Interview with Rachel Clark
Rachel Clark is an artist from Stafford Springs, CT. She received her BFA from the University of Connecticut in ’08, where she studied painting and printmaking. You can find more of her work at her website, as well as the work we’ve published at The Slag.
CARLETON WHALEY: So, let’s start with your series “Same Time, Same Place.” How long have you been working on it, and what inspired it?
RACHEL CLARK: That started when I was getting ready for a show at Sabor 44. I knew I wanted to work on larger paintings than what I had been doing, and I wanted to have something that tied them all together. I didn’t think of it in advance, but as I was working on them I thought “what do these make me think of, and why am I doing this?” I liked that idea of familiarity, that there are things like this happening all the time around us, and I guess it ended up being an open-ended theme, or investigation, because I never really stopped. It was like “Oooh this is interesting, let me keep looking at it.” There are different things I do that are to the side, side projects that don’t really go with it. So, the series has been going from 2015 to now, so I guess 2 years. I guess that’s pretty normal for an investigation of the topic: people, buildings, places. I like the idea that you can see someone on the street and think “hey that person looks really familiar” and you don’t know if it’s because you’re in the same place all the time and you just see each other, if you actually do know each other, or if it’s just that something about them is familiar. I like that, and I feel like you can get that from buildings and places as much as you can from people. Like “I feel like I’ve been there before” and sometimes that’s just enough to get me interested, and then I have a little idea and I want to start painting from it. I start thinking about the lines, and—sometimes just making arches and I’m like “Ooh I recognize that” and that’s kinda cool.
C: A lot of the people I’ve shown your work to, that’s the first thing they’ll say: “Oh, I know where that is,” or “I know that gas station!” Which one is it, actually?
R: I mean, a gas station is a gas station, but the one I shared with you guys is up in Portland Maine, and I think it’s by a restaurant with a goofy name that we went to a few times. I take a lot of pictures just because I like something, and sometimes I recompose them later. Actually, I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of gas stations at night lately. I like the way the colors change, the way the color temperature of the lights around the filling stations is juxtaposed with the ones in the windows, along with the streetlights—the way streetlights can have that warm, orange light.
C: A lot of people have been arguing about that painting in particular, actually. They’re each convinced that it’s somewhere specific, like in Vernon.
R: Yeah, well, a lot of the places that I’ve painted are sometimes local, like in Stafford, but most of them are just New England small towns. And New England small towns are, well, New England small towns.
C: What makes you excited to start a new project?
R: I get an idea stuck in my head, like how you get a little bit of a song stuck in your head. I just have this thing that I want to make, based on one of the pictures that I took, or that idea I’ve been pursuing. For instance, last summer, when I was at an event in orange county, California, I just saw something cool really far away and took a couple pictures. Because of the distance, they were terrible quality pictures, so then I put them on my computer and I cropped them—and there was really only so much I could do with Photoshop at that point, because it was so busted and grainy. But it still got stuck in my head, and to deal with it while I was in school that semester, I made a small version of it in clay to fill one of my assignments. I had a ceramics project, but I made it about painting, and made a small miniature and I was like “There, I knew I was right about that, I knew it was something I was interested in,” and then just like that, last weekend I finished it up in my studio. It’s not huge, just like two and a half feet square, but it was stuck in my head.
C: Do you have a usual process, or is what you just described sort of how things normally go?
R: That’s usually my process. I wander around and make the people I’m walking with stop while I take pictures of things, or I’ll make them move so that I get their reflection in windows. Sometimes it takes a while to get from the parking lot to the restaurant. And I’m constantly figuring how to store all these pictures that look like terrible photos in my computer. They’re all huge files, because I try to take them as large as I can. That’s something I’d like to be better at, actually, the photography aspect of my art. I probably could learn to just take pictures, but I really just love painting. I get excited while I’m painting, even though people in my studio will be like, “oh, you’re doing that again” and I’m like “ooh, I just made a marker!” It’s still exciting to me. The picture taking is just a buildup to that, gathering a big pile of material to work from.
C: Along that same line, some of the newer additions to your series are digital. What are your feelings about moving into another medium?
R: I really like learning, and problem solving, figuring it out, which is what the digital stuff has let me do. It wasn’t something that I sought out—I just had to do it for a class. But then I got into it, and finding ways to engage with it like I do with painting. What I like about it is that it’s different, and the results that I get from it are different than what I would normally get out of paintings. What I like is being able to experiment, so with photography I’m not wasting paint or canvasses or trying to sell something. I’m just playing with layers. But they’re the same type of photos that I use to start my paintings. They’re taken for the same reasons, but where I go with them ends up a little bit different because of that process of experimentation. It’s the same with clay; you can squish clay if you don’t like it.
