Hello friends, today's interview is with visual artist and master wordsmith Wendy Ackrell. Pretty please, with sugar on top, read all the way to the end. You'll be glad you did!
Where in the world are you located? What is it like being an artist there?
Ever since I visited San Francisco as a child, I dreamt of moving here one day and, after graduating from college, I did just that. It was a fantasyland to me even then, with its vertiginous hills scattered with twinkling lights in the deepening dark. There are three things I particularly relish about San Francisco: the people you get to meet and the hilariously laissez-faire attitude most of them possess regarding harmlessly eccentric behavior; the almost cartoonishly perfect natural beauty; and the generally autumnal, air-conditioned climate. I like weirdos, taking long pensive walks where I solve all the world’s problems (and my own), and flourish only in cool weather like some sort of ambulatory cruciferous vegetable, so it suits me very well. The Bay Area is the only place that’s ever felt like home to me.
I think for a lot of artists, there’s a tension between feeling called to be an artist and the pull to have a sensible career. Have you always known that you’re an artist? How has your art career evolved?
Well, I think if I’d been concerned about being sensible, I would have started by majoring in something more practical than English literature in college! Seriously though, I’ve always felt like an outsider — I was never a cheerleader or into team sports; instead, I was the gentle freak writing poetry under a tree. I’ve come to really embrace that, and it has served me well. Being possessed by inexorable curiosity and the passion to read, learn, write, and then synthesize these discoveries are what have made me an artist. It’s an ultimatum my soul presented me with: Pay up.
I’ve been selling my work privately for years but recently made the decision to get it into the public sphere. Last year, a shop in the Castro displayed my fiber art tool installation (a freestanding sculptural piece about 6’x4’) and other work for a few months. The reception was so positive and supportive that it made me want to exhibit more publicly.
After continuing to expand my body of work, I realized I was more than ready to start showing. Just last week, I did a large group show in the Mission (1,500+ people attended over the course of two nights). Not only did I connect with genuinely curious and thoughtful art lovers, I got to meet some inspirational local artists working in other disciplines. Now I’m really looking forward to doing more shows and events and am even plotting my Hearts of San Francisco entry for next year. My idea is conceptual and minimalist — let’s see if I get to design one.
Can you talk a bit about your process? How has your work evolved over time? What’s new or different about what you’re working on at the moment?
My art process has grown simpler and more focused since I had my daughter. I used to have the luxury of noodling around a bit and waiting for the muse to appear like some sort of beneficent magical genie. Since my schedule is now quite regimented, all that seems adorably ludicrous. I get my daughter out the door and head into the studio. I do my work, and some of it is junk, and some of it makes me feel transcendent. There is no more beckoning to some supernatural resource — I just show up for myself the same way I would for someone else. I look at Old Me and am so envious how much time she had and how profligate she was with it! But I’m accomplishing more in shorter increments, and that’s an art in itself. I do burn Palo Santo wood on occasion if I feel particularly stuck or if the previous day’s output has been especially craptastic. Not only does that ritual make me feel like I’m crossing a boundary from home life to work, it smells amazing, like tonka bean and warm wood shavings.
If you had asked me how my work was evolving some years ago, my answer would have been very boring. I would have said something like, “I’ve never wanted to be anything but an artist of some kind,” and, if I were trying to sound particularly fancy, “Whether I’m painting or writing, what gets me into my studio every day is the daunting yet utterly satisfying cycle of new challenges, frustrations, and eventual discoveries. Rinse and repeat.” All that is still true. Now, however, there is a new urgency shaping my thoughts.
What is unfolding politically and culturally in the United States of America is both incomprehensible and deeply agonizing to me. I never dreamed that we'd be where we are right now, and I have a damned good imagination. In order to get help processing these continuous atrocities, I find myself reading a mix of contemporary and classic books and essays, as well as news. Some good resources I’ve found are the online magazine Lion’s Roar, books and podcasts by Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, and reading or rereading books by thinkers such as Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark), John Rawls (Political Liberalism), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me). I realize these aren’t exactly beach reads or necessarily fun, but I’ve never felt it more imperative to educate myself. So many of the artists I swoon for are deeply political creatures: Barbara Kruger, Teresita Fernández, Kara Walker — the list is endless and growing by the day. An artist I recently became aware of, Ward Schumaker, is doing gut-punching observational work stenciling some of the more despicable Trump statements (how to choose?) on paper and allowing them to simply speak for themselves.
