The following is an interview with writer Candace Conte:
Why do you make your art/what inspires you to make it?
My grandfather was a magician. He did magic acts for Harry Blackstone, Sr., and did stage design, created backdrops, and constructed sets and props. He once built a boat in our house. He lived with my family when I was growing up and although he forbid me to use his tools and materials, his things were always around the house and I couldn’t stay away from them. When my siblings and neighbors would go outside to play, I would sneak in and play with his tools and materials, including pastels, tissue paper and wood. As a child I spent my time drawing, mostly plans for houses at first, as I was always fascinated by plan views. In a different environment I might have been stifled, but my parents were very encouraging, even allowing me to create a studio in our garage. Art was the one thing I was always drawn to, and found that I was better at than other people, even when I was very young. I was always a loner and didn’t follow others at recess and although some children befriended me, I tended to spend my time drawing rather than talking to people. I gained confidence in being accomplished as an artist, which made me more outgoing, and as I got older I retained the conviction to keep pursuing art.
I went to an arts college with my parents’ blessing, and afterward I painted houses and lawn furniture, saved money and went to Europe. In Europe I spent time doing simple line drawings of the rooms and pensiones I stayed in. When I returned, I got a job drawing illustrations of furniture design proposals for an interior design firm. I worked for a number of years illustrating for designers then became a designer. I designed private airplane cabin interiors. During this time I always did my own art work, showing in galleries and selling my work, which I think has been crucial to my success. I would get home from work, make dinner, and go right to my studio. I was always disciplined in that way and had the goal of doing my own work full time. Steady work and commissions allowed me to go to my studio and just be playful, which I love and which is incredibly important to the creative process.
It’s almost as if I have to do this; I have to go into the studio to have a “blood letting” every day. I love the physical time I spend working on my art. It draws away all the anxiety and I play music, think about things, enjoy memories and glide along without distractions. On the best days, time passes without my awareness and I’m in a space where I’m thinking about everything but the work itself and while hovering there, not thinking about working, it’s happening. It’s a magical, intuitive process and I can’t explain where it comes from. It’s difficult to find a good comparison and put it to pen. Maybe it’s like a chef who decides all of a sudden that a dish needs a certain ingredient. There’s a back and forth, action and response, process to making my art. It’s a mixture of internal elements (frustrations, memories, sexuality) that move outward. It’s pre-rational and doesn’t lead to being rationalized; it leads to things that aren’t rational. If I didn’t have subconscious direction, I probably wouldn’t have the urge to do this. I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t question it; I just accept it, with gratitude.
What is it made out of?
I work with paper and paint and am drawn to certain materials, colors and textures. I love to combine disparate things to create a harmonious piece. I might use different kinds of textured paper, map fragments, the tissue paper of dress patterns, flight patterns, Braille paper, pages from old Sears Roebuck catalogues. I like the feel of paper; the translucency of it. I like its fibrousness; its organicity: the fact that someone mulched up all these ingredients with rice to make it. I don’t use paper that comes in reams or rolls; I like special paper. I like pages from old books, Japanese Noh Theatre paper that comes with a history. Pieces of paper are like a window to another world altogether. I can create a play between what’s in the window and what I’ve done with it, how it interacts with other elements in the work. In that way paper can add another dimension to things.
I can create texture with paper and overlap it to create different colors. I like to draw on top of different kinds of paper to create layers. I like translucency, space, and background. My paintings are like a projection of something that could be three-dimensional but instead they contain multiple layers of translucency, hidden things, things that are buried in the background. That is what creates space for me.
Paper is a forgiving material—if something doesn’t work it can be used in another way. In this way it is easy to not feel intimidated and to be playful and try different things. It is very important to me to be able to work freely, with spontaneity and without deliberation, especially when I begin a piece. This is one of the things I love about sketches and doodles, which I collect and use in my work. Doodles, like the kind you do when you’re on the phone, have no intention artistically. This is how I started a whole series of works using silhouettes. When I was working with engineers I used to put boxes around for them so I could collect their doodles, then once in a while I would harvest them. Lines and shapes that were drawn for a specific purpose became abstract and meaningless when taken out of context, and in the eyes of others they took on other meanings.
The paintbrush is my favorite tool. I spent many years doing illustrations and would use paintbrushes to mix up gouache, so I became very familiar with the brush and how it holds the paint, to the point where the brush became an extension of my hand. I could tell by the weight of the brush with the paint that I had enough to sustain me for a line or a stroke. I love the feeling of the flow of paint off a brush and I love the feeling of the viscosity of the paint. Sometimes I will paint splotches of ink on a panel then turn the panel one way and another, allowing gravity to become the determining force. I don’t interfere with this force, which is a way of coming up with surprises in my work.
I love drips. Drips are also a wonderful way to come up with all kinds of surprising things in an artwork. A drip brings a certain kind of freshness and indeterminacy to the work, which is refreshing to see. It’s like background noise that wasn’t conducted by a composer; it’s just a kind of randomness. The dripping may represent a downward pull, almost like the tidal pull of depression. I started working with it, then I would add elements that seemed to be rising and would signify a transcendence. I liked this sense of movement. I did artwork with ellipses, which add another dimension of something that’s not there, a possibility.
Paint is a way to bring out color, which to me is the essence; it is musical and expressive. Cadmium red is my favorite color. It is warm and exciting and can break through the gloom of the weather or my mood. Right now I like working with what I think of as “old fashioned” colors; the colors that I remember from the years I was growing up—the oranges and greens of old cars, the colors of Necco Wafers. They remind me of scraping paint when I was painting houses. I could see the old colors underneath and try to imagine what the kitchen, for example, used to look like at the time that original color was painted. Just by seeing a little chip of paint color I could be taken to that place and imagine life at that time. The colors I am working with now remind me of the past and bring me a feeling of warmth and comfort, which I hope to express or communicate with other people, as if maybe they could look at my work and experience those feelings and pleasant memories too.
