ARTWRITE #8: Breaking from Painting

Julie Maren, Robert Hooper


I've been wondering who the audience is for a newsletter about the creative process? Is it for writers? Artists? Teachers? Art lovers? Is anyone besides my mother-in-law reading this? 

I deeply believe in the value of process. I don't just mean doing what it takes to arrive at a product. I mean embracing every step along the way. But when it takes five years to finish a novel, and then you find out that it needs to be massively revised (as I recently learned), it's hard to keep the faith.

As I edited this week's interview with Julie Maren, I realized that I am the audience for this newsletter. Julie's path is proof that what may appear to be a wasted detour or fruitless tangent is, in fact, essential and consequential. I hope you will find her story as inspiring as I do.

This week's newsletter also includes more work from Robert Hooper. "Equipoise" is not a word I use often, but it's what kept coming to mind when I posted Hooper's "Portrait d' un Poète" on ArtWrite earlier in the week.  

At first, I resisted writing a poem because I don't think of myself as a poet. Instead, I started a scene about a family in a car listening to "Fugue for the Tinhorns," the opening number of Guys and Dolls. How did I get from "Portrait d' un Poète' painting to Guys and Dolls? 

And just a minute, boys.

I've got the feed box noise

It says the great-grandfather was Equipoise

Shows class, shows class.

This guy says the horse shows class

If he says the horse shows class

Shows class, show's class.

I tossed the story and went with a poem. 

In my text exchanges with Robert, I've appreciated how enthusiastic he's been about the concept of using art as a writing prompt. I wanted to learn more about him but forced myself to finish the poem before delving into his artist statement. Imagine my delight when I read how he perceives his work:

Rather than being depictions, my paintings are essentially prompts, which are realized through their being observed. The narrative and formal prompts co-exist. The "painting", in effect, exists between the painted surface and the receptive viewer. 

As painted prompts and fictive figments, spanning the obvious to the ineffable, my paintings' trajectory, their reach, are to be realized as felt experience, fictive realities made manifest.  

"Fictive realities made manifest." I may have to steal that, Robert.

If you're in the Chicago area from Nov 14 to Jan 2, Robert is showing at Regards Gallery. Otherwise, you can see more of his work here, and read my election-inspired poem here.

-- Maggie Levine

ArtWrite Interview: Julie Maren

Julie Maren's website explains how the Boulder-based artist "has been focused on creating installations for the last several years. Originally a painter and sculptor, Maren blended her skills with her desire to challenge the boundaries of painting, bringing about a new unique medium—“Biophilia” installations—the perfect marriage of her passions. These installations are both wall sculpture and 3-dimensional paintings and have allowed Maren a vehicle to transcend the omnipresent dot patterns in her paintings by transforming them into expansive, multi-dimensional arrangements of color and pattern that play with shape, microscopic and macroscopic perspectives and transform with light and shadow.This December, Julie will be part of a two-person show with Julia Lucey at Austin's Wally Workman Gallery.

You say that the Biophilia wall sculptures result from your journey to free your paintings from the confines of traditional square and rectangular canvases. Can you go into more detail about that journey?

I hadn’t shown for about five years, and in 2016, I finally got into a gallery. I was making these enormous pieces that were made up of many paintings put together to work as a large piece. One series had paintings in a grid, and another had them in a row that snaked around the gallery. 

I just didn’t know how else to do to get the kind of effect I was looking for, which was all about color and pattern. I thought each one could stand alone, and people could buy one piece or the whole thing, but nobody wanted to break up the whole. After nine months, the gallery let me go because they had to keep dragging out all these multiple paintings and put them together to show my work.

All I could think was how I wanted to take a jigsaw to my paintings. My intention wasn’t going to destroy them. I was bored with squares and rectangles. I love the symbology of circles, and there were dots on every single painting. As soon as the guy dropped all my paintings off at the studio, I started cutting out the centers.

Wow. How did that feel?

Liberating. I played with the circles on the wall. None of them are very circular; they’re messy circles because of the jigsaw. I was being very spontaneous and listening to that deep need. It was a necessary step that had to happen. I cut up a whole bunch of paintings, and not all of them ended up being circular, and some of them became more amorphous shapes that I used to create large collage paintings (see below).

If I look at the painting below from 2015 next to the biophilia that you made three years later, the connection between them is uncanny. How did you eventually arrive at the acorns?

I am also a sculptor. In 2016, I went to an art residency to explore my desire to merge sculpture and painting. I was in Connecticut, surrounded by Oak forests. That's when I began filling the small acorn tops with paint, posing them on mossy rocks and in different landscapes. I took photographs. Soon, I created a whole photo series, a story about displacement.

