Julie Farstad is a painter who has worked here in Kansas City for quite some time now. Typical descriptions of her paintings point out that they are meticulous, jewel-like and radiant, as well as uncanny and a little nightmarish. Through some sort of impressive mental gymnastics, the work has become increasingly tender and playful over the last few years as the color has tended a little more toward harmony and the spaces have become a little more contained, all the while maintaining a subtle scent of danger. Her 2014 exhibit at PLUG Projects was an impressive showing of new, mostly smaller paintings and work incorporating collage.
Farstad generously answered our questions at length, so I will keep this intro short. There is a lot to read below. Lots of substantive thoughts about making paintings, lots of good pull quotes. You can see more of Julie Farstad’s work at her website. Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):
I was born and raised in Elmira, New York. I earned my BFA in painting at the University of Notre Dame and my MFA in painting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I currently live in Kansas City, Missouri with my husband and our four and a half year old son. I am the chair of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. I am represented by Zg Gallery in Chicago and Byron Cohen Gallery in Kansas City.
“In the Forest”, 2014, oil on clayboard, 12″ x 12″
Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?
I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to the arts growing up aside from the stained glass windows, and religious artwork that one encounters while being raised Catholic and attending Catholic school. My mother did all kinds of fiber based work like knitting sweaters and cross stitching pictures of angels, and I think from that I got the idea that one can always be working on something, that you can make functional pieces as well as images with your hands. I didn’t think I could be an artist growing up. I just didn’t see that as a possibility. My younger brother was kind of the family artist and I felt like that was his thing and I couldn’t take it away from him. I thought I would be a lawyer or the US ambassador to France. Those ideas went out the window after I took my first international relations course at Notre Dame and had to work in groups with people who wanted to do those things and I realized that I just didn’t belong there. I was too much of an introvert and I found the political atmosphere to be really annoying. Luckily that experience corresponded with my first drawing class, which I took as my fine arts requirement freshman year. After that course my teacher encouraged me to take Painting 1, and after the first day of class I was completely in love with painting. Around this time, my brother had stopped painting and I was able to appropriate all of his paints for my own studio. However, I still was nervous about being an artist and it wasn’t until junior year when I fully declared myself an art major. I really didn’t know how one “was” an artist and couldn’t envision my life as one until I became the studio assistant and nanny for my professor Maria Tomasula. Being around her studio and asking her questions and seeing how her life worked made me believe that I could be an artist because it was finally something concrete.
“Under the Orange Clouds”, 2014, oil on clayboard, 4″x 6″
What is a day in the studio like for you?
A day in the studio is nice. I come back from dropping my son off at daycare and get my coffee or smoothie or whatever and go in the studio and put my apron on. Putting on my apron is a subtle thing but it’s actually quite transformational and ritualistic. It gets me in the mindset for painting, when I wear it I mean business. I am always listening to audio books as well, so starting up my audio book clicks me into the work so I can pick up where I left off. Depending on where I am in my paintings, the day can be one of self- doubt (Is THIS the dumbest painting I’ve ever done?), one of joyous color glazing (when I am in the middle or toward the end of a painting), or a day of making small watercolors and drawings where I am trying to just work spontaneously to come up with new compositions. Sometimes it’s a total slog-fest and everything feels difficult and raw and sometimes it is exhilarating where I completely lose track of time and things are coming together. All of this happens while my Siamese cat Lillian wanders in and out of the studio and my three-legged dog Sibyl lays at my feet. It is really nice to have them around and occasionally they show up in my paintings.
Are you an improviser?
It wouldn’t seem like I am but I feel like my paintings are highly improvisational. I start with an idea, which becomes a drawing, or sometimes with a drawing that creates an idea. Then I do photo shoots of dolls, props that I make out of clay or play dough, plants, and places. Then I cut up the photos and move them around into different compositions, which create different narratives and decide on the one that interests me the best. Sometimes I won’t have a composition totally decided when I lay it in on the panel, and I have to resolve it as I go. Often color is the most improvisational element, as I can’t change the composition once that first layer has dried on the panel. Color is something I could play with infinitely within a piece. I feel like I am constantly trying to find the “right” relationships between the colors within the piece until it sort of “tastes” right.
“Tending the Bunny”, 2009, oil on clayboard, 11 1/2″x 14 1/2″ x 4 1/4″ (approx.)
How much do you work from direct observation? How much do you combine observation and invention, and how do you make that work?
Most of my work comes from looking at photographs that I take as sources for the paintings. I take the shape and form from the photos but composition and color are all invented. Also the objects themselves are sometimes inventions, as I will make up plants and landscapes using play dough or plasticine as my modeling device. I am starting to make up compositional elements that don’t have photographic references that I paint in as flat shapes, referring to bushes or fences or skylines. I’m still trying to figure out how all that works together.
Is there any special satisfaction that comes from painting something that you yourself have constructed? Any special connection that comes from the tactile relationship with the source in addition to the relationship you have through observation?
Great question. I love painting from photos of models I have made. Right now I am working on a painting that has these large monoliths in it and they kind of look like the strange, large, almond-shaped fake trees. I got the idea for them from a series of lectures on the archeology or religion I was listening to about dolmens and other stone structures that are believed to have had ritual purposes. Anyhow, I started drawing these rough monoliths and then made them out of sculpey. Then I lit them, photographed them, cut them out and started painting them into my newest painting. Having made the object, I do have a greater sense of its form and can paint it with more familiarity. But I also like that the object has already been translated once through my hands and it develops a kind of personal mythology through this kind of coding, I think.
