Category Archives: Interviews with Artists

The Art of Bryan Rasmussen


Bryan Rasmussen Studio (10)

Bryan Rasmussen in his studio

 See more of Bryan’s art at: Bryan Rasmussen

For interviews with other sculptors see: Turry Lindstrom / Maria Willison

As a sculptor, Bryan works primarily with steel and his studio, designed around the manipulation and fabrication of that metal, has an almost industrial feel. “I’m here most days, all day,” he says, “except for ‘relationship days’ that I spend with my fiancé, Christine. After my morning run I come in, put on some music, crank the volume up, and get to work.” Music is important to Bryan and his tastes are eclectic. He spent a few years after high school in the Chattanooga music scene where he played bass for several punk rock bands as well as being a photographer for various groups.

Growing up in the small north Georgia town of LaFayette, Bryan Rasmussen had one goal, and it wasn’t making sculpture—he didn’t want to work in a factory when he grew up. As a boy he was often drawing and his family, particularly his grandmother, encouraged him. In time he got a camera and became interested in photography. As his interest in that medium grew, he left his bass guitar behind and enrolled at the University of West Georgia as an art major with a specialization in photography. He was the first person in his family to go to college and get a degree and it was there, in the UWG art program that he discovered his artistic path.

“As part of the art program I had to take a sculpture class and I became very involved with the techniques for metal casting. The immediacy of the work appealed to me. In photography I could shoot two or three rolls of film photographing some object, then spend eight hours in the dark room and come away with a pounding headache from the chemicals and maybe a few prints I thought were really good. On top of that, it was the late 1990’s and photography was rapidly going digital. That, too, made it less appealing, since the digital process seemed almost surreal to me as an artist. On the other hand, with sculpture I would spend the day working and feel like I’d made some real progress, say building a mold or finishing a casting I’d done earlier. The physical labor was good; it gave me a sense of satisfaction. My hands would be dirty, maybe I’d have a cut, but there, at the end of the day, was the evidence that I’d done something. I found a reality in sculpture that was missing for me in photography.”

“I like to think of my work as objects of contemplation, that is, when placed in a space, they create a charged area for meditation and contemplation.”

With this early exposure to sculpture, he didn’t abandon photography immediately. Rather, he sought to incorporate a sculptural feel in his photographs and he began cutting up negatives and pasting them back together, forming what amounted to sculptural collages and making prints from the manipulated negative. Eventually a photography professor told him, “you’re not really doing photography any more, you’re trying to make sculpture with photography so why don’t you go do it for real?”

And Bryan did. He began studying with the sculpture professor at UWG, Kevin Shunn and it was an important formative experience. “He allowed his students to follow their ideas in a way that was unconstrained by his own preconceptions. Some teachers try to produce young versions of themselves but he didn’t. In addition, we were always free to explore the more conceptual aspects of sculpture and not just focus on object making. He was a great resource on technical matters, too. Mr. Shunn always seemed to have a lot of knowledge about any medium that you might want to work in.”

Echo maker Steel brass copper

Echo Maker– Steel/brass/copper

In 2005 Bryan received his BFA with a double concentration in photography and sculpture, but rather than go on to graduate school for an MFA, Bryan worked for next two years as a studio assistant to Carrollton, GA sculptor Gordon Chandler. In 2007 Bryan moved to Chattanooga, TN, where he was hired by the internationally recognized sculptor, John Henry (, as a studio assistant. Bryan spent the next six years doing the hardest work of his life fabricating, delivering, and assembling John Henry’s designs on site.

“It was a really hard job—very intense and physically demanding. We worked in all weathers. Sometimes it was cold but the worst was when it was hot. Remember we don’t do anything to cool metal down, it’s the opposite, what we do, welding and all, just heats it up. You have to get used to burned hands and blisters. Then, after working for eight to ten hours it’s time to go to your studio and do your own work.”

Yet his time with John Henry was not without benefits for the young artist. “I’ll always keep what I learned about construction, engineering, and fabrication. Plus, I made contacts in the art world that would have taken me much longer any other way, and I really had a chance to learn the business side of the process.” A friend, the established sculptor Hank Lautz, advised him to learn everything he could in this area as it would be essential for his professional progress.

John Henry also helped Bryan by giving him a critique of his work. Bryan showed him several of his most recent pieces and John Henry, after looking the body of work over carefully, said that all of it was good, but each piece looked as if it had been made by a different artist. He saw no cohesiveness, no unity of vision. “I could see the links”, said Bryan, “but he couldn’t and it caused me to rethink my approach.”

51 elle se tient Steel

Elle se tient– Steel

“I stripped everything away and asked myself ‘what am I trying to convey through my sculpture?’ I want a sense of contrast and I want the feeling that something is being revealed, that something is coming apart.” His new work became more visually simple and direct. “I thought, what’s the simplest most direct thing there is? For me it’s the line, and to convey a line sculpturally I turned to square tubing. Then I made a cut and had the tube (or line) come apart to reveal the unseen. I added contrast using color both flat and glossy. Having the work stripped down to its very ‘seed’ allows it to grow in any direction and become more complicated and different.” But it is complication that is defined and controlled by the essence of his vision.

Bryan’s early sculpture was never painted. “I believed you needed to let the properties of the metal show and that you could get a sense of color through things like patina and rust, the natural oxidation of the metals.” Seeking additional textures he included such things as beeswax and cotton in his work.

With time and experience he changed his mind about the idea of paint and he now sees it as another tool, something to catch the eye and draw the viewer further into the work. “I don’t let paint overpower the piece—the form is important, indeed, the most important thing. That’s why I don’t put any text on my work, because I feel it then becomes about the text and the sculpture becomes just a sort of canvas. I want the form of the sculpture to be the most important thing.

Bryan’s use of color is carefully measured to get the necessary visual impact with an economy of means that harmonizes with his elemental shapes. He uses complementary colors but seeks subtly in their use, for instance employing near complements such as a rusty orange with a powder blue. “Complementary colors, if they are balanced right and lit correctly, are going to vibrate and catch the eye.” In seeking interesting color harmonies, Bryan utilizes everything from a close observation of nature to seeking out the color combinations seen in fashion magazines. His metal working studio must be one of very few that has back issues of Vogue magazine lying around.

Bryan’s approach to developing all aspects of his art is a methodical one. He keeps carefully written journals of his thoughts on art and sketchbooks of future projects. “I like to write about things, collect ideas, and even gather natural things like seed pods or the vertebrae of small animals that can inform my thinking. It’s very important to the evolution of my work.”

Bryan Rasmussen Studio (23)

Notebook, sketchbook, and reference materials

That evolution now includes works in both large and small formats, though larger formats are a newer and less comfortable thing for him. In the past his use of such materials as beeswax and cotton precluded outdoor display. “I think of my work as objects of contemplation and for that they don’t have to be big. I find that sometimes with bigger pieces the size is more impressive than the concept. Of course you get more recognition because your large work is out in public, but smaller pieces can be more personal and immediate.”

Rasmussen #2

Untitled No. 3 Charcoal/pastel


In addition to his main focus on sculpture, Bryan also works with two-dimensional media drawing images, which he describes as being, “what my sculptures would be if they were drawings”. Yet even with these drawings, requiring as they do techniques so different from those he employs with his sculptures, he has an approach that rises out of his work with metal. After a base image is created he uses a sander with fine grain sandpaper to work over the surface of the drawing, thereby creating a subtly varied surface.

And as for the future?

“I’m working on making my shapes more complicated in order to give my work more interest. I guess you could call it enhancing the visual terrain. I want any piece I make to be the most interesting thing in the room. I’m always seeking to push to the next level.” And that search for the next level is an unending process for Bryan Rasmussen. As he says, “I am an artist. I don’t feel like I could truly be anything else. Nothing else would satisfy me. I’d rather do this than anything.”

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A Conversation with Maria Willison

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maria Willison moved to Bristol, Tennessee when she was six years old, upon her father’s taking a position at King University. Her interest in art began in high school, where she pursued painting and drawing, though she didn’t learn much about technique in her classes. “It was all about expressing yourself, without much mention of how to do it,” she says. After graduation she enrolled in Covenant College, graduating with a BA. Currently she works as a studio assistant to Cessna Decosimo and has taught at the Townsend Atelier. She has had work in several shows, most recently at the 2014 Four Bridges Festival in Chattanooga, where she received a grant as an emerging artist. In October 2014, her sculpture was featured in a joint show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art, “Figuratively Speaking”, which also included the paintings of James Tucker.

See more of Maria’s art at:  Maria Willison

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Turry Lindstrom

Maria Willison photo

Maria Willison (photo: Samuel Burns)

 So how did you find your way to sculpture?

I took a sculpture class during my sophomore year at Covenant College and thought: this is exactly how my brain works! This is exactly how I can express myself! Sculpture became my passion.

Did you have an art professor who was exceptional and who triggered this reaction or was it the medium and its possibilities that so excited you?

Both. The messier I am the more fun I have, and with clay you’re basically working with mud (laughs). My teacher was Kayb Carpenter– her married name is now Joseph–and she was trained in classical sculpting techniques in Florence, Italy. She has a deep knowledge of anatomy and figurative sculpture. I just fell in love with that approach and put a lot of effort into anatomical studies. She was very inspiring and really pushed me a lot. At the beginning of her classes we would often have quizzes on anatomy—the muscles of the arm, the back and so on. We also built a sculpture muscle by muscle. In addition to that, I took an anatomy class in the Biology Department to add to my knowledge base.



Why does the human form attract you so much?

Throughout history it has been a subject that really draws people in. You can work directly with human emotions, and people understand that because, after all, we’re all human. I love that. There is also the complexity and the challenge of it. The human body is a really hard thing to sculpt well, and I’ve set myself the goal of mastering it. I mean, really, if you can sculpt the human form you should be able to do anything else. The human form is exciting because it is so complex, but also it can be posed in meaningful ways that allow me to work with complex negative spaces around the figure.  Often I don’t see all the implications right away, but I’ll come back to a piece after a while and it will just hit me: ‘ Wow, that side form was really what I was looking for!’

In an artistic statement you wrote, you said that negative space, dramatic line, and the dichotomy between peace and tension were what you thought about when making a sculpture. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, I’ve already talked about negative space, but that integrates with the line of the form. Negative space is defined by the empty spaces around the sculpture, whereas the dramatic lines lead the eye through the sculpture. The human figure, with its limbs and lines of muscle movement, gives you the chance to really point the viewer’s eye where you want it. It’s a cool way to work with the viewer and draw the viewer into the work. By establishing the pose, I can both define the figure and move the viewer mentally through the work.

My piece, ‘Grace and Disgrace’, is an example of what I mean by the peace and tension dynamic. The rising figure is almost the very essence of tension. It’s a pose that is almost painful to look at and would be impossible to hold, and yet, if you look at the face, there is a sense of peace and joy. If you look at the other pose, which is that of a person crouched and hiding herself, it’s physically peaceful, but it has psychological tension. It is the face of anguish and sorrow. A further dynamic comes in play because the two figures have to work together, pushing and pulling each other.

