Liz Davidson is lives in Quebec, Canada with her husband, artist John Ballantyne. Her work www.lizdavidsonartist.com is so disciplined and austere that it’s amazing. While chatting with her here, I realized that it’s her intellect and spirit that give birth to her beautiful work. Read on and see for yourself …
“…at this stage in life, my last 3rd probably, things are more fragile. Friends die, circumstances change and in fact, change seems to be all about. And one thing I've really noticed is that there is a paring away, to what is essential…”
MICHAEL: Hi Liz. You are a formidable artist who works in various genres. Looking at your work, I get a strong sense of time as a crucial element. I see the past, the passing of time and life in the present that seems to be treated as a precious thing. What do you think about this?
LIZ: Thanks for this opportunity! I hadn't thought of time as an element in my work until you asked your question, so thanks, you helped me be more aware of what I'm doing, and at this stage in life, my last 3rd probably, things are more fragile. Friends die, circumstances change and in fact, change seems to be all about. And one thing I've really noticed is that there is a paring away, to what is essential, not only in my personal life, but in my work. I can never keep them separate. So for the past year, my biggest preoccupation has been with drawing, a basic in our repertoire, a line - what does a line want to say, to do, what is the nature of a line? And in this reducing of things to their simplest form, I concern myself with triangles, circles, squares and rectangles and my colors to black and white. I fell in love with charcoal, it’s lovely, velvety, messy nature and I needed to see how dark I could go, and how much light was in the dark.
When I started out as a young sculptor in my early 20's, I was working in a minimalist style and wanted to do huge works in steel and wood and now I wonder if it wasn't all about, "Look at me. See me, I exist.” Now it seems that the small, overlooked and insignifcant capture my attention and time. I love working in a time based way, in that I often use photos of work in progress in the studio, then use the computer to take them further, often that marriage is more satisfying that the actual drawing, it’s more of a reality to me - all these layers and it holds specific moments of time within.
MICHAEL: You just said that one process is more "satisfying" than the other. It sounds like satisfaction and fulfillment are the main motivators for you and your work. How long did it take you to get to the place where you knew you had to be fulfilled to be productive? Or is it productive to be fulfilled?
LIZ: I really had to think about your question, hence the slow reply and I’m still not sure which is right. Both, I suspect, and more. I have always been very lucky and have enjoyed a lot of physical energy and health, so much so then when I was younger, it felt like all that physical energy ran me. So I had a lot to put into my work and life and I know I am an unhappy camper unless I am doing things that engage me. So whether it's my garden - almost 2 acres - or the studio, I love to 'do', to create, make, explore. It may be the garden that has taught me some patience as things won't/can't grow at my pace. I have also had the knowing from a fairly young age that I would need to create the life that was right for me and I am really lucky as I live with a painter. We've been together for 40 years and his passion for his work is as strong as mine is for my work. So when either is in an intense time, it's easy for the other to understand, although I must admit he is far more measured than me.
As for fulfillment, there are the highs and lows, again the years have taught me that it's just part of the circle and as long as I have time and energy to explore, I am happy. Even though I spend a lot of time lost or on detours, it feels like everything, sooner or later, feeds into the whole. Your question the other day made me think of some work I did in the early '70's, so I dug out my slides, scanned them and am having a great time revisiting work that I haven't looked at in years and I was excited to see it and to see such obvious connections to now. Thanks for this.
MICHAEL: A two-acre garden? Wow. How do you find time to paint? There must be so many parallels between painting and gardening. What are they for you?
LIZ: For me, there are just so many parallels, I love this co creation - this shaping of the land, of highlighting structure which is already present, of playing with shape and form and color. Spring and fall are all about structure; are the lines working, what need pruning, how does this shape play against that shape and because the garden exists in so many dimensions it really is like a living sculpture. I also love building stonewalls, that are lovely repetitive and meditative work and they make lines delineating spaces and in the winter, make beautiful forms of snow. The garden is all about light and shadow and needing to lift the canopy of certain trees so that plants underneath thrive. And as I said before, a huge part is about patience, that it has its own rhythm of growth and renewal, that it takes years for some plants, trees and shrubs to become what I sensed. It has also been a huge part of my work. I photograph it constantly, trying to get to the essence of what I find so compelling. But perhaps, it’s all about pleasure, it gives me enormous pleasure. I enjoy the hard physical work - some days I think of gardening as an extreme sport. I love sitting in it and having my morning coffee or a beer in the evening, I love to swim in the pond and I love tending to this patch of land we call home.
