“ … It’s idiotic to have to keep re-inventing the wheel- knowledge and skills should be shared…
Being generous with yourself is free and easy.”
Isabel is a wonderfully welcoming and out spoken artist, full of pluck, verve and vigor. She loves to disco, eat chocolate and absorb art, of any kind. A regular girl in da’ hood with an inherent talent for twisting cultural icons of our time, into something just a little more special. Her Chronicle book “On Tender Hooks” can be found here. It is a great evolutionary trip thru her life, influences and artworks; a real fun read and highly recommended.
Can you tell us where you were born and a little history about your childhood?
I was born on 17th Street, at St. Vincent’s in Manhattan and toddled around Washington Square Park as a wee nipper. But we moved around a good deal and I ended up in the ‘burbs outside of Washington D.C. (which was a great place to connect to the punk scene at a teenager). I was raised by my single working mom, a term I’m pretty sure she hates but I’m impressed and proud of her. She was a magazine editor (when I was little I kinda thought my mom was Brenda Starr), and she ignited my early love of art by surrounding me with beautiful images by artists like Gauguin and making me some really incredible paper dolls. She never pursued art formally but she drew beautifully, and I’m pretty sure I pushed myself to draw as a child because I wanted to be able to do the things she did — make something out of nothing. It really is like some kind of miracle or magic trick to be able to make toys out of nothing more than markers and paper. I was an only child and spent a lot of time drawing as a kid — it is both one of my earliest memories and my most recent (I was drawing about twenty minutes ago).
Is there an event or experience that helped form who you are today?
I’m not sure I’d know! I think everything (and everyone) I’ve ever seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched has somehow coalesced into who and what I am, and I’m still very much a work in progress. I feel like a sponge, I like to take a lot of very disparate things in. But I’ve always loved books, magazines, comics — story telling, really — and I try to do that with images instead of words.
What was the first piece of art that you remember creating? The media?
I used to do a lot of ball point pen drawings as a little kid, I remember being particularly fond of red pens in particular. (I still am today) I can’t remember anything very clearly from my “scribble phase” but there’s a weird sort of spiral-eared bunnyman drawn in red ball point that I really like even today. (shown below)
What generally inspires you to create a piece?
It all kinda whirls together — old movies, a pretty broad spectrum of art, music music music, all the sci-fi books I tore through as a kid, Ultraman and all kinds of Kaiju, fairy tales and fables, the absurdist humor of Monty Python, monsters of every ilk, and very most especially all the many permutations of love: unrequited, blazing out of control, thwarted, tender, forbidden, maternal, and inter-species. Often a painting will just start with a feeling, which might come from a combination of eating chocolate, listening to Bill Withers sing “Use Me”, and thinking about how odd it is that one of my favorite painters, Ingres, lived during this time of incredible sexual repression (the Victorian era). That’s how “The Bluebird of Happiness” (below) sprang into being.
If there was an artist, dead or alive, that you could spend 24 hours with; who would it be and what would you do?
I suspect that some of my favorite artists might have been real assholes, so I’m not sure I’d actually want to spend 24 hours with them! What about four hours with six different artists together? We could cook a huge feast and sit around the table, eat, talk and pass drawings around — then I could kick ‘em out before anybody got too annoying or drunk. I’d really have to think about that one for a bit because I’m not sure if I’d be putting together a guest list based on who’s brain I wanted to pick or who I thought would be fun to hang out with. A nice saucy mix of people might be pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager, the awe inspiring Frank Frazetta, a few old “classical” painters like Ingres, Botticelli, Boucher, and maybe DaVinci (we can blow his mind by telling him about all that “DaVinci Code” fuss about his work), and a couple of terrific comic artist/storytellers like Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner. Wait I just went over my limit. Okay well Boticelli and Boucher will have to duke it out, or maybe play musical chairs.
What materials, specific brand of paint/glue/pencil do you prefer to use? A favorite? And why?
I paint mostly with Winsor Newton oils but I’m not entirely sure why, it’s just what I’m used to — however there are certain colors in other brands that I’m absolutely mad about, weird intensely pigmented orangey-browns and stuff, so I have to have those as well. And lately I’ve been loving Williamsburg oils, they’re really sexy on the brush. As for pencils, I love those water soluble Supracolor pencils by Caran D’ache — that’s usually what I draw out my paintings with, then mash the drawing around with some water on a brush or my fingers until it’s just the way I like it. For glue I like any good PVA but Perfect Paper Adhesive is really nice (comes in matte or gloss). I feel like I am always hunting for the elusive Perfect Brush. This may be because what I want that brush to do is always in flux and changing, so it may be an impossible search. (I’ve also never found the perfect sleeping pillow. That quest will probably take up the rest of my life.)
Is there a technique, procedure or tip that you have discovered, you could pass onto other artists? A specific tidbit of craft, advice or mechanical expertise?