Grace & Disgrace

Grace and Disgrace


Do you have a preference for working with the male or female figure?

I do more female figures, I suppose because I connect with a female’s emotions more. From a conceptual point of view, I tend to think more in terms of the female figure, but I really enjoy working with the male figure, too. I like working with both. I usually choose male or female figures based on which one best helps me get my ideas across. In really simplistic terms, I suppose you could say that the male presents a more powerful muscular form and the female a more graceful, poetic one. Frankly, though, sometimes it’s just who is available as a model!



Why realism? We live in a world that is obsessed with being modern. It’s almost a fetish in some quarters to be continually on the ‘cutting edge’. Do you worry about your style being perceived as passé?

I just see the world that way. I find great beauty in the way in which the world, and particularly the human body, actually appear. I take great joy in rending it as it actually is. I enjoy helping people see what’s already in front of them, what’s already there. And I love the challenge of taking and working with what’s already there, but shaping it and molding it to make it my own.

That brings up an interesting idea. To what extent is your work not realistic?

Art is about personal expression, so I do emphasize certain things, but the distortion is subtle. Usually I try to pick a model whose appearance is close to what I want aesthetically. If I have an extreme pose, one that a person can’t hold long without hurting themselves, I might push the pose beyond where the model actually is, based on my knowledge of anatomy. Since I’m working in a realist idiom, the figure has to ‘read’ as correct, and that is, of course, my goal, but often there are small exaggerations made to better express what is inherent in the pose.

When you have an extreme pose like the ‘Grace’ figure in ‘Grace and Disgrace’, do you take photographs to shorten the posing time for the model?

I do take photos for reference, but a method I often use in that situation is to have the model do partial poses that she can maintain. For instance, in the ‘Grace’ figure I had the model sit in a chair and bend backwards as I worked the top half of the of the figure.Then I had her kneel and bend backward in a less extreme way that I exaggerated in my work, so her body was consistent with the more extreme bend when sitting. The hard part is making sure you have the rhythm of the overall flow of the body when working from partial views. That’s tricky, but it’s essential. It’s all in handling the transitions correctly, and I’ve gotten better and better at doing that.

Where do your ideas for new sculpture come from?

Usually they come from my own life experiences or those of the people around me. I think there’s a lot of anguish in my work, though people may not see it. In ‘Enervare’—that comes from a root word that means ‘enervate’ or drained of energy—the concept is about someone who has done something wrong and has done it over and over, becoming completely drained of energy, wondering, ‘why can’t I stop?’. When I have an idea, I try to figure out what it would look like visually. In this case, what it would look like if you were utterly exhausted.

Enevare-- in progress

Enevare– in progress

Evevare-- finished piece

Evevare– finished piece

You’re saying that you begin with an idea and then work out a physical expression of that idea?

Sometimes, but not always. There are two basic ways I approach making a sculpture and that’s one of them. Sometimes I work in the opposite way. I wonder if it wouldn’t be cool to have the model pose in such and such a way, you know, an intriguing and visually interesting pose, and then I work to give that pose additional levels of meaning. I may begin with beauty for beauty’s sake, but I rarely end there. The knack for brainstorming a concept is a work in progress for me. That wasn’t the focus of my training, so it’s something I’m learning to do now.

After you’ve got the beginning point of a sculpture, how do you turn this idea into an actual artwork? What are your methods as you proceed from that point?

I’ve started doing some preliminary drawings. I used to not do those, but I’ve started finding them useful. I draw four or so different angles to think through the pose. Then sometimes I do a maquette, which is like a small three dimensional sketch, just to be sure my thinking is solid enough to carry through. Then I build the armature, which is the wire framework that gives strength to the clay. One of the things that I love about sculpture is that there are parts of the process that are very mechanical, and since I’m a very mechanically-minded person, I find that stuff fun. Once that’s done, I move on to getting the pelvis and the ribcage situated correctly. That’s got to be right. It’s not unusual for me to work on that aspect even before I engage a model. Once I’m satisfied with that, it’s just a question of building the work on out: first the figure is roughed in and then it’s defined and the transitions are smoothed out.

Willison-- Drawing #4 Willison-- Drawing #3 Willison-- Drawing #2

I’ve read that you work with both clay and plasticene.

Yes, I use both, and they are rather different. With traditional water based clay, you have a limited time to work on a piece. Though there are ways to keep your work from drying out, the drying can’t be delayed forever. You either have to fire the piece or make a mold from it while it’s still wet. And of course, once a piece is fired you can’t change it. Plasticene, which is oil based, never dries out. When the sculpture I’m working on is ready, I make a mold and then take a casting from the mold. At that point the casting becomes the finished piece and the plasticene image can go back in the tub to be used over and over. The torso I had in the last show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art was made that way.

Do you have a preference for clay or plasticene?

I really don’t. I tend to work in one until I get tired of it and then I switch. Water clay allows me to go really fast. I like the speed and immediacy, and it really shows the process because it’s so sensitive to the touch. You can get that appearance with plasticene, but it usually means working on the surface with tools. It’s easier to get that look with water clay. Also, plasticene is harder to control with just your fingers and often my hands get really tired when I’ve working with it. However, with plasticene there is no time constraint, which encourages a push/pull, add and subtract exploration process that isn’t hurried. You can leave a piece for a long time and then come back to it

Graphite Female Torso

Graphite Female Torso

Female Torso

Female Torso


How did you do the finish on that torso? The surface had delightful quality about it.

I use a wax finish. I brush it on and it hardens pretty quickly. Then I polish it until it gets a nice sheen to it. I love that wax and use it all the time. That particular finish shows the marks made in the process of making the piece, which I think gives the work a warmer more immediate feel.

You use a variety of finishes: gray and bronze, among others. Are those your color signatures for a given sculpture? Are they meant as an immediate draw for the viewer’s eye?

I suppose so, though the best patina emphasizes the form and doesn’t call attention to itself. The ideal is to have the patina catch viewer’s eye, drawing him to experience the form and the dynamic tensions in the piece.

What artists have influenced your work?

Rodin, of course. His poses are really amazing! He’s very exciting to look at. And Bernini. The detail of his work is fantastic. I’ve only seen photos of his work, but in September I’m going with my husband to Florence, Italy, and I’ll finally get a chance to see the real thing. The movement in his Apollo and Daphne is amazing. He gives you visual motion and an incredible level of detail, but keeps it all subordinated to the needs of the piece.

You’re at an early stage of your career; where do you think your art is headed?

That’s a good question. I can see it becoming more abstract in time. Historically, that seems to be how it goes with many sculptors. I can see me breaking down the human form and manipulating it more obviously. My way of working is getting increasingly internalized, and my muscle memory has really developed to the point I’m often working without having to think everything through. As the process gets more automatic, it can get more creative.

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A Conversation with Josiah Golson

At 27, Josiah Golson has already achieved much. A graduate of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and the University of Texas-Austin law school, he recently began practicing real estate law in Chattanooga. He is also an artist, and is involved with several arts groups.

Josiah Golson]

See more of Josiah’s art at: Josiah Golson

For interviews with other painters see: Ellyn Bivin / David Jones / James Mckissic / Renel Plouffe / James Tucker / Larry Young

How did you become interested in art?

My mother is a trained artist, and in fact an art teacher. She was an early inspiration for me. When I was six years old, I remember making drawings that I imagined being in motion. Even then I was trying to tell a story with pictures. I made little comic books and so on. I’ve drawn all my life, but I wasn’t serious about sharing my art until my second year of law school. I was dealing with some issues around whether I wanted to continue in that field. I’ve always had an interest in the arts, from drawing to film making, and as a diversion I began to draw pictures in the style of a film strip, what I call ‘frames’. I began to create story lines and to illustrate them.

So your approach to drawing evolved as an emotional experience based on a love for a variety of visual media?

Yes, I think it was an attempt to connect with my youth and with things that inspired me.

Can you describe your approach to making your drawings and how you arrived at it?

I didn’t have any real formal training, such as working from a live model. My drawings come from my imagination. I see the image as if it was in a movie, and then I draw it straight from that. A big influence on my work is cinema and the process of cinema, particularly the making of story boards. I like story boards because you know there is a story being told, but there is not a need for perfection. That allows me to just go with the flow of the ideas that I’m getting. It gives me the freedom to draw in a way that’s quick enough so I don’t lose momentum. Usually I’m moving at a pace that allows me to get the image down while it’s fresh and vital. I don’t want to start over-thinking it or muddling about. I could lose the inspiration that caused me to choose the visual idea in the first place. I’m seeking a rhythm, almost a musical quality in my drawing.

You certainly have a very ‘live’ line in your work. To what extent do you pre-plan these strips of related drawings?

I do most of my planning in my head, waiting until I get to the point where I can see where I want to take a piece. To the extent that I do that sort of planning, it’s usually only for two or three images at a time. For instance, one of the pictures I have in the Graffiti show is called “The Fall of Rock”. It centers on the punk rock scene. For that drawing I tried to think of images that were not stereotypical but have a powerful element to them. Sometimes I draw a quick sketch on a separate piece of paper but most often I work directly by placing key images on the paper and then working in other images that complement them.

Golson--The Fall of Rock -L
The Fall of Rock 18×24 Conte Crayon on paper

Let me walk back through what you’ve just said. You have a basic structure in your head when you start out, but the exact nature of an individual image is left to the moment as you work.

Yes. That’s right.

Your two black and white drawings, “The Fall of Rock” and “Crossroads Chronicles” are done in an obvious ‘film strip’ style. However, “The Living Flag”, another of your drawings, is clearly telling a story but not in a sequential way.

Golson--The Living Flag
The Living Flag 18×24 Pastel on paper

I’ve actually done several “Living Flag” pictures. In those pieces my goal was to present the American experience, the spirit of America if you will, as it is represented in the meaning of the flag—the ideas of freedom, justice, equality, and the sacrifices that people have made for those things. I could have put them in a scene by scene format but those facets of our lives are so intertwined with the idea of America and with each other, so emotionally connected, or in some cases opposed, I decided to have them collide, as it were, on the flag itself. I tried to relate the individual elements to the colors of the flag, which I felt intensified the visual experience.

You have a fourth drawing you’re showing, “Reunion”, that takes yet another approach and doesn’t, at least to my eye, seem to tell a story at all.

Yes, in that one and in some other of my work there’s not a clear narrative. It’s just a scene. It doesn’t have a specific story. It’s pure action. That’s what motivates the piece.

Reunion 18×24 Pastel on paper

I chose the title “Reunion” because I felt as I was drawing the different characters and individuals there is a sense of unity present. However, at the same time, there is sense of diversity and difference. So I think there are linkages, but at no time was I going for a narrative that you’d find in the other pieces we’ve been talking about.

At 27 you’re at the beginning of your career in art, but do you have a sense of how your work might be evolving?

