I love Deb Lawrence … both her and her work which is so fresh, free and fun http://deblawrenceart.com/. I met her on social media and looked at her work and knew I had to chat with her. This subtitle of this chat is “Moving Painting Forward,” but I think this Cleveland-based artist has it in her to move humanity forward. Read on and find out what I mean …
MICHAEL: Hello Deb. Your work is very intriguing. I get sort of an "outsider" vibe, yet it's very hip and edgy. I love all of the paintings that look like fragmented pieces of disparate things. They're raw yet fun. How do you describe your work?
DEB: Hello Michael, Thanks for getting in touch. I appreciate your impressions of my work and certainly am in touch with that raw, playful, edginess in my work. While I really love the whole raw, naive, "outsider" genre, I don't really think of myself that way, any more than I would classify, say, Mark Bradford, Oscar Murillo, Basquiat, or even Miro or Picasso, as outsider artists. Maybe I don't classify myself as an "Outsider" because in my mind, that typically implies untrained, uneducated, and/or mentally disabled and that's not true for me...though other people may disagree. Haha!
MICHAEL: What would life be without discord?
DEB: My work is hard for me to classify. A lot of people "in the know" comment that my work is fresh and original and while I'd like to take credit, it's not intentional...it just is. I think it comes from the simple fact that my work emanates almost entirely from my own peculiar, pervasive imagination, rather than from source materials or physical representations, per se. But don't get me wrong - I DO go to a lot of gallery and museum exhibitions, as well as international art fairs, so it would be unfair of me to say I'm not influenced by what I see and experience. But getting back to your question, the simple answer is that I see my work as a very personal, intimate, artistic expression in the larger context of contemporary abstract art and contemporary painting. There are certainly ties to modern art and abstract expressionism in my work, but I like to think there still is a lot left to do in painting that isn't entirely derivative and that my work can be part of the voice that moves painting forward.
MICHAEL: Moving painting forward. I love that thought. How does one achieve that? I can't imagine you wake up and say "I'm going to move painting forward today." Or maybe you do?
DEB: Well, not exactly. I wake up and say, "I need my coffee so I can ease into the day after another middle-of-the-night bout of sketching in my head,” seriously! But more to your question, No, at the start of my day, I don't think specifically about moving painting forward, but I'm different from many artists I know in that I want to make a mark, more than I want to make a living. Don't get me wrong, I want to sell my work, and DO sell my work, but selling isn't my first priority. Case in point, recently I was contacted by one of the directors of the J. Paul Getty Museum about two of my paintings for his personal collection. He had seen them on a social media site, but had never seen my work in person, so I contacted an art dealer I knew in LA who made arrangements to show the paintings. They didn't work out for his space, but he really liked my work so I sent him a small painting I love in a similar style. My relationship with him, and having a piece in his collection, mean more to me than $$$$. And the art dealer, in the process of seeing my work in person and also developing a relationship with me, now wants to represent me. This way just feels good and right to me all around.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. The process feels very organic and “meant to be.”
DEB: But more on the issue of moving painting forward. Everyone knows and refers to the whole, “painting-is-dead” debate. But I find the whole matter pretty silly; a little like the teen who spews venom at her mom, saying she's the meanest mom in the whole world and she wants nothing to do with her. But a few years pass and they are as close as close can be, as the relationship has moved forward. As far as I can see, painting is not going away anymore than ice cream or pizza. So, yes, I no longer want vanilla and pepperoni, I want a scoop of Myers lemon with basil and a slice of heirloom tomato and shiitake mushroom or maybe even the other way around! I want to be part of the inevitable move forward in painting, but it's not so much a conscious, thoughtful, intellectual decision, as it is an emotional one.
MICHAEL: Yes, I understand.
DEB: I’m continually pushing myself to take risks at the very moment I am most anxious and insecure. I try to trust my gut, knowing that my very worst often pushes me to be my very best. But there are also times when the honest, brave part of me knows I need a big swift kick in the butt from those in the know. So, I invite challenge and critiques from contemporary art-world folks I respect. Each one has generously given me their time and care, and brutal beating I needed to push forward. There was Gerald Vandevier, retired professor emeritus of painting and drawing from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was known for his oft-times brutal critiques in the name of progress and who spent weeks and weeks with me going back to the basics. Sixty drawings of garlic presses later, I emerged hating garlic presses, but loving my newfound freedom. Thank you, Gerry! Or the studio visit from Paola Morsiani, former contemporary curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, before her move to New York to head the Neuberger Museum of Art, who urged me to get a big tall glass of wine and sit for as long as I needed in front of my work and ask myself, "Is this the very best way to say, what I am striving to say?" And then there was Joanne Cohen and Bellamy Printz, as art-savy and astute as they come, curators of the impressive world-respected Cleveland Clinic art collection, who pushed me to really get inside myself and push past my limits, because it would make me uncomfortable and that's a good thing. Thank you, Joanne and Bellamy! And most recently, a visit from one of my favorite artists in the world, Douglas Max Utter, 2013 winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award (No, Doug, this isn't s sign you're about to die!), for his tremendous support of my work and even more for my process, by giving me permission (which, silly me, I needed) to use any materials, in any way, I damn well please! Thanks you, Doug! So, yes, pushing myself forward and pushing painting forward is an important part of who I am as an artist. Now I need a glass of wine!
