At what age did you decide to become an artist?
My mother told me that by age five, I use to keep myself busy for hours by looking at toys and patterns on my blankets and then drawing and painting them. I then heard stories of how my great grandmother in Germany was an accomplished painter and a pianist. Apparently, she sent paintings to my grandmother in America all the time. Sadly, I never saw these paintings since they were destroyed while in storage. These stories inspired me as a young child to become an artist. Art became more of a reality for me when I saw my aunt and sister pursue an interest in art. Growing up in New York City, I was able to go to a specialized art high school. I then went on to higher education in the arts and eventually got my master’s degree in fine arts.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
When I was a teenager my parents encouraged me to draw and paint. I took classes at the Art Students League when I was just thirteen years old. I studied with Moses Soyer. He was one of the three Soyer brothers who were all well-known artists in New York City. I was the youngest in the class and found many of the adults taking notice of my talent for my age. By my early twenties it did not go over so well with my parents. Understandably, they were concerned about how I would support myself. But I was determined to become an artist and find ways to support my art and myself. I did this by working part-time in the commercial art field and spending the rest of the time painting. I was lucky enough to have wonderful mentors and other artists who encouraged me to be a painter. We traveled this path together. Eventually, my parents realized how serious and determined I was and became very supportive. Many of my family members are now also professional painters, actors, filmmakers, and doodlers. I love being an artist and could not imagine doing anything else in my life.
Who are your favorite artists?
I do have artists I return to often for inspiration. I also look at other artists’ work to help me solve painting problems. A few of my favorite artists are Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, Richard Diebenkorn, Alice Neel, Terry Winters, Katsushika Hokusai, Marlene Dumas, Kerry James Marshall, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Lee Krasner, Käthe Kollwitz, Mary Beth McKenzie, Lucian Freud, and Jenny Saville. This is in no particular order and an incomplete list. All of these artists are great for different reasons. Throughout the years I have received much pleasure by spending hours looking at their paintings.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Lee Bontecou. I find her paintings, drawings and sculptures take me to far away destinations. Her work is otherworldly odd and daringly seductive for me.
Art book you cannot live without?
This is a tough question since I have thousands of books in my studio. The books I have been currently looking at are The Drawings of Edwin Dickinson, Giacometti: Pure Presence, Alice Neel: Painted Truths, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn and a book on the work of Lucian Freud.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Commitment, love, and truth for what they do. I admire an artist’s process and how they have the courage and grit to figure out their own path while they stay true to themselves instead of selling out for a passing trend.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Of course I keep a sketchbook. It’s a visual diary. My sketchbooks have drawings in graphite as well as colored pencil, gouache, and written ideas and notes on other artists. Very often ideas come to me when I am sleeping or in the shower. I have my sketchbook near my bed just in case. I have woken up in the middle of the night to write an idea down for a painting, and I quickly do a sketch if needed. I then develop the idea in my studio through sketches and color studies before committing to the actual painting.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is pretty special. I’ve visited the Musée d’Orsay several times when I was visiting Paris over the years. It has an unforgettable collection. The museum building was originally a railway station. It is now the home to the largest impressionist art collection in the world.
What’s your go-to NYC museum?
I have to say The Met. I am a native New Yorker and I have been going there since I was a little kid. I still get a thrill going up the steps and entering the large entrance way. And I get to go back as much as I like to study my favorite paintings. I never get tired of The Met.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Right now what stands out in my mind was a Degas exhibition I went to see at The Met in the 1980s. I went to see it at least three or four times. It included his paintings, pastels, prints, drawings, monotypes, sculptures, and photographs. I was so impressed by his body of work that it influenced me for years. Another exhibition that I never forgot was in 1987 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The exhibition was by a contemporary artist that I never heard of, his name was Lucian Freud, and it was amazing. I believe it was his first exhibition in the United States. His expressionist style of portraiture drew me in, and I’ve been following him ever since.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I really don’t know. I am such a visual person it would probably have to be some how related to the arts. An art historian. I enjoy history and interpreting art during different periods in history.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
My art education was very thorough. But maybe art schools can teach artists how to apply for grants. I had to learn that myself and did a lot of research to figure out which grants where right for the type of work that I do. It’s time-consuming, and sometimes it takes years to get a grant to help support your art or project.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Over the years I go back to see a favorite painting of mine at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It’s a painting by Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat. I never get tired of the high intensity color he uses on the figure and the soft shadows in the face with an ochre background. He uses the power of light to identify the color. It is an intimate painting that gives the viewer direct contact with the figure, which draws you into the painting.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
My secret visual pleasure outside of art is traveling. I enjoy traveling to other countries to experience firsthand other people’s environment, views, culture, art, and food. I have traveled to Europe and Asia and look forward to visiting other parts of the world.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
It depends on the day. Sometimes I like it quiet and other times I listen to music or WNYC talk radio.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Philadelphia Museum of Art. I happened to be visiting my son in Philadelphia.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Lois Dodd and Marlene Dumas are very underrated. They are also extremely different artists. Lois Dodd’s work has simplicity to it that I love. She always seems to find the right note of color and places it with such confidence. She has beautiful light and colors in her paintings and makes the ordinary extraordinary. And Marlene Dumas has a unique way of applying color and paint to her work too. Also I’m attracted to the challenging content of her work. Both artists are women who need to be recognized. This is the short list I want to add many more artists to this list.
What are the art materials you can’t live without?
I am a painter who mainly uses oil paint. But I can’t live without oil paint, gouache, colored pencils, pastels brushes, palette knifes, canvas, and paper.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Yes, I try to do work almost everyday. Life can easily get in the way, so I have a routine down to be at my easel at a particular time each day. I usually work on different paintings throughout the day and on ideas for new paintings. At this point I am fairly disciplined, and if for some reason I cant get to my studio in the daytime, I work at night. It’s really important not to lose any time when you are working on a painting. For me losing the thread of thought can destroy a painting, so it’s important to show up in front of my easel. The creative process is a religious act; you have to be true to it. I always tell my students, don’t wait for inspiration to create. Discipline is so important to the creative process. Show up every day at the same spot in your studio/place of work, and your creativity will show up whether you expect it to or not.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
The longest time I went without creating art is when my sister was very sick and passed away a few years ago. I spent every last minute I could with her. It took a while to get back to my work after she passed away. But I don’t regret the time lost at all.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
When I feel uninspired, I go to the museum and look at art. If possible, I’ll travel to a special exhibition in another city or country. I always come back renewed and inspired and ready to work again.
What are the questions that drive your work?
The questions that drive my work are how do I create patterns, shapes, and color in the world that I look at every day.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Having a combination of a unique vision and an obsession with art that keeps you busy for your lifetime. Having grand ambitions and not being afraid of failure is key. Being well-versed in your art and being generous to share your findings with others.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I would like the experience of creating a new body of work while living in a different country for a period of time. And then having the opportunity of exhibiting the work.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Being able to see all works of art around the world being made by artists.
MICHELE LIEBLER teaches “Drawing and Painting for Total Beginners” at the Art Students League.