“Iron and Oil” Exhibition Brings Two South Dakota Artists to the Dahl
Thursday, 04 February 2010 18:55
EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing its gallop toward being a first class regional museum, the Dahl Arts Center is now featuring an exhibition of oil paintings and sculpture by local artists Jenny Braig and John Lopez. Braig's thick, richly textured oil paintings feature Midwestern landscapes, while Lopez's sculptures of western icons, sculpted from found objects reflect the hard-edged toughness of ranch life on the Great Plains. http://www.thedahl.org/ The exhibition will be open through March 8 in the Senator Adelstein and Lynda Clark Gallery. Black Hills artist Denise Du Broy caught up with Jenny Braig at her temporary easel in the corner of the galley for an interview about Braig's life and work. Click here to see more from both artists.
Denise Du Broy: When did you begin painting?
Jenny Braig: I started painting when I was in college. I have a BFA in art from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and I took oil painting classes from a man named Tom Jewell-Vitali He was one of my most influential teachers. I instantly took to the medium of oil and he helped me along for the first few years. My thesis exhibit when I graduated was landscapes and oils. That was in 1992.
Denise Du Broy: So you have been painting ever since?
Jenny Braig: I worked in oils for a few years after moving to the Black Hills. After I had children I switched to colored pencils. I did several shows in colored pencil. It was interesting for me, because when I was working in oils before that my palette was pretty simple. I would say it was very naïve. But after working with colored pencils for six years the color just exploded as soon as I got paint in my hands again. And it was after I went to see a Chuck Close exhibition in Chicago. He was in the contemporary museum in Chicago and I saw his huge oil paintings and I thought I have to work in oil again. There's no way that I can work in colored pencils for the rest of my life. Oil is truly what I love about my work. I would mix colors and I would be thinking "I want to mix it to a color that would match a colored pencil color." And it really matured my colors and made them very bright.
I think that when you're working all kinds of stuff influences you. You might not know it does, but this was totally apparent. When I would sit and look at my palette I would be thinking I want to mix that blue violet color from the colored pencil and I would strive to match the palette of the Prisma colored pencils. Now, you can see it in my work, I think.
Sometimes you have to make decisions. You have to change what you do as an artist because you don't have studio space, or you have children, or you have a job, and you have to figure out how to work. I think it's those kinds of things that force you to keep working. And the decisions you have to make things you are proud of, those are what lead to dynamic changes in an artist's life. Most of them are good, for me at least.
Denise Du Broy: You set up a small studio here (at the Dahl), and you said, "This is just like I paint at home, because I don't have a studio at home, I paint in the living room." Could you describe where you paint at home, and how you paint?
Jenny Braig: I paint in the corner of my living room. We've had guests come over, friends of my daughter who is ten, came over, and I said, "Why don't you go wait out in the living room." And they looked at me in a funny way, and I realized that they don't even see my living room as a living room. It looks too much like a workspace. You walk inside my front door and you pretty much see where I work. I have my piano tucked in the piano nook, and then one corner of my living room is my studio space.
I really try to take care of my paint. I try to order the least toxic paint I can. And then I work from there by having an air filtration system in my house, a canister air filtration system, that I managed to purchase with a grant from the South Dakota Arts Council, and I try to keep my corner clean and when I get paint all over the place and track it through the house, I have to wipe it up right away, or else it spreads even further. Laughter. You know, it's hard to work in a space that isn't a studio and doesn't have nice big walls. Working down here is kind of a luxury. I can step back more than ten feet and view my work from a distance without hanging it on my porch. It's well lit. It's a nice temporary studio, except that I can't paint in my pajamas. Actually, I guess I could. But I won't. I promise you. Laughter
Denise Du Broy: How would you describe your process, when you start with a white canvas?
Jenny Braig: Well, when I start with my canvas it is a big lump of canvas, and I actually order stretcher bars from a friend of mine, he makes them for me, and I stretch my own canvas. So part of my process is that I will spend maybe a day or two getting blisters all over my hands stretching ten canvases in a row, and from there I will gesso them all, and I will have all these canvases leaned up against the wall in my working space. And then I have shapes to choose from when I start painting. So that's the first thing, to get those empty canvases ready.
