An interview with the VASA technicians

Settle Down

Ian Harkey

As an art student that is currently taking a class on watercolor painting, I am excited to see the medium represented in a gallery space and was wondering if it is your preferred way to paint and if so, why?

 

I love working with watercolor, but it took me a while to get around to the medium. I only fully invested in watercolor after the initial Covid lockdown and losing access to the printshop. My background is mainly in printmaking and drawing, and the way I began approaching my work with watercolor felt like an extension of both–really a way to hang onto printmaking without the equipment Im used to working with. Laying down layers of light wash that lead to those saturated darks feels very much like building a multi-layered print. And then the brush can shrink and become a precision pen and ink tool. You can’t really blend objects or edges into watercolor (at least I can’t) - everything sort of exists and depends on the colors you use and their effect on the texture and color of the paper. Most, if not all of those layers are visible if you spend enough time looking, so it’s about making shapes of color field as well. For an artist like myself who enjoys the challenge of rendering an image, but ending up short of the exact likeness of it, watercolor is a pretty happy median between expression and tedium.

 

This semester I’ve learned about the wide range of techniques for manipulating the paint with water to create effects that oil and acrylic paint just can’t recreate. How do the unique qualities of watercolor compliment the subject matter of these works?

 

You can’t really blend objects or edges into watercolor (at least I can’t) - everything sort of exists and depends on the colors you use and their effect on the texture and color of the paper. Most, if not all of those layers are visible if you spend enough time looking, so it’s about making shapes of color field as well. For an artist like myself who enjoys the challenge of rendering an image, but ending up short of the exact likeness of it, watercolor is a pretty happy median between expression and tedium. In the realm of the artworld, Watercolor is often considered the mark-making language of the sketchbook or the travelog–something used for quick color studies or drawings that are then translated into something else. I’m interested in using that visual language to find a sense of place in the images depicted. 

 

I am also curious about the shapes of paper you used-- the rough edges of Sneaky Garter and Appreciating the Smoke Bush, and the cut out corners in 905 and A Crooked House and Spider. Are the shapes of the paper deliberate? Is there a connection between the subject matter and the paper or is it completely coincidental and you just work with what you have? 

 

I’d say I lean more towards the coincidental, but there are threads of intention within each piece of paper–mainly the love of handling. Working in print and handling prints involves a study of the papers–how they benefit or prevent the various processes and their intentions, and how they respond to duress. Printmaking is also about creating the multiple, so you end up buying dozens of sheets at a time, and they are so expensive that my urge is to hang on to every torn piece or scrap that gets made. For a while there, I was just opening up my flatfile and grabbing whatever piece was near the top of the drawer, and crafting the image around the shape of the paper. I also will work on larger sheets of paper and paint or draw little vignettes that either stay that way or eventually get torn out and placed with others. 

 

All six of these paintings depict an outside environment, some from a large scale of a whole scene and others focusing on a specific part of a scene and its details. Did you approach each painting in a similar way? Are they painted in plein air or from photographs? Are they from the same place or do they vary in location? 

 

I tend to work from photographs mainly because my watercolor technique involves layering to get more detail. I can’t work too quickly because the images will get muddied up, so working en plein air has never been that practical. Photographs allow you to work on more than one image at a time which is a useful practice as well - having a bunch of projects ongoing allows you to take a break and move to the next rather seamlessly. They are not all of the same place, but generally my work is focused on The South. That’s not always the case, but it’s definitely of interest for me right now. 

 

Although all six of these works are similar in environmental subject matter, I’m curious to hear about their differing depictions of density, space and air. How do you know when a painting should have more layers of paint or more white space, and how do you know when a painting is finished if it requires more white space such as the piece Lady of Shallot?

 

This is the million dollar question: how to know exactly when and where to stop an artwork, or how to position the subjects just so to convey a sense of something in particular. I think the previous question sometimes helps in that regard; the shapes of the paper or the decisions to place vignettes surrounded by negative space. It’s a lame answer, but it's true that most of the time it’s intuitive. The more you practice, the better executor you become in those decisions. 

 

Can you describe the role of location and subject matter in conveying themes of environment and climate change in your paintings?

 

I would say my work now relies on the absence of people. Climate change is such a massive and unfathomable set of circumstances that I cannot come close to fully addressing in my work, but that’s not to say it’s not there. I think specifically about the Causeway watercolor, where there is a bridge over water and the bridge is burning. That image is from the Pontchartrain bridge connecting mainland Louisiana with New Orleans, a city that is one symbol of the devastating effects that climate change has taken an active role in changing suddenly. The image is also reminiscent of the myriad of Gulf of Mexico oil spoils perpetrated by the energy hawks who run our country. Those things were definitely present in my mind while making the piece, but it’s not my direct intention when presenting the work. 

 

Does your work take on different meanings when placed in the context of the other works in the show? 

 

In this particular exhibition I didn’t feel that the work changed all that much. The installation had us separated all pretty definitively, and the style and content of each of the other artist’s work is so different. Not to say that they don’t bounce off one another because any single viewer can make connections between disparate mediums, materials, or subjects. I’d be interested to hear what others think about this question, but my impression was that each wall or floor space highlighted that particular artist. 

 

In what ways does seeing your work interact with the group in Settle Down influence how you think about your past work and how you approach your current/future work? 

 

I think this relates to another previous question about how the work changes in context with the rest of the show. I find this thought is something I’m becoming more interested in, where group shows or curations are more interactive, less here-is-your-space and here-is-yours. In my experience it’s always more interesting when individual works are in direct conversation with one another, either alternating between artists on the walls, or in striking installations and risky curatorial decisions. All that being said, it’s a privilege to be exposed to artworks you may or may not come into contact with outside of these opportunities. I was familiar with Amy’s work, but much less so with Paul, Francis, and Josh, and all of their pieces were great. I like to sponge up those experiences – perhaps down the line they will be more directly inspirational to my practice. 

 

What kind of art were you making when you were a college student and how did it develop as you transitioned into adulthood? Did you always want to be an artist? What motivated you to pursue the arts after you graduated, and what advice do you have for art students who want to pursue a career in the field? 

 

I was making prints, paintings, and sculpture in undergrad, but the subject matter was different – more focused on people and my immediate surroundings. I think the work I’m making now feels radically different, but I’m sure if I lined up a single work or multiple works chronologically from then until now, there would probably be some obvious threads throughout. I’m still very much interested in rendering figurative imagery, of what moves create what marks and how those marks translate into a visual vocabulary that makes a recognizable image. I was always drawn to art and making art and I don’t think I’ll ever become uninterested in it. Becoming an artist is an interesting thing to think about, but I would say that yes I always wanted to be one. After undergrad, I took some time off from making for a while, and when I realized how much I missed it, I knew that it would have to be there for me to explore for the duration. 

 

As for advice, I would say to strive to make a physical mark (however that translates to an individual’s practice) as often as you can. The more you do that, and the more practice you put in, you’ll realize what you’re really drawn to.00 Hang onto your artistic community as much as you can - you never realize how important your friends and colleagues are until they are not around. 

Amy Gartrell

Amy Gartrell

Francis Louvis

Francis Louvis

Paul Latislaw

Paul Latislaw

Joshua Spector

Joshua Spector