scale became so apparent to me in Italy. Landscape painting for me is so much about seeing from here to there and about how one creates relationships that work or fit together in this vast space.
24 x 42 inches
36 x 80 inches
48 x 84 inches
Larry: So a miniaturist could do it?
Dan: Right. A lot of people think scale means the size of the picture but it doesn’t at all. It’s the relationships to the parts. If you look at a Van Eyck, the painting looks immense, but it’s physically it is really very small. I’m not that good, so I can’t do that. In a way, I use size to get scale. Which maybe is a problem, but I’m okay with it.
It’s that battle between your intuition and what your mind tells you to do. For years I kept doing these smaller pieces and then I realized it’s like an ocean out there. How do I paint the sea? Do I want to paint a little part of the water? It started to extend the painting both horizontally and vertically. The wider it got, the deeper it got. Again, it’s that thing, a lot of people paint shelves and others paint distances.
Tina: That’s a great way of talking about painting the landscape. Thinking of the landscape/ sky as a sea. It’s a wonderful metaphor.
Dan: There is a kind of arrogance too. There’s a kind of extreme narcissism to try to take in all of this. And the more I would distance myself from other painters to see how they saw and painted Italy, the better my paintings became. That was hard for me because I had to find a way I could believe in making a painting from a landscape, yet, still feel I was making my own paintings.
Larry: Why do you perceive of it as arrogance?
Dan: Maybe it’s not arrogance, but the hope that you can do something so difficult and still get it somewhat right in relationship to what you are seeing.
60 x 108 inches
60 x 90 inches
Tina: How does one of your paintings near completion? I’ve heard you say you don’t make drawings, or preliminary studies.
Dan: If I look at something and there’s kind of wholeness to the experience, and I know that I don’t want to reopen the whole painting and/or I stop having ideas about it, things don’t jump out. I wouldn’t say it is finished, but I would probably say the painting is resolved. I think for me, drawing sets up the finish idea, the completion, and I think more about the color idea and the disposition of masses on a plane set up a different expectation. In a way, I can never finish a painting. I stop working on it, but they always seem open-ended to me. That’s why I work on paintings for years sometimes. Constantly changing them to the conditions present, yet hoping and believing in the resolution in the end.
Tina: We asked you about composition and abstraction. I’m wondering if the organization or if the abstraction reveals itself as you are initially looking at a vista or as you paint it?
Dan: Because I am so involved with seeing this world, I don’t believe there is anything really abstract out there, its all real to me. I think that’s pulling in an idea of painting into the landscape. Again, I don’t see anything in the world as being abstract. I mean they’re formulations of an image based on seeing. Obviously it’s not the thing I’m seeing. It’s a re-presentation of the thing I’m seeing, and of all the decisions and changes that I make while “seeing” what I am painting.
60 x 72 inches
60 x 96 inches
Larry: Isn’t that just another way of saying abstraction?
Dan: Yes, possibly, but abstraction is not the way I think about making a painting. What I am trying to do is to visually link together successive moments in what I see in front of me. Or, you might say a specific piece of the world as it is in that moment. Each moment is based on trying to find that equivalent in paint while always fighting assumptions to what I am looking at. The painting is built, then, from that succession of decisions and corrections until I find a kind of unified resolution of the whole painting. This is why the weather is so important to my landscape paintings, because that determines in the most specific sense what is happening in front of me, yet is constantly changing. That is the chase I am on.
12 x 20 inches
48x 86 inches
50 x 60 inches
Tina: Your paintings require a slow read, or a process of getting to know them. I also find the periphery of your paintings charged. Are they seem to be meant to see not from one point of view, but from all sides.
Dan: I like to move the canvas so that you come in from the edge on different angles, so that you don’t get a static vanishing point. I don’t create a space where everything leads in to one point and try to take different points of view from varied angles of the painting to get different things happening, from different sides and different angles of vision. Lester Johnson talked to me about this.
David Stanger is a painter and individual of great depth and sensitivity, with a sharp, probing intellect. It has been my pleasure to get to know him and his work better through this interview, and to now share it with others who might benefit and enjoy.
