Martha T. Jones Interviews Christi Harris
MTJ: I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time now and I’m happy to get to ask you some questions about your work in the Current Art Fair. So, you’re showing pieces from two groups of your work: oil paintings depicting cake icing (Frosted) and collages that use various types of advertising imagery to treat feminist themes.
MTJ: I’m curious to hear you talk about the connection between the imagery of domesticity and traditional female crafts that you work with.
I’ve heard you talk about how much you owe to the early influence of the women in your family who handed their crafts traditions on to you and I’m interested in how you see this connection.
CH: The connection is inherent--in that they are both traditionally acceptable female roles. The thing that I think about when incorporating “women’s work” of stitching or sewing into imagery of “women working” is calling to question both the designation of those roles as well as the outsider status that “handcrafts” have had in a traditional art dialogue.
MTJ: Can you say something as well as how you see these craft traditions as connected to the fine art media in which you work.
CH:I find that the two traditions mentally overlap. When mixing oil paint, I often associate it with frosting or cooking because of the large quantities I must mix as well as the viscosity and color (particularly pastel colors). When I see a beautiful cake, I think of Wayne Thiebaud’s cake paintings. I mentally see the two as connected. There is craft in food artistry and craft in painting.
MTJ:. Can you to follow up a bit more about the origins of your interests and talents? Particularly I wanted to ask about when you started to develop your facility with representational art forms and when you started to think that you could be an artist.
CH; I grew up in a family of musicians. I always had wanted to be a singer, and studied the piano. When I was about twelve, my family visited my step-sister who was an artist. While I was there, she provided art materials and how-to books, and she recognized my ability. After that, I focused my creative efforts on visual art instead of music.
MTJ: Were you encouraged to draw at home at the same time you were taught to crochet and sew and embroider? It’s so interesting the way your work connects an embroidered line or a fabric form to a drawn or painted line or shape and the collages are a good example of this.
CH: In terms of chronology, the handcrafts came first. My family encouraged any type of hand work- whether that be peeling and coring apples, grinding grapes to produce juice for making jelly, sewing clothing, crafting or crocheting. I do not remember a time when I was not playing with scraps of fabric, admiring my mother’s sewing ability, or taking embroidery lessons from my neighbor.
MTJ: I admire the diversity of what you do and how you make sense of a range of related themes and sets of imagery. It’s also impressive that you do this skillfully in several different media. Can you discuss the variety of mediums you work in?
CH: In Undergrad, I focused on painting and printmaking. In Graduate school at RISD, my program was a combined painting and printmaking MFA. I work in the mediums of painting, printmaking, drawing, collage, and fibers.
MTJ: Can you say something about other artists who have influenced you, and how?
CH: In terms of painting, I am very influenced by John Singer Sargent and Wayne Thiebaud. John Singer Sargent has a beautiful touch with the brush and his marks make forms that are abstract gestures held together. Wayne Thiebaud was very influential for me in terms of color (blue shadows) and in terms of subject matter. His cakes and dresses led me through several bodies of work, first in graduate school and then later in the Icing and Frosted series. In terms of collage/mixed-media, I am very influenced by Hannah Hoch's collages of hybrid female forms and Joseph Cornell, who taught me to collect things and put them together in a novel way. I find that sculptors spark my creativity most- I saw Lee Bontecou's retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute and it blew my mind. Louise Bourgeois puts together materials that access locked parts of my brain that contain emotions and memories, particularly the "Cells" series.
MTJ: Can you talk a bit about your more recent works? Like the monumental-sized collages using family financial receipts and embroidered lines that you showed last year.
CH: My most recent series of work, Paper Marriage took my initial small-scale efforts with collage and made them monumental. The impetus for creating the Paper Marriage series was the discovery of my mother’s financial records during her marriage to my father. The sheer volume of papers provided my first opportunity to create a unified body of collage work using family financial memorabilia. (I look for these types of papers at antique malls and only find them in small quantities.) I am attracted to vintage paper ephemera because of the varied colors, shapes, and design of the receipts as well as the salesman’s handwriting. The imagery selected was an attempt to show symbols of childhood, memory, and the absence of my father from my life. My decision to make the images from thread and yarn was an attempt to visualize the effort and dedication it takes to create a home and raise children, especially with a challenging spouse. Because of my recent divorce I felt I could relate to my mother’s experience of divorce even though the circumstances were very different.
