The Tennessean's Melinda Baker sat down to ask about the new work shown in Keeper at Red Arrow Gallery. I am running the whole text below, as some was edited for space. You can find the shortened Tennessean feature online.
1). Tell me about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been an artist? When did you discover or decide that you’re an artist. Was there a moment in your life when you were like, ‘yes, this is what I want—or need--to do’?
I knew from an early age that I wanted to pursue art. I mostly saw art in books (my Mom is a retired art teacher) and always had a project going from our supplies. I am from Arkansas, a state that hosted fruitful nature play and reading time as a kid.
2). What inspired, “Keeper”?
Rebecca Solnit said “Landscape’s most crucial condition is considered to be space, but it’s deepest theme is time.” My interests for years have been rooted in landscape and our relationship to our shared built environment (grids of fences, slats and stripes). Painting is such a compelling medium for it’s relationship to both time and land (after all, hue is pigment from the earth).
The title “Keeper” comes from a small painting I made in 2016 of the same name. I began to think of Painter as “Keeper”, one who chooses and selects how to process her world through a studio practice, keeping some prompts and editing out others.
My part of the city has changed a lot since moving here in 2005, but a constant are two sisters, Barbara and Lois. They are not only delightful East Nashville neighbors to pass and see walking daily, but have become a deep and effectual allegory for my own painting practice: the long-hauling, the discipline, the community, the presence, the stripes, the prayer.
Keeper includes as many as 26 oil paintings representing two years of work (and a lifetime of preparation). Some of the “anchor” works are large-scale and others are a consistent “torso-sized." In addition to paintings that span the space of Red Arrow Gallery, I am carving out a “project space” with works on paper in ink (many are paintings of my neighborhood and neighbors).
4). What questions about landscape, architecture, and language most intrigue you?
Maybe Herman Melville wrote is best in Moby Dick, “It’s not down in any map, true places never are.” The potential for a place to conjure memory and thought, to prompt feeling and connection, to be worth memorializing, protesting, revering, anthologizing and recovering through an equally compelling discipline of painting. Landscape can channel a productive nostalgia, if tempered right.
5). Grids, fences, gates, boundaries, and walls. What concepts do these structures reflect in your work? What do these structures teach us about ourselves and our communities?
My interest in these prompts is rooted in formal concerns, where a marks sit perpendicular to one another on a plane (and taking into account the convention of a painting, the historic “window” it can represent). In 2006/7 I began making paintings influenced by construction sites, stopping to take note of festoons (celebration) and caution tape (alarm) and the surrounding context. In my grandest of hopes, these works that leverage imagery of surveying and marking can open timely and nuanced conversation on division and exclusion, power and politics so deeply needed now.
6). I’ve read that walking around your East Nashville neighborhood is integral to your creative process. Is this correct? What do you glean from these walks and how do you bring it into your work?
I love the walkability of where I live, and the connection with the ground, my neighbors and a changing sight line. I am not sure that walking is about gleaning or a conscious bringing into the work, so much as it is a habit that can settle me into an attentive space of observation (though sometimes a walk reminds me of a color to use, a shape that is important to me, or a title from a chat with my neighbor). The immersive nature of a brisk walk that can be the exact head space in the studio (and not to mention what a rich history of walking that Nashville has in connection to protest and solidarity).
7). You used a lot of red ink in this body of work. Why?
I am no stranger to color, but also have gone through periods of grissaille and monochrome palette choice. For example, I spent a year filling sketchbooks with Sharpie drawings of my family. The red ink drawings happened in a similar fashion, making daily paintings on paper with a color that communicated signal and alarm. I began using red ink after the 2016 election for all its reductive and associative contexts; writing and editing, broadsides, alarm signals and blood.
8). In your artist’s statement, you mention the ‘agency of painting.’ Tell me more about this.
Though I am firmly committed for the rest of my life to the fabrication of discreet objects, I am also interested in the potential for that fabrication (the making) or the object (the painting) reaching into our lives and sending us towards hope and determination. Can painting leverage that agency, that voice, that power? If each one of us loved one thing so dearly that we would spend hours towards that excellence, that could change the world. This is high-minded, yes, but we have so much to do in the world and better get to work.
9). Have you always blended abstraction and representation, or was this technique an outgrowth of the themes and concepts you’re interested in?
When my Mom’s friend, Heidi (and my first art teacher who was not my Mom) was battling cancer, she mentioned to my Mom that another world was so close, like a breath away, occupying a similar place but perhaps a different definition of time. The worlds of abstraction and representation seem like that to me.
10). What impact do you hope the show has on viewers?
My dad was a stockbroker when Black Monday happened and I can still see his pale face walking into our front door. For twenty years my mom taught kids to dream and think by making art. My sister is a teacher in Texas and commits her life to making her days (and those of her students) full of knowledge and laughter. My brother works is police officer and will give away his christmas money to families in need. These are the stories that connect us all, whether you feel it is high-time for sensible gun legislation (and Lord, do I), or that least among us (economically, geographically) are not treated equally in education, or see systems of power and greed being passed off as patriotism. We have a responsibility to one another. And to that end, we should really be interviewing people like my family, and Barbara and Lois in East Nashville (cue next project).
All images c. Tina Gionis
Keeper, November 11-December 4, 2017
Red Arrow Gallery, East Nashville, TN
We are all migrants through time. -Exit West, Mosin Hamid
My paintings extend from an interest in landscape, architecture and language. My core iconography references grids, welcoming connections with fences, gates, boundaries and walls.
In the work for “Keeper,” I continue to explore painting’s agency as I walk throughout my neighborhood in East Nashville, seeing and observing, hunting and gathering. The painter chooses what to keep as a prompt or motive for making a painting. Moving at three miles an hour, the neighborhood is like a theatrical set, one that allows entrances and exits from one yard and boundary to the next.
I began using red ink after the 2016 election for all its reductive and associative contexts; writing and editing, broadsides, alarm signals and blood. By living in close proximity to neighbors, we experience so much together surrounding issues of class and gentrification, racial bias, surveillance and educational disparity. I think of these as contemporary genre/history paintings, leveraging the use of a photo/collage aesthetic, capturing a moment in time.
For years I have huddled around the warm and rambunctious campfire of abstraction and the familiar light of representation. Either way (and both), given the state of America at the moment, I appreciate the illumination.
Read Interview with Melinda Baker, the Tennessean, November 12, 2017
-Jodi Hays, November 2017