Iris Low is a talented artist who lives in Vancouver. Her work www.irislow.com is dominated by intriguing color blocking that she says is about emotion and intimacy. I loved my chat with her. She talked about her process and how art functions in our world today …
“Art that is just putting paint on canvas without thought or process becomes craft not art. When the soul of the artist is engaged, then you see real art.”
MICHAEL: Hello Iris, I'm very glad I stumbled upon you. For me, your work has this lovely, pastel glow. I really get this sense of grace and pleasure from your work. What's your inspiration?
IRIS: Thank you for the compliment. My work is a meditation. It’s a form of mindfulness which is what I have called my latest series. Colours are emotion and evoke emotion. My work is a visualization of what goes on in my mind, the remnants of the day, past experiences and nature around me. Also, it’s something that has stayed in my mind. I like layering colors endlessly until I see what I have in my head on canvas.
I feel that photography has freed us from having to show reality. My abstracts can be many things to many people. I am very inspired by Rothko. He wanted to realize emotion in his work. Colour fields are inspiring to me. I have read a great deal about the color theories of Goethe. They were used a lot by Fauvists and Impressionists. My father was a painter, his father was a painter. It is how I grew up. Painting is natural to me. I need it as a way to relax. I have been ill for a long time with depression, very deep depression. I want to show people what that is like and what the way out of depression looks like. My mood disorder has benefitted by painting. Male dominated art finds abstract form often very linear and square, but I am feminine, so it is not square and linear.
In my figurative work, I find myself drawn to the young woman or young girl/boy looking into the future and what it will bring. Haunting selfies that they often take of themselves are inspiring. I paint my children and those around me for that. I do not use projection technique in my portraits or a grid. I do use live drawings and photo references. I am also working on faces of the north shore, which is a series of portraits, spontaneously painted, of the people who live in North and West Vancouver. It is a very multi-cultural place and that is what I find so beautiful about where I live, so I wanted to paint that as a mosaic to show the beauty of diversity. It’s a pallet of skin color to work with. Beautiful. I have a Facebook page faces of the north shore (https://www.facebook.com/NSFaces?ref=hl) I work with another more abstract driven artist on this, Therese Lydia Joseph.
Colour will always be my main theme in my work. It is the truest expression of the soul that we can visualize. So by painting the colours that my soul expresses, I feel I can communicate where I otherwise cannot. I am not an outgoing person. Art is internal life made real, created. Sometimes my work appears chaotic, but life is a stream of chaos. We live in an age where all our senses are engaged at once. This is also an important theme. I’m sorry if I go on and on. It is difficult sometimes to verbalize what I do.
MICHAEL: I like the color blocking that you do in both the abstract and figurative works. Does color itself lift you out of depression? What are you thinking and feeling while you're actually painting?
IRIS: People who run marathons say that at some point they get this high, endorphins or whatever. When I paint, the world falls away, my concentration is very intense. I experience a high, so much so that I don’t want to stop painting. Limited funds have sometimes prevented me from painting. Then I am like a caged animal. The colours I use are intuitively chosen, I don’t try to think about it, like automatic drawing. That’s the expressive part.
I consciously choose not to use black in my paintings, I have snuck it into a mix at times, but I feel that black is emptiness and I don’t want to express that. I was taught long ago that there is no real black occurring in nature. Black is a product of industrialization, a by-product of oil refinement. That has stayed with me. I don’t believe that Impressionists used it much either. My mother told me that when I was a child, I could tell who painted a work by the colours that were used. I guess that tells you how important it is in my work. The subjects of my figurative work are chosen because of the colour mainly, then the emotion, but I believe that they are the same in terms of how I see things.
The colour blocking that I do came about in looking closely at a number of things. In Pointillism, there are tiny colour fields pushed together to make shapes; then van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so unique and when you see them up close, they are all colour fields really. Of late, Modern art seems to be all about large colour blocks, some flags (Jasper Johns), others have huge colors butted up against each other (Sean Scully) or just one colour field (Rothko). I thought in this world of digitalization/pixilation of everything (kids playing online in virtual worlds) I would break it down into colour fields that were visible, but not exaggerated and large. I thought I would make the brushstrokes central themes to the colour. The connection of painter to the work is the brushstroke, what could be a more intimate way to connect?