MTJ: What about your current work? It’s another series of large work: large monochromatic drawings of disappearing or transparent brides. What’s your medium and materials for the bride drawings: they really come across as sort of half drawing/half painting?
The body of work in progress, Fading Brides, are wash drawings painted with a product called “Liquid Pencil”. The Liquid Pencil is a paste that you use like watercolor and contains properties of pencil drawings (it can be erased).
MTJ: I know that with a lot of your recent representational work such as the bride series, you’ve gathered imagery from various sources, then worked from a projection of your images. I know you also have worked from direct observation, and your older grocery store paintings are one very good example of this way of working. Can you talk about how the skills for these two types of representational work are related? What about the icing paintings: were they based on projections or not?
CH: I have come around to using projections to begin works simply because it is more efficient. I have been predominantly projecting the images I work with over the past fifteen years. When I work from a projection, most of the decisions have been made beforehand. When I use projections and work from photographs, I find that the joy of creation comes much later in the process of the painting/artwork, when I must edit the dominant and subordinate areas of the painting to communicate a concept or feeling. When working from direct observation, there is a feeling of limitless options at the beginning of the painting. The joy (and frustration) comes at the beginning of the work, when I lay it out and struggle to correct the placement, shape, and color of the subject. I find that I miss that kind of approach when I am away from it too long.
MTJ: Can you make some general observations about your attitudes about representational work? How far from your subject are you interested in diverging: I think I’ve heard you say that you strive to get your image as close as possible to your subject? As a painter who works abstractly I’m just interested to hear you talk about these very different goals.
CH: I do try to create a likeness in my portrait and figurative works, but I would say that I generally don't strive to reproduce the photograph but instead improve it. The human eye (which is binocular vision) is capable of seeing much than the camera (which is monocular), particularly in terms of depth perception. I use my experience of painting from observation to show space and form. The knowledge I have accumulated is both conceptual and perceptual.
MTJ: Finally about feminism and the themes of traditional female roles and preponderance of imagery from mid-20th-c. advertising is so strong in your work. I’ve heard you say that you’re interested in objects and images older than you are. I can see you as an observer looking with great empathy upon the lives of women from the past. The sympathy of your vision seems to collapse the time between the women in your work and the time we’re living in now. Some of the small collages and the icing paintings can seem quite comic but other works can be much more somber, like the paintings in your Unwritten History series or the new Fading Bride drawings. You’ve obviously got a lot to say about these topics. Anything else you’d like to share about your treatment of feminist themes?
CH: The primary thing I am trying to communicate is my personal connection to these topics. I am a woman living in patriarchal society that undervalues the contributions women have made to its success. The primary reason I explore these themes is because they are important to me and reflect my experiences.
Christi Harris Interviews Martha T. Jones
CH: The work you are presenting at the Current Art Fair is very unified as a body of work in terms of color and pattern. Can you describe your influences and thoughts at the time of creation of these works?
MTJ:The four paintings in the Current Art Fair are smaller versions (30”x30”) of a series of larger works (56”x62”) from 2017. The main characteristics of this group of work are a brown wash ground with spiraling lines leading in a downward diagonal toward the bottom right side of the painting and superimposed on top of that a white overpainted net-like grid executed with a more finely drawn line than I had used prior to this. After the US presidential election I wanted to test whether I could find a means for making political commentary in an abstract artistic form. I wanted to know whether it was possible to find a voice for the deep despair and foreboding I felt from the election’s results. I started experimenting with grounds laid down in a black or a brown and after some trials settled on brown. I really feel the aesthetic need to balance darker tones with lighter tones. The contrast between the white line against the darker background turned out to be very fruitful. I’d say that the jury is still out on how effective the abstract form is for making a straightforward statement and certainly the form has inherent drawbacks as a means to elicit political change. As an expression of my emotional state, the work was much more effective; in fact emotional expression may actually be the best way that an abstract form can convey an idea.
