Diane Rolnick is a New York City bred artist who now lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her early years were awash in ballet, the city, strong female figures and culture. She’s still applying all of those influences in her current work www.dianerolnick.com which is full of allegory and strong narrative. Here’s our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Hello Diane, Your work, especially the most recent mixed media works on your website, seems almost allegorical. I see strong narrative and perhaps some symbols with strong emphasis on female subjects. What's the story here?
DIANE: Hi Michael, thanks so much for taking an interest in my work. You have asked a wonderful first question with many pertinent things that pertain to my work. To preface, I am very interested in the complex qualities of humanity that help create our stories and lives such as hope, compassion, kindness, wonder, passion, honesty, fear, doubt, compulsion, discipline, and perseverance to name a few. Ideas may come from a moment in time that I glimpse, a personal connection to my own history, a story I need to explore, an idea that "tugs" at me or powerful imagery or specific events. I never quite know what will "appear" as a suitable topic, but my curiosity and intuition take me to many sources. As our world becomes more technological - which allows us to communicate more often with others but in a less intimate manner - I find myself seeking more humane and complex interactions and explanations. The "hurriedness" and shorthand of the technological world often deletes nuance, character, and complexity. Those are the qualities I attempt to include in my work.
MICHAEL: And so, how does this all begin for you in your process?
DIANE: The beginnings of my interest in stories that often emerge as a "fragmented narrative" state, started with my "Children In Peril" that was developed within a nine year period (1997-2006). The work revolved around the story of Lisa Steinberg, the abused, illegally adopted and murdered child of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum. The story made national news, but I was stunned by the front page New York Post image of Lisa smiling at the viewer. Her face stole my heart and the work began and culminated in three series: "The Lisa Series", "The Nightmare Series" and "The Throw-A-Ways". I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey at the time. Opening my thoughts, passions and empathy to the world in the work began a manner of working that allowed me to act, react, explore stories and investigate my thoughts and feelings about issues and subjects. It was during this period that I began to use symbol, metaphor, and less literal signifiers in context to develop a visual poetry which you have described as allegory to my viewers.
MICHAEL: Your mixed media works are really intriguing.
DIANE: The story of the new mixed-media works comes from my curiosity and preserving of images of Russian ballerina, Marina Semynova after reading an obituary in The New York Times about her death at 102. My connection to Marina comes from my own history as a dancer in New York. My fascination with Russia began with my grandfather (who was born in Russia/Poland, depending on which country claimed his village) who told me many times that one of our relatives was a painter/poet in the court of the last Russian Czar. I was fascinated with the culture of Russia as a child and later collected a serious collection of books on Russian dance. I grew up in and around New York City. Art was always important and my grandmother took me to the museums when I began to walk so I was very affected by art at an early age. But my love of ballet began at age 8 when I begged for lessons after accompanying a friend to ballet school. By the time I was 11, my mother had enrolled me in the Andre Eglevsky Ballet School on Long Island. Andre Eglevsky was a Russian dancer who had starred in The Russe de Monte Carlo in Europe and The New York City Ballet with George Balanchine. Within 2 years, I was in The Andre Eglevsky Ballet company dancing on stage. I was also enrolled every summer at The School of American Ballet, The New York City Ballet's feeder school in Manhattan. Many of my teachers were ex-Russian dancers from the Bolshoi. Andre used to host the Bolshoi Ballet at his home when they came to America. It was the era of the Cold War and it was such a privilege to be able to see the Russian dancers in NYC. My Russian teachers left a large impression on my life because they were so passionate, heartfelt, focused and honest about the art of ballet and teaching. I left ballet at 16 because my body could not take the physical rigors and so I turned back to fine art, but my love of dance has never ended.
MICHAEL: So, I’m guessing your emphasis on female figures really started from your dance days.
DIANE: The dance world was one of limited arenas that demonstrated the strength and power of women in the arts as both teachers and artists. I remember sitting at my desk in my room at home on Long Island as a teen, wondering why the history of art included very few great women artists to model and emulate. My later years as an art student and artist found the world to be very steeped in patriarchal power with little room for female endeavors and spirit. Therefore, my intuitive choice to use the female figure as a symbol of artistry, strength and learning redirects the balance of my early inquiries and gaps of information about the female as a strong artistic figure.
MICHAEL: It’s interesting that you processed dance both as a young dance and later as an adult visual artist.