C: So how is it working up in the studio? What’s it like having that community?
R: It’s great to have that space, that studio, those people. It’s such a great resource that I don’t think that I’d be able to paint the way I do if I didn’t have it. And we do a pretty good job of sharing it. We love being right above the coffee shop, where we can come down and get coffee and refreshments as needed, and in the summer it’s really cool because they play concerts in the park across the street, so we like to open the windows. It’s great painting while those concerts are going on. It’s good light, good space, good people. Trying to keep it organized can be a challenge. I couldn’t do this in my house—there’s just too many materials, and I need too much space to do it in my house. And I’d probably have to go do laundry. Or dishes. And I wouldn’t focus on painting. So, if I’m up there I have to paint, it’s the rule.
C: Who or what are your greatest influences as an artist—from beginning to now?
R: Well, I really like John Singer Sargent. He was an American portrait artist, but then he went into these paintings that were more impressionistic. He had the art that paid the bills, and the art he was curious about. There’s one that’s like a Venetian street scene with somebody looking out, and another person looking another way, and that’s something I was looking at when I painted the New York scene you used for the cover. I really like the connection he had with the viewer. He manages to convey expressions while still experimenting around the edges. So that’s like, my old guy. Then, more recent ones? I’ve got a file on my computer of pictures from artists that I like, there’s some really great people working right now, like Kim Cogan’s street scenes are so cool, you should definitely check them out. It’s just like buildings and buildings and buildings. You can tell he loves it. There’s some really good figure painters—I can’t remember his name, I remember the picture, I could sketch it out but I can’t remember his name. There’s like, figures that are all angular with striped clothing. Don’t worry about that. Jenny Saville is fantastic, she does portraits with big brushstrokes—she gets these giant canvasses and they’re incredibly fleshy and expressive portraits.
C: Do you have any dreams like that? Like, “If I could just [insert something here]?”…
R: I’d like to be able to paint even bigger than what I do. I thought when I made some of the paintings in this issue, that those felt really big to me, but they’re really not. They’re like 8×4, and, yeah, it couldn’t fit in my living room, but it’s really not that big in the world of painting. It’s cool what some people do with giant canvasses. But then you need to store them, and sell them, and hope that you don’t have the heat and humidity problems that make canvasses warp. I did a six-foot-tall canvass that warped. So, I’d like to be able to go bigger. But then it’s also more of a commitment. With small ones, you get to make them really quickly, so they’re not as precious, and you’re not as invested in them as with bigger pieces.
C: So, making them in separate pieces helps them with warping?
R: It makes them easier to transport and to install, as well as with warping. The wooden panels that I made for some of the paintings helped with that. But still, I could have done that differently, or better. But there’s always things about your art that later, you want to re-do or critique?
C: Can you go on about that?
R: The things that I’d want to critique?
C: Yeah, sure!
R: Sure, let’s point out all the flaws in the pieces you published!
C: Well, not necessarily, more like in general, what are things that looking back on them, you would have done differently, or need to work on?
R: Well, I’m always working on my use of color, and painting quickly. Getting the ideas down in fewer brush strokes, I guess. Also, not being so tied down to the image in my head: more experimentation.
C: What have been some of your struggles as an artist?
R: Definitely balancing my home life with my art life. That’s the hardest thing, setting aside time for it as well as prioritizing things like getting the laundry done, or going to the grocery store. I could write a paper, but I could also paint a picture. Just balancing that is the hardest thing, and not making excuses for not painting. Cause there’s a lot of good TV series on right now. Actually, sometimes what I’ll do is play them in the background and just listen to them, so there’s all kinds of movies and shows where I’ve heard the entire thing, but I don’t recognize it if I walk in and see someone watching it. I listen to a lot of television while I’m painting, as well audio books.
C: Does it ever invade your work?
R: No, but what’s weird is sometimes I can look at a corner of a painting, or part of somebody’s face, a line maybe, and remember what I was listening to at that point. It doesn’t connect at all, but sometimes it’s like “this headphone cord here is from the chapter in that audiobook where the character’s looking for his wife.” I can remember weird parts of TV shows from parts of my paintings. It’s not very useful. I’m not gonna write a thesis statement about it or anything, but it’s in the background sometimes.
C: What’s some advice you’d give to an artist just starting out?
R: I think it’s just what everyone says: just keep making lots of art and work, and don’t think too much about what it’s going to look like in the end, just that you’re making it. And also, you can actually learn. Your brain is totally squishable and learnable—you can totally learn. Even if you’re not going to be the next Michelangelo, you’re gonna get better, and find your own style.