MICHAEL: Clearly, you love your contacts in Cleveland. Cleveland? Shouldn't an artist who wants to make a mark really live in New York, LA or London?
DEB: I know, I know, little ole Cleveland. No way to make a mark in a small city, especially one plagued by her past notorious mistakes and lingering, awkward, small-town ways. And frankly, you're right…to an extent. Only one local gallery, Contessa, is a major player in the international art scene, as far as I can see. And while there are scores of smaller galleries, Clevelanders still like to look, more than they like to buy, not realizing the incredible quality of art and the steals that can be had. So yes, most of my collectors are in New York, LA, and beyond, and that's just a fact.
The reality is I've simply had to do a lot of legwork to get my work "out there." But chances are, if I lived in LA, New York, London, or Berlin, I would have to do the same, as I would be but a small drop in a sea of aspiring artists. That's just the nature of the beast.
For now, it's working. As we speak, I am working out the details of being represented by an art dealer in LA. I just sent nine paintings to a curator on New York City's lower east side, I have work in a museum exhibition opening today, and then there's this exciting opportunity of be interviewed by award-winning contemporary art author and blogger, Michael K. Corbin, right?
MICHAEL: Oh stop! But you were saying?
DEB: Like I said, it's working…for now. Let's also not forget, I'm 10 minutes from the world class Cleveland Museum of Art with its recent, mind-blowing expansion, replete with glass covered atrium larger than a football field. They are beginning to take local artists more seriously, so who knows? Across the street is the newly expanded and relocated MOCA Cleveland which has garnered recent international acclaim and has always gone out of their way to include us. And there's the newbie Transformer Station museum of contemporary art. It’s only 6 months old and is a joint venture of renowned contemporary photography collectors, Fred and Laura Bidwell and the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has done an impressive job of trying to push the envelope. And to top it all off, I have an expansive live-work loft with full kitchen and bath, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick, concrete floors in an historic building for a great price!
So, like I said, it's working…for now. Now that my work is starting to get noticed in New York, LA, and beyond, let's just say I'm keeping my options open. Maybe multiple studios in various locals someday? Perhaps. But, I mostly want to focus on pushing my work forward and somehow the genuine, gritty, wonky sensibility of Cleveland just fits the genuine, gritty, wonky sensibility of the work. I'm in the throws of creating right now. So I'm a happy camper for now. Besides, my running joke is, I don't need to worry about where I end up, because when I die I want to be cremated and my ashes sprinkled in the corner of MoMA!
MICHAEL: You totally sound like me now. I've told my family that I want to be cremated and have my ashes tossed from the Empire State Building! What you've just said is that in this current time, artists can really live anywhere and deal from afar. Obviously, the Internet and social media have facilitated this?
DEB: I don't know, Michael, I think I've got you beat...hanging out in MoMA, or any great museum for that matter, for the rest of eternity, sure seems better than landing on people's heads as they scurry down the sidewalks of New York city, but that's your call.
DEB: But back to your question...Yes, I think the Internet and social media help, but only to an extent. And, I hope it stays that way. It's a little like Match.com in that the online aspect really helps you get noticed, facilitates the connection and helps others view the goods, but in the end, does he really look like his profile picture and does he live up to the hype? You only know for sure when you meet in person.
Frankly, I've been a very reluctant convert and have only had an active Facebook page for a few months. But I'm quickly seeing how advantageous it can be, especially for someone like me, not living in a major art hot spot. My eyes were opened when that director from the J. Paul Getty Museum who contacted me about my paintings for his personal collection, did so, not by calling, but by sending me a message through Linkedin where he had seen my work! This has happened several more times in the past month, messages from several other major collectors expressing interest in my work after seeing it online. So I can see this new way is for real. In the end, however, every one of them has understandably wanted to see my work in person before making a purchase. So, I've engaged respected art dealers in their areas to show them my work and handle the transactions. I'm happy to give them the 50% commission, as they are having to trust me, whom they didn't previously know, go out of their way to show my work and handle the transaction. In the end, the collector gets to see my work in person, the art dealer connects with a new collector and I get a chance to have a relationship with a new art dealer. Great for all concerned.