I do. Well, a little bit, anyway. I know I want to move forward with the narrative style. I think that’s where I’m strongest. I’d like to see how far I can take it. In our society we rely on cinema a way to process experience. It’s become so much a part of our culture, it’s now all pervasive. Even though people don’t go to galleries and museums as much as they see film and TV, I think that can work in favor of the plastic and visual arts. The imagery of the cinema can be utilized to enhance visual art. I’d like to tell more complete stories, though not to the point of graphic novels, we already have those, but I’m moving toward doing more complete stories that may not be as explicit as a graphic novel, but will have a compressed richness to them.

What artists have influenced you?

I have people I feel have influenced how I think about art, but not all of them are artists.

So tell me about them.

Well, music certainly has a huge impact on me and is a very important part of my life. Among musicians, I’d have to say that one of my biggest influences is Bruce Springsteen—his whole narrative of struggle in life, his themes around the American landscape and the endless unfolding of American self-discovery. His way of making beauty out of life–the little things in life–are an inspiration to me.

There’s also a film maker, Julian Schnabel. I found him when I saw a movie on Jean Michel Basquiat, who is a painter I like. Schnabel’s film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfuly”, feels like a painting. I mean as a film it’s made in a painterly way. It’s not using all the traditional cinematic techniques, but idiosyncratically tells its story in a powerful way. I love the way he juxtaposes images—old film, old pictures, old iconography—and mixes everyday things and lush European landscapes. In a sense, he made a painting out of a movie, which has inspired me to make movies out of drawings.

As for artists, two come immediately to mind. The drawings of Picasso had a big impact on me. Despite his being on a pedestal as THE 20th century artist, I love the drama and freedom in his work. The way he transformed life into image, even something as horrible as “Guernica”, helped to free me up to draw stories as I evolve them in my mind. Seeing his work allowed me a freedom I doubt I could have found in a more classical approach to drawing. The other artist is Matisse, because of how he combined a linear approach with color. I love his color. Sometimes I find the more color I use in my own work, the less linear it becomes. I love exploring how color impacts my basic approach.

Beside your drawings, are you working in other media?

Yes, I am. Currently my favorite media, as you might guess, are conte crayon and pastel, but I’m also working with acrylic paints. They’re not as natural for me as pastel, but the work is coming along. I still feel more comfortable with the drawings but I’d like to develop as a painter because I think there is more I can do with that. I can push my art further.

Josiah 2

Quartet in Color No. 2 20×30 Acrylic on paper

Josiah 3

Welcome to Stankonia 20×30 Acrylic on paper








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The Art of Renel Plouffe

Rien ne se perd,
Rien ne se crée,
Tout se transforme!*

— Antoine Lavoisier 1743-1794
(Note on Renel’s studio wall)

*Nothing is lost,
Nothing is created,
All is transformed!

Renel in front of paintingArtist Renel Plouffe

French Canadian artist, Renel Plouffe, throws herself into the moment of artistic creation, glorying in the act of painting. Her passion is readily visible. Surfaces are roughly, almost violently, textured. Pigment is applied lavishly in color combinations that range from an elemental clash of primaries to an almost mystically subtle variation in shades of analogous colors. Her art is a profound and primary means of communication for her. It is an art that does not make compromises.

“I break down the subject to its visual essentials—light, dark, color, tone, movements, and textures. Each canvas is absorbed by color brushstrokes, and a textured background. The result is a reflection of my true essence and outlook on life.”

Creating series of paintings around a common theme is central to the way Renel approaches her art. She has used a variety of such themes over the course of her career, systematically exploring ideas that have meaning for her. At any given time she is mining two or three such thematic areas. The paintings in her current show focus on two: ‘city’ and ‘water’.

“I’m a city girl,” she says. “You know when you go in a big city and everything is moving—I just love the electricity in the air. I used to fill my city pictures with people and cars. That was how I presented what I really love about urban life, the craziness and the energy of the city.”

                                                                      Traffic        Heure de pointe                 

   Traffic  20×16    Oil                         Heure de Pointe   30×15   Oil

“When I paint something like ‘Traffic,’ I feel like I’m telling a story. In this painting you can feel the tension and the anger, but you have to smile because it’s just ridiculous. I mean everyone is angry and the panel van is just happy to be there and that makes everything over into a joke.”

However, her city ‘theme’ is a continually evolving and has changed in significant ways in the work she has done for her latest show. “I don’t put people in my city paintings any more” she notes, “It’s just buildings, which I suppose is sort of silly in a way, since even at night it’s impossible to have a city without people. I used to do buildings with people in them. I stopped. I don’t know why.”


         Esperance      30×30       Oil

I think the city represents my more rational side and yet I love the seeming randomness of nature and the sense freedom it gives me.”

 Another theme she is currently working with is ‘water’. “My nature painting is more minimalist,” she says. ” Painting water is peaceful. For me it’s almost like meditation. I’m very loose when I do it and I’m very free. I don’t think so much.  I play more with the texture as compared to line. For me nature is color and texture and subtle revelation. I think the city represents my more rational side and yet I love the seeming randomness of nature and the sense freedom it gives me.”


Eclosion   30×15   Oil

She makes no secret of the fact that the themes and subjects she chooses reflect where she is in her life mentally and emotionally. “I’m always struggling to have balance in my life. I can be pretty extreme in the way I approach things. Right now, I think I need these two types of images. My art is the mirror of who I am. Maybe I seek balance by moving back and forth between these sorts of images. However, for some reason my themes of ‘water’ and ‘city’ are coming together stylistically. I suppose to some extent the categories are beginning to merge.”

“Painting is my speech, my playground, my reality”

Born in Gatineau, Canada, in the province of Quebec, Renel first pursued psychology and mathematics upon graduating from secondary school. However, her early and powerful love of art soon won out over her mathematical and scientific gifts and she changed direction. “My parents always traveled a lot. We spent time in Europe and went to many, many museums. They had a big interest in art. My mother painted and from when I was a little girl, I did too.”

She received her degree from the University of Hull (Canada) in fine art and graphic design, while also doing additional work to gain certification in both 2D and 3D animation. She then moved to Montreal, a city known for its art scene, to launch her career. Starting work with a company that made video games, she soon discovered the truth about an industry many believe to be glamorous. “It’s not what people think,” she says. “What you have to understand, is the gaming and movie industries are very, very difficult, tough, worlds. And they are a man’s world. You work a lot of hours and compared to the U.S., the wages are low. I didn’t have a life.”

Yet, Renel was unafraid of the hard work.  Despite her long hours and difficult schedule, she found a way to further her artistic development, choosing to attend evening classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For two years she took painting classes from the Russian artist, Nikolai Kupriakov. “Kupriakov was very strong in teaching the fundamentals. And he really showed how to deconstruct and interpret a subject and I found that fascinating.”

“I can, be pretty extreme in how I approach things,” she says, with little appreciation of her understatement.

She liked Montreal and was making progress, becoming established with Montreal galleries and doing commercial design work, when her husband’s company transferred him to Houston, TX. “That was a very strange time for me. In Montreal I’d been working 60-65 hours a week and had gotten to know a lot of people in the art world there—all that was suddenly gone.” Unable to work in the United States without a work visa, she threw herself into a full time schedule of painting. “I found a good dealer and was selling well. I was doing a lot of work with the figure, particularly with nudes.” Over the course of the next four years she established herself as both a fine artist and, when her work visa was granted, as a commercial artist in the Houston area. Then her husband was transferred again, this time to Chattanooga, TN.

Nuit sur ville_lowress

Nuit sur Ville      30×30      Oil

Embracing a schedule that would crush a less driven artist, Renel is at her easel every morning at 7:15 when she returns from taking her twin daughters to preschool, and she works until around 1:00 in the afternoon. With her family fed and her children in bed, she often returns to her highly organized garage studio to work, “until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning or until I find myself getting impatient with what I’m working on. I can, be pretty extreme in how I approach things,” she says, with little appreciation of her understatement.

Renel always starts a painting in the same simple way.  “I just start. I don’t do preparatory sketches. That’s not as aimless as it sounds. I almost always work in series around central themes so I have a good idea where I want to go with a painting. I have an image in my mind when I start. Frankly, I see the painting I want to do in my mind and I just do it.” And since she works in series, she is usually working on more than one picture at a time, switching between them.

As she works, Renel focuses her attention on two aspects of painting that are of particular concern to her: surface texture and color.

“Paintings should be like people. People are multi-layered and only give up their layers and secrets over time. A painting should do that. I paint in layers and then scratch or otherwise work my way back to expose those layers to a greater or lesser extent.”

When I started out, I used to do very flat almost liquid surfaces on my paintings. Then I began playing with texture about ten years ago, and I loved the depth it gave my work. Often I put a color down, paint over it, and then remove part of the surface layer to reveal an underlying contrasting color. I use brushes when I paint, of course, but I also paint a lot with the palette knife, which I also use to scratch the dry or partially dry surface for additional texture. I love a rough and rich texture on my paintings. I’ve even developed a method of stressing the surface with braided wire of varying gauges that I have unbraided at the end. The wire strands make fine scratches on the surface. I scratch into both wet and dry surfaces, though working into dry surfaces gives a finer, more subtle effect. Usually I work into the surface to create texture but there are times when I use texturing agent such as acrylic medium mixed with sand to alter the paint itself. I also use modeling paste. Really, I’m willing to do anything to get the surface texture I’m looking for.”

Color is also of crucial importance to her art. She always starts with a set of colors she will use  and her choices are intuitive. She sees the colors in her mind and, “I just naturally know which ones I’ll be using. It’s rare for me to do a painting without at least an accent in red. It’s my signature color, I suppose. Red for me is really intense. I love red. My dad loved red. He always bought red roses for my mom. “ Sometimes she seeks dramatic color combinations, juxtapositions of complements of richly colored pigments. At other times the effects are  more subtle, but always her color is dramatic and personal.

Facade_lowress                Evasion_lowress

Facade  24×12    Oil                        Evasion  30×15     Oil

With her ever evolving themes, where do her ideas for new work come from? “I keep images—photos, things I cut out of magazines—really anything that I find visually interesting. If I thing they will really be useful, I paste them on the wall. These images are not there to copy, but they spark ideas. I look at them all the time and they suggest things to me. But when I start painting, they are of no use to me, by then the image I want is in my head—a palette of colors, the textures—all that I imagine before I start.”

Painting is a way of expressing myself and communicating with others. And when I paint, I can stop the conscious stream of thought in my mind and access a subconscious flow. That’s the only time that happens for me. I paint because I need to paint.”

Does she have any sense of what lies next in her artistic journey? She greets the question with a classic French shrug of her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she says. “I never really know.  It goes with what I’m feeling and what I’m living in my life. If I look at my art from 15 years ago it’s completely different, but I was a completely different person then. My art of the future will depend on who I become as a person.”