Mark Ryden told me that Damar varnish would lead to alcoholism and divorce. (It doesn’t age all that well.) Turns out that he and the museum restorers I talked to are all raving about the same stuff: Soluvar, by Liquitex. So that’s what I’ve been using to varnish my paintings and I gotta say I like it! I got hooked on a really high gloss shine when I was painting the lunch boxes and TV trays but the stuff I used to glaze those with is absolutely brain-eatingly lethal (with the deceptive name of Jolly Glaze — let me tell you right now that nothing will give you a vision-crushing headache like Jolly Glaze).
Of all the exhibits and shows you have been in, are there a few that stand out in your mind as far as the overall quality of work? If so what were they?
Well I was in some really lovely shows at this now defunct, fabulous little gallery called Eclectix… (thanks, Isabel!) Tom Thewes put together an amazing show when he first opened CPOP Gallery in Detroit, it was epic, and everyone came out for the grand opening. That was really, really special. More recently, the “Pop Surrealism: Rise of Underground Art” exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum was phenomenal and I was so thrilled to be included, and the 5th Anniversary show at Jonathan LeVine was pretty great too!
What is your favorite word?
“Putain”. I had a French neighbor who used to say it all the time and I just really took a shine to it. I don’t throw it around much, I just like to listen to it in my head, in her voice. (It means “whore.”) If my favorite word is measured by usage I’m afraid I use the “f word” a lot. ”Combustible” is kind of a neat word too.
Last song you chose to listen to?
The last thing I listened to was “Bird Girl” by Antony and the Johnsons but it’s kind of sad so I’m spinning up some George McCrae now. “I Get Lifted” is an absolutely perfect song. I may not be able to sit still and finish this interview though.
If you could pick one piece of art to own, out of the world’s museums, personal collections and galleries, what would it be?
Wow, that is a toughie! I love a lot of those old religious paintings but I wouldn’t want to look at them day in and out. I’ve actually been enjoying Dutch still life paintings lately, they’re meditative and the detail it just obsessive and trippy. Honestly, you know I’m not sure if I’ve seen it yet — it would have to be something that could change the way my moods do, something that could be sunny and romantic one minute and sort of wistful and quiet the next.
As a working artist and mother, how have you balanced the time? Any tips or tricks?
I’m not sure I do balance it — I swing in and out of phases of intense work (when family and personal life go right out the window) and then massive super fun procrastination (when work gets shoved aside for a while). That helps create the special “crisis-to-crisis” lifestyle that I must thrive on because I do it to myself over and over again. It’s hard because I love to paint and draw and I have all these stories to tell that are really important to me, so I can all too easily hermit-out for long stretches. I need to make sure I get out and spend time with friends — for the sake of sanity! Here’s a good trick: turning off the computer. Sometimes that’s the key to a really successful, productive day for me. That, big slabs of dark chocolate, and some really kick ass music.
Of all your works, what is your own personal favorite? What was the thought or vision behind the work and why is it your favorite?
Often I love whatever is the most recent because it’s still vibrating in my psyche a bit. I do like the pieces that get the big laughs or gasps but also the ones that get the thoughtful head scratches. The “Gone Native” (above) diptych is really special to me because it was early in my “stepping away from known TV characters” work, which was kind of a scary time for me, you know, this worry that nobody would like my paintings if they didn’t know who the people were. I like to challenge myself, step outside of my comfort zone, and it’s always a little bit exciting and a little bit terrifying to put new things out there — that feeling of vulnerability while you hold your breath and wait to see if anybody will get it, connect with it. But I love how there’s so much ambiguity in those two — which I think you can even play with as far as how you hang the paintings (whether they are turning in or away from each other). Are they going to the island in the background, or leaving it? Are they falling in or out of love? Were their experiences in the South Seas magical or nightmarish? I have a sort of sunny disposition (though I love listening to really gut wrenchingly sad music sometimes), so in my mind the paintings are very optimistic — but I like that you can decide and create a totally different story yourself as you look at them. I like that mystery.
Is there anything you would like to spout off on, any subject, or statement you would like to include here?
I’m not entirely sure how to articulate it without sounding like a big dork but I really do believe in trying to do right by people, helping when and how you can. I think it’s idiotic to have to keep re-inventing the wheel — knowledge and skills should be shared. So professionally I’m not a cut-throat, competitive person at all (card games and sports are a different story). The world in general would probably be a better place if everyone had their hand out to support and pull up the people who need it, whether it’s giving honest feedback to someone about their work or sharing food with people who are hungry. Being generous with yourself is free and easy.
(This entry was originally posted on 8/4/10 )artist interview, eclectix, eclectix interview, isabel samaras, isabel samaras art, isabel samaras interview, pop surrealism interview, women artists
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