“World Afire”, 2012, fabric, thread, paint, 41 1/2″x 61 1/2″
Obviously you are not the most painterly painter we’ve ever talked to, but the work is about properties of paint, just not some cliché idea that only thick paint equals legitimate paint. Materiality seems especially to be an issue in the way your painting relates to your newer work in fabric and collage. What are you good at with paint? How does your painting relate to your work in other media?
Hmmm. With painting I think I am good at creating layers of blended surfaces. I am good at gauging viscosity and manipulating edges. I want my paintings to glow as light bounces off the panel through the thin layers of saturated color. I want my work to be obsessive, detailed and laborious. I approach my work in fabric in a similar way I approach my paintings, though there is a totally different relationship to light and surface. The colored fabric is much more absorbent of light, so the images ends up looking much softer over all. But they are very similar in the way I approach composition and shape. They are also obsessive and detailed, but in different ways. Instead of the obsession coming from highly controlled forms, it comes from quilting, embroidery and the use of pattern. I am actually learning a lot from the quilted paintings that I am trying to introduce back into the paintings, which has to do with letting go of some of the focus on form and letting there be more flat shapes of color. I am also letting myself explore some more desaturated colors within the compositions as well.
“The Conversion”, 2014, oil on clayboard, 12″x 12″
In February Hyperallergic ran a review titled “What Does It Mean To Be A Grown Up Painter?”–which was great and all. In relation to your work, I’m wondering, is it so great to be grown up, when you’re an artist? What are the benefits of being a grown up when you’re dealing with creativity? What are the benefits of having one foot in a childlike or adolescent state of mind?
I think this is a really interesting question. I think my take on the good parts of being grown up is that your work can have a kind of critical depth and insight that are only possible when you have a fully formed frontal lobe. That being said, I think one can overthink things at best and at worst create illustrations of other people’s theories in that “adult” state of mind. I have tried to loosen my grip on that way of thinking and be more playful in my work over the past decade. I think it is really important to allow myself to get lost in play while making work. When I overthink my compositions, they seem super dead. When I let myself play with all my photos, arranging and rearranging them for hours on the floor, and then using them for prompts for spontaneous drawings, I think I end up with fresher, slightly more mysterious images.
Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.
My painting professor Doug Kinsey from Notre Dame taught me that every painting needs a little bit of shit in it. Tell us about one useful thing you learned for yourself. The failure of each painting is actually a gift. It is the reason to make the next painting, not a reason to be filled with anxiety.
“Lo-fi: Dreaming of Songs to Save You”, 2007, oil on clayboard, 14″x 11″
What is the hard part of painting for you?
Ugh. The first two to three layers are the hardest. They are all about finding the shape and form and pulling it into something somewhat decisive. It is hard because you can’t undo that first layer once it has dried and I can’t change it unless I sand the whole painting off, so you kind of have to approach it like a badass and pretend you aren’t afraid to completely screw it up.
What is the fun part? The fun part is about 4 layers in when the forms, values and general colors have been established and I can start to mess around with temperature, highlights and shadows. What are you getting better at? I am getting better at not knowing what everything means.
“prairiesummerheartbreak”, 2006, oil on canvas on panel, 36″x 48″
How important is accuracy in painting? What does the phrase ‘get it right’ mean for you? For me accuracy is important in so far as things need to look the way I want them to, be a certain kind of convincing, and objects need to have specific relationships to each other. To get it right means I have achieved a kind realism so that my subjects feel present as well as having the right perversity in color, composition and narrative that the painting feels strange or uncanny. How important is authenticity?
Authenticity is where it’s at. I’m trying to be honest about my curiosity in each piece and I work to fulfill the needs of each painting as much as I can. I think that one can make authentic work when one’s process mimics the way one’s brain works. For example, I can be quite anxious, repetitive and obsessive in my thoughts, so I feel it makes sense and feels genuine for my work to be created through and about anxiety, repetition and obsession. I feel that I make myself vulnerable in my work and risk seeming stupid or foolish because I am trying to be honest about my interests.
“The Saints”, 2014, oil on clayboard, 8″x 10″
What are you looking lately? What are you listening to? What are you reading?
Lately I have been looking at and collecting succulents and cacti. I love how architectural and otherworldly they look. I love arranging them and am trying to learn how to paint them. I am also always looking at Indian miniature paintings. I am listening to Bless Me Ultima, a novel by Rudolfo Anaya. I’m addicted to audio books and am always listening to one or two. I don’t really listen to music that often. I am also listening to Exploring the Roots of Religion, a series of 36 lectures by Professor John R. Hale and memoirs by Cathy Glass about her experiences as a foster parent in England.
We always ask artists about these three things–reading, listening, looking at. I wonder is there anything else we should be asking about that would talk more about your creative activity: What are you eating? Where’s the best place for coffee around there? Do you ever see deer in your yard? etc. etc.—-Is there anything else we ought to be asking you about?
Since teaching is such a huge part of my life, I think asking about the influence it has on my work is relevant. For me I find working with art students to be extremely inspiring. I love having students making work outside my frame of reference because it pushes me to learn more. I really enjoy talking with students individually and getting to know their point of view and ambitions. I feel honored to be able to help a student through a difficult problem in their work and enjoy celebrating their victories with them. One of my favorite dynamics is that of the large group critique. Critiques force me to be really specific in my language when I approach artwork and I love the challenge of discussing work that is completely new to me. All of these experiences help me to be a better artist when I get back to my studio.
That’s really the best. Thanks, Julie!
Want more? Read other MWC interviews with artists.