Denise Du Broy: In terms of the creative part, do you start with a minimal use of photographs? How do you decide what to paint, and what size canvas you want to paint on?
Jenny Braig: One of the things that I have found is that I don't get bored painting landscapes. So that is my first decision right there. "What am I going to paint?" "Well, I think I'll paint another landscape." I get all excited deciding, and I choose from photographs I've taken over the years. When I am out driving or hiking, I will take photographs for painting. I will see something and I will say, "Oh, I need a photograph of that. It will make a nice painting." And that's where it starts.
Now, the photographs aren't good photographs. If I had a photographic exhibit people would be walking around "Oh my gosh. That's poorly lit. That's out of focus." They are terrible photographs. They are ideas of composition. They are ideas of situations, ideas of light. And then I use them as a guide to create the composition and the images that I am painting. I chuck them after a while. They are there to give kind of an individual quality to shapes that you see in nature instead of making something up from my head. I'll try to take something from nature, and I'll try to find patterns and shapes maybe where the light hits the ground, and then use those patterns in my paintings.
Denise Du Broy: Do you work on one, two, or several pieces at the same time?
Jenny Braig: I usually tend to work on several pieces at the same time because there's a part of my process where I layer the oil on pretty thick and then I scratch some of it away to get textures and patterns that reflect maybe grass, or something like that. When you go look at it, that's what you're going to be thinking when you see those textures. But after I do that, it needs to dry. So I can work on another painting. Usually, I think, I work on three to four paintings at the same time.
Denise Du Broy: There's one painting on the easel. Talk about how you start out. Do you start with a charcoal line drawing?
Jenny Braig: Actually, on that painting I borrowed a pencil from the Information Desk at the Dahl and I did a real rough sketch. Basically I'm dividing the space into a composition that I want to create. It's purely just a few lines to delineate the big important shapes. I don't do a finished sketch underneath at all. It's not something that influences the paint too much, other than making sure that it divides the canvas into the composition I want.
Then, after I sketch it, I'll go through and do an under-painting. The under-painting will sometimes be in real, bright, primary colors. It depends on what I want to see when I scratch the paint away, because on top of the under-painting I will put another layer of paint which gets to be a little more realistic in tones and more predictable in what people would see in nature. And then I will scratch away and you will see those reds and blues underneath. When that dries it has a relief-like effect for the surface of the paint. So if you stand and look at my paintings from the side, they look almost sculptural. They look like the trees actually have a form, made out of paint.
When it is totally dry I will go back and fix some of the things that I couldn't fix when the paint was wet. Perhaps it needs a little more shading, a little more contrast. I will drag some of those brushes across some of the texture and it will light up little tips of the paint that is dry and make it look like the grass is being lit up by the sun. Of course, it is all an illusion.
Denise Du Broy: If I look at all these paintings, and try to draw out a consistent subject matter, one of the things I would say is that a lot of them are rural, without an urban influence. If you are trying to verbalize what it is that you are interested in when you paint a landscape, what comes to mind for you?
Jenny Braig: Basically, when I look at the photograph, I am looking for a composition. And so sometimes there are roads, because roads divide up the space really nicely. They do it in a natural way. And it leads you in to the painting that gives it some instant depth. And so I will use roads, and creeks for that. I would say about half of these paintings don't have roads. And then I look for composition.
The landscape is just an excuse for me to play with paint. The landscape is basically the vehicle for the paint. It's like, how can I get my paint to do stuff, or look good, or make my shapes. I'm looking for colors, I'm looking for shapes, I'm looking for contrasting images in the landscapes. And then once it starts to become the painting process, when you actually have the brush in your hand, it's all about the paint. There's a little bit of thought about how can I make this look real, how can I make the space look like the image of a space you might be in.
Denise Du Broy: If the landscape and the subject matter is just the vehicle, you could use portraiture, you could use still-life, you could use...