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A Conversation with James McKissic

James McKissic photo

James McKissic

 See more of James’s art at:  James McKissic

For interviews with other painters see: Ellyn Bivin / Josiah Golson  / David Jones / Renel Plouffe / James Tucker / Larry Young

Born in Cleveland, Tennessee, James McKissic, currently Director of Multicultural Affairs for the City of Chattanooga, is a lifelong artist and art collector whose paintings draw upon and explore the African-American experience. His mother was a teacher and educational administrator before her retirement, and his father edited and published the Tennessee Informer until his death in 2003. After he graduated from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, James spent two years in AmeriCorps working in Atlanta, before attending the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. After working in Connecticut for a few years, he returned to Chattanooga in 2003. During his time in the Northeast, James took painting and drawing classes whenever he could. Indeed, it was at the New Haven Artist Workshop that James came into his own as a painter, developing a new visual vocabulary that he has continued to expand. This résumé may not sound like that of most artists, but it was probably an inevitable path for James—his love of art runs deep, but public service features prominently across the generations of his family, many of who were teachers. It was necessary for him to follow both paths.

James, your paintings are large, powerful, and complex. How do you begin? What brings you to the point of starting a specific work?

Usually, by the time I get to the canvas I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the form I want to begin with. I always begin with some sort of idea of how the larger shapes will fit together. That gives me the basic structure of the painting. As you know, a lot of my work is driven by cultural topics or by current events, and my feelings about the subject drive the work.

McKissic-- Feast Day of Yemaya (Diptych)

Feast Day of Yemaja


For instance, the painting I’m working on right now is derived from the culture of the African Diaspora, which resulted from Africans being taken from their native cultures and having to adapt their institutions and beliefs. When Africans were brought to the new world they often combined their deeply held traditional beliefs with the outward forms of Christianity. It would appear they were worshipping the approved god when really they were worshipping the gods of the old country.

The specific reference in my current painting is the feast day of Yemaja, which is part of Orisha worship. Orisha worship is a combination of Roman Catholic and African belief. This feast day honors one of the traditional goddesses, Yemaja, who is associated with water and with the feminine principle of creation. The celebration features watermelons, cantaloupes, and other fruits of that sort which are broken open along the banks of a river as an offering to honor her. In my painting, you see ovals and sensuous forms, but the meaning may not be immediately apparent to the viewer. There is, of course, a connection between the name of the painting and what the viewer sees, but a person walking up to the painting wouldn’t necessarily make that connection. I’ve worked through the subject emotionally and intellectually to find a visual means to express it.



But what makes your work seem so spontaneous and free?

(Laughs) Well, when I start painting, things become a lot more free-form. I usually work with the palate knife; actually I use a set of different palate knives. I mostly paint in acrylic. Sometimes I put things in the paint or onto a painted passage while it is wet. I might have a section of a painting that is nothing but thin washes of color with thicker paint built up around it.

I love the actual painting process but sometimes I can get too engrossed in a small section and have to force myself back to working on the whole canvas. It can be a battle. So one thing I’ve learned to do is to take time away from a painting, a few days, maybe more, and then I can see more connections, more visual connections, than I had seen at first.

You did layout work for your Dad’s newspaper when you were young. Does that experience influence how you construct your paintings?

Maybe a little. The arts were important in my family, and I saw good art as a child. Then I had a really exceptional high school art teacher, Martha Kidwell, and she worked hard with us on both the technical side, how to produce a painting, but also with art history and how to look and paintings and other kinds of art. She insisted that a well-constructed painting had to work visually no matter how it was held—upside down, sideways, or right side up. You know I was in France last year and went to the Louvre, and as I looked at the art I could hear her voice in my head, telling me how to process what I was seeing. She said that we would one day see great art like that, and I did. And I think there is another thing going on with how I see painting — I’m an artist , but also an art collector, and that gives me a different point of view, a different angle, from which to look at art.

What are the influences on your work?

Like many artists, I’ve struggled as I’ve matured to find, to create, my own style. Than can be more difficult, I think, when you’re an abstract painter. In the African-American community, abstract painters have always sort of been on the side, not really getting much recognition, but that, I think, is changing. African-American abstractionists are starting to be collected. There are some great abstract painters that I love and who deserve greater recognition—Norman Lewis, Howardina Pendall, Alma Thomas, and Art Smith, are a few that come to mind. But to answer your question, the African Diaspora has had a huge influence on me. That’s something I’ve read about and studied. But the most seminal time for my art was the time I spent in Cuba.


Crown/ Collar

McKissic--Meditation on the Triangle Trade

Meditation on the Triangle Trade


When were you in Cuba?

In 2001. I went with a special educational tour through my graduate school (NYU). We went to look at their educational system and healthcare system, but I was also soaking up the Cuban culture as well—the colors, the interiors of people’s homes, the old cars—let’s just say a lot of the images I found there were just emblazoned on my imagination. Travel has meant a lot to me. I also loved my time in Mexico City. I toured the mural collections, saw the Mayan pyramids, and visited Frida Khalo’s house. I particularly remember the blues I saw there.


McKissic--Your Own Personal Haint

Your Own Personal ‘Haint’

However, to get back to the question of what drives my art, I’d have to say the major influence on me   and my work is history, or more specifically, Black history. Not the political, ‘who did what in 1823’  history, I’m interested in how people survived through religion and folk beliefs, home remedies, and  that sort of thing. People survived because they had a culture that passed from person to person,  generation to generation. A lot of that stuff shows up in my work: symbols, color, recipes, etc. I’ve  even done paintings based on love potions.

I know these sorts of things sound quaint or esoteric, but they are really part of my DNA. They were part of my childhood experiences. I had elderly great aunts who were careful to gather up the hair from their hairbrushes and who burned their fingernail clippings so those things couldn’t be used in spells against them. They would put different powders and salts at the doorway to ward off evil spirits. It was just part of their culture. They reached into the supernatural for protection. We’ve really lost all that in the modern world, but we are only a couple of generations removed from it.

And from my knowledge of history and culture, I’ve encountered various symbols I’ve found useful. For instance, I often use the shape of a Cowrie shell scratched or painted onto my canvases. The Cowrie shell is a small oval shell that some African cultures have used as currency. It sort of looks like and suggests a seed, which becomes a symbol of how people, like seeds blown by the wind, were scattered by the African Diaspora and took root in unexpected places. And further, if you look down on a Cowrie shell from directly above it, the striations on the shell and its shape suggest a slave ship to my eye. That’s just one example of a symbol I use, but the oval shape tends to be very important to me.

Do you plan your color before beginning a painting?

I do. I use a color wheel. I have an app on my I-pad that’s Josef Albers’s, “The Color Book”. With that app you can move the colors around with your hand and see what they look like beside each other. I think it’s fair to say that during the thinking and planning stage that goes on prior to starting a canvas, color definitely comes into things.

And your surfaces have a nice ‘juicy’ painterly feel.

Yes, and that’s very intentional. One of my mentors, Charlie Newton, told me, “You have to remember, James, people love paint. If they spend money on a painting they want to see paint!” I do a lot of building up layers of paint and scratching back through with the knife as a way of introducing interest and presenting the symbols important to my work. There’s a real physicality to painting for me. I like to paint while listening to music and sometimes the rhythms I’m reacting to can show up in my work.

What music do you listen to?

Classic jazz and a lot of African pop music, but never any that’s sung in English. I want to feel the sound but if I can understand the lyrics, I’ll focus on that and not on my painting. I also listen to a lot of Latin American music from the 1940s and 50s.

Where do you see your art going in the future?

I don’t know. I never worry about that. I don’t need to worry about being financially successful as an artist.

McKissic--Blue Song for a Black Boy- Trayvon

Blue Song for a Black Boy–Trayvon

I paint because painting keeps me alive. When things happen in the world, things that have me inflamed, things like Trayvon Martin, painting gives me a place where I can meditate on it, explore it, try to come to some conclusions and maybe some resolution, and finally close the door on it and walk away. Painting for me is a survival mechanism. It’s not a path to fame or a way to make money. It’s like my drug. If I have a place to paint and a chance to show my work to people, then that’s enough. What more can you ask for?

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A Conversation with Turry Lindstrom

Fractal Vortex with Artist Heavy outline

Turry Lindstrom

 See more of Turry’s art at: Turry Lindstrom 

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Maria Willison

 Turry Lindstrom comes from a family of artists: his father and sister are professional portrait artists, and another sister is a talented vocal artist. Turry’s  own early artistic efforts came in junior high school working with clay. He won an award for his work, but found he did not really enjoy that form of sculpting. In 2007 he learned to weld at Chattanooga State College and realized that he had a  love for the process of cutting, shaping, and welding steel.  When working as an assistant on an ornamental iron project, he began to tap into his artistic leanings  by creating human and animal figures from leftover scrap metal. He enjoyed every  aspect of making these small figures for family and friends, and began to  experiment with different means of fabricating art objects in metal. In the spring  of 2013 he took the leap into the world of art, building a small studio at his home  to work full time producing metal sculpture. His work has found a very positive reception, selling in Atlanta as well as at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival in Chattanooga. He has a one man show at Graffiti Gallery, also in Chattanooga, and has then been invited to show his work at the Gallery DeRubeis in Key West, Florida.

Where do your ideas for your sculptures come from? Do you keep an idea book or sketchbook in which you evolve your designs?

No, I just keep ideas in my head. Lots of ideas cycle through my mind constantly and sometimes one will stand out, but it’s rare that I’ll ever start working on it right away. I usually have to stew on an idea, working it out for days, if not weeks, in my head. Sometimes it helps to do things that help trigger the creativity, like listening to music with my eyes closed as I play with various sculptural images in my mind. I read that Thomas Edison used to doze in a chair with BBs in each hand so that if he left the half-awake/ half-asleep state and began to sleep more deeply, he’d drop the metal balls, and the noise would bring him back to a half-awake state. That was when he was at his most creative, letting his subconscious do the work.

Saguaro 2


  How long do you “stew” on an idea before acting on it?

It varies. Eventually the idea becomes so complete and so compelling that I have to create a work of art. The energy just builds and builds until I almost feel like I’m being shot mentally and physically out of a giant slingshot. At that point I’m really manic in how intensely and rapidly I work. Even though an idea can take weeks, maybe even longer, to come to completion in my mind, it’s usually executed in just a few days of really intense work. When a piece is finally complete, sometimes my arms feel like wet noodles and I’m utterly spent. I’ll get a cup of coffee and sit down to talk with my wife and just fall asleep. It sometimes takes a few days to rest up after I finish a sculpture.

The fact that you plan your work without any aids beyond your mind and memory amazes me since it’s not simple in concept. For instance, in your appropriately named piece “Complexity”, you’ve created a spiral shape that loops around to create a sense of a geometric shape, a circle, that seemingly arises out of a Dionysian vortex of lines.