Stanger grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he also currently resides. He received a BFA in painting from Syracuse University, studied painting and Renaissance art history in Florence, Italy and earned an MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Stanger moved back to Pittsburgh in 2005 and served as the Director and Curator of the American Jewish Museum until his return to teaching in 2008. He is currently an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at Seton Hill University.
His work is exhibited internationally at such venues as the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory, the Butler Institute of American Art and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, as well as Manifest Gallery, Seraphin Gallery, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Stanger’s work can be found in many private collections and is most notably in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art. View his website, davidstanger.com here.
Elana Hagler: Welcome, David, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and your approach to painting on a deeper level.
David Stanger: First, I’d like to say thank you for your interest in my work, Elana. I have long admired your work and have been reading your and Larry’s interviews over the years. Painting Perceptions is a great resource for painters working today. It is an honor and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and history.
EH: Did you grow up in an artistic family or is what you do professionally a real departure?
DS: My path as an artist could be seen as a departure, but I honestly can’t fully answer the question. From one perspective the answer is yes, with the exception of a distant aunt, there are no professional artists in our family. However, my story is a bit more complicated because I was adopted as an infant. My birth records are sealed and I know only that I have Italian ancestry. I have no sense if there are other artists in my genetic family tree.
Not knowing is part of my life and it colors the way I understand and translate my tangible memories. When I was younger, I sometimes had the feeling that I was living a parallel life somewhere, and I would let my mind drift. If a different family had adopted me, could I have become a different person or would my inner nature have expressed itself regardless? Perhaps there is something innate in me that drove my early desire to be an artist, or perhaps it was my familial environment that truly shaped my path – probably both.
I’m lucky to have a supportive and loving family. My mother is a voracious reader and was a librarian and social worker and my father had a long career as a psychiatrist here in the Pittsburgh region. The nature of my parents’ study and professions revolved around helping people, and this sense of social responsibility instilled in me the notion that the betterment of one’s self should to be tied to the enrichment of society. The arts do that in spades.
My parents took note of my interest in drawing and painting from a young age and enrolled me in a few classes at the Carnegie Museum, where I made my first drawings from works in the permanent collection. The art teachers in my public school were faced with an academic culture that was largely indifferent to visual arts, so I had to find my own path into painting. I set up a studio at home and figured it out as I went along. The feeling of visual discovery was intoxicating to me and I have so many good memories from these early experiments.
Eventually, I enrolled in pre-college art classes at Carnegie Mellon University and at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts where I studied with Herb Olds and Bill DeBernardi. Working with Herb and Bill definitely helped me to gain momentum as a young artist.
Pillow, oil on linen mounted to board, 16 x 22
EH: Are there any works in particular that you saw as a very young person that formed your idea of the kind of painter you want to be?
DS: I have some vivid memories of a visit to the National Gallery when I was around 13, when I first grasped that people could commit their lives to painting. We had been there before but this time I saw things differently, maybe I was ready to let it all in. It floored me. I was actually very uneasy about it, very unsure of what to do with the feelings I had. It wasn’t about sadness or happiness, or really any one nameable emotion, but a sort of aesthetic charge that got tangled up in a variety of memories and associations. The sense of touch needed to make great paintings carries a very particular type of information. At times it feels like a transmission line carrying a charge directly to the nervous system, as the eyes of the painter connects with those of the viewer.
The rooms of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Ingres and David, Titian and da Vinci all made my head spin. At the time, I was most interested in the impressionists and post-impressionists because the visual vibrations seemed the most true to vision, simultaneously present and fleeting. I loved watching the paint dance in and out of form, changing from a volume to a simple smear. This was the first time I was acutely aware of how entrancing paint was as a material. I’m still amazed that this primitive material can be simultaneously humble and unspeakably beautiful, mindless and full of wisdom. I teared up that day, but didn’t let on. It’s always easier to let your emotions show in a dark theater, than in a fully lit gallery, isn’t it?