What I’ve realized I cannot do, although my first instinct is to be quiet and non-combative, is merely sit by in silence and safety. I keep hearing a modern-day version of John Stuart Mill’s warning running through my head: Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing. I’m not by nature a confrontational person, but this is not the time to stay quiet. Marches, protests, rallies: I’m about as comfortable in enormous groups of people as I might be conducting the London Philharmonic. Yet I feel I must participate, speak up, and register my outrage. As abhorrent as I find the Trump worldview, a substantial percentage of our population is clearly delighting in his words and positions. What this says about us as a people, I don’t know, but I’m not willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing. As a great hero of mine, Congressman John Lewis, says, Get out there and push, and stand up, and speak out, and get in the way the same way that my generation got in the way. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.
Are there certain themes that show up in your work over and over again?
What I find endlessly alluring and hypnotic is the synergistic relationship of colors. I could work another lifetime and still never tire of seeing them shape-shift as they cozy up, make allowances for each other, or flat-out brawl. It’s a source of infinite fascination to me.
Grappling with colors, weaving them together, trying to find balance and harmony — that is at the crux of it all. Sometimes I find myself standing at my easel for an hour or more just looking and thinking and flipping canvases around, not touching a thing. That’s still work, and I finally realized that it’s a big part of the process known as painting: a lot of it involves Not Painting.
For many years, my work has had a strong horizontal bias. I’ve often thought of it as the flow of some kind of current or slipstream, tide in and tide out. Lately, I’ve begun integrating the vertical with the horizontal, partly sparked by my exploration into fiber paintings over the last few years. It may seem like an imperceptible shift to the casual viewer, but it’s nothing short of a revelation to me. Incorporating this added element has been both demanding and invigorating. The paintings feel more intimate now and beckon the eye inward.
Mathematics also appears in my work regularly these days. I find it fascinating how its unchanging nature can be expressed so elegantly art. One of the sparest paintings I’ve done, Liminal Perpendicularity, is just an algebraic equation set to color on canvas. Whether I’m marveling at the Golden Ratio in Hokusai’s The Great Wave or the Fibonacci sequence in a chartreuse head of Romanesco, sacred geometry — and math in general — constantly surprises and delights me.
What is your studio practice like? What are you working on right now? Do you have any rituals or routines that help you get into the creative zone? Do you ever get creative blocks? How do you get unstuck?
I try to work from 9 am to 2 pm at least three days a week; if I’m lucky, I manage to squeeze in an afternoon session as well. Setup is so time-consuming that once I start, I never want to stop. Right now, I’m working on an ongoing series of 24” square pieces that has been so satisfying and cathartic. Each piece retains an element from its previous relations and is part of a continuous conversation. Over the last two years, my art has become more geometric, hard-edged, and suffused with color. It’s taking me more time to complete work than it used to, and it’s been a mental adjustment to become at ease with that.
The way I’m working has changed significantly. Where I used to paint wet into wet with a lot of happenstance outcomes, I’ve now been working on each area as a distinct part of the whole. I also measure and tape (and retape!) so much more than I ever used to. Automotive tape has become my good friend; it’s by far the stickiest of anything I’ve tried and gives the most precise lines. The green 3M kind is the best and puts all other painter’s tape to shame. I’ve been working more with rollers, latex paint, and spray paint over the last few years and really like tinkering around with them. It’s a learning curve but so satisfying to incorporate new elements. Sometimes I can be stuck leveling an 8“x8” segment for 2 hours, which is utterly maddening but also a great lesson in harnessing discipline and patience. Working more deliberately has also taught me to see better. I used to be able to finish a piece in a couple of weeks or even less, but it’s not uncommon now for each painting to be in process for at least a month or two. I do always have a few paintings going at once. That helps keep things fresh and provides some relief when I get stalled.
When I take my aforementioned walks, I spend much of the time teasing out work problems and trying to psychoanalyze myself through my canvases — don’t we all? What I eventually realized was that in response to what’s been going on in the U.S. (and the turn toward xenophobic populism in the world at large), my fury, sorrow, and feelings of powerlessness at the injustices I’m witnessing have found an expression in my work. I’ve channeled these constant feelings of anxiety over what terrible decree or Orwellian gobbledygook is coming next into neat lines, orderly shapes, and puzzle pieces to solve. Figuring out how it all works together is the big riddle. This is my way of creating a calming oasis in what feels like a very unstable world. The color is for joy and wonder — nothing can extinguish that, not even this fraught political climate.