Complexity 2


Well, I’m not saying my way doesn’t have some disadvantages. It’s like my ideas are in folders in my mind, but I’m sure there are some ideas that get lost. That’s just the way it is. The things I see in my mind I can’t get down in a meaningful way in two dimensions. That’s just not in my nature; it just doesn’t work for me. My ideas go straight from a mental state to reality expressed in steel. Of course, there are happy accidents that happen while I’m working on a piece, and those get included in the finished work, but I pretty much know how a piece will look before I begin. Planning the way I do, in my head, is the only way I feel comfortable. For me there’s just a disconnect between the 2D and the 3D worlds—the 2D/3D divide. 2D just does not work in my world. Frankly, when I’ve reached the point where I could model a piece, I might as well just make it. Doing drawings and making models will just sap the energy I try to bring to my work and which is essential to its existence.

Well, your work is all about energy. Each piece almost crackles with energy and movement. Do you feel the immediacy of your process drives this effect?

Absolutely! As I said, I don’t want to use mental energy on anything but the sculpture. That other stuff would just clutter things up. All that stewing on an idea is to lead me to the slingshot moment when the energy is released and the idea becomes the work itself.

Let’s imagine that the slingshot moment has arrived and you go into the studio. What happens next

Well, as you know, I work with steel plate. I’m restricted on size at this point because I have a really tiny studio—I can touch both walls with my hands by holding out my arms going one way, and the other way is about ten feet. It’s okay, I manage, but it’s more like a welding closet than a studio. The steel I use is ¼ inch thick, 12 inches wide, and as long as I need it. For the realization of my ideas at this point that’s just fine. I can see a time when I’ll want to work bigger but my studio size prevents that right now. Still, I’m really excited by the work I’m doing even with these physical limits.

What happens next?

Well, I’ve visualized the finished work, and as part of that process I’ve visualized the cuts I’ll have to make on the flat piece of steel to get the shapes I’ll work with later. I guess you might think of the steel as my canvas. Anyway, then I start to cut.

Radial Convergence 2

Radial Convergence

With what?

A plasma cutting tool. It weighs almost nothing. I’ve known older steel workers who find it’s too lightweight. They want an acetylene torch that’s heavier. The plasma tool is like a little plastic whip and I can just fly with it. It allows me to come at the work from different angles and just keep moving. The energy flows from my mind, through the torch, and into the steel. Some of the cutting can be repetitive at this point. Normally I hate anything that’s repetitive. When I was punished as a boy and was made to write something over and over, I was, like, just beat me and get it over with! But when I’m making art I just get into a rhythm and it’s okay. I’m planning future steps even as I’m cutting. I work really intensely and really fast at this point. I move so fast that when I’ve worked around other welders I make them nervous and they start saying, “slow down! slow down!”, but that’s just my natural way of working. It’s just the speed I need to go. I know my boundaries and I know I’m safe within them.

 So you’ve cut out a shape, but it’s flat. Then what do you do?

Well, at this point in the process the hard work is done. Now the real fun starts. It’s my reward for doing the construction part: the planning, the layout, and the cutting. It’s where the really creative stuff happens. I use an acetylene torch to heat and bend the plate I’ve cut into the larger shape I want. I just keep the torch going and the metal glows red and idea flows out of me and into the metal. In “Complexity”, the torch never went off for 45 minutes as I bent and twisted the 6 foot long piece of steel I’d cut into the sculpture. I was so fired up with my idea for that piece I bent it all up in one go.

How do you bring a sculpture to its finished ‘gallery ready’ state?

I didn’t say it earlier, but I smooth the edges of my cuts before I start bending. In my work, there isn’t a lot of finishing I want to do to my work. I like the viewer to see hints of the process that made the piece, the color changes that result from heating the metal and the marks of the tools. I just take a wire brush and get off the flaky white stuff that oxidizes on the hot metal, then I put on a clear coat. Sometimes I use color, but more often it’s a clear coat. There’s a lot of me in every one of my sculptures: all the music, and movies, and thinking, and just my life generally. I can see it all there. That’s how I know if a piece is any good. I can see me in the work—see me looking back at myself from the finished piece.

In looking at the pieces you have on your website, it seems to me that your work falls into two broad types: a style that is almost a fevered evocation of energy, and another where that energy is somewhat restrained by more geometric elements. Do these two realizations emerge from a common theme?

 (To see a larger image, please click on a picture below)


Yes. I think I’ve been wrestling with bringing a more structured, ‘engineered’ aspect to my ideas. You might say I’ve begun to play with the idea of harmonizing energy and structure. It’s not easy. I thought over Fractal Vortex longer than any other of my works and in the end, when it was about half finished, I had a sudden insight and took it off in a very different direction than I thought I would go.

Your work has so much movement and energy—we keep coming back to that word—that I have to ask if you’ve considered making mobiles?

No, I don’t want to go that route. It wouldn’t work for me. Kinetic involves as much engineering as anything else. It’s very different from the much more spontaneous way I work. Even so, I think the ‘kinetic’ aspect of my sculpture, its appearance of movement, is important. I like it that people touch my sculptures thinking they will move. I take that as a compliment.

I know you’ve told me about the constraints you have with your studio size but will we see some larger pieces coming from you?

I’d like to work bigger someday, but I also want to remain an artist working in metal and not an engineer assembling and erecting big things. Frankly, at this point I don’t see how I can harmonize my way of working with the lengthy process needed to make something really big. Luckily, I have a lot left to do working in my current studio and with my current materials.

What artists have influenced your work?

I have people who I think have influenced my work but it’s not really other sculptors. I like Jackson Pollock and his free and unrestrained approach to the process of art. Otherwise, it’s mainly people working in the movies, H. R. Giger, James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick. I really admire Kubrick’s attitude. He didn’t make his movies for anyone but himself. He didn’t repeat himself, and he put his soul into every one of them. He shot many takes of just about every scene. He once said, “I don’t know what I want but I know it when I see it.” I understand that.  I really only look to myself for the source of my creativity. I explore myself. I challenge myself to keep innovating, keep expanding, and never to repeat.


Turry at 4 Bridges

Turry Lindstrom at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival

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A Conversation with Bradley Shelton

 The following interview was done with Bradley Shelton just prior to his show “Please Seat Yourself”at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art. This photographic essay explores the world of Chattanooga’s Zarzour’s Cafe. A tradition in Chattanooga, Zarzour’s Cafe first opened for business in 1918, and has been in continuous operation at the same location and run by the same family ever since. The show closed at the end of September, 2014. 

See more of Bradley’s art at: Bradley Shelton

For interviews with other photographers see: Art Nomad

Brad Shelton self portraits-5

Bradley Shelton

You’re a practicing architect here in Chattanooga. How did you also become a photographer?

Back in 1996 I went to Auburn University and majored in architecture. During my sophomore year I took part in the Rural Studio program. That’s a program that sends students out into the community, in my case Hale County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama. In the Rural Studio program the students design and build community based projects. The program required us to read the James Agee and Walker Evans book set in Hale County, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and I loved the Walker Evans photos. When I returned to Auburn, I had an elective I could take. So a buddy and I decided that we would take a photography class. We assumed it would be a breeze and take up little time, since we were focused on our studio work. Turned out it we were wrong; it turned out to be a lot of work — and fun. We shot in black & white using T-Max, a high contrast film made by Kodak. The class was based on the zone system and the goal was to teach us the basics of how to plan, to take, and to develop a photograph. As we matured as photographers, our professor began to teach us the more mental side, like how to pre-visualize a shot. Michael Robinson, an Urban Planning professor, taught this photography course at night. It was during that course and the long nights in the darkroom that I fell in love with the process and complexities of making a photograph. I got a grasp on how to handle the tonalities, and I soon began to pre-visualize how I wanted a photo to look before I snapped the shot.

What equipment did you use on “Please Seat Yourself”?

My camera and equipment are all Nikon, and the camera I use is a D-700. But I don’t get too hung up on equipment. As they say, the best camera is the one you have with you. There are several images in the show I took with my cell phone. You can get a great photo with a cheap camera, and a crappy one with $10,000 state of the art equipment. In the end, it’s about the ability of the photographer and his artistic vision that make all the difference. I not saying that using good equipment isn’t important–it’s a huge part of what I do–it’s just not the essential part.


Zarzour’s Cafe

Do you still use the methods you were taught in film even though you’ve moved to digital?

I definitely continue to rely on the zone system — the 12 zones of gradiation from solid black to solid white. Of course, digital photography has changed the way you pre-visualize. With film you really had to plan carefully in the camera: “the sky is going to be in zone 9 and the tree is going to be in zone 2”, that sort of thing. You still have to capture the right exposure, but the majority of the tonal decisions are made in post-processing. Shooting digitally frees you to focus more on composition, because with the proper exposure, the tonalities can be set during the development process. This equates to less time behind the camera, more time developing in Photoshop.

So today Photoshop is the equivalent of the dark room experience?

Yes, it’s very similar in a lot of ways. Some of the terminology is different, but from an artistic standpoint it’s essentially the same process. I think it was Ansel Adams who said, that when you click the shutter, it’s about capturing information. Art is what happens in the dark room as you work with that information. If you think of it that way, then digital and film are very similar. Of course, with sheet film you have more limited chances when shooting. A roll of 35mm film might give you only 36 shots, and I can take 1,000 in an afternoon with a digital camera. Adams also said, photographs are made, not taken. Snapping the shutter is only half of the process of making a photograph. You’re trying to capture all the information you can,in the camera.  Whether it’s in the dark room or on the computer, if you have the information, you can make the image you want.

What film editing programs do you use?

I use Photoshop and Lightroom. Sometimes I use Apple Aperture for certain things, but mostly it’s the first two.

Why do you favor black & white?

I think my interest in black & white comes from my study of form—that’s what draws me to architecture. There’s something about black & white that seems to abstract form, I think, more so than color images. Black & white kind of distills everything.

So you visualize and shoot in black & white?

I typically visualize and develop in black & white, but I shoot in color.


Most digital cameras have a black and white setting, but much of the tonal information is lost so I never use it. With color there are 256 variations and when shooting in the camera’s black and white mode it will only capture those 12 or so gray tones.  So the camera is interpolating how to condense 256 colors into 12 shades of gray [laughs]. That would make and interesting book title.  No, I want control over the tonality of the image and I want all the information possible. I want to control that conversion to black and white.

pork and dressing

Pork and Dressing


Are you thinking of the 12 zone system when you set up a shot, even if you’re shooting in color?

Sure. There’s an image in the show I call “Pork and Dressing”. It’s an image of a plate of food I was about to start chowing down on, but I saw a beam of light hitting the plate, making it lighter than everything around it. So I thought, ‘I really need a photo of that!’ Now because of the way the light was hitting the plate, it needed to be in an upper zone, brighter than anything else. The surrounding area would be in a lower darker zone. So you see, the zone system is a way to visual the structure of the photo as well as something to use later in Photoshop. It helps you understand and analyze what you’re seeing and where you’re trying to get to.

Well, you certainly get blacks and grays that are rich and compelling. I liked that when I first saw your series, “Pig Roast”. How do you get that kind of tonality?