The intimacy is important because I have always been an observer and with the colour blocks I can be in the midst of it all and tell people, this is who I am. I am freed from my depression when I paint for some reason. Unlike Rothko, where you can see the depression mounting, I feel that my paintings show the light at the end of the tunnel and I follow that light painting all the way. Hope.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Are you now doing what you imagined yourself doing when you were a little girl?
IRIS: I grew up within a family whose main interest was the arts. We listened to opera (my mother studied opera), my sister did some serious ballet and my father was a painter. We immigrated to Canada in the early 60’s. It was a difficult transition for my family. I was bullied in school. It led to my life becoming very internal. I think drawing and doodling became very important to me. I loved to spend time with my father in his studio, playing with wax to make models, painting, drawing, learning about mediums, brushes, techniques and other artists. I lived at the edge of the playground and became an observer. I drew endlessly.
When I was nine, I saw an advertisement for an art school in the TV guide. I drew Bambi and applied. I lied about my age and my name. I was shocked to find someone at our door one day asking for me and telling my parents that I was accepted into this art school. I hid under the bed, so embarrassed.
Once I was drawing the female nude (11 years old), practicing anatomy as my father taught me, I was discovered by a teacher as doing something wrong and sent to the principal’s office. My father was called, he explained that I wasn’t deranged, but practicing. To smooth things over, he painted a portrait of the principal.
My father spent time with my sister and I getting us to practice technique by copying Chinese and Japanese art. So I guess I have always imagined myself painting. My father said his father gave him some good advice. Before you become a painter, find a profession that will make money and support you while you paint. So that is what I did. I studied nursing first, but always painted. I paint full-time now.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the new media and technology that allows artists to paint in new ways? iPads, etc. Is it really painting if there's no paint and actual canvas involved?
IRIS: When they started pouring oil paint on raw canvas a la Helen Frankenthaler, it was really not considered a good method with which to paint, but it launched the Post-Painterly Abstraction movement. I have a graphic design background, one of my other ways of earning a living, and I know that there is quite a bit of skill involved in digital media. It’s just as valid a medium as egg tempera. Art needs to be a reflection of society and definitely multimedia is as good a media for art as any. Projection art is cheating, I mean why project and trace then paint (by numbers almost) an image that is not necessarily your own? Just blow up the photograph for Pete’s sake! But taking a photograph and making it part of your work, manipulating it and making it into a totally cool reflection of modern life, it’s awesome. iPads are cool. There are these pens that allow you to draw straight onto them then manipulate it, that is so cool. I have friends who take multiple images and melt them together in Photoshop, then print them onto material and shine lights through them. Again, art is a reflection of the world around and inside of you.
An artist who has ten assistants and just tells them what to do and signs off on it? Not cool. You’re not an artist, you’re a project manager. I believe you have to put blood, sweat and tears into your work for it to be art … to project that part of life that stands out to the artist and allows us to take pause and think. Or just feel. I like art from found objects or junk, garbage, re-purposing. That says a lot about where we are as a society. Blind consumerism is a really bad thing. This same consumerism is making the art world a junk pile of “contrived art”. Art has to add to society, not clutter up the atmosphere.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. You know, I think clutter is often the result of ignorance or complete lack of thought. I'm sometimes amazed by artists who after finishing an interview with me say, "I never really thought about what I do." Seriously? Unexamined process and work seem like clutter to me. Your thoughts?