CH: What elements in these paintings have carried over into your current large-scale paintings to be presented at Linda Matney Gallery in November? How would you describe these new paintings?
MTJ:The show at Linda Matney includes paintings from the 2017 brown series as well as work from 2018 and 2019. I believe there’ll be 13 or 14 paintings in the show; all are between 55”x62” and 50”x56” or 72”x96”. Although I’ve continued to construct these paintings with a similar sort of layering as in the 2017 brown paintings with a dependence on a top layer of a light-colored network pattern, the work has changed in significant ways in terms of color as well as in the quality of the network’s line. In 2018 I produced several paintings which kept the brown ground but covered it more thoroughly with a more painterly version of the white net and a substantial amount of pink or pale green between the brown layer and the white.
Sometime in 2018 I became almost obsessed with painting multi-colored stripes that slanted from top right to bottom left over a lot of my work; the stripes have sharp edges but quite a handmade, imperfect quality. I picked up the stripe theme from an earlier 2017 painting that I’d been happy with, but now I started covering these stripes with different versions of a white or pink grid. The striped paintings starting out on brown underpainting but many of them covered the brown substantially and as the work went on I tended to ditch the brown and use a pale blue wash instead.
In the most recent work I have substituted yellow overpainting for white—still interested in a lighter color for the dominating line over a more deeply colored background. I’ve been happy with the results from using a green shadow around the yellow in many of these most recent paintings.
CH: Although you frequently speak about this work in terms of formal elements, your forms and patterns sometimes have a more personal source. Would you talk about the things that the shapes may represent and the sources from which you draw your inspiration? For instance, does the letter B/M shape represent your relationship with your husband?
MTJ:There are many happy accidents in abstract painting and this is one of them. I didn’t set out to treat the theme of my marriage but am happy with it if it comes up—though these letter forms do not have this exclusive meaning for me. The M’s and B’s developed from the motifs I’d been using for a long time now that I’d been seeing in Greek and Roman art when I first started working abstractly in 2006-08. The arch shape reminded me of waves; then I started thinking of letter forms as I turned the shape upside down or on its side or put two together into a circle or oval—among many other possibilities by way of experiment. I appreciate the simplicity and versatility of this rounded form. I guess you’ve heard me speak of these motifs as formal elements because that really is the way I think. And in fact my response to the artistic and literary traditions from which the motifs are drawn is much deeper and more personal than purely intellectual or impersonal.
CH: I understand you to be an artist who is largely self-taught. When did you decide to begin your artistic practice and why?
MTJ:My grandmother on my mother’s side of the family was a talented amateur artist, and several others on her side as well as in my father’s family were also quite accomplished in oil and watercolor painting as well as pottery painting and other crafts. My sisters and I were encouraged to make art from an early age, and at some quite early point I got the idea that I too could be an artist. I had a thorough grounding in the basics of drawing, painting and art history from an excellent and supportive high school instructor. I continued to take art studio and history courses in college but I made the decision to pursue my interests in literature as an academic focus. I’d hoped to turn my ambition to pursue an artistic career into a thing after college but found that isolation in a strange city and in my home workspace and the necessity to earn my living at a series of less than inspiring jobs all wore away at my resolve; either my talent or my determination were not up to it in my early 20’s. So I went to graduate school where I’d been living in Boulder, CO where I received an MA in Classics. And then went to work toward a PhD in Classics at the University of Texas in Austin and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I taught Classical Studies courses and Greek and Latin as an adjunct instructor in several institutions; my last teaching position was at William and Mary in 2005. I’d begun painting seriously again around 2000; after my last teaching position ended I was very ready to be a fulltime artist.
CH: Can you talk about the way in which your background in Classical Studies has influenced your artwork?