MICHAEL: That’s really fantastic Deb. I’m so glad to hear that. You really have integrity. I’m not saying that other artists don’t, but you clearly DO. What about the whole online thing?
DEB: I know most artists say their work doesn't show well online. And while I think that's true for everyone, I do think it's particularly true for my work. There is a structural dimensionality to my work which is hard to fully appreciate online, though I'm doing of better job of photographing, which really helps. The online photos give a glimpse, which is intriguing. But it's the real painting, in person, which makes people fall in love and want to actually tie the knot.
MICHAEL: Well said. What's your daily routine like? Do you paint every day? How do you get inspired? Do you listen to music or watch TV while you paint?
DEB: My daily routine has evolved over the years to a point where it's pretty predictable in a way I've come to rely on. Most important, I paint every single day. For me, it's like eating or sleeping. I just need to paint. So each morning, I wake at dawn, slide into a T-shirt and sweatpants, don an old lab coat (my painting smock) and head downtown, strong cup of coffee in hand. Crazy to say considering my general dislike of driving, but I've come to treasure my 30 minute trek to my studio. There's not much traffic and I use the time to sketch in my head and plot out my day. I munch on fresh blueberries and raspberries from the West Side Market, my savored indulgence to start my day.
I know myself well and have come to realize I can't paint with people around, so I close my door, no radio, no TV, just get inside myself and paint. After five or six hours I head home, except for Mondays and Fridays when I stay all day priming, stretching, assembling, sketching. If I'm done early, I might head to the art museum or sit outside catching up on the latest issue of Modern Painters, Art in America, or Dwell.
The live-work loft where I have my studio is located is an amazing place, filled with gritty industrial patina and charm that's at once comforting and inspiring. There are other artists with studios on the first floor and a cafe right next door, so there's the muffled sound of people chatting and laughing that's comforting, not distracting and artists down the hall often eager to take a break and commiserate. No doubt, having a studio separate from my house (where it was years ago) has enabled me to take myself and my work much more seriously. Working in downtown Cleveland and having such an expansive, light-filled studio has also changed the nature and process of my work. Except for those inevitable insecure days, at the start of each day, I clammer to paint again.
MICHAEL: Has the process of creating works that you love and releasing them gotten easier? Some artists get very attached to their babies.
DEB: Interesting that you brought that up and put it that way. My work actually centers on Donald Winnicott's notion of transitional objects, akin to security blankets and other beloved objects. Much like the process of developing a meaningful painting from nothing, I'm interested in the process of becoming...our attachments, connections, and even obsessions and how we cope when we become ourselves...separate and independent.
The process of making a painting is a very intimate one for me, especially now that I start with rolls of raw canvas, then prime and stretch it myself.
It's not a coincidence that I work directly on the floor, from all four sides, grasping, folding, creasing, painting, imbuing my paintings with a veritable soul. While some never quite "make it," others almost magically come to life. That's part of the obsession, I think, with making art and collecting art. Art, good art, has a palpable soul which grabs on to us and makes it hard to let go. So yes, it's still hard to release my paintings when they're done. But having a hard time releasing our babies, as you put it, is a good thing, I think the best works of art have a palpable soul which call to us. So yes, I get attached, it's hard to let go, but then it feels great to find them a good home.
MICHAEL: I love the fact that you believe - as I do - that artworks have "souls." I also believe they possess a certain essence of creative spirit, but many people would consider this very discussion a bunch of bullcrap. Your thoughts?
DEB: In my mind, it's a bunch of B.S. if you mean some sort of hokey, mystical, Spirit of Creativity. But I have no doubt that some people are just born with a greater predisposition to be creative, some are nurtured to be more creative and some are blessed with both.
In my case, I was raised in the artsy college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. My parents were big liberal dreamers with artistic and intellectual legs to stand on. Growing up, I sat on Eames chairs, ate off Dansk plates, was dragged to museums and galleries all over the world and lived with original modern art. The fact that my house was charcoal grey with a bright mustard yellow door, says it all.
MICHAEL: It most certainly does. I love that.
DEB: As a child, I painted with oil paints, built pots on our potter’s wheel, etched on metal with acid, silkscreened, carved linoleum blocks, learned to weave on large looms and even tried my hand at marble-sculpting. For as long as I can remember, I was given the strong message to dream big and pursue whatever my imagination would allow. Like the kid who is more interested in the pebbles on the ground than the animals at the zoo, I look at life through art lenses, continually struck by the pattern cracks make on asphalt, the shapes created by the outlines of buildings and the way wires slice through the sky. Not sure what this disease is called, but I definitely have the bug and it permeates every painting I make.