DIANE: When I read Marina Semynova's obituary in the New York Times, I was intrigued and curious about her life. I Googled her name and found old films of her dancing and teaching on You-Tube, but could not download the film until further inquires to a computer savvy person told me about software (from Iceland of all places) that would allow access. I bought the software, downloaded all the films I could find into I-Movie. Watching the films gave me that "tingle" of excitement that precedes the beginning of new work. What interested me greatly was Marina in her 60's or 70's teaching a solo from "The Black Swan" to a young dancer in a bare dance studio in Russia. The music, the choreography, the atmosphere of the dance studio felt so familiar and eerie as I was looking "down time" to another era (50's or 60's). My subject was before me - the aging teacher who had been the dancer and remained the dancer in her frumpy black dress and pumps moving exquisitely through space as she demonstrated various steps and sequences. She had great respect from her students and showed an empathetic willingness to pass on her art to the younger generation. I watched the film many times as I decided which positions would be dynamic on the page. Learning how to move the frames from I-Movie to I-Tunes to Quick-time and finally Photoshop for printing, was a large learning curve and often I just worked from the computer in my studio on stop-gap.
MICHAEL: Was it difficult deciding on which medium to use to express your ideas?
DIANE: I had been working in encaustic for the last 10 years, but found that the medium was not allowing me enough freedom to explore my ideas fully. I decided to work with acrylic grounds and mediums which would allow me to build up the surface with pigment, pastel, graphite, marker and other media. I chose to use heavy paper (50"x38") and hang the work like a rug hanging with a rod in the back. I created pockets sewing heavy 3" ribbon on the top back area of the paper and inserted thin flat metal strips that could hang the pieces. The task I set up for the work was to place three figures of Marina on each paper that composed a moment of movement. Color has always been an element of wonder and enchantment for me and as the piece developed, the color became a vivid part of the environment and atmosphere, reflecting light and motion. As I worked, I realized I needed to add the element of pattern to move around and into each piece to integrate space and figure. The patterning became an important element and signifier of the magic of the theater backdrops, lighting and textural costumes. I began to spray paint through all types of lace and material to create repeated design. Pattern also reminded me of the attire of my Russian teachers who each had their own style of dressing for class. The three pieces were worked over a period of almost two years. My final presentation of the work removed the rod as a hanging device and adhered the paper pieces to plexiglass with a two-inch area around the drawing as frame. On the back of the clear frame area are glued two layers of delicate material that appear to create a soft floating frame.
MICHAEL: And as for the allegorical elements of your work? Or so, it seems to me …
DIANE: I was fascinated and interested that you attached the word, “allegory” to my work. I had not thought of the pieces in those terms and I feel you have given me an interesting angle to consider as I access the work. Researching the word allegory, I found allegory is described as "a device used to present an idea, principle or meaning, which can be presented in literary form, such as a poem or novel, in musical form, such as composition or lyric, or in visual form, such as in painting or drawing. As an artistic device, an allegory is a visual symbolic representation." Marina is the visual symbol for me of a strong, vibrant, artist and teacher who lived a life of art and sharing of art. How great is that?
MICHAEL: I’m glad to do my part. LOL. What caused you to move to New Mexico? Are you in Santa Fe? Taos? New Mexico strikes me as a great place to live if you're an artist or art collector. What's it like for you there now?
DIANE: I moved to New Mexico because I needed space, light, nature and a new environment to develop my work. I had come to the West for the first time when I was 11 with my family. The large vistas amazed me and I felt very comfortable in the spacious land. Later, in my teens, I was part of a group of students that participated in an incredible travel camp run by PHD Professor and musician, Michael J. Cohen, a well-known naturalist and author of such books as "How Nature Works", "Educating, Counseling and Healing with Nature" and other publications. There was a base camp in Killington, Vermont that was an old farmhouse where Mike lived and we all would spend skiing holidays hanging out at the farmhouse with music and musicians. Mike’s brother is John Cohen, photographer and one of the founders of the musical group, The New Lost City Ramblers. Spending more time traveling around the West, camping, hiking, and learning the history of various areas convinced me that someday I would live out here.
MICHAEL: So that’s how it works!