Jenny Braig: Yes, and I have a lovely answer for this question. I get it a lot. My work could transfer to abstraction quite easily. The paint is beautiful, and so, the surface and the texture doesn't need the image on it, but then you can ask someone who likes folk music, "Why don't you like jazz?" There's no words in Opus by Beethoven. Why don't you listen to Beethoven when you paint? Well, I kind of like the words the image give to the painting. It gives a story. If you see a long road in a painting it is like a really good lyric in a song. It takes you to the refrain. It takes you to the next verse in a song. I see my images, when they are working well, like really good lyrics in a song. And so, I like to have them in there. I think it makes my work speak to more people.
Denise Du Broy: How does it do that?
Jenny Braig: Because it has recognizable images in it so people can say, "Tree, road, stream."
Denise Du Broy: But put abstract painting aside. What about the choice of landscape over portraiture, or some other kind of recognizable subject matter.
Jenny Braig: Well, that's easy to. We just do what we love, and I would rather go out in nature. Portraiture is another love of mine. You don't see it much. I don't have a lot of time to change mid-stream. With two museum shows in the last two years I have to have a clear vision of what I am going to do in a space. So I have to work toward that. But, three years ago I was painting life drawing, oil paintings, and I do mix it up sometimes. Landscapes are by far the paintings I love the most. You can make a landscape more abstract and just think about paint. And to me that's what I like to do the best, just think about paint. Put the paint on the canvas and make it reflect light. I like images in my work, and I do see them as words.
Denise Du Broy: Where do you see yourself going after this show?
Jenny Braig: Well, I have another gig. I have a featured artist show in July and August in a gallery in my hometown of Dubuque. So I will be going back for the 4th of July. Those pieces will be new for that show too. After that I have another featured artist show in Spearfish at the Art Center Gallery. That's in September and October. So I have to keep working toward those shows.
Now I just want to get caught up on housework, and my normal life, and maybe some day I can get all the laundry done and put away. I'm just getting back to old life things. I'm looking at seeds in the Burpee Catalog and fantasizing about gardening, and other things than just painting. The way to get away from this landscape treadmill for a while would be to do other things--Ride my bike, or even go out on hikes and take pictures instead of painting.
Denise Du Broy: Who are the painters that you admire the most.
Jenny Braig: Art is kind of a mentorship, so teachers will influence you a lot without you even realizing it. The teachers who influenced me in school were Tom Jewell-Vitali, he's an abstract expressionist. His work is mainly found in Midwest galleries, Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, places like that. The other artist that influenced me taught life drawing at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, Missouri. His name is Frank Stack. I love to draw, and I loved life drawing classes. I probably had fifteen credits in life drawing. I couldn't stop taking life drawing. He was very influential. I kind of combine those two things in my paintings, the drawing and the painting.
Outside influences, artists that I look at, and I think I want to incorporate their ideas in my work are Grant Wood, who did a lot of landscapes. If you look at my landscapes of the Midwest you might say, "Oh, your work looks like Van Gogh." But if you've seen Grant Wood's landscapes you would say, "Oh, my gosh, your work looks like Grant Wood." Another artist would be David Hockney, who uses lots of paint.
Wayne Thiebaud with the edges and the lines. I love putting lines in my work right on the edges of fields of paint. So sometimes people look at my work and say, "Oh, that looks like Wayne Thiebaud." Chuck Close. Seeing his show made me want to paint again. Artists who inspire you, you don't necessarily have to take their work and reproduce it. They can just be an inspiration to create things. When I saw his show I just wanted to go paint...right away.
If you are an artist, and you have a group of friends who like to work and talk about their work, and are energetic about their work, those kinds of groupings and pairings keep artists going. I think the artists I know locally, the ones that I really look up to, have the most personal way of influencing me. Because it's a day-to-day struggle to keep working as an artist. And we help each other out. John Lopez inspires me, seeing his work. He must be compelled to make things just like me. They are gorgeous.
Denise Du Broy: I know you teach piano. I know music is a big part of your life.