I generally get blocked not when I’m having trouble but after something goes really well. I was zipping along until I painted Crossroad Blues and then got scared: I loved this piece and that terrified me. I’m not usually so attached to work after it’s done, but there was something arresting about this painting that made me simultaneously happy and confused. Once I learn what I need to, I’ll be able to release it. I’m finally at the place where it doesn’t hurt to let the work go. It took almost two decades, but I’m there now.
I’m intrigued by the recent paintings you’ve been sharing on Instagram and the influence of blues legend Robert Johnson on your work. Can you talk a bit about that series and how Johnson’s music informs your painting?
Music has always been one of the most vital and indelible elements in my world and ignites my creativity. I can’t listen when I work though; it has too much sway emotionally and physically for me to be fully present and focused. I’ve always loved to sing and believe the lyrics of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen can exist companionably and with pride alongside the works of such greats as Pablo Neruda or John Milton. Good poetry is good poetry. My taste musically is quite diverse with a predilection for jazz and fado right now. I do have an aversion to heavy metal or anything too shouty — I already have a young child; there’s no need for more extraneous noise in my world. As for Robert Johnson, he’s a ludicrously overlooked genius, if you ask me. I’ve read every book and watched every documentary I can find about him. There’s something almost otherworldly and phantasmagorical about that voice. He can take the most pedestrian lyrics and infuse them with such fire. Engendering that sort of passion through art is a rare, rare gift. I’m mesmerized both by Johnson’s singular work and his strange, unresolved personal story. Sometimes I wonder if he’s a puzzle that doesn’t need solving; the mystery is part of the legend, perhaps.
Speaking of legends, I’ve been reading such a stunning book called Ninth Street Women. It’s about five powerhouse women painters who’ve still never wholly gotten their rightful recognition: Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan. What storied lives they led, especially considering the restrictions of the times in which they lived. Reading remembrances of their hard-won wisdom makes me want to take a Sharpie student-style to thought after thought, but the pages would be a sea of yellow and I’m only halfway through! I was gobsmacked by this Grace Hartigan quote: You know, you don’t go into the studio and say, “Oh here I am this marvelous heroine, this wonderful woman doing my marvelous painting so all these marvelous women artists can come after me and do their marvelous painting.” There you are alone in this huge space and you are not conscious of the fact that you have breasts and a vagina. You are inside yourself, looking at a damned rag on the wall that you are supposed to make a world out of. That is all you are conscious of. Even 70 years later, the maddening frustration of her even having to speak to this just crackles off the page. There are so many people we’ve missed, for so many similar reasons. I would like to note that not one of these women had a child except for Grace Hartigan, and she made the undoubtedly harrowing decision to have her in-laws raise her son so she could paint. Women artists of that era did not have the luxury of pursuing their artistic ambitions as well as motherhood. I am very grateful to these pioneering women who blazed such a bright and difficult path for those of us who came after.
Are you a full-time artist or do you also have a day job/side hustle? If you do have a day job, does it tie in with your art practice?
I am fortunate to be a full-time artist these days. When my daughter was born, I couldn’t pick up a brush for nearly two years. This felt like a real crisis. It wasn’t only that I didn’t have much time, although time is a commodity beyond price when you’re caring for an infant. Even when I had windows to work, though, I had no spark. Zero. Every creative instinct I had was funneled into being a mother. I had no idea how all-encompassing and strange motherhood would feel and don’t know if it’s something that can be understood until you’re doing it. Mind you, my daughter is the most entertaining, fearless, and astonishingly delightful person I know, and I adore spending time with her. She shares my studio now with her own desk and easel and is an innate and whimsical genius, like pretty much all children. But when she was a mere grubworm, I had no idea of all the enchantment that was to come and felt constantly exhausted and alone. Finally, one afternoon when she was napping, I stood in front of my easel with a not-very-formidable canvas (I think it was 24”x18”). We appraised each other apprehensively and then, without much more thought, I started to paint. Two hours later, I had something down that felt very interesting and new, and the spell was broken. That was a big step for me, and it taught me a lesson I really needed to understand. My urge to create had never left me; it was waiting quietly all along like the pilot light glowing steadily on a gas stove.
