Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.
by Stephanie Cassidy | March 18, 2020
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
It was how I was from the beginning, but I fought it as an adolescent because it seemed too easy. I wanted to be anything else: a musician, a scientist, a lion tamer. I was stupid. After my first year of college, I gave into it. I was 19.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
They knew my calling from the beginning and that I just had to come around and accept it myself. Always encouraging, I think I took their support for granted. But, they never hovered, never criticized, and weren’t involved in what I did or the result. I was on my own. They would buy me the supplies whatever whenever I wanted, but it was up to me to use them. That was their true gift to me, the respect of my capacity and the non-intervention.
Who are your favorite artists?
Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Piero, Bellini, Titian, Poussin, Goya, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Balthus, Kitaj, and Diebenkorn.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Art book you cannot live without?
I carry around a collapsing paperbound book titled Medieval Painting by P. Francastel, from the 20,000 Year of World Painting Series, 1968, published by Dell. It has been a continual companion with me. The pages are separated from use.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
The willingness to go wherever the search leads. The searching artist creates works that are mysteries in that they are fully alive, present, and admit the viewer in real time experience. Often it is impossible to unravel how and why the artist made the choices they did. I am much more interested in the artist who has the courage to pay attention to what they discover and who keep asking, What if? than those who find a safe stop in the storm, have a reliable system for making, and drop anchor.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Met is my best friend, my home, but San Marco in Florence, the caves at Ajanta and Elora in India, the Arena Chapel in Padua all affected and changed me.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
The Cézanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum in 1996 for its long and deep effect on my work.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I don’t know.
How did your early artistic cohort influence your development?
I didn’t have any.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
After college I went to The League. I chose not to go to graduate school given my good undergraduate education. I knew I wanted to learn the craft of drawing and painting. There was a purity at ASL in those days: there were revered master painters who were Instructors; there was no bureaucracy (the corporate model hadn’t yet infected education); and the student got as much or as little learning from Instructors as they wanted. It was an ancient method, student and master, but ideal for someone who was hungry and rebellious. It was up to me to make the discoveries, chart my course, and find my own voice. The school never pretended that it could make us into artists. It never claimed it would teach us how to have a career. That was sound preparation for a life in the work. I never felt cheated nor disappointed once on my own. I understood how hard it would be, how few were rewarded financially, how even honest criticisms would sting, how easily envy would rise up, and how driven one had to be to persist.
The one thing no art school can prepare a student for, and the League didn’t either, was the wonder of living in a solitary world of one’s own creation, the intensity of that experience, and that connection that waits in the work if you persist. I recall a frank conversation I had had with my mother complaining to her that she and my father had never taught us (we were four children) anything about sex. They weren’t prudish, but they just skimmed over the subject. Without a blink or even a twitch, she said, flabbergasted by my stupidity: “We didn’t want you kids to know how good it was! You would have been impossible!” She was serious. That’s what they didn’t tell us in art school either: How extraordinary it was going to be, how life altering and affirming this calling is. How lucky we were going to feel to have the capacity to make things, to actually conjure form and feeling from base, inert materials. Maybe it’s best that art schools don’t share this. Students would be impossible.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross which I only viewed in situ twice in Arezzo, Tuscany. I study it, draw from it, and think about it regularly. Those portrait heads! Spectacular!
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Watching and observing, the landscape and what passes through it. And of course my books.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, mostly Bach.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Bonnard. He is a deceptive artist, in his day regarded on a par with Matisse, but overlooked in the US. I can’t think of another painter who can set the viewer into a trance state as Bonnard does. Bonnard compresses and expands time in a very different way from Bruegel or Poussin. Things appear and disappear as you engage with the painting. It seduces you in and takes you. And, his drawings! They are notations to elicit the experience for himself. I wish I understood his secrets.
What art materials can you not live without?
Vine charcoal and paper.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Yes, except on teaching days.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
The dark period after I lost my loft in the Garment District in 2014, when I had to leave the city. I moved three times in two years. My studio, my work, my equipment moved in and out of storage four times. But, I had sketchbooks and a camera so I drew and shot photographs every day. I can’t say I didn’t create art in that period but I had to find a new way to do it.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Who said you had to be inspired? Artists just work because they need to. A canary doesn’t wait to get inspired. He just sings because he’s a canary.
What are the questions that drive your work?
What is real? Where is that sweet spot where it all comes together and makes sense in my nervous system?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Everything. I feel like I am just at the beginning.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
That it takes the spotlight off those who need to be left alone so they can hear their own voice.
CATHERINE REDMOND teaches at the Pratt Institute. She is a former student and instructor at the Art Students League. She regularly updates her blog with reflections on whatever projects she’s working on.