Kristin LaFollette interviews artist Andrea Lewicki on collage, the physical aspect of her art, and the exploration of pattern.
“When I started exploring mark making rather than just color, my first focus, I applied paint with all kinds of objects.”
You consider yourself to be a late-blooming, self-taught artist (who was “insulated from traditional art” for most of your life). Can you talk more about this? How did your career as an artist begin?
I started out casually taking one-on-one painting classes at a chain craft store simply because no one else ever signed up and the instructor was willing to teach one student. She was the first artist I had really met and unlike me, she had been immersed in art her whole life. She was part of a community artist group that put on an annual exhibition and she encouraged me to enter two watercolor pieces in the student category to boost my confidence. I had to have my work framed and bless her, she never commented on my unfortunate framing choices. She became my mentor and we were quite close. I was nearly 30 and she was in her 80s. When she died after a tragic series of events, I grieved the loss as if she were part of my family.
My time under her wing was my creative awakening and I knew I wanted more. I was living in California and community college tuition was an amazing $11 per credit hour. I started with night classes in art history at Pasadena City College which cracked the whole world open for me. Many instructors from Art Center School of Design also taught there. My engineering job was eating my soul and here was an opportunity to take quality classes without the private school price tag. I quit my job and enrolled full-time in a foundation design curriculum. Design was something my engineering brain could easily accept even if my heart was whispering for studio art. When I started evaluating transfer options for a BFA I found out I could not be admitted by a public university in California because I already had a bachelor’s degree. Private school seemed irrationally expensive and moving was not an option at the time, so I resumed my previous path as a chemical engineer.
Later, when I turned 40, I realized I deeply wanted to be an artist and I did not want to waste any more time. I had not kept on as an engineer when I was laid off in The Great Recession and I had moved with my husband to the Seattle area. To be a painter I needed to just get on with painting so that is what I did. Pinterest was the app du jour and I spent hours and hours visually leapfrogging images that called to me, and that was how I discovered my love for abstract art. I began self-studying abstract art history (something I continue to do), and at this point I no longer feel compelled to pursue formal art education. There is no one right way to arrive at being an artist and there are endless ways to get pushed off the track. I’m going to keep listening to my own voice and not take any chances.
It would be negligent of me not to acknowledge the absolute privilege I have had in being able to pursue art without the pressure of making a living because I have a partner whose career makes my art vocation possible. That was true when I quit my job before and it is definitely true now.
I’m intrigued by the statement that your “studio practice involves more hardware store tools than artist brushes.” Can you tell us more about this and your studio space as a whole?
When I started exploring mark making rather than just color, my first focus, I applied paint with all kinds of objects in my studio and kept doing it. Not only was it easier to apply luscious, thick layers of paint with spatulas or scrapers, I was wasting less paint and cleanup was easier by an order of magnitude. Letting myself develop my own understanding of my materials was a positive turning point in my art practice.
My studio is petite, 15 feet by 15 feet, with an enormous window looking out onto a small lake. I’m grateful to have a dedicated studio that has no other household purpose. I rarely bring guests into that space. Art is another name for hoarding because artists see possibility is in everything, so my shelves are stuffed full. I’m in the process of using up the supplies–emptying rather than collecting–so my husband and I can build a worktable I designed. I like having a large, sturdy table I can walk around on all sides. I have a vertical easel mounted on a wall that can hold a piece 5-feet tall, and I use that for large panels and the rare canvas. I prefer to stand when I work and my process is often physical, using my whole body, so as I empty my shelves and use up supplies, I’m removing storage from my studio to give myself more room to move.
Building upon the last question, I’d love to hear more about this aspect of your artist statement: “In my studio, I alternate divergent and convergent processes, alternately applying materials and removing them through hours of mechanical work.” This makes me think of your work as a unique form of collage. Do you see collage as central to your work?
Collage has become part of work but it isn’t central. When I work on wood panels, I build up layers through a variety of methods. Then I scrape and sand through them. The tactile quality of my finished pieces is important. I like for there to be deliciously smooth areas and I will sand until my shoulders ache to achieve that.
I often feel like I am taking my work apart and putting it back together to discover new information about it. I’m a puzzle fiend and always on the hunt for patterns or emergent structures, and I can go down that rabbit hole when I’m painting until a work is too constrained. That’s what the divergent part of the process is for, the process of intentionally interrupting the pattern or creating a definitive break. Sometimes that means adding gestural splashes with paint in bottles or using my non-dominant hand to pencil heavy, scrawling marks. With paper work that might mean peeling apart layers, or cutting the work into pieces I can rearrange.
You say that you “use art to explore [your] relationship to structure and release decades of learned domestication” and that “a piece is finished when it is no longer about [your] inner world.” Tell us more about your process as an abstract artist and how you begin a new series or piece.
There is so much we absorb about how things should make sense and I like to challenge that when it comes up for me. When I start a new series I step all the pieces through a similar process until their different personalities start to emerge, and then I work on them individually.