This long period of dormancy was terrifying to get through — I thought I’d never be able to begin again and might have lost whatever made me me as an artist. Surprisingly, it’s been completely the reverse: I’ve never felt as comfortable in my ability to create and confident that when I’ve trod a subject to death or wrung out every drop of inspiration, there will be another avenue to explore. It was scary to be fallow for so long but, looking back, it really was an invaluable experience. Now that my daughter is in elementary school, I have much more time to work. That said, I’d actually gotten accustomed to working on demand and for short bursts, so having 4-5 hours almost every other day to paint and write feels nearly Caligulan in its extravagance. I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon enough, and I’m not complaining!
Being part of Thrive Art Studio has been a soul saver; I’ve met more brilliant, talented, and like-minded women over the last year and a half than I would have dreamt possible. Knowing I can brainstorm, commiserate, and celebrate with them (as well as ask for help and advice when I need it) provides me with such strength and solace. I applied after hearing about openings from The Jealous Curator and can’t overstate how invaluable it’s been for me. Huge thanks to Danielle Krysa for spreading the word and such enormous gratitude to Jamie Smith and Tara Galuska for creating this incredible resource for us solitary artists to find our people!
Let’s talk about work/life balance. How do you balance family life, studio time, business and time for yourself?
Actually, finding balance has never been something I’ve taken too seriously — it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway, isn’t it? Do you know anyone who has it all? I certainly don’t! Like most people, I look back at paths I did or didn’t investigate, and I’m generally at peace with my decisions. If I’d chosen differently, I might not have gotten to experience the often messy and mundane but sometimes startlingly beautiful life I have now. I’m very grateful for the love of my family and good friends and remind myself what a lucky woman I am whenever I start to take things for granted.
What does being an artist mean to you?
The most meaningful gift that being an artist has bestowed upon me is a lifelong perspective of childlike wonder toward the world. As Picasso said, It takes a long time to become young, and I couldn’t agree more. Making art and trying to retain that freshness of vision is not always easy but such a privilege and joy. Being able to spend my life asking why and how and what thenis the most satisfying feeling I could dream of. There’s nothing you can buy or own that equals that swooping delight when you finally make a breakthrough and get to claim that new wisdom. What being an artist means to me is a constantly evolving question and one I’ve been pondering so much lately. Not only does this choice afford me the exquisite and precious freedom to live a relatively uncensored life, it makes me feel some personal responsibility to speak truth to power. One of my absolute favorite artists, Teresita Fernández, said this so magnificently and eloquently that I’m going to quit talking and just quote her directly: Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures — all of these components will also become the raw materials for the art you make. I find this to be profoundly true and gorgeously authentic and try to live up to it daily. It’s hard work.
Photo Credit: Veronika Larchankava
If you could give your 20-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
This is a question I’ve been mulling over for years and just recently found words for. I follow Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, on Instagram and was struck one night by a similar question he posed. My daughter had crawled into bed and was draped over me like a slumbering starfish, so I couldn’t sleep. I decided to write my answer at 1 am and here it is, a love letter to myself. Writing this felt so good that I think I may tack it up on a wall in my studio. I have a light-filled but rather monastic space; the canvases provide all the color and energy, and I keep the walls pretty bare so I can think. This might have to go up, though:Read as catholically and copiously as your life allows, granting yourself luxuriant deep dives into subjects you never before realized you absolutely had to immerse yourself in. Never think of this as time stolen from making art or feel the slightest twinge of guilt for “not working.” Strangely and in due course, this seemingly jumbled amalgam of knowledge and other people’s wisdom will add so much resonance to your own work and life. Remember to keep that precious apparatus called your body moving and working as well as it can. Not only will those endorphins grace you with a lovely analgesic boost, but your brain and creative potential will benefit in ways science is just beginning to unravel. The opportunities for observation in the world outside your workspace will allow you to amass a boundless trove of riches: the eccentricities and wonders of new people, creatures, color, light. Be staunchly earnest and deeply passionate, even at the risk of being thought maudlin or naive. Cynicism is such a fixed and limiting emotion and has no place in the creation of honest art. Don’t dismiss new avenues because they might not be well received. Be humble, open-minded, and take note when you’re acting out of fear, with as much grace as you can muster. Learn how to really listen. Be brave. Love this gloriously imperfect world with all your heart.
Do you have any questions or comments for Wendy? Please add them to the comments below!