You have to expose the photo with that in mind. We’ve talked some about the differences between film and digital, but another of those differences is that in film you expose for your darks, trying to keep as much detail in them as you can. If you get those right, you can handle the highlights okay. With digital, it’s the opposite. You expose to give detail in the highlights. If you don’t, they will wash out and you lose that information.

Now, in both “Pig Roast” and “Please Seat Yourself”, the theme was about people and everyday things. Both required a lower key approach tonally—a deeper, richer look. For me, low key imagery and those subjects go together. So that was driving my desire for  rich dark tones. Still, there are exceptions in the show, like ‘Pork and Dressing’, where the image is in a higher key. I felt that particular situation warranted an overall lighter tonality. Still, at the point where I’m taking the picture the technical aspect is about getting the exposure right. This allows me to focus on the composition of the subject. I think what I’m saying is that I want to make the shot in camera as close as possible to the finished image.

halfway done

Halfway Done

That surprises me. I just assumed you cropped your way into the wonderful compositions your photos have.

No, that’s not my approach. There are occasions when I see something in the development stage that surprises me—something I didn’t notice when shooting and cropping is necessary. Sometimes an image is made better by a healthy crop, but I don’t enter into the process with the mindset that I can just crop later to get a good image.  Most of the time the final composition is what comes out of the camera.

Tell me about the experience of doing this project on Zarzour’s Cafe. It was a long term commitment, which is quite different than, say, doing an afternoon shoot studying the changing shadows on an old building.

Yeah, it was long term. I worked on “Please Seat Yourself” for three years—I thought it would take six months (laughs). Most of the images in the show come from my last two years of shooting. I’ve done the kind of afternoon shoot you’re talking about, but with “Pig Roast” and “Please Seat Yourself”, the idea of the story was just part of the subject.  With “Pig Roast”, we were having ayearly pig roast, and after taking pictures for several years, a story with a timeline emerged. The same thing happened with Zarzour’s, but with an added dimension. I hadn’t worked on that series long before I thought, these are great people! They are real salt of the earth kind of folks, and it is their story that drove the project. It made me want to invest the time and effort to make them proud. I got to know them as people and as friends. I came to find that being there, just talking with them and showing them some of the pictures, had another dividend. I became in a way invisible, well, maybe not invisible, but everyone was comfortable with me shooting and it allowed an honest view of things. I gained an acceptance and an ease of access that made the story deeper.

the crew

The Crew

Why Zarzour’s Café? How did you decide on that subject?

The photographing ofthe yearly pig roast led me to the idea of working on a series done over time. I wanted to tell a story about a place through images.  To be special it hadto gain deeper insights than you could hope for on an afternoon shoot. So from there it was not too big a step to Zarzour’s. I’ve been eating there since I moved to Chattanooga, eight years ago. Chattanooga is lucky to have great places like Zarzour’s Cafe, or Nikki’s Drive-in, or Griffith’s Hotdogs. Places that are long established and have incredible character. So many of those places are gone, driven out by the big chains, and that’s sad. You don’t go in a chain burger joint and chat with the waitress about how her kid did in his baseball game. In places like Zarzour’s, you become part of an extended family. So anyway, I’d been eating there for a while and one day I walked up to Shannon, who now runs Zarzour’s, and showed her my pig roast photos and said, “You mind if I take some pictures around here?” and she said, “Sure.” So every couple of weeks I’d come in and take some pictures. If I got one I liked, I’d print it and show it around to the folks there. I got to know everyone and it just felt more and more natural. One morning, I met Mary at 7:00am and photographed her as she prepared food for the day. It reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen, how she prepared food, and that’s kind of close to my heart. So I guess that’s how it happened. I showed up one day and said, “I want a roast beef plate and I want to take some pictures.” They are great people and damn if they didn’t let me do it [laughs].

Tommy_las vegas

Tommy– Las Vegas

To what extent were you shooting to a prior mental narrative, one you carried with you through the door, and to what extent did your narrative just evolve from what you were seeing and photographing as you tried to make sense of it?

The only plan I had when I started was a notion that it would be great to document aesthetically what the place looked like. I mean allthe pictures on the wall are their family and close friends. Hell, Charles Zarzour’s immigration papers are hanging on the wall. Amazing! The imagery of the space is what attracted me to take the first pictures. Then from that, the urge to tell the daily story of the place emerged. What makes Zarzour’s is that particular family. They’ve run it for four generations, and over time the place has become a portrait of them. But you know, I recently noticed another thing. After three years of taking pictures, I realized you can also read this essay, not onlyas a portrait of the people, but as the story of one day in the life of the restaurant. “Please Seat Yourself” begins with a closed café and ends, after all the activity, the same way. The show could have been entitled, “A Day in the Life of Zarzour’s Café.”

Do you have plans to do additional essays like “Please Seat Yourself” on other local cultural landmarks?

I don’t know as I’ve made that decision yet. I would like to. I think the focus of any project of this nature would be the people involved. Could I do a Barber Shop? There’s potential there. Griffith’s Hotdogs have been around a long time and it has a certain character that is unique in Chattanooga, It’s different from Zarzour’s Café but it’s the same, too. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know where the camera will take me.  I think whatever I work on next, it’s important to me that there be an element of Chattanooga in there—that the places be in Chattanooga. These places are important to our culture. They have survived. How did they do they do it? I think it has something to do with the people.

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The Art of Ellyn Bivin

Ellyn Bivin’s paintings are by turns colorful, whimsical, thoughtful, and mysterious. Nuanced surfaces, painted with analogous colors, provide the background for local images that appear to dance in their relation to each other. The viewer immediately sees the artist’s joy in playing off visual ideas against each other. Those elements– children, birds, houses, feathers, dogs, and cats– can be dramatically present, partly hidden, or subtly disguised.

Ellyn in her studio

Ellyn in her studio

See more of Ellyn’s art at: Ellen Bivin

For interviews with other painters see: Josiah Golson / David Jones / James Mckissic / Renel Plouffe / James Tucker / Larry Young

Ellyn’s studio, located in a small cottage that once belonged to her grandmother, is just a short walk from the home she shares with her husband, Ken, along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. It was in this neighborhood, that Ellyn spent her childhood years. The main room of the cottage/studio is well-lit and airy, with several of her recent paintings, in differing states of completion, resting on easels. In the center of the room are tables where she teaches painting. Her student’s work, an assignment based on a still life of lemons, is on the wall. In an adjoining room is a painting by Ellyn’s daughter, Mamie, who is currently an art student at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Indeed, both of Ellyn’s children, her daughter Mamie and her son Robbie, are artists. 

“I started as a little girl drawing horses because that’s what little girls do. Over the years my subject matter expanded,” she says with a laugh, “but I am often drawn toward children and animals as subjects. My subjects, however I handle them, are people or animals that mean something to me.”

Ellyn has been a fixture in the Chattanooga art scene since the 1980’s when she showed with a group of artists who formed the collaborative group, Square One. “Ann Poss, a noted regional printmaker, bought a house on Oak Street that she divided into artist studios. Ann had studio downstairs as I did, Alan White, the UTC professor, was  upstairs as was Joe Helseth, who is now a professor at Chattanooga State. We were putting on shows around Chattanooga and we decided we needed a name for the group, but we could never agree on one. It always seemed like every suggestion would get rejected. We’d have to start over—we were always going back to square one. Finally someone suggested we use Square One for the name. That group lasted a few years and became part of the origins of the Association for Visual Arts. The Hunter Museum had a show of our art at one point. We called it “Two x Two,” and it traveled to our sister city, Wuxi, China. They sent their art here and we sent ours over to them.”

“I don’t want to nail everything down for the viewer. I want them to use their imagination. I want my pictures to have a bit of mystery about them.”

Ellyn briefly attended the University of Tennessee Chattanooga before transferring and earning a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, with an emphasis on printmaking and art education. “I took a beginning course in printmaking as a freshman at UTC and really loved it. When I got to Virginia Commonwealth, it was great. VCU had a printmaking department and absolutely amazing equipment. I just fell in love with the whole process of making prints, particularly intaglio, because I love to draw. I did a lot of lithographs, too, because of the drawing.”

Ellyn Bivin 'Betsy' Intaglio

Ellyn Bivin ‘Betsy’ Intaglio

Ellyn loved drawing, but she had no desire to be a painter. “I never got into painting much. I just took painting classes because I had to  fulfill my requirements for a degree. I wasn’t a dedicated painter at all. I was a printmaker.  I was even snooty about it. ‘Painter? I’m a printmaker!’”

Returning to her home town she enrolled at UTC to take additional course work, though the school did not offer an MFA. “George Cress, the head of the art school at the time, let me use the printmaking equipment. At first I’d pay for a class to make it official, but after a while, he decided I didn’t have to pay if I was helping out around the department. In addition to more routine jobs, I printed editions for the professors. They would design the plate and I would print it.”

It was at this time she became interested in monoprints. The change had an impact on Ellyn’s development as an artist. With lithography or etching, the artist draws with a waxy crayon on a stone or cuts into the surface of a metal plate. The goal is to print multiple copies. With monoprint, as the name implies, only one impression is produced, either by painting or making a collage on a block. Monoprint is the most ‘painterly’ method among the printmaking techniques. For Ellyn, it stood as a bridge between pure printmaking and an embrace of painting.

Bivin- Farmer's Dilemna

Bivin- Farmer’s Dilemna

“When I began doing the monoprints, I used to lay things down–torn strips of old phone book paper, for instance–and roll ink over them. I would lift that up, maybe roll back over it, wipe some ink out, and then use stencils. I started working in black and white, and I remember the first time I saw the image the ripped paper had made. I thought, ‘Wow! That’s a landscape!”

It wasn’t long before she was using color in her monoprints, and her move toward painting was under way. “As I worked with increasingly complicated imagery and used more colors, the monoprints took more and more time to produce—really, they were paintings.”

“I move elements around on the surface,” she says. “It’s all about balance for me—playing one thing off against another. My imagery is always moving around.”

Ellyn soon found herself doing more and more painting, but in a style that echoed her experiences as a printmaker. Still, she loves the way the monoprints look and seeks to rediscover those effects in her work. “Right now,” she says, “I’m trying to ‘print’ my paintings. By that I mean I’m doing them in layers like I did with the monoprints. I’m trying to use the whole process I used to use doing my monoprints.”

Though she paints on both canvas and rigid supports, she often prefers to work on rugged surfaces like Masonite, which can stand up to multiple reworkings of the surface. Indeed, she says her method of making a painting remains fairly close to the way she produces monoprints, but with the difference that, since the surface isn’t used to make an impression on paper, the image isn’t done in reverse and is the final statement of the artist’s intentions.

“My backgrounds are often based on analogous colors with offsetting highlights. I suppose because of my printmaking background, I just naturally exploit the flatness of the surface plain. Analogous color is a useful part of doing that.”

