Artist Snapshot: Dominique Medici

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Dominique Medici Interview
Dominique Medici in her studio, 2021

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I was drawn towards art as a child and as a wayward teen the arts gave me a sense of inclusion and an ability to self-connect. In my last year of high school, I heard about a traditional atelier in London that specialized in drawing and painting. Coming from a quiet small town in upstate New York, I happily answered the call to adventure. I did a three-year course that focused on drawing and painting. I needed to fund my second and third year, so I did portrait commissions and sold landscapes. By the time I completed my course I had a steady stream of portrait commissions, so I just kept doing them. In that sense I never really decided to become an artist, though that decision would come later on.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
They weren’t thrilled, but not quite for the reasons you would expect. I was an emotionally-troubled teen struggling with my identity (I am trans), and they were mostly concerned about my safety abroad. I convinced them to give me a year, and if they weren’t happy with my progress, then I would come home. They came to my first-year show and were blown away both by the quality of the work and the effect that the discipline and training had on me. It gave me tremendous focus and an ability to channel my energy in a constructive way. Being closeted and studying in a conservative school was hard, but I was determined to overcome my transness through hard work. Bear in mind this was 1995, pre-Internet, and I grew up in a fairly conservative family. Looking back I feel sympathy for that kid, so much unnecessary suffering trying to be “normal.”

Who are your favorite artists?
There are a few old masters who are near and dear to my heart. My top three are Fra Angelico, for the devotion and sincerity in his work; Leonardo da Vinci, for his subtlety and ability to embody the sublime; John S. Sargent for his incredible skill. Old masters are easy to love. There are many living artists I admire, but these three stand out: Max Ginsburg who for me is the Sargent of our time with a socially aware lens; Ai WeiWei for similar reasons but with a totally modern approach, aesthetic and materials. And Anish Kapoor for capturing the feeling of the infinite within the finite  

Art book you cannot live without?
Robert Henri’s Art Spirit. In my early training we would use The Art Spirit as a kind of oracle. One of our teachers would come in and open the page at random and read us a little gem. The wisdom in Henri’s observations and advice to his students apply as much now as in the time he wrote it.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
The ability to balance one’s sense of authenticity, honesty, and integrity, while also navigating the realities of living and making a living in today’s world. It is very hard to find that balance especially when everything is designed to be viral, addictive, and sensational.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
I would love to say that I have continued to sketch every day, but real talk, the beautiful Moleskine in my bag is almost entirely full of admin notes and to-do lists. I think this is also a function of where I am in my career right now. I started teaching about six years ago, and the interest has grown quickly. It takes all of my time and energy, and even then I am barely able to keep up. I expect in time that it will level off, or I will hire an assistant to help free up time. That said, daily practice has been a big part of my experience these past couple of decades. I think it is essential and it keeps one’s skills and mind sharp. Not to mention the emotional effects. For me it is also food for the soul. In that flow state the mental and emotional dross and preoccupations fall away. The trick is doing the things we have to do with the things we need to do. That balance is the key.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
That is a hard one…If an alien race came and said, “Humans, give us your art, you can only keep three museums, I would have to say, and not just because I am a Medic, and yes that is my birth name in case you were wondering. They couldn’t have San Marco, Uffizi, or the Met. But we would also have to secretly sneak the Frick Collection into the Met as well. Really not feeling good about giving up the National Gallery in London either, so might have to trade something else to keep it…Hmm…Oh screw it, they can’t have any of our art!

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
This is hard, too. The things I remember most vividly are these “awe-inspiring” moments. Some years ago there was a show at the National Gallery in London of Vermeer’s work; the quality of light and stillness in his paintings very much stopped me in my tracks. Total aesthetic arrest. I will never forget it. It really feels like a direct communication of some sort when these moments happen: they are timeless and in them there is a deep sense of contentment.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Almost certainly would have led a monastic life. I have been meditating and going on retreats since I was sixteen. I actually lived in an ashram for the better part of a year. I seriously considered becoming a Sannyasin. I love the singular focus and intensity, but that choice feels out of step with our Western life. I feel the better balance to try to achieve is to live inwardly as a monk but as a regular citizen outwardly.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Most certainly. The group that I trained with in London was a very dedicated group of painters and sculptors. The atelier was the initiative of a philosophical organization that I belonged to as a teen and in my twenties; those were formative years for sure. My training was almost militant in its intensity. And it had a tremendous effect on my psyche. It is a mixed bag because I had a deep respect for my teachers and the organization that sponsored the atelier. But later on when I moved back to NYC, I was told I would no longer be welcome in the organization (which is worldwide) if I transitioned. It is very hard to hold the space of being incredibly grateful for many of the things I learned and at the same time dealing with the emotional destruction of being cast out. When I transitioned, fortunately, my close family and a handful of good friends were quite supportive, but the rest of my world crumbled, the next seven to ten years or so were an epic dark night of the soul.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
My training gave me philosophical idealism and practical skills. But, it really didn’t prepare us for the realities of working as an artist in today’s world. That said, I don’t regret it. I am glad that we kept it “pure.” It made the study more intense. I did commissions throughout my training so I did get a little bit of real world experience. I would say that every student should take introductory courses on accounting, marketing, and general business practices. That would be quite useful in the long run. YouTube is a great place to get started and where I go to learn most things. 