I should also say that my cumulative experiences with paintings at museums in Pittsburgh have had a profound impact on my visual and cultural awareness. The Carnegie Museum has some wonderful pieces in the permanent collections, in particular a beautiful Venetian interior by Sargent, some knockouts by Degas and Corot, and several works by Giacometti that never cease to amaze me. The Frick Museum has the beautiful Rubens portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency. I also remember two fantastic painting shows at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts when Murray Horne was the curator, one of Pittsburgh’s own Raymond Saunders and the other of Odd Nerdrum’s early and mid-career work.
Block Island, oil on linen mounted to board, 7.75 x 11
EH: Not too many people seem to talk about that period when we are freshly out of school and suddenly thrust upon the world. Can you tell us a little about that time of life for you?
DS: Times of transition are always difficult. I had three major transitions, one on leaving undergrad then again after grad-school and then my move back to Pittsburgh. Each time I found myself in a new part of the art world and I’ll share a little about each.
After graduating from Syracuse I moved back to Pittsburgh for a year before I applied to graduate school. My first job was as a bartender and then I started working as an installer at the Carnegie Museum and Wood Street Galleries. I also taught a class or two at local arts centers. My main focus at the time was really on developing my studio work, exhibiting and getting ready for graduate school. I had known since my sophomore year of college that I wanted to be a professor, so an MFA was essential.
I visited and applied to several schools on the east coast and ultimately chose to attend the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA. Grace Hartigan, the founding director of the program, was the main faculty presence and her work, life history and ideas about painting left a powerful impression on all of us. I was also fortunate to get to know some of the many wonderful artists and thinkers there like Bill Schmidt, Raoul Middleman, Karen Gunderson, Philip Koch, Leslie King-Hammond, James Hennessey and many others.
Leaving grad school was a similar experience to leaving undergrad, in that I felt uncertain about the future and was hungry for opportunities. My girlfriend Susheela (who is now my wife) and I moved to Philadelphia and I started knocking on doors, searching out opportunities and meeting new people. I had a small network of friends there who were architects and they helped me connect with a design-build architecture firm. I started working with them to create plaster finishes and decorative carpentry for cash wraps for the retail store Anthropologie, as well as general residential renovations. I learned so many transferable skills and am thankful for the opportunities they provided.
I was also teaching night classes at Philadelphia University for a time and exhibiting works including a group show at the Mattress Factory. I found a studio in the now demolished Gilbert Building near PAFA and worked as much as I was able. At the time, the building housed the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Vox Populi Gallery and other arts cooperatives.
Eventually, we moved back to Pittsburgh so Susheela could attend graduate school and I was lucky to serve as the Curator and Director of the American Jewish Museum. What I discovered though the interview process and in the first few months on the job, was that my experiences in art history and critical theory classes had prepared me well to write grant narratives, curatorial essays and press releases. My earlier experiences as a museum installer and craftsman were also very helpful and prepared me with a sense of how to design, troubleshoot and hang an exhibition. I learned so much in my time at the AJM, but knew that teaching was better suited for me.
What all of these transitional anecdotes should make clear is that being an artist is a hustle and it is important to be proactive, self-disciplined and adaptable. My advice to young artists is to work hard, seek out opportunities and keep your eyes and ears open. Also, try to surround yourself with friends and loved ones who will help you protect the mental space necessary to make your work. Share what you do. Submit work for open calls, apply for residencies and grants, join an arts organization, and stay active.
Night Window, oil on linen, 48 x 32
Detail from Night Window
Detail from Night Window
EH: How do you choose the subjects of your paintings?
DS: In my recent work all of my subjects and motifs are in my life in some way. I know all of the people, spaces, and objects, through direct and intimate experience. I’ve chosen to narrow my focus in part, because I need sustained contact to make my paintings over long periods of time, but also because I need to feel emotionally connected to what I’m doing. Critical distance is important, but too much leaves me cold.