MICHAEL: Your work is so clean and disciplined. Even the mixed media pieces look like photographs. It appears that digital imagery is your main focus, although I do see painting and even encaustic works. It looks like you prefer focusing on specific media for specific series, No?
LIZ: Definitely. Certain series need certain media and I have used whatever seems suitable for what I was trying to accomplish. Looking back, the camera has been as constant tool, words have woven their way in and out of work, and collage, whether it's digital, hands on or a combination of both, has also been another constant. I have used sound, video, ritual, installation and performance for certain work and in all of this muddle of materials what has become clearer to me is that certain materials and tools lend themselves to particular voices. As I have said, I love to explore and this way of working keeps me constantly learning. It challenges me. As to the work looking clean and disciplined, I think a basic part of my nature will always be in sympathy with the bare, pared down, grasping at or towards the essential. I like paring things down. And of course, I sometimes lose courage in this quest and my work becomes more baroque.
At the moment, I am working on a series that I thought needed to be done in paint, layers of paint, scrapped and drawn on, so I bought some oils and set out, soon realizing this was going to take some time to learn how to handle this stuff. So I made a grid to learn how layers of color work and I am finding this so exciting that this has become my focus and the original intent has fallen away. We'll see what happens.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today?
LIZ: Strange, exhilarating, confusing. I think social media has given me a fabulous way to see really fine work every day and meet wonderful artists, a necessity for someone living way out in the country. We are off to Art Toronto. JB's (Liz’s husband, artist John Ballantyne) gallery is there with his work, but I must admit I find them - art fairs, openings - a struggle, my social skills need updating!
MICHAEL: Does Quebec inspire you at all? It looks like you could pretty much create the work you're doing anywhere.
LIZ: I thought we would live here for five years then move to New York. Hmmm, something sure changed. The land is a constant source of inspiration and pleasure. It's hilly, rocky, scrubby land (all the rocks make for great stone walls in the garden!) and it imposes itself on me. The rhythm of the seasons is hugely important. Our house has no curtains - can't do that in the city! - so I am up about 5 am in the summer and 6.30 am in the winter. I like that my body follows these rhythms. Likewise from November 'til April, we enter the monastery of winter, studio light is wonderful and I can really focus there, so many less distractions. Winter driving can be unpredictable so we tend to stick closer to home. When we bought here almost 40 years ago, we really were looking for studios, with a house attached. And by choosing to live in a modest little town and live a modest lifestyle, it meant I could stop working and having to make money in my early 40's, I could go back to my first love and give it all my attention and time.
Living in Quebec means I will always be an outsider, even though I was born here. And while there are disadvantages to being an outsider, I feel the advantages more. All societies impose rules to the group and mostly I've been able to avoid these. Quebec is incredibly creative and vibrant, there is an extra energy here I never felt in my years in Toronto. I would love to live in different places, the prairies for a while and next to the sea, who knows what will happen?
MICHAEL: Finally Liz, why should people care about art? It's not a cure for cancer or end to homelessness or anything. What's the point? Isn't art just a silly indulgence of the rich? Poor people don't crave art.
LIZ: I think we do crave art. If you are poor, you make it and if you are rich, you hopefully still might make it or buy it. I feel art, like poetry, music, dance, books, plays, gardening, the list goes on, enriches us, makes life worthwhile, explains ourselves to ourselves, excites us, maddens us and makes us human. I really think it's a necessity, along with food, shelter and love.
MICHAEL: Indeed. Thanks Liz. This has been great.
LIZ: Thanks so much for the opportunity Michael. I really appreciate all the work you put in.
Check out Liz and her work at www.lizdavidsonartist.com.