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
This would have to be Leonardo’s drawing of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne at the National Gallery in London, I have spent hours in front of that drawing. There is something so mysterious about it. I feel like I am in the presence of a living being or something conscious. My body relaxes and my mind goes quiet; that stillness makes time vanish. The Virgin’s smile for me says, “Don’t worry, be sincere, kind and give yourself fully to your work. This will effect change where it can but the rest is out of your control. It will be beautiful and terrifying, but in time it will make sense and you will smile too.”

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Looking at a Restoration Hardware catalog or Dwell magazine, or something like that. I love good design in general. Interior design for me is like an immersive 3D painting. We can interact with it, and it has the ability to influence us. I love it when my surrounding makes me feel the way my favorite paintings do. I love ashrams, churches, museums, and other very intentionally designed spaces for that reason. That said, I feel the same way in nature and that is totally organic design.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
There was a period of six to eight years when I moved back to NYC in my mid-twenties when I was really disillusioned with working as a portrait and landscape painter. Partly because I didn’t see the same interest in portraiture in NYC like I did in the London but more because I transitioned and the romantic narrative of the young male artist that once gave me so much support and attention suddenly vanished. I lost access to the lineage of famous male artists, and let’s face it, art history hasn’t included women in any meaningful way. Thankfully there is some counter balancing happening now but the scales are still tipped.

So I looked for a job that was adjacent to painting. I loved working with my hands and worked for a friend doing construction, painting and fine carpentry. After a couple of years I primarily did all the design work and some project managing. I love interior design as it embodies many of the same concepts and concerns as painting. It is all about proportion, value, color, texture, composition but at the utilitarian end of the scale. So I did that for eight years, still doing portrait commissions when they came to me, but I didn’t seek them out. The work was creative and challenging but over time I began to feel that I needed something else, something that felt more meaningful. In my early thirties I started going to the ASL and painting in the evenings. I met so many wonderful people, it was a homecoming of sorts, a reintegration into society and to my first love of drawing and painting. I painted with Max Ginsburg (a true master, I learned so much from him) for five years or so.

Somewhere in my mid thirties the company I worked for closed shop. I had to decide to get another job or take the leap of faith and go full time as an artist and teacher. Once I started teaching I was hooked. Working with others, passing on technical skills and nurturing the creativity that we share feels like a meaningful contribution on a daily basis. Seeing the light turn on and a student breakthrough is just about the best experience one can have. I love solitude and painting in my studio, I could do it for days ,but I also love the balance that teaching and working with others brings. One feeds the other.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
It was totally taboo in my training. I wasn’t onboard with that idea but, honestly I don’t often listen to music while painting. I am much more likely to listen to podcasts. Especially when doing fairly mechanical activities.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The Morgan Library to see a show of Sargent’s drawings. That was in right before the pandemic became official and the city went on lockdown.

What art materials can you not live without?
Would have to be my handmade pochade box, it is super compact and carries everything I need. It makes traveling so much more practical and painting on location a breeze.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
This is one my current challenges, I have been teaching quite a lot these past couple of years, which I love, but the issue is that anything we do well tends to also take all our time. That said, I always demo in every class so the paintbrush and charcoal is never far away. But am I painting for myself? My spare time has gone to making free online drawing lessons on YouTube, which has been a big project. Filming and editing is a whole other set of skills, which has been fun to learn but time consuming. To answer the question – I don’t at this moment. But, I am getting pretty jazzed up about some ideas that are cooking. So stay tuned. 

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Would have to lead into this question with the sobering truth that often we don’t have a choice, we simply have to push through. But generally, if it is in my control I try not to fight it. It signals a need to retreat and recharge. Self-expression and self-connection are intimately connected. It feels very much like the inward and outward breathe, take away either and there is no life. A meditation retreat, camping trip in nature, visit to a museum or deep connecting conversation with a friend might be the thing that replenishes. I feel like I do myself more harm and waste more time when I ignore these calls to retreat, but circumstances make it hard to pull away. Again, finding that balance is key.

What are the questions that drive your work?
It is interesting seeing one’s motivations evolve over time. In my late teens and early twenties I was very ambitious and totally in sync with the romantic narrative of being a successful and famous artist. My purpose was to share my genius with the world. I felt so important, and if it weren’t just about me then maybe there would be some truth in it. Life has a way of humbling us and over the years my juvenile ambition has largely withered away. In its place is a desire to contribute. When I look around the world at all the best bits that make life great, they are either from nature or the result of human efforts, and whether that is an object like a museum or a more subtle thing like the concept of democracy, it is the result of people making great efforts and sacrifices to create something to enrich all of our lives. So in that sense, I feel pulled to do something that is of benefit to others. And it is practical because it is a daily effort. If my students are making progress and generally doing well then I am happy.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Perseverance. Having a calling to the arts is great. But the ability to stay the course when everything seems to be conspiring against you is essential to brave the inevitable ups and downs we will face in our careers. The ability to be resilient but keep things light is the goal.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I have certainly done many paintings and commissions over the years that I am proud of technically and aesthetically and in that sense don’t feel like I have anything to prove to myself. Having said that, the past ten years have been incredibly transformative physically, mentally, and spiritually. There is real richness there, something magical and beautiful, which I’m not sure yet how to translate into art.  I am looking forward to creating a body of work that comes from my core. I can feel the stirring and rumbling within, it is coming!

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
The ability to find your audience, to be seen and heard with relative ease is really quite astonishing when you think about it. I think the resurgence of figurative painting and sculpture around the globe has proliferated largely because of social media and apps like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. 

See more of Dominique Medici’s work on her website, her painting and drawing tutorials on YouTube, or follow her on Instagram @dominiquemediciart.