Q&A with Rebecca Pavlenko

Discover the world of NOURISH/DEVOUR through this Q&A with Rebecca Pavlenko, the artist behind WBCA’s latest online exhibit. These questions came from members of the community, curious about Rebecca’s work and the exhibit. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions.

You can view NOURISH/DEVOUR here. 


Was your visual idea always a “juxtaposition” concept?

Was there a certain moment when the idea of “interdependence” came to you in visual imagery? Was it like the light bulb moment or over a period of time? 

I’m responding to these two questions in one answer, as the ideas flow together. The series actually started by thinking about an aesthetic idea. In analogue photography there are photographs (made with a camera, lens and film) and there are photograms (made with objects set on light sensitive paper and exposed to light in the darkroom). I wondered if it would be possible to do both in one image.

I’ll back track a bit and say that I usually think of my art as having four component parts. They don’t exist separately, they are all completely intertwined in the images, but these are four ways of thinking about what makes an image work. The four are technique, aesthetics, content and presentation. Technique is understanding and knowing how to use the tools and materials of the art form. Aesthetics have to do with composition and the “look” of the image. Content is what the image has to say, what it is about. Presentation has to do with how the image is sized, matted, framed and placed into the public sphere. And again, they don’t exist separately they all happen and exist at once.

If I have Content in mind first, the process feels more directed. And I have certainly worked that way. If I work from an aesthetic idea – such as, can I place the subject at the edge of the page? What happens if I have an all-black ground? Can I combine a photo and a photogram? – the process becomes one of discovery and the Content emerges from sometimes an unconscious part of me. I started with wanting to combine a photo and a photogram. At the same time, I had been reading a lot of articles and watching a lot of videos on farming practices, food and the environment. While I wasn’t thinking about this as the subject of the imagery when I started on the series, it began to emerge as I worked on it. Almost as though the work was teaching me what was inside of me and leading me to express what wanted to come out.

I started working on these images first by seeing what silverware looked like as a photogram. I wasn’t planning on doing anything with these tests that I made in the darkroom as I was using old, outdated photo paper that was fogged. But when I pulled the first one out of the fix and looked at it under light, the images of the silverware reminded me of an old photo of my ancestors, where they were all lined up, sitting seriously and holding still for the long exposure. The silverware looked like people and the fogged aspect of the paper added a muted note that felt like antique photos.  I went off on an entirely other series using photograms of silverware on outdated paper to explore human, and especially family, relationships. So discovery, paying attention and a willingness to follow where the work leads me are important too.

As I developed the Nourish/Devour series I realized that there were several things that were in opposition to each other, or complimentary to each other, not just the photo/photogram part. Parts of the image were color, parts were black and white – could I have a black and white photo at the same time as a color photograph? The nature imagery had that seemingly three dimensional aspect that photography does such a good illusory job of presenting and it was combined with the silverware piece that was flat and graphic with no depth at all. The images are hand painted so they are both a painting and a photograph. So the series started as one type of juxtaposition and other types were discovered to be part of it or created.

How long have you been ruminating on our “interdependence with Nature”?

I’ve been thinking about our interdependence with nature for a long time starting with the early ecology movements, Earth Day celebrations, the move to adopt recycling, composting, organic gardening and less wasteful, consumptive lifestyles. And of course, global warming certainly upped the urgency for moving beyond concern to action. In my art I have used a lot of nature imagery as I believe it to be a universal language with its own inherent symbolism.

The images in Nourish/Devour are markedly feminine: soft velvet, domestic objects, and visions of the natural world. In your artist statement, you also comment on the woes of the “man-made” world, in contrast to nature. What role does femininity play in your art practice?

I wouldn’t call it femininity, per se. I didn’t use the word “man-made” in my statement, I refer to the machine-made by which I mean that which is tooled, molded and formed. I’m making a contrast between that and organic shapes which develop naturally.

My husband grew up having to cook dinner one night a week and is a very good cook, so the utensils for cooking don’t have a particular gender association for me. Nature is available to everyone and I also do not think of it as a gendered subject. There have been numerous landscape paintings and nature photographs done by men.

If we look at the question from another angle, are all of the things that are not soft, domestic or natural considered masculine? This raises several issues for me. One is that whatever men create is considered art and is not considered as gendered. But when women create it is often put into a box of being women’s art or feminine and outside of the traditional art system. There is a strong bias in the art world to see art by men as the normative expression and art by women as a subset. Thankfully, this is starting to change, though slower than one would hope. Another side of this is that issues that women do think about or experience are not often considered suitable for art. Where are the images of birth – a universal experience that all of us who are alive have been a part of ? This is often considered a women’s experience and not a subject for art until Judy Chicago’s “The Birth Project.” Yet there are numerous paintings of battles during various wars that represent an experience that was historically reserved for men. Yet they are considered a perfectly suitable topic for art. When Judy Chicago created the “Dinner Party,” which raised the question of why women artists did not get a seat at the (art) table, she received incredible resistance from the established art world to have it even considered as art. 

Photography, by its very nature is an archetypally female art form. If we look at the masculine and feminine as archetypes, the masculine is outgoing and projecting; the feminine is receptive and gathering. They each co-define and create the other as opposites, compliments. Photography, unlike painting, is not imagined and then put out onto a canvas. It gathers what the world offers and takes in the image; it receives. I think one of the reasons so many men like to do photography is because unbeknownst to them, they get to work with and practice their feminine side. And perhaps so many women like to paint because they can work with their masculine side.

