Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | October 10, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I was eighteen when I committed to a life as an artist. As a kid I always enjoyed it, but It was hard to see a future in it. When I started studying I met working artists and the whole thing seemed possible.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
They were very supportive. It’s a little surprising looking back on it, but I never felt they doubted me for a moment.
Who are your favorite artists?
At the moment I’m really interested in artists that create a synthesis between classicism and naturalism. People like Daniel Chester French or Abbott Thayer and other artists of the late nineteenth century. I feel like there was this fusion between the particular and the universal happening in American art at that time. Daniel French’s bronze figures for the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial on 70th Street are a good example. Their forms are rooted in the classical, but at the same time the figures have and individual character to them. I think the same is true of Thayer. His sitters have an elegant and elevated simplicity. It’s as if he’s looking for the universal in them rather than ignoring their individuality or discarding idealism in favor of naturalistic excesses. In these works the natural and the universal seem to mutually enhance each other rather than cancel each other out. I can’t help but be fascinated by that.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Maybe William Blake. I’ve never developed an allegorical work, but I do enjoy them. Blake’s work is filled with so much symbolism, which is something I’d like to try. His work is highly stylized and right now my work is very much in the realist school.
Art book you cannot live without?
Lately I’ve been studying architecture and the book The American Vignolia by William Ware is always nearby. I suppose my interest started from the fact that so many of my favorite painters were also architects or at least well informed about it. The more I study it the more see it help my technical abilities. Further, and maybe more importantly, I’m always looking for ways to advance in aesthetic subtlety and I feel it helps a lot to refine my eye.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
A sensitivity to beauty.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I take a sketchbook everywhere and jot down things all the time. Designs, sketches or diagrams go right into the sketchbook as soon as they come to mind. I never entertain the belief that an idea is fully formed in my mind it has to be jotted down right away. The thinking really doesn’t start until the sketching begins. It’s the beginning of almost everything I make.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
When I visited Paris I was blown away by the Paris Panthéon. The interaction of all the arts in one place was amazing. It was designed as a church, but was later converted into a pantheon for famous french citizens. The sculptural groups have a dynamism I couldn’t ignore and the interior architecture was epic. I was particularly interested in the murals by Jean-Paul Lawrence and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I remember there was a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Met when I was a teenager. The exhibition highlighted his drawings and notebooks and seeing that at an early age gave me a sense of what the life of an artist is really like. Not every day is spent making a masterpiece. It’s a life of study, always developing one’s eye and observing nature.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I probably would study antiquity. A few years ago I went to an exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World called Time and Cosmos. I was fascinated to see how ancient Greco-Roman ideas about the structure of the universe, their calendar, religion, and art were so wrapped up in each other. Nothing was compartmentalized, but rather part of a larger unity. It would be so fulfilling to spend your life studying those kinds of things.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
There tends to be this mentality in art schools that being an artist means you must live a solitary life of hardship and anything else is selling out. This, of course, is totally wrong and looking back I wish there was more of an industry mindset. Somehow it has to be conveyed that students are moving into an industry when they leave school, and their skills have a place in this world.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
Probably the Frick Collection. It’s a beautiful space and it has a great collection that can be seen in a day. They always have good temporary exhibitions too. I really enjoyed the Canova statue of George Washington they exhibited last year. They even had some of his preliminary studies which allowed you to see the evolution of his idea for the piece.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
There is a portrait by Dennis Miller Bunker at the Met. It was hanging in the American wing for a while, and I would go out of my way to study it all the time. Bunker has kept only the essentials, but at the same time she doesn’t lose her individuality. It’s that subtle fusion of the antique with naturalism that I mentioned before. The color harmony is also something I admire. It’s a subdued grey palette with a variety of subtle hue shifts.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Watching cartoons with my friends’ kids.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Not very much. If I listen to anything, it’s usually an audio book.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Marlborough Gallery. I was there to see the Vincent Desiderio opening, but that was over a year ago.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
The work of Charles Pfahl had a big impact on me early on. I’m always surprised how few artists know of him. I was particularly affected by his early work found in the book Charles Pfahl: Artist at Work. Many of the paintings are interior scenes of his apartment. It was published in the 1970s, and I was impressed by how he was able to strike a timeless mood in that work. It felt like a twentieth-century Vermeer.
What art materials can you not live without?
Paper and pencil. I feel like everything else is an expansion on that.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Just about. I always have multiple projects going. Somethings may be in their early stages while some paintings are being finished. Having multiple things going at once helps keep a fresh eye with whatever I’m working on that day.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
That’s hard to answer. Maybe a week.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Work anyway. You cannot wait for inspiration to create meaningful work. I wonder how many people realize that making work may entail long stretches of time when you are not particularly inspired, but of course, it’s all for a higher goal and that’s where you need to keep your focus.
What are the questions that drive your work?
I’m often asking myself, What are the visual factors that evoke certain emotions? What is it about a space that makes me feel as I do? I suppose I’m not concerned about any one set of questions, but rather concerned about what a painting is capable of doing without written descriptions. What is the vernacular of the picture-making, and how do I express things through that? Some of the best moments are when a painting can describe back to me the feeling of my work just by looking. That’s when you know you’re onto something.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Childlike curiosity. Nothing is a waste of time. Artists must free themselves to follow what interests them and get lost in their work.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I’d love to work on larger projects in collaboration with the other visual arts. It’s interesting to think about how painting can uniquely fit into a larger architectural design, and how it may fill in where other art forms end.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Access to high quality images and information for free. We should not take for granted the access we have to quality reproductions in a matter of seconds. I also appreciate the fact that people are very free with information on social media. You can find so many people who have a particular love for an area of art and they share it with the world.
Beginning this fall, Edmond Rochat will be teaching “Figure Drawing” at the Art Students League.