Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | February 23, 2021
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
The term “artist” is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary simply as “one who creates drawings, paintings, sculptures.” But an understanding of what it truly means to be an artist is not at all simple. It is not only about the being, the doing, and the feeling, but also about earning the use of the description.
As a young child, I could not be restrained from finger painting with chocolate pudding, creating creatures of snow, soap, corncobs, cloth, clay, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, crayons on paper, pencil in my math book. I could not be stopped from drawing with anything, on anything, all of the time. Nothing has changed that.
I was an only child who by eight had lost her father, grandmother, and dog. I grew up in a not quite middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, with my mother who left me pretty much to my own devices. I walked to PS 232, the public library, and every Saturday took the subway to Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan for my compulsory piano lesson.
When I was about twelve, after my lesson, strolling towards the subway station, I noticed several teenagers perched on the steps of a building looking at each other’s artwork. The smell of oil paint and turpentine drifted out of the open doors behind them.
I stopped, watched, went in, and hiding behind a wall of lockers, peeked into an art studio. A model was posing. People were drawing. A teacher was lecturing about anatomy. I was spellbound. Later, I learned I was listening to Robert Beverly Hale. I had stumbled into the Art Students League. Then and there, I decided to become an artist in the true sense of the word.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I never told my mother. She never suspected that my sudden interest my piano lessons was so that I could go to the League afterward and spend the afternoon sketching. She would have been appalled to know her daughter was drawing naked models.
Who are your favorite artists?
I have many different ones for different reasons at different times. My choices are not based upon historian’s, curator’s or critic’s opinions. Not who, what, when, where but why and how.
Art is timeless. The iconography of the bison created during the Magdalenian age is related to Picasso’s image of the bull in Guernica.
Favorite artists? Leonardo da Vinci for anatomy, Ingres for line, Rubens for drama, Caravaggio for chiaroscuro, Seurat for subtle values, Sargent for bravado brushstrokes, Albers for color theory, Emil Nolde, Mondrian, David Hockney, Wayne Thiebaud for its application. Artemisia Gentileschi, Gwen John, Käthe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Kiki Smith for their courage and the undeniable quality of their work.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Every artist’s artwork is unique. All unlike any other. If I have to choose one, Hans Hofmann. Paul Cézanne said, “To my mind one does not put oneself in a place of the past, one only adds a new link.”
What is a book you can’t live without?
The book I can’t live without is—the next one.
I am impatiently awaiting the delivery of Fundamentals of Composition and Fundamentals of Painting by V.A. Mogilevtsev, from the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia. The first of this series on drawing is next to my computer. Also on the way is The Austere Landscape: Paintings of Hung-jen.
Among my most treasured books are those that contain the written words of artists like Van Gogh’s Letters, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Dali’s Diary, The Private Journals of Edvard Munch, and publications of sketchbooks of the studies of Degas, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Frederic Franck, as well as books that have art I am unlikely to ever be able to really see like Paintings in the Musée D’Orsay.
The internet is a source of immediate information gratification, but for me it will never be the same as a trip to a bookstore or holding books in my hands. The first alternative is like swallowing vitamins, the second eating real food.
Needless to say, I have many, too many books. Unfortunately for the state of my studio, I can’t live without any of them.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Thoughtfulness and originality of thought.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Many. I usually work randomly in different sized, shaped, toned, and textured sketchbooks and keep a supply of surfaces prepared for silverpoint, quick oil sketches, portraits and plein-air landscapes handy, then grab what feels right for the right thing at the right moment. I throw away most but do try to remember to note location, subject, medium, date and sign on the back those that are keepers.
A notable exception was the sketchbook I consistently, painstakingly kept when monitor in Robert Beverly Hale’s classes. That one has been published in an unedited format as my “Robert Beverly Hale Lecture Notes.” There is a copy in the Art Students League and the Metropolitan Museum reference library.
Recently, I have started a new one — a sketchbook diary of talks and demonstrations from Zoom workshops I am teaching.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Easily, the Met. “Sunday Afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum” was one of my favorite ASL classes to head. Each week we gathered inside the Met to discuss the focus of the day. With sketchbooks and phone cameras in hand, off we went to study some of the best works of art in the world. With reference photos, new drawings, and freshly discovered ideas to share, we would gather again in the café for some great conversations about art.
When the pandemic arrived “Sunday Afternoons at the Met” evolved into “Basics and Beyond” Sunday afternoons on Zoom. The focus is still on art and artists represented in the Met, their techniques and how we can apply what we learned to our own drawings and paintings of landscapes, still life, and the figure. But, alas, not at the Met.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Rome, Italy. There, giving a workshop under the auspices of the Hudson Valley Artist Association, I had a special time reserved to really see the ceiling and truly appreciate its grandeur. An unforgettable experience. Someday, again?
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I am incapable of thinking what else I might be. I could never not be an artist. Impossible. There are other things I have been — mother, gardener, photographer, docent, educator, lecturer, writer, collector, curator, but always an artist. Start a gallery, perhaps?
Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
After first discovering the League, I returned to my hiding place there every Saturday, just in time to hear Robert Beverly Hale’s lecture. Every Saturday, Rosina, the head of the League, would find me there, march me out the front door only to find I would come back through the rear entrance. I was an under-aged, unregistered nuisance but after a while, she gave up and let me stay. Over the years, no matter what was happening in my life, I returned to ASL like a homing pigeon. Rosina made that possible. I studied with Hale, Rehberger, Daniel Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, Steven Assael, privately with Burt Silverman, and Caesar Borgia at the Reilly League, as well as Odd Nerdrum at the Philadelphia Academy of Art.
