Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.
by Stephanie Cassidy | April 19, 2021
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I began to draw at age four. My parents had a sculpture of a bird, and my mother had found a drawing of it in the living room. She assumed that my brother, who was eleven, had drawn it. He told her ”I didn’t draw it. It must have been Ellen.” My mother did not even take off her apron before she took me by one hand and the drawing by the other, and ran us down to the local art supply shop. The shopkeeper said “If she can draw like that at four, keep an eye on her.” My mother immediately signed me up for art classes at the Staten Island Museum. I loved the class and the whole Museum atmosphere. My parents had also registered me for Hebrew School, but I repeatedly snuck out of class to draw. My parents responded by withdrawing me from Hebrew School class and replacing it with another art class. In nursery school I was considered the class artist. At that young age, I was already receiving a good deal of reinforcement for my interest and abilities. I believe I already knew that I wanted to draw forever. I was captivated by people’s faces, and I drew my family and friends. I was also captivated by the portrait paintings and drawings that I saw in the art books at home. I sat on the floor by the bookcase, studying the portraits again and again. I loved some, and didn’t love others. The fact that the portraits, dabs of color on a canvas and lines on a piece of paper, had the power to elicit strong emotional responses in me was a whole other fascination.
When I was ten, my mother took me to the League’s Saturday children’s classes. I majored in art at the High School of Music and Art. For years, after school and on weekends, I had been taking piano lessons. Only in my junior year of high school, when college was on the horizon, did I start to think about having to choose a life in art or music. In my youthful “wisdom” I thought that music would be more difficult than visual art because there were so many rules in music. I thought that, therefore, I should choose music. For that reason, I began SUNY Binghamton as a piano major, but took studio art classes, as well. Eventually I realized that, just as my decision to pursue music came from my brain and not my heart, playing the piano was mostly an intellectual endeavor for me, not an emotional one. To feel joy, I needed to lead with my heart. I transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts where I was fully engaged with my studio classes. I still have my piano, but I haven’t played in decades.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t have to tell them. My parents were extremely progressive people, and they just observed what I gravitated towards. They exposed me to art, music, ballet, and social awareness. They did the same for my brother, who became a musician at a very young age, and continues to be a musician today. They were thrilled that we had interests and talents.
Who are your favorite artists?
Thomas Eakins, Degas, Vermeer, Vermeer, Vermeer, Christian Købke, Gwen John, Rogier Van Der Weyden, Corot for his landscapes, Chardin for his still life paintings, Berthe Morisot, Cecilia Beaux, Kathe Kollwitz, Lennart Andersen, François Clouet, Hans Memling, Edouard Manet, Harvey Dinnerstein, Burt Silverman, Aaron Shikler, Raphael, Edward Hopper, Therese Schwartz, Ingres drawings… I am sure I have forgotten a few thousand.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Currently, that would be Kerry James Marshall.
Art book you cannot live without?
I come back to the books I love and reread them over the years with new appreciation. My choices are usually guided by what I am working on at the moment and the questions that arise during the project. During the pandemic, I have missed the serendipity of coming upon a new book that I can’t live without in a museum or bookstore. My perennial favorites are the two-volume Thomas Eakins by Lloyd Goodrich, all my Degas books, all my Vermeer books, Harvey Dinnerstein’s Artist at Work, Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, and all my anatomy books.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Heart. Curiosity. Humility. Directness. Discipline and devotion.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
What is your favorite museum in all the world?
May I choose three? Uh-oh, four? The Metropolitan, Uffizi, Le Louvre, Museé D’Orsay. One more: The Baseball Hall of Fame.
What is the best exhibition you have ever attended?
The Thomas Eakins exhibit at The Met in 2002. And, in 2011, Pastel Portraits: Images of Eighteenth-Century Europe, also at The Met. I also want to make a special mention of the League’s annual children’s classes concours exhibits.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I can’t imagine my real self being anything else, but ever since childhood when my mother took me to a woman doctor, I have been enamored of women doctors. Had I been a better student of science, I would have been very tempted. A writer. A ballet dancer. Or a backup singer for Tina Turner or Ray Charles.
Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
My parents and brother, David, provided me with so many life-shaping opportunities. For example, my parents allowed me to paint murals on my bedroom walls. David, in saving my life (I was mostly miserable in junior high school on Staten Island), told me about the existence of The High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts). David was a student at CCNY; Music and Art resided within its campus. David was living in Manhattan, and he called home to tell me “I know where in this world you belong.” I was twelve at the time. When I came of age, David drove me to the entrance exam at the school, and waited for me outside for the hours long duration of the test. He has always been a nurturing brother. In terms of formal influences, my parents had a print of a Raphael Soyer painting of a woman that captivated me as I was growing up. I didn’t love the painting, but I could hardly stop looking at it. My question was “what is it about the image of this woman that disturbs me?” Again, the mysterious power of a painted image to elicit emotional response fascinated me. The High School of Music and Art had a culturally mixed student body of musicians and artists from all the five boroughs. It was an exceptionally stimulating atmosphere, and the works produced were extremely accomplished. Music and Art gave me my first opportunity to develop friendships with so many creative young people, several of whom remain close friends to this day. (The day before the city shut down last year, I returned to the school as an invited guest to speak to the art students about my work and my life as a working artist. I was so moved by the students’ curiosity, attentiveness, intelligence, and their artworks lining the hallways and classroom walls.)