MTJ: The experience of learning Latin and Greek, studying Classical literature and going to Greece to study art and archaeology was beyond a doubt one of the most amazing of my life. Reading Greek and Latin poetry in the original language is mindblowing. This and my knowledge of ancient visual arts have given me a touchstone for understanding beauty and the tragedy bound up with our human life. My training is different from the path of many artists; it has given me an amazing artistic resource and perspective.
That writing is an important theme in my work is probably largely down to my long-term training in Classics. I’m interested in letter forms, their origin and relation to abstract elements in Greek and Roman art and to the patterns for distributing words and letters along a line in space. As one example of the influence, the spiral patterns that resemble figure-eights in many of my paintings to my mind hint at an early Greek writing form that went from left to right and then back from right to left.
CH:You typically paint larger paintings on canvas and are unsatisfied by making small works. Can you talk about why making large works is important to you and the development of your work?
MTJ: It’s some version of aesthetic ambition and intellectual curiosity that has motivated the interest in working large. I’d like to be able to make the sort of strong visual statement that a large scale makes possible.
CH: Your color palette is typically very saturated and recognizable in terms of hue. Do you ever play with neutrals and mixed colors to create areas of emphasis or contrast? If not, why?
MTJ: Yes and No. Yes, I do prefer that the areas and lines closest to the surface be boldly colored, but the effects behind the foregrounded network will more often than not be more mixed or subtle in color. A lot of this is because I want these large paintings to make a strong impression when viewed from a distance where the whole composition can best be seen. And I do mix colors both on the palette and on the canvas surface. Since this is all oil paint, I have options in terms of texture and thickness, and I start painting from a wash and work up to something that can be quite thick. Also because this is oil, the rate of drying necessarily involves wet-on-wet painting. Since the lower layers of paint are frequently deeper in tone than what comes out on top, there will be a lot of deepening of colors that are quite saturated right out of the tubes. When working on the brown series especially, I sometimes felt that this process had some similarities to the old master technique of starting with deep brown tones and working lighter on top of that. When the upper layers of paint pick up color from the damp paint already on the canvas, I will frequently adjust to make the top layers pop out more vibrantly, but I never want to lose the depth and complexity of what lies below.
CH: Although most of your work embraces flatness, your 2017 series seems to focus on space and overlapping. What did you learn from doing that series that you have brought into your newer more flatly patterned work?
MTJ: I feel comfortable with what results from superimposing 3 to 4 layers of pattern on top of each other, although sometimes a painting may declare itself to be finished with fewer. I’m not sure that I see a significant difference between the 2017 paintings and what I’m doing presently in terms of how I depict spatial depth. These paintings will never treat depth of field in the same way that figurative landscape can do. The more layers the more depth, but the depth conveyed by superimposed layers of pattern or lines will appear as something similar to a screen of hanging beads or a curtain of network fabric through which a background is partially revealed but partially obscured. My sense of an overall composition is something that’s developed gradually over the last few years. In my large paintings from around 2008, I was consciously thinking about the composition as a sort of abstracted landscape—or actually something more like a seascape with a horizontal vanishing line high across the top of the picture plain. I still work with many of the same motifs as then, but now the motifs tend to be knit together into a unified network grid on the topmost layer of the composition.
CH: What artists or art has had the most direct influence on you? Which artists do you return to again and again and why?
MTJ: So many artists and bodies of work at this point, but mainly Guston and Twombly. Guston has been an enormous influence. My work looks a lot more like Guston’s than Twombly’s and shows the influence of Guston’s late period. It’s maybe sort of odd that although I’m working abstractly, it’s primarily Guston’s last phase work when he was turning away from abstraction to figurative work that has influenced me. I don’t think about Guston all the time any more; it’s been a while since I absorbed the basic lessons I took from him, but I’ve been reminded of him a lot while working on my last two or three most recent paintings. These are abstract, but they suggest figures with a sort of solidity, and they draw on comic book conventions such as movement gestures that had me thinking of Guston.