From time to time, Rosina touched base with me. She would challenge me to jump the next hurdle and give me the courage to try–finish high school, college, Masters at Columbia Teacher’s College, dissection at NYU Medical School, get a gallery, get exhibited and known. When finally, I had, she called me into her office and with a smile gave me a choice of staying a student or teaching anatomy in the same studio that she had repeatedly tried to throw me out of so long ago. The rest is history. I am forever thankful for the open doors of the Art Students League.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
No art class I attended ever touched on the emotional, practical, or financial issues involved in being and becoming an “artist.” Unaware of how hopeless my chances of success actually were, I focused on learning to do the best artwork I possibly could. That worked. One day, when waiting in my dentist’s office I found an old Artist magazine with a list of juried exhibitions. I took that magazine home and impulsively applied to every single one of them. I was totally dumbfounded when all the notices of acceptances arrived. I was off and running. Eventually, I got to see my work in the window of the League, reviewed in Artnews, hung next to Jennie Saville’s and Lucian Freud’s paintings in The Nude in Contemporary Art exhibit at the Aldrich Museum, adjacent to Mary Cassatt’s in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition, and in the book Works on Paper from Leonardo da Vinci to Andy Warhol, among others.
Now, in all of my classes, I make sure that no one has to have a tooth pulled to learn how to get their work exhibited.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
I look at as many works of art as I can to learn as much as I can from them. Recently, I have been looking at Audrey Flack’s still lifes and Kent Monkman’s figurative paintings to study how they use Old Master techniques, realism, narrative, and complex compositions to express contemporary concepts.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
My secret visual pleasure is looking at the magical values of light, its intensity and color—dawn, day, dusk, night sparkling with fireflies.
I enjoy watching seeds sprout and plant “weeds”— onion grass, dandelions, clover, mint to see them grow.
Recently, I have become fascinated by what I can see through the magnifying lens of my phone camera. A bit of darting dust turns out to be a tiny insect with delicate transparent wings or a sixteenth of an inch of dirt suddenly moves, and it is actually an ant darting rapidly in a frantic search for? Finding a praying mantis, inch worm, stink bug, I have been known to stop everything to watch, photograph, and film their adventures. It feels like breaking through Alice’s looking glass into another world, opening a door into another universe of life existing inside of ours.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, music but neither voice, nor violins. Piano rather than orchestra: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy. Tuned to a classical station that sometimes suddenly switches from tonal to atonal selections, the change is noticeable in the speed and color choices I make as a result. The music I select for the beginning of a work is one that suits the excited, expressive, marks of a start, a calmer impressionistic type for the slow contemplative speed necessary for details but none at all during the last stage when I hold my breath, pick up a brush full of paint, risk it all adding last the dark and light finishing touches.
What is the last gallery you visited?
QUESTROYAL Fine Art, LLC specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American paintings including the work of Ralph Albert Blakelock, Thomas Cole, George Bellows, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Thomas Hart Benton exhibited in a welcoming, elegant intimate setting.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Underrated in what context? Underpriced? Less known? True lovers of art ought not to look in categories either, not male, female, sexuality, this or that, skin color, nationality, but look at the work of artists. Look first at the past and present Art Students League artists. Then, not familiar with Vincent Desiderio, Aleah Chapin, Adam Miller, Koo Schadler, Koulbak, Kathie Anderson, Wende Caporale, Kazuki Takamatsu? Check out the yearly “Postcards from the Edge” fundraiser sale and all the as yet unrated artists online. Remember when Normal Rockwell or William Bouguereau were out of style? Trust yourself.
What art materials can you not live without?
Pencil and paper. The internet.
Writing the “Materials” column for Drawing Magazine was a tough job, but someone had to do it. During that process my studio became filled with every kind of art material imaginable including pure powdered pigments that I can turn into pastel, gouache, egg tempera, watercolor, acrylic, oil paint if need be. In a pinch, index cards, computer paper, cardboard, the back of a pad, or a brown paper bag will do.
Computer software like Illustrator, Photoshop, and Procreate eliminate the need for any art materials at all to create art. They make it possible to create images impossible to create as easily or as quickly any other way. But, they can’t replace the feeling of a pencil on paper and a brush full of oil paint on a canvas. I would not want to live without my phone camera and my computer and iPad nor without my art materials. Together, they are an incredibly powerful combination.
The important issue is not with what, but what!
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Almost, every day, especially if time spent doing sketches and demonstrations while helping students are included in the calculation. Doing those kinds of things keeps me learning and up to speed. There is hardly ever a time that, if not doing that or a project of my own, I am not thinking about art in some form or another even at 2:30 in the morning.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
When my children were infants, I was afraid if I were painting, I might not hear them crying, so I stopped. When they were older, their nights became my days, my quiet studio time.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I keep drawing and painting for the pure pleasure of it. A dancer needs to exercise. A musician to practice. Artists need to keep creating. The process is addictive.
Inspiration strikes unexpectedly in unexpected ways. Externally, when something surprising happens. The model poses and the light is right. Internally, when a visual concept starts to simmer, percolate, come to a boiling point. Then, nothing will stand in the way of my working on it until it says “done.”
What are the questions that drive your work?
How can I express something important to me to you? “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint,” Edward Hopper said.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
On his deathbed, Edgar Degas wrote, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it.” I am always striving to get it and hope to spend the rest of my life doing exactly that. Right now, I am looking at several huge blank canvases ready for a series of paintings about color. “Black” and “Red” are done. Purple, orange, yellow, green, blue, and white?
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Draw, paint, sculpt, animate, illustrate, write, act, dance, direct, photograph, film. Artists can learn what they need to in order to do whatever they want in whatever way they want, share it, print, publish, exhibit it. No art degree, no studio, no gallery or museum connection necessary. It is a new world of information, communication, new creative possibilities and freedom for all artists and all the art.