MICHAEL: Female artists continue to be under-represented in contemporary art. I don't get it. What's the deal? Is it because women are busy nurturing and raising families while struggling to balance a career that doesn't even have anything to do with art ... and they create art whenever they can get to it ... which is almost never?
DEB: Surprisingly, as a woman growing up in liberal Ann Arbor, in a feminist era, I have trouble relating to this question. I have never felt at a disadvantage as a contemporary artist from a gender standpoint. Given the statistics, maybe I should. But I am a feisty, determined, optimistic person who doesn't tend to worry about things like this, trusting that the pendulum always swings and evens things out in the end. As far as raising children goes, I'm the lucky one.
Most museums and galleries are increasingly aware of the gender imbalance and the very real loss they've incurred, so I'm going to trust they are motivated to make up for the gender imbalance...eventually.
While I wish there were no inequities in life, it just doesn't work that way. Life is bumpy and not always fair. Our inevitable outrage keeps us alive and stimulates us to grow and take action. Maybe I'm naive, but I truly feel that if my art is good enough and if I take full responsibility for getting my work "out there," then I'm going to get a fair shake...eventually. Okay, maybe not until after I die. But I can live with that.
MICHAEL: Do you know what blows my mind? How can there be so many gifted artists like you who continue to strive and yet there's such a disconnect among the general public about LIVING artists who create available work?
DEB: Yes, unfortunate, but true. Part of this has to do with the psychology of it all...that we often don't know a good thing when we see it initially, especially in the case of contemporary art which has this way of being ahead of itself and our not realizing the true beauty and meaning of it all until later, when we look back and view it in a larger historical context. Fact is, many of our greatest artists were not "discovered" until late in their lives (Go, Mary Heilmann!) or after they had died. Frustrating, but I'm not going to cut off an ear over it.
MICHAEL: No, let’s not repeat that!
DEB: Part of the problem for living artists comes down to the simple fact that there are so many art strivers, compared to art buyers. And the art buyers for emerging contemporary art are understandably cautious given the fact they are plunking down thousands of dollars. They want to buy art that stirs them, but they also often want what will stick around and be valued over time. There's no crystal ball, so many (thankfully, not all) collectors run in packs, buying the known, already valued quantity, rather than take a risk.
I am a beginning contemporary art collector myself, so it helps me appreciate this other side. Personally, I collect what I love, often from artists I have a personal relationship or an emotional kinship with, but that's just me. As an artist, I have learned the very best thing I can do is not care too much what anyone thinks of my art. I just get inside myself and paint what I need to paint. That's when my best work emerges and everything else will take care of itself.
MICHAEL: Is there any value at all in keeping up with the "trends" in creative genres? I mean, apart from pure interest, do you care about what some other artist is doing ... in relation to your own work?
DEB: I really don't care much about trends. So many are just plain silly, irk me for their pure shock value or seem to exist primarily for commercial gain, rather than possessing real artistic merit, so I tend to be pretty dismissive. Creative trends really don't have much sway with me as I'm pretty darn focused on my own work and what I'm intent on doing. But I do love to go to galleries and museum exhibitions, as well as art fairs. And, of course, I like to follow particular artists whose work I admire and find inspirational.
MICHAEL: Finally Debra, does your bod of work thus far have any sort of message? What do you want people who see it to take away from your work?
DEB: The body of work I am engaged with currently is relatively free and spontaneous in execution, yet psychological at its core. I am interested in the internal and external mechanisms we use to nurture security, mitigate distress and become separate, unique, secure individuals, comfortable in our own skin. As such, it is imperative to me that my "message" not be too literal or proscriptive. My goal in my work is to stir something personal in each viewer, understanding and wanting that "something" not to fit a stereotype or predetermined mold.
My hope is that my work evokes viewers' own personal narratives and that the inevitable and highly personal range in what's seen and felt, ultimately adds depth to the layers of meaning existent in the paintings, much like Rorschach inkblots, which I have begun to more deliberately incorporate into my work. So, in the end, I want my work to stir and provoke and evoke in highly personal ways, causing viewers to look...then look again, finding new meanings over time and in the process allowing the paintings to remain alive and relevant.
MICHAEL: Deb, this has been absolutely fantastic. I have thoroughly enjoyed our chat.
DEB: Michael … I want to thank you and let you know how much I have enjoyed and benefited from our conversation. It has really caused me to reflect and clarify my thoughts in ways which will undoubtedly push my work forward. So very generous and thought provoking of you from start to finish!
Check out Deb Lawrence at http://deblawrenceart.com/.