One thing connects to another and works unfold. I may have a fascination that I can’t shake or I may see something that feels like an embodiment of my state of being. It could be a pattern of light and shadow on the ground, a face in crowd, or a fragment from a story I’ve read, a melody I’ve heard. Often I find that the most intriguing ideas for paintings come from my family and friends, because I share my life with them. When my son Ravi was born I made several paintings of him sleeping and several of my wife Susheela. We were starting our new lives together and there was nothing I wanted to paint more.
Compositions develop out of their own nature and through chance encounters with light or visual juxtapositions, but I’m not so naïve as to think that my choices in pictorial content are just formal. Like all people, my choices are driven by deep-seated psychological desires and fears. I feel a sense of responsibility for what I paint, I want to know that I am engaged in something meaningful and honest.
Painting as an intellectual discipline is self-reflexive and to my mind, great paintings exist in dialog with other works around them or before them, not alone or without context. Museums are a resource, and the works they house teach and set expectations about what people are capable of. I agree with Cézanne’s dictum that “the path to Nature lies through the Louvre, and to the Louvre through Nature.”
Ravi, oil on linen 28 x 32 inches
EH: How does your teaching inform on your artwork and vice-versa?
DS: Painting and teaching are now intertwined for me, as I grow as an artist so too as a teacher. My pedagogy is a reflection of my current understanding of painting, but I am careful to not be orthodox in my approach, so as to not limit what is possible for students in the studio. I provide structure and teach observational drawing and painting techniques, but I also work hard to make a permissive environment for students to explore their own fascinations. Because my early professional and artistic life was so varied, I think I bring that curiosity about all aspects of the contemporary art world to the classroom.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was in exposed with wide perspectives on contemporary art through the Carnegie International exhibitions, and the expansive and far ranging exhibitions at the Mattress Factory and Warhol Museum. As a viewer, I have endless curiosity about what I see and try not to discriminate about categories of art making or discount works prematurely.
Both teaching and being a father have, in their own ways, tempered my mind. When I was a teenager and even in college, I was more volatile, excitable with my moods and work. Explorations were wide ranging, and I followed my intuition and desires. Now I find, that while I remain open as viewer, I have become more sensitive to what works I truly connect with and filter what enters into my deeper studio investigations.
One of the great challenges in life is balancing external demands on our time and energy with our private concerns and personal investigations. While I feel very inspired by my students and colleagues, I often struggle to balance my ambitions in the studio with a large to-do list. My studio is in my home and I try to work daily, in manageable chunks of time. Some days I can get 8 hours in, others only 1 or 2, and sometimes all I have energy for is looking. Summer and winter breaks are when I can really get things accomplished in the studio.
Being truly present in the studio does require constant engagement and maximum effort. I want my work to be on my mind continually and if my connection slips, I’m not really myself. This is at the heart of being an artist; it is not only a profession, but also a heightened sense of being.
Skull, oil on linen mounted to board, 16 x 20
EH: When asked about your creative process in an earlier interview, you answered very beautifully with the following:
My work is often born of unexpected visual encounters that fascinate and tug at me. I trust those rare moments of heightened visual perception, when I’m shaken out of my daily concerns. It is this trust in a glance that leads to sustained observation and enduring, meaningful experiences.
As a painting develops in and out of months, the surface gains a history and begins to hold a measured intensity and an increasingly complex technical narrative. Paintings carry a physical index of the painter’s accumulated decisions and are both objectiverecords and a distillation of memories.”
When you spend months on a single painting, how do you preserve the power contained in the experience of the initial glance?
DS: Life is fleeting but we try to hold onto it, embrace it. Painting is a very particular way to share our visual experiences. The process of painting slows me way down, which unto itself is significant in our modern world. It allows me to be fully present in the moment and open to experiences.
One of my favorite authors, Paul Auster wrote, “Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them, someone once said. In the same way, perhaps, experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them.”
I don’t set out to spend months on a painting but I often need extended time to make determinations about what is most important in a given work. This often translates to countless hours putting paint to canvas, but it can also mean spending time looking and thinking, or even setting it aside for a time. At any point in this process, I give myself license to change or remove elements from the composition. Accounting for change and the..