Our art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Monica Stewart, featured artist for Issue #30. Here’s what she had to say about creating magical realism in her work, the influence of fairytales, and the ways different mediums lend themselves to story-telling.
Your oil paintings we have featured deal with small objects found in nature. When you suspend these objects against a nondescript background, you have put them on display as relics or artifacts. I feel as if this is a more abstract method of displaying a naturalist’s collection without pinning down live specimens. Would this be an accurate observation, and could you tell us more about your motivation behind this?
I am so pleased by your observation about the abstract qualities of my paintings. It always feels wonderfully serendipitous when I hear that my intentions have manifested in a viewer’s reception of my work. I find that something mysterious happens in the discovery of a small object; an emotional attachment ensues. I examined this phenomenon in my undergraduate paintings, and was particularly drawn to things that were once a part of something, once had a specific use, or were once alive.
By painting these objects, I gave them a form of suspended animation, which allows for speculation about their respective past lives or purposes, and leaves room for the viewer to imagine a new life for the object; making them more like relics or artifacts. They were precious and strange to me, and I wanted to evoke similar sensations in the viewer.
Through grounding these small things in abstract spaces and enlarging their scale, I imbued them with an odd sense of uneasiness and a kind of magical realism. The interaction between object and ground also helped me to create a sense of eeriness in my work. In addition to these invented spaces, I drastically enlarged the object’s scale, forcing the viewer to meet my subject head on.
In my paintings, I wanted to give these objects a new life or plane of existence, while also imagining and honoring their lives. This kind of speculative creation of meaning was as precious to me as the objects themselves. The significance of placing something that was once living, lost, or functioning into the context of a painting allowed me to give them a more permanent existence, a more monumental life than they may have had.
Your painterly renderings of these objects are a bit magical, invoking a sense of personality, if you will, while simultaneously depicting them accurately from a naturalist’s point of view. Which aspect in your work are you most concerned with?
To be honest, I think it depends on the piece. For example, in Laid Bare, I was more concerned with trying to accurately depict the color and transparency of the moth’s wings as I experienced them. I wanted the moth to almost completely dominate the canvas. Meanwhile, in Adoration of a Peach Pit, I was much more interested in creating an environment that in some way translated my experience of inadvertently cracking open a peach pit and finding that smooth white seed inside. Sometimes, I think I was better able to find a more equal balance between exploring accurate depiction and emotional or sensory interpretation. But ultimately my concern with either of these concepts depended on my interactions with and perceptions of the subjects themselves.
As abstract as these backgrounds are in which you have suspended your objects, I feel that they are very much a part of a literal narrative to each piece. For example, the title piece we have used for this issue depicts a very hellish backdrop that the bees find themselves in, alluding to the “eeriness” you referred to, which is appropriate for a “Threnody.” Is this true?
Yes, absolutely! I hoped to use the color and more fluid paint applications of the backgrounds to the work to create atmosphere or environments that could allude to my own experiences of the narrative elements of these objects, while leaving enough room for the viewer to create their own stories and interpretations as well.
We also have some examples of your cut paper work. I for one am pleased to find two different series from you for us to feature…two different mediums…two different sides to your nature. I’m always interested to see how an artist approaches his or her perspective or vision through an entirely different medium. As far as the cut paper, your compositions are arranged in the most beautifully intricate way. The oil paintings and the cut paper certainly stand alone as separate series, yet there is a strong sense of the mythological narrative in both. Could you elaborate on the story of the “Six Swans” and what it means to you, for example?
Thank you so much—while I learned how to paint in an academic setting, I am almost exclusively self taught when it comes to paper cutting, and I am so glad to hear that a sense of the mythological is visible in both bodies of work (paper cutting and painting). The “Six Swans” is a German folktale, collected and retold by the Brothers Grimm, and focuses on a princess whose seven brothers are turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. She must sew seven shirts of nettles for her swan brothers, and remain silent while doing so, for seven years. Needless to say, the story progresses to a climax, and many of the story’s obstacles are resolved, or nearly so.
The recurrence of impossible tasks, abundance and scarcity, familial dysfunction, labor and transformation, are all themes present in fairy tales that are of great interest to me. I tend to view fairy tales as ways to visually explore these themes and am beginning to relate them to my own experiences in my current work.
While my Six Swans was initially meant to be an exercise in illustration and exploration of form, the making of it has lead me to explore more and more of these fairy tale themes. I also feel that fairytales tend to lend themselves to paper cutting as well—the flatness of the paper often mimics the flatness of the characters, and the labor of cutting small details to create a unified whole also relates the importance of work in fairytales. As so often happens, process and content are beginning to form a more complex relationship in my work with paper.
How do the two mediums differ in the process of conveying your motif?
When painting, I am often overcome by the possibilities of color, mark making. Paintings have a tendency to change radically for me and undergo much more of a contemplative editing process. Painting gives me so many options and passages of paint to examine and consider, so many smaller, more indirect stories to tell, just through color alone. Painting gives me a visual language to tell a variety of narratives, to create as wide a range of gestures, from the very subtle to the very bold.
Meanwhile, paper cutting by its very nature requires a quick commitment—once a cut is made, there is no erasing it—and requires another cut and another in order to make a single shape. The simple, graphic outline of the silhouette also relates to the two-dimensionality of fairy tales—we get so little descriptive information in fairytales, just enough to tell the tale and keep events moving. As I am becoming more and more interested in imagery and various themes of fairytales, the more interested I become in the same kind of no-nonsense storytelling, and the more I am drawn to explore these through paper.
god of flowers is particularly interesting. I am familiar with a Roman Goddess of Flowers, Chloris, yet your cut paper image with its many, blue arms is very reminiscent of an Indian/Asian deity, possibly Brahma who was born out of a lotus flower sprouted from the navel of Vishnu. Might there be a more eastern inspiration here?
I can see why you’d make those interpretations, but to be honest, god of flowers is a reference to the poem “The Kookaburras” by the wonderful poet Mary Oliver in her New and Selected Poems Vol. I (1992). While this is rather a hermetic choice, it felt relevant, because the nature of this piece is rather personal and obfuscating at the same time. The imagery for this piece came from a very vivid dream I had last year of arms and legs growing from or along with (I’m not totally sure) blooming flowers and verdant leaves.
I had very vivid dreams as an adolescent and have since largely stopped dreaming, or at least remembering dreams in recent years; and it felt important to realize or celebrate this more recent dreaming experience. I think this piece certainly references a wide variety of mythological and spiritual phenomena but hopefully explores the realms of the uncanny and sensory experience.
I’ve had friends compare it to mistletoe or kissing balls, identify it as some kind of natural monster, and call it an orgy in a bush. All of these interpretations, including your own allusions to Greek mythology and Hindu religious figures, fit right in.
Many would say that there is nothing more spiritual than exploring the inner confines of the subconscious, whether it be lucid dreaming or meditation. Joseph Campbell said that “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Would you subscribe to that?
Hmmm, this is very tricky for me, and hopefully I am understanding Campbell’s quote correctly. I think myths and our interactions with them tend to be complicated. Myths in this instance can be problematic, in that we tend to view them as inherently untrue, though I think artists inherently find a lot of truth in fiction. I also feel mythologizing has the potential either to work in an artist’s favor or go awry. And I am not yet sure where my own work falls in that spectrum either, as I am still investigating these fairytale ideas and images and how they relate to my own life and experiences. Yet obviously, I find there to be correlations between myths and our environment.
So, I guess ultimately my answer is both “yes” and “no,” which is also probably not very helpful. I think that artists can have many functions in observing, analyzing, and reimagining our world, and the function of myth-maker is just one of many.