A painting that is going into her next show features the figures of two girls. The pose of these figures, replicated in different sizes, are unusual, and the shadows they cast form a strong compositional element, which are, from a commonsense perspective, impossible and contradictory. Such considerations don’t matter to Ellyn. She uses all means at her disposal to create a visual world that is at once familiar and ambiguous. “I want to make pictures that cause you to use your imagination. I don’t want to nail everything down for the viewer. I want them to use their imagination. I want my pictures to have a bit of mystery about them.”

Ellyn Bivin 30x30 Green Leaves Acrylic on canvas

Ellyn Bivin 30×30 Green Leaves Acrylic on canvas

As for her subject matter, Ellyn chooses elements from her everyday life, which she celebrates in paint. “I draw my own designs from source materials,” she says. “I like to work with the human figure and with animals. Often I develop ideas from old photographs. I draw my designs and cut out stencils. After putting several layers of paint on a gessoed ground, I then begin moving the stencils around, seeking a balance composition. That’s the great thing about stencils — they allow you to establish composition, which I can embellish or not, depending on the picture’s needs.”

It is this process of carefully working out her composition by manipulating various drawn and stenciled a basic elements against a background painted in layers that gives a dynamic, almost rhythmic, quality to her paintings. These elements can have unexpected relationships that add surprises for the viewer. In the detail of her painting, ‘The Immigrants’ we see several figures, some readily apparent, some drawn in silhouette, some barely suggested, and some seeming to emerge from the background. This, the title of the painting suggests, is the ambiguity of the immigrant experience. A deft use of apparent and concealed meaning reappears in many of Ellyn’s works. 

Ellyn Bivin 'The Immigrants' 24x30

Ellyn Bivin ‘The Immigrants’ 24×30 Acrylic on canvas

The Immigrants (detail)

The Immigrants (detail)

Constant Companion

Ellyn Bivin– Leading by a Nose 18×30 Acrylic on panel

Ellyn’s paintings, also reveal her whimsical sense of humor. “I definitely have a sense of humor that I like to bring to my work,” she says. “I even like to give my paintings silly titles sometimes. I had a painting where I used a dog as an important visual element and I couldn’t resist naming it, ‘Where the Nose Leads, the Tail Follows!’. When I was taking a sculpture class I did a series of tongue-in-cheek pieces such as one entitled, Chest of Drawers, which was a human torso with drawers in it. I don’t think art has to be dead serious to be good.”

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A Conversation with the Members of Art Nomad

The Members of Art Nomad --- April Bell, Caitlyn Sciscoe, Jordan Bailey, and Le Le Leseur

The Members of Art Nomad — April Bell, Caitlin Sciscoe, Jordan Bailey, and Le Le Leseur

 See more of Art Nomad’s art at: Art Nomad

For additional interviews with photographers see: Bradley Shelton

In March of 2014, four photographers who often exhibit together and who call their collective, Art Nomad, had a special one week show at Graffiti Gallery. The show was entitled, “Symbiosis”. Soon to graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design (Atlanta Campus), they had already had several shows in Atlanta. This interview was conducted with all the members present a few weeks prior to the opening of their show.

How long have you been together as Art Nomad?

JB: It’s been ten months since our first show, but we began working together as a group about six months before that. Last year we had two shows in Atlanta galleries. One was at The Cube Gallery, and the theme was ‘Identity’. The other was at the C4 Arts Center and was called ‘The Art of Story Telling’.  Le Le was the mastermind behind our name, Art Nomad. Originally we started with six people, but being students and having jobs made the logistics pretty hard, so some people dropped out when they found they just couldn’t handle the extra work. Caitlin, myself, and Le Le have been part of the group from the beginning, but this is April’s first show with us.

What dynamics are involved with working as a group?

LL: We’re all dedicated to what we do, and we work together well. We really care about each other as people and not just as fellow artists. Even when we don’t have a show we’re always meeting and talking with each other about what we’re working on, our ideas, critiquing old work, thinking and planning. That’s what makes us tick as a group: we’re always pushing and inspiring each other.

“(In)Justice is a quality relating to unfairness or undeserved outcomes. The past few years have generated an intense and unsettling conversation on injustice within the judicial system. To the general public these injustices were powered by an underlying racial discrimination. Fueled by the media, the cases were questioned over and over again as being a direct effect of racial discrimination. My photos depict the facts that I came across. Whether big or small, these facts were present. I want to present to the viewer a simplified view of some of these facts in hopes that you take away from this your own decision, regardless of the racial influence.”– Le Le Leseur   Le Le Leseur

AB: The group drives us and we drive the group. As a group we’re out there getting shows together and promoting our work. At the same time, the group helps each individual process what she’s doing, providing fresh eyes and suggesting ways to make the work better.

LL: As individuals we all have different ideas toward our work, but we all push to create work that goes beyond the traditional idea of what photography is. We all consider ourselves artists working in the medium of photography.

JB: The shows we’ve done and will do are something that working as a group can bring to us, but the binding force in Art Nomad is just the group itself. Before I found Art Nomad I didn’t really have a notion of belonging. Now I belong with this group. I think we all belong with this group.

Do you think it’s important to the group dynamics that you’re all women?

CS: Wow, I don’t believe we’ve ever given any thought to that!

AB: The photography department at SCAD is very female heavy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any guys around who would want to work with us. However, our group is really strong and it just so happens that we are all women.

When you began putting together Symbiosis, did you plan it so each member’s work would re-enforce the work of the others?

AB: When we began working on this show we thought about a theme, but we decided it should be about the group. That’s why we called it ‘Symbiosis’. When you look at how artists have banded together in the past, I think the goal of this show becomes clearer. For instance, Ansel Adams had a group of photographers around him who worked as a collaborative group. Artists have worked both individually and in groups all through time. They influence each other and present work together.

LL: There are narratives in all our work, but we aren’t fitting those narratives to a single theme. We are presenting narratives from our own point of view.

CS:  A really important common element in all our work is storytelling. Finding ways to combine the aesthetics of art with a conceptual approach based on narrative is very important to us. Since there are elements and aspects of art that we all have in common, that’s really what forms the central thread of Symbiosis. Each of us will tell our own narrative, but I think the viewer will see general themes emerge based on our commonalities.

Why did each of you choose photography and how did you come to see that as your medium?

JB: My mom was a photographer and a writer who worked for the Amarillo Globe News and some other Texas newspapers. Following in her footsteps, I was on my high school newspaper. They needed someone who had dealt with a camera, and I thought doing it would be fun.  I became obsessed with photography and with the whole process, and when people began to respond to my work, even though it was just in a high school newspaper, I realized I could communicate that way. Later in college I had a boyfriend who was a film guy and we fell in love doing art and using cameras, lenses, and film. I got my degree in mass communication but I knew I wanted to go to art school in photography and enrolled at SCAD.

I chose to feature my series of film stills from my short story Pennae Allae, which means Feather Wings in Latin. This story of redemption allows me to create allegorical characters that represent the actions of the corruptly powerful and the selfless who sacrifice much to preserve their culture. This work focuses on the importance of imagination, forgiveness, and the relentless pursuit of justice and authenticity. The photographs in this series are meant to be viewed in relationship to each other, but they also stand alone as visual escapes from reality and the non-magical physics of this atmosphere.”

  —Jordan Bailey  Jordan Bailey

LL: I was a late bloomer. I never saw myself as an artist growing up; I just knew I had a creative voice that I needed to let speak. I wrote poetry a lot. In my first college I took an art course and was exposed to the work of lots of modern artists who expressed their messages simply and directly. Then I took a photography course and I loved it—really loved it. I loved the dark room, and the chemicals, and just everything. Then I started working in digital and found my voice. I could tell my own story and have my own voice.

CS: My mother was an artist and as soon as I could hold a pencil she had me doing all kinds of art. I got into painting, drawing, and collage. She was the one who gave me my first camera and enrolled me in a photography class. When she passed away I didn’t do photography for two years; it just reminded me too much of her. In time I came to the realization that art was just a part of me and I was miserable not doing art. I wanted to use art to capture the emotional country I was going through at that time in my life. Photography was a way to explore. I started with self-portraiture and the ideas that came out of that. Now I want to make art for the digital age and my work has a strong emphasis on exploiting the digital aspects of photography – Photoshop and the manipulation of the image.

AB: My dad always had a camera in his hands and took pictures of everything – horrible pictures. He grew up poor and he said he wanted to document everything he could from our family because he had so little remaining from his birth family. I hated being photographed. One day I took the camera and photographed him. I thought, ‘Wow, I can make something from this!’ I didn’t take an actual photography class until my senior year in high school – it was a dark room class – and I fell in love with it. I went off to college at the University of West Georgia and was there about six months before I packed up and came back home. My family wasn’t very happy about that, but I’d made my decision. For the next two years all I did was photography. Then I enrolled at SCAD.

You all work digitally, and the possibilities for manipulating the image are practically endless. How do you feel about that?

AB: The image that you end with is not usually the image that you take. You have to make the final image as you saw it.

CS: As you saw it as an artist.

AB: Yes, as you experienced it and you how you want to portray that experience to the viewer. I don’t do a lot of manipulation in my work. I’ll restore the old photos that I’m working with to a certain point, but I want to keep an essence that says, “I’m old.” As for my new photography, I don’t do much manipulation with that either. I just try to get the artifact, the image, to reflect what was meaningful to my eye when I took the original shot.

CS: I think we all approach photography as a way of making art and not just as documentation. The advertising work that some of us do is more of a gray area. For my fine art work, I think Photoshop is an amazing tool.

So do you take the original photograph just as a point of departure and manipulate your way to personal statement?

CS: It really depends on my concepts and the starting point. I have no problem with pulling material from multiple sources and combining and altering it to get what I want as an artist. Not all of my work is heavily Photoshopped, but if that’s necessary, then I’ll do it.

“Art is more than an expression to me – it is an exploration and a conversation. I find myself turning my work towards the discussion of identity within a greater cultural context. Rather than creating highly introverted work, I want to raise relevant and relatable questions about what identity is, who controls it, and how it can be affected by outside influences. Combining these concepts with my love for digital art is what brought me to my latest series, Lights.”

Caitlin Sciscoe  Caitlin Sciscoe


Caitlyn Sciscoe --- Absorption

Caitlin Sciscoe — Absorption

JB: As an artist I want to create an experience for the viewer. How the camera, as a machine, records ‘reality’ won’t necessarily look the same as my personal ‘reality’. Besides I like to create alternate ideas of reality. I don’t want someone to look at one of my images and think it’s bad Photoshop, and I don’t use Photoshop just to use Photoshop, but I do use it to create something that I feel is both believable and fantastical at the same time. In my work for Pennae Allae, which is Latin for ‘feather wings’, I have used it when necessary in order to create a world of fantasy. It’s hard to find actors who can actually fly through the air so I had to do that digitally, of course. My goal, however, was to create an ‘other reality’ that people will accept.