People have been surprised when I said that Twombly was an influence: my use of line and the solidity of forms in my work couldn’t look more different than Twombly’s. It’s really the common interest in the Mediterranean world, ancient Greek art and especially literature, as well as the use of text--particularly poetic text--that speaks to me directly in Twombly’s work as well as his use of color. But come to think of it the spiral coils that he used so much on a large scale in late career are a pattern I also have used. Whether I really took this from Twombly I can’t really say; I was certainly happy to see him confirming what I was doing. For me these coils were a reference among other things to traditional practice of cursive writing instruction and reflect my interest in treating the theme of writing in my work.
I came to abstraction in pretty much the same way that Mondrian or Kandinsky did by starting with a figurative study that I learned how to boil down to its structural essentials. Mondrian’s way of doing abstraction has been on my mind some over the last few years as I’ve worked in a modified grid form; Kandinsky not so much. I really bring them up to illustrate my early process of adopting abstraction. I saw museum shows at about this time in the mid-2000’s for both these artists that illustrated how they’d moved from figuration to abstraction so they were on my mind (Mondrian at the National Gallery in Washington, and I believe the Kandinsky show I saw at the Kunstmuseum Basel). I no longer start with figuration although in the process of painting I may end up with something suggestively similar to representation.
Also I can’t answer this question without mentioning ancient Greek and Roman art. When I started doing abstract work I was living in Greece from 2006-08 and looking at a lot of ancient art. In these art forms that are otherwise representational, I found abstracted motifs such as arches, meander patterns, column capital forms, egg and dart patterns, you name it: motifs that were already abstracted for me and that suggest the influence that the study of the classics had upon me.
CH: You have won two VMFA Fellowships for Professional Artists. What sort of opportunities did this money and recognition make available to you?
MTJ: The main thing was the recognition. The award has led to several exhibition possibilities: a one-artist show at the Pauley Center of VMFA in 2011 of the type they give fellowship winners and a couple of group exhibits. Also I’ve been privileged to meet many other amazing artists through this connection. The generous grant from the VMFA was crucial and provided enough money to cover my art supplies for at least four years.
CH: Before you built your studio, you worked in a home basement studio with a low ceiling. What challenges were presented by working large in a small space that would not be immediately obvious to an outsider?
MTJ: Yes. My old studio was in a walkout basement, so I had some natural light. It wasn’t tiny so I was able to get back a bit to look at what I’d done: about 15 feet or so back or a few more feet if I stretched it. I had to share space with our washer and dryer and since I had to store work there as well as make it, the work space kept getting smaller and smaller as time went on. Another major challenge with that space was that the ceiling was so low, 7 ½ feet; the largest paintings I do are either 6 or 7 feet high. And the lightning was less than perfect: I liked having natural lighting but when the sun was strongest the light was raking, crossing the work from the side rather than coming from behind me. The lights were fluorescent which was just so-so. I learned the advantages of working with the lights out. By learning to concentrate on the tonal rather than color values of the work I could more clearly see if the composition was holding together.
CH: As a full-time artist with a dedicated spacious art studio, you have the privilege of time and workspace. Do you have suggestions for artists to maintain continuity in their studio practice when they cannot dedicate the majority of their time to their work?
MTJ: Having both time and a good workspace at the same time has got to be the greatest challenge for any artist in a world that’s not set up with us in mind. With a job you have money but no time to work; without a job you have time but probably don’t the money to easily provide a space or buy supplies. Everyone’s situation is so different; it’s hard for me to give advice beyond the usual encouragement. Just thinking about my own experience over the long term, I’d say it’s not necessarily so bad to step sideways if the situation is unsustainable and to do something else you love. More knowledge is always a good thing; if things work out well, having done something different for a while might lead to new creative possibilities. It’s actually only recently that I’ve gotten this great new studio, and I think there are great things that can be done with inadequate space. As far as compensating for inadequate time goes, it might be a good idea to work on small pieces that can be combined into larger constructions or in a transportable artform.