Jenny Braig: You have form. You always have form when you deal with art, and structure. That's the basis of what you do. Music, like art, has form and structure. You can talk about music in terms of form, just like you can talk about painting. So when I say that there are songs that have words and then there are songs that don't have any words, they are both music. They are made up of the forms that musicians would talk about like rhythm, and tempo, and harmonies and melodies, lyrics, words that go with the songs. I am attracted to songs with stories. I love stories. When I paint I love to listen to stories. I will listen to folk music. I listen to NPR. I like to hear words. I like to hear voices of people telling stories. Sometimes I will be looking at a painting and I will think of the story I heard when I was painting it. When I say words in my paintings, the images remind me of place.
They remind me of words, unlike something that is just pure abstraction, where you can impose a language on it. There's always the form, the language of form. It has color and line and texture, and all that stuff. All art has that. But art that has images is like words for a song. It is just something that is symbolic that is beyond just the form. So you have to look at it not only in terms of the form of the piece, the colors, the texture, you also have to start talking about the images and the subject matter.
Denise Du Broy: If you were going to pick out a painting in this show, are there any that have a story that comes right to mind? Or are they about particular memories of places or events?
Jenny Braig: Well, some of them are quite personal. Some of them are about places that I have returned to over five or six years. Let's take, for instance, Downhill From Here. The title itself was based on the fact that I painted it in July and I thought I was half way done with the show. I really wasn't but it seemed like it would be all downhill from here. And it was a real nice painting. My dad and I used to drive on this gravel road to go fishing in this Wisconsin and I would be the map girl and I would be telling him where to turn to make it to these crazy little dogleg intersections. So when I see this painting I can imagine moving through the space. I know it's in the valley.
Denise Du Broy: Is this a particular place?
Jenny Braig: Yes. Most of them are very specific. I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, which is right on the Mississippi River where Iowa and Wisconsin touch Illinois. It's called the tri-state area. And you can go across one bridge and you end up in Illinois. You go across another and you end up in Wisconsin. A lot of these Midwestern landscapes are Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin. But this painting, I know that if you get down to the bottom of that road, and you take a right you'll get to the place where the other painting on the other wall is. The photographs that I took to paint these paintings were probably taken years apart, but it's like being in a big landscape itself. They are all connected.
Denise Du Broy: ...because you are the connector?
Jenny Braig: Yes, because I have traveled between South Dakota, and Iowa and then I went to my show in Brookings last year and I took photographs there. They are all connected by the road I have journeyed on. So I can tell you when I journeyed past that spot. Now, that's the lyrical part of it. But to me they are just objects that are covered in paint. That's how I see them, too. The images give it that lyrical story line, and they are connected by me. They are things I've seen. And then other people will say, "I think I've been that place." They are reacting to the piece itself. The piece looks real, makes them feel like there is some place they might know...their own personal story. Maybe they passed some place like that and felt like I did when I painted it.
Denise Du Broy: How did you get to painting instead of starting someplace else?
Jenny Braig: It was an instant love of the medium. I don't know if I've found any other kind of art product that I could work with. I've tried others.
Denise Du Broy: What about cake making? Laughter.
Jenny Braig: Cake making! I kind of like cakes. In a simple way, the painting are kind of like cakes. Objects that I make.
But with oil painting, I liked the way they reflect light. I was able to mix colors in oils pretty easily. Just intuitively. It's just been an easy medium, the path of lest resistance. I guess that's the story of life. You go where it's easiest. It's easy for me to paint. It wasn't a tedious chore to produce all of this. It was fun, most of the time. There were times when it felt like work. But as soon as you get the paintbrush in your hand and you are in the moment, that sheds away. I love to paint so much it's hard to resent it being there and having fun with me.
Other artists know. Other people know when they find something they are good at. Something you can stand out in. Like a kid who tries out for sports and discovers that they are a good swimmer, but you are terrible at soccer. It's just what you do well.
Denise Du Broy: If someone walked in to the exhibition, and didn't know you and didn't have any connection to the work, if you were able to give them a little information that might help them, what would you say?
Jenny Braig: As soon as you think about taking your work to the audience, you have to be prepared for the fact that not everyone will approach it with the same eye, or the same experience, or the same joy that you approach your own work. Your objects are just that, objects, like a cake. You might put the chocolate cake in front of someone and they are allergic to chocolate. Some people don't like landscapes. The one thing I would say about my work is don't discount my work because they are landscapes, because they are really complete paint parties.