For months, I took the acorns everywhere with me, even on vacation. I was the weird lady in Hawaii who said, "I'm just going to put these all over the volcano, and I'll just catch up with you in two hours." Finally, my boyfriend said, "Can't you just hang them on the wall?"  

Had you ever thought of hanging them on the wall before he said that?

I don't know if I had, so he always says, "I get credit." It took me about a month to figure out how to do it. There is a hardware store in town, and I kept going there and saying, "I want to hang 1000 acorn caps on the wall." They're usually very helpful.

They didn't rise to the challenge?

No! I thought they would. Eventually, I was able to figure out how to have the acorns project at different depths.

Describe the process of finding the acorns. Does it feel like a part of the artistic process? 

I am a forager and love hunting for mushrooms. Besides the fact that I like finding delicious mushrooms and vegetables outside in the wild, I also appreciate the fickle nature of this pursuit, as often they are not there or you have to know what type of trees to look under.

I also love looking for beautiful rocks and feathers. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve basically been treasure hunting. Looking for acorns feels like an adult version.

Where do you find them?  You live in Boulder. Are they local?

In 2016 my sister was living in Texas and sent me a box of amazing giant acorns. I now go to Austin every fall. That’s where I found Bur Oaks. I fly there, rent a car, go pick the acorns, and then ship them back. It cracks me up that acorn hunting is a business trip, but it is.

Sometimes they can be hard to find. Last year was an off-year in Austin.  I panicked because I only had one box left. I drove to every location in town where I remember seeing them. There were none.

At my friend’s house, I started reading The Hidden Life of Trees and learned about mycorrhizal networks. It turns out all of the trees in Austin had communicated with each other and decided not to drop any that year. But I found some outside the city. They were on a different schedule.

When you get a commission or begin a new piece, how do you begin?

I begin where I feel inspiration. My first piece, Botanica, was inspired by my 90-year old neighbor's humongous garden. It’s wild, full of vegetables and flowers, all just kind of intermingled, super colorful.

How do you bring the colors with you into the studio?

At this point, I just sort of trust myself from taking it in visually and that it’s in my body and psyche and that it will come out.

I feel inspired by every piece because I am still figuring out what I can do with the medium. Right now I’m working on a private commission that’s going to go to Jackson Hole. I asked if I could do it about Wyoming and the inspiration that I found in Yellowstone. There are just so many surreal colors there. The geysers are like rainbows, and mud pots are these pink bubbling pools. So much of Wyoming seems kind of brown and deserty, but then you look closely, and all the rocks are really interesting. In the Badlands, there’s this world class of jade. The landscape got me excited.

I’m also very material based. Every time I do a big piece, I always try to find new materials and figure out what new things I can do. For Wyoming, I got all these tiny, tiny river rocks from my sister who is a rock collector. They remind me of little microcosms.

Playing is the basis of my art. I don’t want to paint realistic paintings anymore because I don’t feel like it matches my personality. I'm kind of messy and like a free spirit. Playful. Everything comes from seeing what the materials can do. 

Once you have settled on a palette for a piece, to what degree is it improvisational vs. planned? Do you make changes on-site?

I work everything out at my studio beforehand. I generally have a direction in mind, like with the Wyoming piece I'm working on now. How I put the colors together is improvisational. I put lots of extra holes in the walls, put the rods in and take them out, and build it as I go.

The Wyoming piece is diagonal. I have to build it vertically on my wall because I don’t have the space. I keep taking photographs of it and photoshopping it together diagonally.

(In the image below, the left side is the top; the bottom part but will be flipped around, and the whole thing is going to be diagonal)

The centerline was kind of tilting and it was thicker in one spot,  and I couldn’t really see it until I put it in photoshop and really stared at it for a while.  It’s interesting to me how the process of working is constantly stepping back and looking at it. I feel like I always have to relearn how to do it each time.

Have you always perceived yourself as an artist?

I got sick when I was little. I had this illness and almost died. I had to be inside a lot and was constantly making art. 

In 5th grade, a friend and I decided to make a book about people at school. It was mean. We did these crazy wild illustrations in red ink. Someone was picking her nose. It got confiscated, and we actually almost got suspended for it, but the teacher was brilliant. At the principal’s office, she said, “They’re such good artists, I’d like them to decorate the classroom from now on.” She was a genius to redirect that energy. Up until that point, I was making magazines and constantly drawing. But I felt validated by the teacher and started to indentify as an artist.