My husband, Gordon Leavitt, has been an unwavering support from Day One. His praise and criticisms come from pure love, with the insights of a razor-sharp editor.
There was a period in my very early studies during which I took a class in children’s book illustration with the New York based artist Uri Shulevitz. Mr. Shulevitz taught me about the structure and pacing of picture books and the grueling process of manual color separation. His incredible work ethic was a lesson unto itself.
Joseph Hirsch, with whom I studied at the National Academy School after college, was an early supporter. Daniel Greene could not have been more generous and encouraging as a teacher, and he and his wife, artist Wende Caporale, invited me into their home on numerous occasions. I learned so much about pastel and work ethic in Mr. Greene’s workshop, and Wende and I have gone to museums and lunch together over the years. But the singular artist who has had the most influence on me is Harvey Dinnerstein. I am infinitely grateful to all the inspiring people who have graced my life.
What is the one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I would say that I had a good education. My college art classes were fairly loose. Intense study of formal matters was not popular at the time, and when I graduated, I felt ill-prepared and insecure about my skills. I returned to New York to continue my studies at the National Academy School and, years later, at the League with Harvey and Michael Burban. One can learn only so much in art school. Museums, books, personal relationships, travel to different cultures, if possible, and solitary work in one’s studio, all play a vital role in the development of a personal point of view. A personal point of view is the most crucial element in painting, and it requires an artist’s ever-expanding curiosity and rigorous discipline to develop. So I am satisfied with my college art classes, which established a starting point. It was/is up to me to flesh it out and find my own way. I absolutely loved my classes with Harvey, Michael Burban, and Daniel Greene.
What work of art have you looked at most, and why?
I would say Vermeer’s Woman with Pearl Necklace (though not yet in person). Her airborne hands and her facial expression feel sacred to me, as though she is in prayer. I have always assumed that she is looking into the mirror, but she could just as convincingly be looking through the stained glass window as though in a place of worship. The light is heavenly. The economy of Vermeer’s shapes is always breathtaking.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I have always loved attending dance and music performances. I love to work in my garden and take in the flowers, trees, and shrubs. Birds, butterflies, and bees visit throughout the growing season. I love to watch members of my community enjoy the fresh foods, baked goods, and dogs at our local farmer’s market. I wonder what meals they will cook with their purchases, and I wonder where they live, if they will cook outdoors or in. I wonder who they will share their meals with. I love to look at the photos of food on recipe sites and restaurant menus. I love opening the pizza box and looking at the presentation of thin golden crust, white mozzarella, red tomatoes, and green basil, and anticipating their flavors.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Almost always. Mostly arias, frequently Gregorian chants, choral music in foreign languages so that I am not distracted by words and story lines. Sacred music. Orchestral music. For those unfamiliar, I recommend Radio Swiss Classic over the internet. Sometimes I want silence. Years ago I did thirty five watercolor paintings of our highly enthusiastic golden retriever, Gypsy; the music for that series had to be Benny Goodman.
What was the last gallery you visited?
Hmm. Probably Forum Gallery.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
The quilt portraits made by Bisa Butler have recently come to my attention. The craft and emotionality of them are arresting.
What art materials can you not live without?
I need all of them, so my answer is natural light.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Ideally, yes, and there are stretches of time when I do work every day. Sometimes I need to attend to other life situations. It all feeds into the work.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
During the pandemic, because I could not have anyone to the studio. But I have been working on creative projects of a different nature, all related to my painting practices.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
First, I try to not beat myself up about it. Then I sharpen pastels, straighten up the studio, go to a museum, meet with close artist friends (including writers) for conversation and dinner, read and take notes, go through old sketchbooks, read my own notebooks. I garden, take walks, make soup.
What are the questions that drive your work?
I marvel at the beauty and generosity of the people who allow me to search into and contemplate them. What is the source of their strength? What wounds are they carrying? How are we the same and how are we different? How can I do justice to my sitter’s integrity? And, it’s not a question, exactly, but I am always aware of how briefly our bodies are here, and then we are gone. This awareness is always acutely present for me in figure and portrait painting. I am always sensitive to my models’ fragilities, and a part of me always wants to protect my sitters.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
It is vital to fully immerse ourselves into our subjects and materials. For me, tenderness for my sitters is always deeply felt.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I am newly interested in exploring various kinds of mixed media. This interest came about as I have been working on a posthumous portrait of my mother. My mother worked with fabrics, papers, and threads, as a clothing designer. I think of her as working with mixed media.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
The ability to research the world for information. Also, to turn off the social media, silence the noise, to be in the studio one-on-one with my model in quiet contemplation.