A standalone piece is usually larger and more focused, so I spend more time looking and studying than I spend in actual contact with it. I build it up and take it apart over and over, and eventually the changes become smaller, maybe just a detail or two. I let the work dry between painting sessions so if a change really isn’t working I can wipe it off with a wet rag or scrub it off with fine sandpaper before it’s too set. I keep going like that until I get to a point where I’m responding to it as a whole, complete statement. What I mean by that is along the way, there’s a “yes, but” energy, and I work on the “but” parts, changing them to “and” or removing them. It’s hard to explain but in that messy middle of it, I find that stories or memories emerge. The associations are personal. If I keep going and don’t get attached to any of that, there comes a moment when I’m looking at a piece and it’s a portal to something outside of my own experience. This is a relatively recent breakthrough in my work. I can look at older work and remember those personal associations because I didn’t know then to keep going.
What is it like to work and create in the Snoqualmie Valley in western Washington?
I am so lucky to live here. I am near enough to Seattle to partake of its gallery scene and connect with the incredible depth of talented artists here if I choose to but far enough away to feel independent of it. I have studio hermit tendencies with occasional bursts of extroversion so this suits me fine.
The pieces in your featured portfolio are mostly acrylic and pencil on panel. Is this your preferred medium? What can you tell us about your other work? I’d love to know more about the work that earned you a Best in Show award in 2019.
In painting, I prefer smooth substrates like paper or board. Because my storage space is limited, I repurpose old work and that’s more difficult for me to do with canvas. I prefer acrylic paint and I’m a stickler for paint quality. I rely on the characteristics of the pigments to achieve particular effects in my work and that varies across manufacturers.
The work awarded Best in Show in 2019 was born out of a little rebellion. I had just taken a workshop with a painter who said that smart artists never use pure black in their work, so I created a whole series that did just that. There were marks of bright colors including fluorescent yellow enveloped in thick lines to create shapes, then I taped off part of the work to partially obscure it with opaque black. It was an interesting mix of hard edges, high contrast, and loose elements. The pieces were finished matte with geometric glossy areas.
The titles of the pieces in your featured portfolio are so interesting. What do these titles mean to you? How do you determine the title for a specific piece?
I love music and with rare exception, I title pieces with lyrics to whatever happenings to be playing in my studio at the time. This collection was accompanied by Patti Smith, Modest Mouse, Fleetwood Mac, and Cold War Kids.
Your website states that all of your work sells for $50, regardless of size. As an artist myself, I know the difficult balance of trying to make a living while also wanting everyone to be able to enjoy art. How did you arrive at this approach for selling your work?
To clarify, I divide my work into focused, gallery-level pieces and more experimental work. The experimental work is listed on the $50 page of my website. It takes too much time to get into pricing by size and materials for this work so I no longer do that. Gallery-level pieces like the ones in my portfolio are priced differently. The materials are more expensive and there is certainly more time invested. I also have this work professionally imaged. They are culminations of what I learned doing the experiments and studies.
I used to live in Toledo, OH, and the Toledo Museum of Art housed Joan Miró’s Woman Haunted by the Passage of the Bird-Dragonfly Omen of Bad News (my favorite painting in the museum’s collection). You talk about seeing Miró’s Bleu II in Paris and how it made you feel understood. Can you talk more about that experience? Are there other artists and creators who inspire you?
One of the things I truly love about art is how unpredictable that connection is and how it has to be in person to get the full effect. The paintings in the Bleu triptych are immense, almost 12 feet across, and they are displayed at Centre Pompidou in a box, one painting per wall with the viewer at the plane of the fourth wall. At that scale, it feels like an immersive world rather than viewing an object, especially with all three pieces displayed. They are primarily fields of blue, and their sequence feels like a progression in time, say, past to present to future. Bleu I is unresolved, like something is about to begin. Bleu III is like arriving late to a party when everything has already happened. Bleu II feels like the right place at the right time. It seemed to say to me, “You are here and you belong here.” Obviously that’s all personal projection but that’s the power of art and why it is so important.
In addition to Miró, I am inspired by the paintings of Cy Twombly, and Robert Rauschenberg. I love Louise Nevelson’s sculptural work. I cannot get enough of Rex Ray’s style. Lately I’m enjoying following Nino Yuniardi‘s on Instagram, and I’ve been looking back through Claire Desjardin’s early catalog with fondness. Robert Szot makes me hopeful about the long arc of an artist’s career and encourages me to keep doing the work. I look forward to owning original art by A’Driane Nieves and I want more people to know about the work she does elevating abstract artists of color. I also love the way she talks about abstract art. It gives me goosebumps. See also Jenny Doh and her Art & Activism class at UC Irvine.
How has your process, approach, and/or artwork changed as a result of the pandemic? What are you currently working on and where can we find more of your work?
At the beginning of the year I had great momentum. After a studio visit, a gallery offered me a spot in a two-person show, my first-ever gallery exhibition on that scale. After being rescheduled, the two-person show became a solo show, and the gallery closed its doors two days after my show came down. Residency opportunities vaporized, as did most other display opportunities that were in the works. It really was not the best year to work larger on bulky wood panels! I’ve taken a little break to contemplate the art I would make if there was no external component, and the answer is not necessarily painting. Or at least not only painting. I am moving toward experimenting more with my materials, definitely mixed media, and 3D work. I enjoy the process of fabrication and building things. I’m learning how to make my own paints as well.
At the same time, I opened a new Etsy shop for prints of my work, 2021 art calendars, and notecards. I’ve also designed some items on Redbubble using my artwork which has been fun because art isn’t just for walls.