FEATURED ARTIST: Interview with Gillian Richards
Vancouver, BC, based artist Gillian Richards’ paintings explore spaces that typically go unnoticed in the urban landscape, such as parking lots and city parks. See her collection here.
Gillian gave us her insights on how she draws on human absence in these spaces to imply presence and invite spectators into them.
Q: How do you choose your subjects?
As I travel around my city, I am constantly looking at the landscape, buildings, and the shapes of shadow and light upon spaces and architecture to sense the mood of a space. I take lots of photos as I go about my routines. When I am figuring out what I want to work on next, I look through these many photos to single out a few and analyze what it was that caught my attention. It may be the mood, the light, a poignancy within it, or its compositional possibilities.
Q: How do you practice?
I work days at a time on paintings, usually with two or three on the go. I often do drawings from photos that I am considering as paintings in order to discover what it is I want to emphasize. Painting from start to finish is an emotional journey with peaks and valleys. I am always optimistic and charged with energy at the beginning but there is invariably a point where I have to wrestle with it to find a resolution. Often I let paintings sit for weeks or months until I find the answer to what needs to be done. Sometimes I decide after a long while that they need nothing more and are finished.
My husband is a painter and we are fortunate to share a wonderful studio in a building with dozens of other artists. Our work is quite different but we trust and value each other’s feedback.
Q: How do you draw the emotion out of otherwise ordinary spaces?
I think the emotional aspect conveyed in my paintings arises from the vantage point of the viewer. In the ordinary and unpeopled spaces I represent, I want to suggest a human presence—perhaps even an intimacy— along with a feeling that the viewer “knows” the space and the experience of being in it. The absence of people is also a suggestion of them, allowing the viewer to insert themselves into the scene.
Q: How does your work comment on current social or political issues (such as gentrification)?
Through my depiction of parking lots, gas stations or even city parks, I am commenting on the mediation of these spaces through urban or corporate planning. Accommodating human transportation meant building roads and paths for various modes of traffic, dictating much of the way our cities have developed. Though I find a location like a vast parking lot stark and inhuman, I am compelled to address this aspect of urban experience by representing it in painting. It is partly my attempt to reconcile my own participation in the systems that have created these spaces. This amounts to a commentary on climate change and consumerism, which are bound up with our current political and social concerns.
Q: How has your career developed?
I went to art school when I was young and have continued my practice while working for several years as a scenic artist in the film industry alongside painting commissions for private clients. Working commercially offered me a ground for honing my technical abilities.
These last ten years I have focused my energy entirely on my own painting practice. This has been a very rewarding decade as I have rediscovered my own artistic voice while exhibiting in group and solo shows. I am always delighted to meet people who connect with my work and who perceive ideas I am attempting to communicate through my paintings.
Q: How does the process for a commissioned work differ from one that comes about independently?
The challenges of working on a commission are mainly technical ones. The subject and the concept of the painting have been determined by the client, leaving me to represent it as powerfully as possible by interpreting from the client what aspects of the image have been deemed important. This is very different from my personal work where I choose the subject and discover its meaning through the process of creating it.
Q: How do you use space in your art?
Most of my paintings are organized using conventional perspective from the point of view of my camera at standing eye level. Utilizing this familiar position, I look for possibilities to emphasize abstraction within the composition. For example: I find it interesting when a swath of road “flips'' upwards, contradicting the perspective while inserting a feeling of disorientation. California artist Richard Diebenkonrn (Portland, USA, 22 April, 1922 - Berkeley, USA, 30 March, 1993), whose work I admire, experimented with this flattening of perspective in his paintings.
Another important aspect in my paintings is shadow and light upon surfaces of architecture that appear confusing by creating illusionistic spacial relationships. I enjoy the jumble of shapes of a building with edges dissolving into light or dark, where the viewer is unsure where a form begins or ends. I like to explore the contradiction of ambiguity and defined space and form.
Q: If you encounter a creative block, how do you get through it?
I go for walks alone, think aloud, look at the work of other artists, and do other things that I love such as being outdoors. I try to keep my art practice alive even if I am not painting by keeping an eye out for things that interest me as potential subjects. Looking is a muscle that needs to be exercised. I have found that if I stop looking for too long, I stop seeing the world as a painter. Even if I am not actively making paintings, I know the value of continuing to notice spaces or moments that attract me even if right then I’m not sure why. Retaining that engagement in the creative process helps me to eventually get back to painting. I’ve been through blocks often enough to know I will return to my process as long as I retain the habit of looking.