DIANE: Years later, when I was living in Hoboken, I began to get "itchy". The New York City art world of the 80's and 90's had become uncomfortable to navigate because it was the beginning of the "Art Star" era. This was a time when Wall Street began to collect art and artists and "Blue Chip" art was birthed. Money and connections were all that mattered. I was actually showing quite often in the NYC and New Jersey galleries and had mentions in the Times and articles in other newspapers. My career was moving along quite well, but I was unsettled about the actions of the art world in New York and the frenzy of power and money that dictated the "scene.”
MICHAEL: Very interesting. Most artists I talk with don’t like that “scene.”
DIANE: I found myself having an internal dialog about how the atmosphere of prestige and money was affecting my ability to work in my studio freely. I was disquieted about a world that was more interested in what art cost than what art was truly about. New York (the place of my birth) did not seem the same city that my grandmother, my mother or I had known and loved.
MICHAEL: That seems to be the lament of many New Yorkers today.
DIANE: I sat pondering in my loft in Hoboken about how I could make changes in my life that would refresh my feelings for working on my art. I had grown up riding horses on Long Island and began to dream about moving out West where I would have a studio, a horse, and some land. I wanted to be near an art center and live in a place with sun and space. Santa Fe fit the bill. I began my research of the area as I ordered the Santa Fe phone directory and collected names of people my friends knew who lived in Santa Fe. When my grandmother died, I received some money and began to spend my summers in New Mexico. The Abiquiu region and Northern New Mexico was the area that stole my heart because of the beauty of the mesas, miles of land, the Sangre de Christo Mountains and confluence of rivers. By the end of the third summer as I was driving back East, I felt I was leaving my home. I landed back in Hoboken, packed up, and 4 months later drove back to Northern New Mexico with my belongings.
MICHAEL: Wow. And so, what’s it like there?
DIANE: New Mexico is a very diverse and special place to live. For 10 years, I lived in Hernandez, NM, where Ansel Adams "Moon Over Hernandez" was photographed. Hernandez is about 45 minutes North of Santa Fe where I taught art at various colleges through the years. Hernandez is one of the old historical towns along the Chama River where relatives of the early Spaniards (the land grant families) were my neighbors. Just minutes away is Ohkay Owingeh, formally known as San Juan Pueblo, where historical battles between the Natives and Spaniards were located. My horse was born on the Pueblo and blood-typed as a mustang, relating to the early horses brought to America by the Spanish. I lived in Hernandez for 10 years before moving to Edgewood, NM (in the East Mountains outside of Albuquerque) in 2006.
MICHAEL: Why did you make that move?
DIANE: I decided to move closer to Albuquerque because it is a city with more services and job opportunities. I am about an hour south of Santa Fe and enjoy driving the historic Turquoise Trail, a beautiful two lane road, through canyons, meadows and a few mining towns to reach Santa Fe. I can go to art openings in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, now that I live between the 2 cities. Santa Fe has a terrific art institution called Site Santa Fe that exhibits a biennial every two years and shows artists from many countries. Artists, art collectors and critics come out here to visit New Mexico because it is what is called a "hot spot" for culture. We have a variety of events that bring people here to New Mexico for cultural activities. It is interesting to meet people and see art from all over the world at events such as Art Santa Fe which occurs every July and brings galleries from all over the world to our new convention center in Santa Fe.
MICHAEL: Given all that, what’s the art community like there?
DIANE: I am about 20 minutes from Albuquerque on the East side of the beautiful Sandia Mountains, hence the name, East Mountains. I enjoy the art communities of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. New Mexico is populated with artists, art galleries, art museums, and Native and Hispanic art. This is a place of both historical and contemporary art that intermingle as do the Native, Hispanic, and Anglo populations. I knew when I moved out here that I would miss the museums and galleries in NYC, but the internet and friends keep me posted on shows and events. I also am about 35 minutes from the Albuquerque Airport and enjoy visiting back East a few times a year.
MICHAEL: You must have a pretty cool studio.
DIANE: My modest studio on my property has light coming in from all directions and I can hear my horse, goats and dogs moving around in the large horse corral. My work continues to evolve in this beautiful environment and I have many artist friends and acquaintances. Every morning I go out to feed my 4 goats and horse and muck up. This sets up my day in a wonderful manner, communing with my animals. I can then spend art time in the studio on days I am not teaching.
MICHAEL: Fantastic Diane. It sounds like you have a pretty charmed life right now. Thanks for chatting.
DIANE: Thanks, Michael for the opportunity to be interviewed. I have been enjoying your web site very much. Take care.
Check out Diane Rolnick’s work on her website, www.dianerolnick.com.