LL: As far as manipulating the image goes, it’s sort of back and forth with me. What I want to showcase to the viewer will determine how much I use Photoshop. But let’s face it, all art is manipulation. Even if you don’t use Photoshop at all, there are still the effects of lenses and the camera settings that can produce all sorts of alteration of reality. Even the idea of “bad Photoshop” is an idea that some artists art taking and running with. They use Photoshop in ways that are objectively bad, but force the viewer into a ‘why?’ reaction. We learn the rules so we can break the rules.

AB: Context and intent are the key.

CS: Yeah, it’s not taking a photograph, it’s making a photograph.

LL: People think of photography as documenting reality, but as artists, we often go against what the viewer expects a photograph to be.

CS: I think photography in the future will no longer be about reality as much. Just as Jackson Pollock dripped paint and walked on his canvas and took painting to a new place, I think the expression available digitally has done that for photography.

AB: Really, Photoshop and digital techniques have just brought manipulation of the image out of the shadows, or out of the dark room, so people are aware of it and can question it. It allows them to ask more direct questions about what they see. In the past, photos, such as those in Life magazine, were taken as simply true. With the coming of digital age, people are becoming visually sophisticated enough to see the image as the truth of the artist.

LL: You can manipulate your photo 1% or 99% but you have to take in to account what the viewer will accept as the truth – literally or artistically.

CS: And the pendulum constantly swings back and forth in art. When digital alteration of the image has been pushed long enough there will be a swing back toward a more minimalist approach.

LL: Yeah, I think that’s already happening.

Let’s talk a bit about your subject matter. To what extent does it need to be personal for you and to what extent is it just material to work on?

CS: Anything you choose to photograph becomes personal because you chose to photograph it.

LL: I feel the same way. And even if it has nothing to do with you, you still find connections with it as you work with it.

JB: Yes, even with commercial photography there still can be a personal element. I shoot for a jewelry company and my goal is to make the best possible photographs and to use my skills to please the client, but  of course It is more personal and more meaningful doing art photography. I’m very interested in ideas and was a world religions minor before coming to SCAD. I am drawn to explore other people’s belief systems and how those exist. Work involving that sort of thing is very personal for me.

AB: For me it definitely has to have a personal element, and I find that to be very powerful in the old photos I use. It has to be personal but you also have to have an eye for compelling aesthetic portrayal, too. I’ve been asked if my source material had to be my own family photos or could I just use something I picked up in an antique store. I could certainly do it technically from someone else’s pictures, but my family photos have meaning for me because I feel I’m giving life to the people of my past.

“Forgotten objects left out for the earth to devour, homes left without families to house and once cherished photos now forgotten and hidden away. For me these things are only mysteries waiting to be solved. I’m presenting five different sets of photographs in this show and each set contains a combination of found photographs, abstractions and abandoned objects. Each has a story to tell. Some are about the people while others are focused on the objects they’ve left behind.”

April Bell   April Bell


April Bell --- Composite of images in the Dallas series

April Bell — Composite of images in the Dallas series

CS: As fine art photographers we’re lucky to be working at the present time. Photography has changed so much, and now things are wide open. For this show I’m creating visual abstractions and really pushing and stretching myself.

In what ways do the colors you choose or the choice not to use color impact your work?

AB: Since I’m working with old photos that are sepia now or have a pale washed-out color to them, my palette has to be muted. It’s funny, but I only became aware of that after looking back over work I had done. My color choice evolved organically. Now, I’d have to say, those choices are much more consciously made.

JB: I think I tend to gravitate toward cool tones – blues and greens. But really, my palette is suggested by the subject. In Pennae Allae there are two different worlds, and I use different color tones as a way of making the differences explicit. In the more magical world I use smoke and blues to create a different atmosphere.

CS: How you choose to use color is very important. There’s the whole psychology of color and the cultural reference it has, so once again, I think it all relates back to the narrative of the work you’re presenting. I always shoot in color and then make decisions on if and how to modify it.

LL: The way I like to approach color is to think in terms of both how people react to color and how they will react to the juxtaposition of colors. In the work I’m doing now, the backgrounds are these jubilant pinks and blues, but the objects in the forefront are peaceful and serene greens.

How does the size of the finished piece factor in?

AB: When I work from family photos I want the intimacy that a small print size provides. The old snap shots are intimate things, and I want the viewer to get close, see the detail, and enter into a dialogue with the image. With the really large format panoramas I’ve done, it’s very different. With those I want people to experience a sense of actually being in, and enveloped by, a specific place.

LL: Sometimes there is a real struggle around the issue of size. Viewers usually want to see everything big. We get told in our classes to “go big or go home”, but that demand can be at odds with the subject or with what we want the viewer to feel about the subject. You have to ask yourself if bigger really is better or if smaller would be better.

Granted you are all at the beginning of your careers, but do you have a sense of where you work will be going over the next few years?

JB: I’m going to be working on and expanding Pennae Allae. That’s the big project that I want to get done.

LL: I see myself exploring how photography relates to other art forms. I also think that a strong narrative approach will remain important to me.

CS: I got into photography to explore who I am. Looking back, I see a progression from self-portraits, to my family, to my immediate surroundings. Moving forward, I see the process of exploring my identity continuing and spreading outward. Culturally who am I? How do I relate to the outside world? I’d also like to start exploring the possibilities in printing on things like glass and aluminum.

AB: I’ve become interested in installation, so I may do something there, but frankly, I’m in love with what I’m doing right now, so I’ll just go where the art takes me and try not to overthink things.

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The Art of Larry Young

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Larry Young

For interviews with other painters see: Ellyn Bivin / Josiah Golson  / David Jones / James McKissic Renel Plouffe /  James Tucker

“When I’m working in the studio, I listen to classical music and just let the art come out. How do you plan something like that?” Larry Young gestures to the painting hanging on the wall behind him, “It has to be spontaneous.” It is emotion, he says, that drives his art; it is feeling revealed in form and color that he is after.

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Almost Home

Larry has traveled a long and interesting road to get to this late career as an artist. As a boy, he loved to use crayons in his Lone Ranger coloring book, content to stay neatly between the lines, but using color freely, usually analogous colors. He liked the different harmonies he could make and never worried if the picture looked ‘real’. Though he enjoyed his art courses in high school and took introductory drawing and painting courses at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, he ultimately majored in political science. Upon graduation he went to law school and became a prosecutor. During these years he was only able to paint sporadically. “I was often in court and the work was intense. Besides, it’s hard to feel creative after dealing with the worst elements of society and their victims day after day.” But the desire to make art was never entirely eclipsed, and upon his retirement he enrolled at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga and took all the drawing and painting courses available. Today he is an active and prolific artist.

His studio is a narrow room, almost a hallway, and his easel is set up directly on a wall. It is a space with no pretensions or decoration. A bit cluttered, it is a place that encourages work. There are tubes of paint in drawers and on a nearby counter beside a stack of Styrofoam plates. Larry primarily paints in acrylic these days and uses the plates as disposable palettes. It is a work space pure and simple, so there is no need to worry about making a mess. “That’s where I was spray painting,” Larry says with a laugh as he points to the colored streaks on the wall. The arrangement suits him. It is a studio that encourages the freedom and spontaneity that are at the center of his creative process and abstract aesthetic.

A Gallery of Paintings by Larry Young

However, such freedom and spontaneity is hardly the random painting of a novice. It is the product of years of study and reflection: years of thinking about both his work and that of others. In addition to his many visits to museums over the years, Larry is a thoughtful student of art history, and his knowledge of twentieth century art is considerable. His art library boasts over 100 books. It is this learning, coupled with his studio training, which lies at the heart of his approach to painting.

“Artists have a wealth of internal information that comes out as they work. It’s all stored inside, everything – all their training, all their reading, and all their experiences. The reason painters, abstract painters, can just let go is that this information is there and you can communicate it. Without that, you’re just blindly pushing paint and hoping for the best.”

As Larry has developed as an artist, he’s experimented with many styles, trying them on as another man might try on hats. Stacked against the wall in an upstairs storage area are figure studies he’s done from life drawing classes and landscape paintings done plein air.

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A traditional landscape painted on the Florida coast.

These experiments were an essential part in the process of finding his natural mode of expression, an abstract approach, which he finds more satisfying than a more representational style of painting. Having moved beyond a realist aesthetic, he now focuses his efforts on loosely interpreted atmospheric landscapes as well as completely non-representational work. Both approaches rely on his deft use of color, sense of composition, and vigorous brushwork for their impact.

He often starts a painting by choosing a palette of colors that reflects his mood – subtle earth colors and smoky grays or perhaps more vibrant colors like bright orange and black. These colors then become like the key signature a musical composer would use –they establish mood and atmosphere. Lately Larry has been softening his colors with gesso, its weak tinting strength allowing a more subtle use of color.

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As he approaches the blank canvas he only has a general idea in mind. “Some idea stimulates me and I just start. It’s often a small thing, a shape or color, or it could be something I’ve seen,” he says. “For instance, the sky over Signal Mountain sometimes has an unusual coral color. I don’t suppose many people notice that.” That is exactly the sort of thing Larry does notice and catalogues in his memory. As he goes through each day, he’s painting in his mind, imagining how he would react artistically to the world he sees around him.

His method of working then becomes a dialogue between himself and the canvas—a dynamic exchange that emerges as paint is applied and changes are made. He is continually reacting to what he sees and feels as the image evolves.

“I can’t plan this way of working, but I can be conventional insofar as I need to be conventional. There are always concerns about the relationships of colors, composition, that sort of thing. Really, that’s where training and instinct come in. I’ll back off and see things I like and also see things I don’t like, things that don’t quite look right. Then it’s a matter of touching up, making smaller and smaller adjustments until the painting holds together and I feel it expresses what I want. Each one of my paintings represents an emotional point in time for me. I doubt I could repeat one because I wouldn’t be exactly the same person.”

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In the process of creating a painting he concerns himself not just with the surface but also with the creation of a sense of depth. “When you paint in oil you usually work into the wet paint. When you work in acrylic you often work onto the paint since acrylic dries so fast.” By continually building layers of paint, wet over dry, he is able to invite the viewer to see into the work, rather than have their eye remain only on the surface.

Though a sense of depth is important to his art, Larry was very much influenced by artists like Mondrian and color field painters who often chose to paint geometric shapes in flat color. Indeed, the whole trajectory of modern art from Cezanne up through color field painters like Albers, Rothko, and Reinhardt fascinates him. “You know I’ve looked at some of Reinhardt’s all black paintings so long and carefully that I actually can tell a difference between them.”

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Sunlit Valley

Once a painting has reached a satisfactory point, Larry likes to hang the work for a while and think about it, letting his judgment of its worth mature. Over time he may or may not make additional changes. Sometimes the changes are extensive and some of his paintings have a sort of history to them as layers of paint and new ideas are introduced. However, whether the changes are many or few, eventually the point is reached when the painting needs no further work and can be exhibited.

“My art is personal and I guess you could say I paint for myself, but I’ve enjoyed showing my work at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art and meeting people at the receptions. Embracing the more public aspect of being an artist has meant a lot to me.”

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