IRIS: Art that is just putting paint on canvas without thought or process becomes craft not art. When the soul of the artist is engaged, then you see real art. Even with photography, when the soul speaks up, then it is art. The soul creates art. There is so much clutter out there calling itself art. It’s not that you have to explain what your art is about, abstract shouldn’t have to be explained. But there must be a process there, not just the knowledge of your medium. I mean, those undulating rows of floral watercolors and oil portraits … soulless clutter. Many of the guilds or societies are full of them. “Homesense” art. I hope I am not making home sense art. I guess it is communication without saying anything, like a politician. Talking but not saying anything? Clutter
MICHAEL: I suppose that Homesense art serves a purpose. It's like an anesthetic or even distraction that numbs the pain or takes us to a Disney like place where we don't have to face reality. Given that, can you imagine how different things might be had true arts education not been removed from school curriculums?
IRIS: Hard for me to say. Where I have lived, arts education has been part of my and my children's school curriculum. That said, people aren't aware of art or the art world – maybe only through mainstream media like TV or magazines. It is far too elitist; it is difficult to enter into that world. So they go to Ikea and Homesense or paint a canvas one colour as per DIY channels.
MICHAEL: What do you think needs to be changed in order to reduce the elitism and encourage more people to engage with contemporary art?
IRIS: I am no expert, but some type of education about art on the TV. I have seen documentaries on the BBC that were really good. Here, (NA) very little. Even mainstream television only shows how to paint a canvas one colour and Voila … Art! Not! Sure Vogue and such magazines may have pieces, but what about the other mags? Thank goodness for the internet and sites like yours. Not much inspiring to say on that front. I just like it when my art speaks to someone and they want it in their home. I don’t need multi-million dollar collectors.
MICHAEL: Where in Canada are you? Shouldn't you be in Toronto, Montreal or at least Vancouver if you're an artist in Canada? How do your current surroundings inspire you?
IRIS: I am in Vancouver. The colours and the weather are often found in my palette. Like paynes gray and what we have is “Vancouver gray" or raw titanium. Those have definitely been more prevalent in my current pallet. The rain does something to the colours and the atmosphere. I buy all of my paint from a local manufacturer, Krona Paint. They make great colours in small batches. Wonderful paint. Won’t use any other unless it were oils. Couldn’t handle the cold, snowy weather. I prefer the rain. It’s a very ethereal environment.
MICHAEL: Do you think that male artists today still have advantages in the art world that female artists don't have? Sexism?
IRIS: An artist that I worked with and apprenticed with once said that there were not as many successful women artists because we often gave precedence to our families. Often we are considered “crafters” not really serious artists. A bit of watercolors, florals, very stereotypical. I look at the guild I am a member of and it is a sea of gray-haired women who have most of their lives devoted to their families. I painted all throughout, but focused on custom work. I did not try to go to galleries then because they require quite a lot of work and with six kids, that is not possible. A woman who is an “autodidact” is really not taken seriously. Degrees still reign. Although I don’t feel that the level of education is little more than taking on the style of the teacher of that class. I wrote a blog on the subject http://www.irislow.com/blog/women-who-paint-the-sacred-feminine. As a woman you must choose. A good painter must paint incessantly. Young children do not allow that and a family needs a steady income.
MICHAEL: So finally Iris, given all of that, what's the point of painting? What's the point of art? People today don't really appreciate it let alone buy it. Art isn't ending homelessness. Why should anyone support art?
IRIS: Well, we don’t stop talking or singing. It is an expression. It also provides many an artist an opportunity to show homelessness or homosexual love or anything that needs to see the light of day. What about the artist that did black and white cut-outs that where lovely and lively, but highlighted an extremely unpleasant portion of our history? Slavery.
It also adds to an otherwise very horrible place for some. Art can be therapeutic. I know it is for me. Many weep in front of Rothko’s work. Something we leave behind is art for others to ponder. Like cave drawings; after centuries, we are still fascinated by it. The poorest of the poor manage to create art. Outsider art is often gorgeous. Art is life examined, the mind examined. Something we can create that comes close to God’s creation, co-creating for some. But always fascinating. When I am in a museum, it moves me. Art reflects. Just love it.
MICHAEL: Thanks Iris. Lovely chat.
IRIS: Thank you for the time you spent in conversation.
Check out Iris Low at www.irislow.com.