There is something visceral that the visual, and color in particular, brings you to. It’s inchoate, like the sense of smell. Certain smells can strike something inside of you or reach a part of the mind that you can’t place or locate. You can’t quite figure out how or why, but you’ve been taken somewhere. I like that sense of longing; that communication. I hope to take the viewer back, through the visual and the way it can serve as a touchstone to memory or experience, to a sense of childhood and childhood comforts.
How do you make it?
I enjoy making the panels I create my artwork on. Working with wood is something I’ve enjoyed since the days I toyed with my grandfather’s construction materials. As I make the panels I don’t think about anything very deliberate or decisive. I have spent time looking at old photographs or things I like to look at or love the feeling of and I have the elements of the work in my studio, like old dress patterns. All of these things, along with memories, and the “stuff” of my life and experiences, go into the cache of my creativity. When I begin a work, I don’t start out with an idea. I sit down with the tools and materials and there is a process that I let happen. At the very beginning I sort of throw things together—I use chance and randomness as a spark for everything else and slowly the elements come together. I deliberately make an enigma and work with it until it becomes more complex and more satisfying. Right now, for example, I am gluing old Butterick Simplicity patterns down on panel. I do this until the work is a complete welter of lines and words and directions and I start to see what it becomes. I might glue the dress patterns together until they become beer bottle brown or amber and I wonder what it would look like if I were to try this or that. Maybe it won’t work, but then I do something else with it, like I might paint over the words with white paint, which will start me off in another direction. I like making corrections on things that are totally arbitrary, which brings a sort of playfulness or sense of suggestion to the work. I like things peeking through other things or things looking through from behind, which suggests memory in a way—something is partially hidden, by time, other events, other processes.
At the beginning I don’t do anything very deliberate, though. I play with the materials, try something simple and respond to it. It is a very visual and visceral process. I ask myself, “How does this look if I do this or move this another way? Does it suggest something else?” When I put the paper or paint on the panel I have a reaction; everything stored in that cache of creativity is brought to call. A shape may bring to mind something else, I may decide to take the elements in a different direction. Sometimes I don’t like the way a piece is shaping up and I put it on the wall of my studio for a while, in my peripheral vision, then one day I will say to myself, “I know exactly what that wants,” bring it down and work on it some more. I can’t push the work; it’s like a child in adolescence with acne and attitude. I just let it be for a while because if I try to push it, it will get worse. There is some process that I can’t interfere with where the subconscious has full reign, as if I am allowing patterns to emerge and the artwork is becoming what it wants to be.
I want to create a dynamic between an area in the work that’s active and areas that are not so active. I have a tendency to make every area very active but that can be exhausting and doesn’t lead you through a composition. It’s like opening a door to a party and being blasted with a lot of noise instead of wandering through a house and hearing a party in the background and coming up to it. I usually bring things to a point then start covering things up and making quiet areas, like closing the doors to those noisy rooms so you’re directed toward something else. The busyness and brightness of color needs to be counteracted so the work is balanced.
Every part of the composition has to seem inevitable at the same time it is spontaneous. I want it to seem like there is no other way it could have ended up, almost as if there is a complete intentionality or inevitability about the spontaneousness. That is what makes a good piece of artwork different from one that is not yet good. The inevitability of the composition gives the work a kind of gravity or closure of intention, which is how I know a work is done. In some way the process is similar to the way a short story is written. The story needs to add up to something and warrant some kind of reflection back to where it started, or it seems unnecessary and arbitrary. When the work becomes like a house of cards—if I pull one card out the whole thing might come toppling down—and when I wouldn’t take anything away and wouldn’t add anything else, what’s how I know it’s done; I know I’ve got it.
What does it signify or represent?
What I want people to understand is that I don’t intend my work to be seen or to mean in a certain way. People have appreciated what I’ve done over the years, so I have confidence that what I’ve created will be appreciated. That was not the case when I was younger, but I did have faith that people would want my work. Over time I have developed a sense of what people will enjoy or appreciate and when they do, it’s the icing on the cake. Beyond that overarching structure, though, I do not think specifically about the person who will interact with my art when I am creating it. I work intuitively or viscerally, from the subconscious, and don’t set out to convey a certain meaning or represent a specific subject. I want to leave some mystery or suggestion for the viewer, which is one of the reasons that I like to use incomplete, letter-like figures and lines that are partially hidden.
The “subject” of the abstraction I work in is based on what you see: color, shape, brushstrokes, size, scale, possibly even process or action. It doesn’t have to conform or shape up in comparison to anything else and interpretation isn’t necessary. I use different elements—lines, shapes, colors, textures—and the thought that it refers to something is with the viewer. Have you had an experience with that color? Is it in your past? Does it bring you a pleasant feeling? It’s a conversation.
Sometimes depth, themes and layers of meaning emerge after the fact. For example, I did a series where I worked with old catalogs and magazines written in Braille. The raised Braille letters were flattened and covered with resin. In this way a visual work of art was made with material intended for the visually impaired, so the work itself calls attention to the fact that not everyone can enjoy it. While the viewer may ponder these contradictions and connections in the work, it’s not necessary to think about the work in this way and the work can be enjoyed without these “meanings.”
My work, then, doesn’t follow from intention but rather unfolds from the cache of my creativity: my vision, training, experience, memories, and things I’m drawn to. I bring these elements together and the work creates its own story without ambition, motive, or preconceived idea. The work comes from me and I offer it up. It’s up to the viewer to pick up on it; to complete the process.