Arts faculty members offer ‘Infinite Responses’
State of the Arts goes inside their studios, and their creative processes
The following article, by the Office of the Arts' Ingrid Schorr, with photographs by University Photographer Mike Lovett, appears in the spring 2010 issue of State of the Arts magazine. As Schorr writes in the magazine's introduction: "In our cover story, faculty members from the Department of Fine Arts give us a look at their off-campus studios—intensely private places where they engage in new ways of seeing the world. Away from outside distractions, their studios are the stage for experimentation, contemplation, and conversation with an image or idea."
Science professors have their labs; literature professors have their libraries. The Department of Fine Arts' studio art faculty members have a unique, mostly unseen life in their off-campus studios and galleries. Through interviews and photographs, they give us a glimpse of that world and their creative process.
Susan Lichtman has taught at Brandeis since 1980; she was the studio art department's first female professor. She paints in her 750-square-foot Rehoboth, Mass. studio, a shingled building in the woods with 35-foot ceilings that she and her husband, also a painter, designed. Her artwork is represented by Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence, R.I., and Gross McCleaf in Philadelphia.
"These days, I try not to freak out about not having much time to paint. I just work in small increments of time, slow and steady. There are practices I know I can rely on; for instance, I know that too many choices paralyze me, so I use a limited palette of four or five pigments at a time, and I revisit certain motifs, such as figures on a screened porch, over and over and over again. I use photography to record the way sunlight falls on a figure or moves through a room, so I can come back to it.
"I have to have good natural light, but it can’t come from skylights alone—I need to have a view out to the world. And I need heat in the winter, which is not something I take for granted, as I have worked in many unheated spaces over the years.
"As a figurative painter working from observation and memory—not a realist—I sometimes mistrust my imaginative impulses to edit, exaggerate, or abstract what I see. I need to remind myself of a quote that has been attributed to Degas and Picasso and others: “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.”
Sean Downey has taught at Brandeis since 2005 and currently coordinates the postbaccalaureate program in studio arts. A painter and printmaker, he lives and works in 1,000 square feet in a former Waltham mill building.
"Paint has its own agenda. When things are going well, my will and the paint’s will have a dialogue. On the other hand, I can generally tell that things are not going well if the painting looks just as I imagined it would—this usually means that the original idea or impulse was not expansive enough to generate something other than itself in the execution. It is essential to me that a painting not simply say something interesting or relevant; more important, it must be something interesting and relevant.
"If I ever feel 'stuck,' I usually put on headphones and set myself up at a table with paper, pencils, pens, ink, scissors, magazines, glue, gouache paints, water colors, and so on and make small drawing-collages that have no agenda, no baggage attached to them. This is something I’ve done since I was very young, and it always puts me in touch with my primary reasons for making art. If, for some reason, that doesn’t work, I’ll take a week off from painting and read some melodramatic nineteenth-century novel—Balzac, Flaubert, that sort of thing. That never fails."
British-born and educated painter Graham Campbell maintains two studios in artist-occupied buildings, one in Waltham and one in New York City. He has taught at Brandeis since 1981.
"Work begins with the need to see; there are endless starting points with an infinite number of responses, whether through gestation or spontaneous thought. Over time, one becomes sensitive to the qualities that surround life and that speak to one’s inner world. In the studio, I need plenty of materials and surfaces; a chair and a ladder; absolute privacy.
"One of the pleasures of painting is being able to see the unforeseen and capably respond to it. Balancing spontaneous moves with the deliberate ones is served well by working on several paintings and not just one, although one painting can capture your attention in its grip. Numerous paintings grant you permission and raise the “why not?” question, and this expansive approach sets up a potent visual discourse. Understanding the rules and limitations is a big part of establishing a strong foundation for experiencing artistic freedom."
Painter and printmaker Alfredo Gisholt, born in Mexico and educated in the United States, maintains a studio in downtown Waltham, and has taught at Brandeis since 2004.
"My painting comes from a variety of experiences, both life experiences and visual ones. I start by proposing something visual, whether in drawing or on a canvas—it can be a thing or a stain. I then try to establish a dialogue with the image and build a painting out of this conversation. As conversations go, some are easily established and some are not—the good ones can become an argument.
"The most difficult thing is to turn something into something else. For every painting it is different—the demands, the suggestions. I have started to become intrigued with what is not familiar, with that which I have not seen. I like the example of Matisse, saying that “it is the artist’s responsibility to bring something new to the world” while most of his life he worked from the model."
Sculptor Tory Fair has taught at Brandeis since 1997; her most recent studio, in a former paper warehouse in Somerville, Mass. is shared with two other artists. Her work is represented by La Montagne Gallery in Boston.
"My work is rooted in an adolescent desire to explore. It portrays, I hope, a vulnerable nature, as well as an aggressive one. If you look at it in terms of problem solving, I am attempting to integrate the body, the sensual imagination, and nature into a discussion of our relative place in culture and in the environment at large. The space in my work is always about a sense of anticipation. I love how a sculpture, in its stillness, can convey a sense of urgency and expectant waiting.
"Cracking a figure out of a mold is kind of great and kind of scary. Sometimes you have to erase the marks that are left behind, and I spend a lot of time sanding—pretty boring. But the marks from the rotary tools and the seams from the mold are all a part of letting the process be evident. Sculpture is a rugged process. My favorite tool is an Estwing hatchet that I bought with a budget I received for my senior sculpture thesis when I was an undergrad."
Swiss-born and American-educated sculptor Markus Baenziger lives and works in New York City. He has taught at Brandeis since 2003. His work is represented by Edward Thorp Gallery in New York.
"Experimentation is an important aspect in my work. I work from a vision, and I push the materials in any way possible to accommodate my ideas. Often I do multiple experiments to find what I had in mind. As a body of work progresses, there always forms what I call a little “graveyard” of small and not so small sections that have been omitted or replaced as I negotiate the manifestation of physical form.
"In the studio, the works take center stage. The closer I get to a deadline for an exhibition, the more forceful this becomes. Often there is not enough room, and every nook and cranny of the space is pushed to accommodate the process of making the work. Everything unessential gets pushed to the side or covered with layers of production."
Joseph Wardwell currently paints in a studio in Dorchester, Mass. and is represented by La Montagne Gallery in Boston. A professor at Brandeis since 2001, Wardwell recently has been exploring imagery drawn from the Hudson River School painters and his own photographs of wilderness areas in his home state of Washington.
"I grew up listening to Def Leppard, Slayer, and Neil Young—and played in a Black Sabbath cover band. Rock music is a mythology as romantic as Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism. By combining the lyrics with landscapes empty of human presence, these paintings are an admonition and a warning for our country as we stand on the brink of a new and dangerous age. Get out while you’re ahead and die young, as Neil says.
"I keep a running list of song lyrics to draw upon. Right now the contender for my next painting is 'grizzly bear [expletive deleted] never goes to sleep' from the song 'Truck Drivin’ Neighbor Downstairs' by Beck."