My own experience with art is more feminist than feminine. For many years I worked with the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, an organization that works to promote women artists and women’s art through exhibition, mentoring, networking and education. I served on the board of directors and during my tenure was chair and vice chair as well as their official representative to the 4th International Women’s Conference in Beijing, China. I was also a founding member of Women in Photography and Visual Arts and was often in a leadership or mentoring position.

Women have made considerable strides in changing the art world. Here in Minnesota, grants are given out more equitably, exhibitions include works by women artists, more women are teaching art at the college and university level and our three major museums are now headed by women. All of this came about because women pushed for change. But the art that is collected and which commands top dollar along with art that is exhibited and preserved in museums is still an arena that is dominated by male artists.  Again, this is changing, and in time I hope we have a more equitable art world.

How did your experience working as a set designer influence your work? 

While I have designed sets, I worked primarily as a scenic artist and they are two different things. A designer comes up with the idea for the set,  what the various parts are, how it should look, color schemes, furniture etc. Scenic artists bring that vision to life by fabricating the set. We are the crew that sculpts objects, textures walls, paints backdrops, wall paper, floors, flats, furniture and props according to what the designer wants. An example would be a designer gives us an 8 x 10 photo of a historic wall paper and wants that on the walls for the set. We then figure out the scale for the pattern to be sized correctly, then simplify the design, figure out how many templates are needed to create the pattern and then draw and cut out the templates. We decide in what order they should be applied, what colors to use and what techniques to use – sprayed, rolled, brushed etc. The designer has the vision, scenic artists bring it to life and actually make it.

My background training in art school was primarily as a photographer though I of course took classes in drawing, painting, color theory and the usual required courses.  Working at the Guthrie as a scenic artist was like getting a second education. I really sharpened my eye for color matching and mixing, using glazes to shift colors, adding shading and highlights as well as lots of different faux finishing techniques. Often we were doing things we had never done before and were having to figure out techniques to get the effect we wanted. And I was fortunate to work with some extremely skilled artisans from whom I was constantly learning. Along with all the skills, techniques and knowledge of materials I acquired that I could apply to my own art, I became more fearless in just trying things to see what would happen. At the Guthrie excellence was expected and it upped my demands on what I required from my own artwork. The projects we worked on often took weeks of 8-10 hour days to accomplish and it set a pace for me of taking on projects of my own with a much longer time span than the 1/500th of a second it can take to make a photograph.

Have you seen any influences of the pandemic in your work?

The pandemic has given me more time to focus on my work as my social obligations are so diminished. I find the quiet introspective time that comes from more time alone helpful to organizing my thoughts and focusing my ideas.

I started a new series of drawings, illustrations really, that are very intricate, detailed and that take a lot of time. They keep me focused and occupied in a way I find so engaging that it keeps the worries and loneliness at bay. 

Also, I am thinking about new ways to get my work out into the world and have had individual pieces in several group shows and three solo on-line exhibits. I’m currently taking a class on Arts in Digital Spaces to think through and plan new ways of expanding into digital presentation. It has great potential to reach a much larger public in a way that is easy for them, on their own time frame and without having to go anywhere.  The pandemic is getting audiences acquainted with engaging with art on-line and in many ways is making art more accessible. I think that is going to carry forward even after the pandemic is over. It has me thinking not just about how to present what I usually do, such as an exhibit which I would post online, but new kinds of programming as well.

Have the societal issues and intense political climate affected your work?

When I was in college much of my art work was very politically focused at a time when that was not the current art trend. Over the years I have become interested in art that transcends its particular time and place and speaks to a more universal reality. Art and political or social issues can be strange bedfellows and create an art that is currently engaging but that diminishes in meaning and importance over time. I’m not sure the two truly mix well. But it also feels important during this time to engage with the many issues that are being raised and which affect all of us so deeply. I continue to wrestle with this dichotomy on both a feeling and intellectual level. 

I’ve started doing a new series of drawings, which I have not yet posted on my website, that address some of the issues of the day. They take their inspiration from Illuminated Manuscripts of earlier times which were used to codify the most important and sacred writings of their time. I use a single word that expresses an idea or movement combined with imagery to create a statement. About half of these are more political in nature and I think of this body of work more as illustrations than fine art.

You’ve been working on a book Through a Zen Lens: Seasons in Japanese Gardens for 15 years. How has the book evolved?

The Japanese garden imagery began as a response to practicing Zen meditation and wanting to express in visual form what I learned and how I had changed because of that practice. In photography one is dependent on an exterior subject to mirror back to the photographer what one wishes to express. When I discovered the Japanese gardens, I knew they had the right feeling to be the perfect subject. They are designed to engender mindfulness and bring one into present moment awareness. I also wanted a technique that created a quieter, more subtle image. The polaroid transfer processes was perfect for that and I also added some hand coloring, as I like my “hand” to be in the process.

I created the images over many years visiting a variety of gardens both locally and around the USA. I licensed the images to Artists to Watch who made them into greeting cards and sold them all over the country. I used the royalties to fund travel to Japanese gardens outside the Twin Cities area and for materials, as it is a fairly expensive process. I was delighted that the project could be self funded.

 

After many years of creating these images I had a lot of them and they portrayed the gardens in all four seasons. I got wonderful feedback from people when I exhibited the images and several people suggested I make a book. I received a Metropolitan Regional Art Council grant which I used to fund the pre-press work for the book – getting the work professionally scanned, hiring designers, writers, and a calligrapher as well as paying for professional editing and guidance from a book agent. The book idea and design have been sent to around 40 publishers and so far I’ve received rejection letters from about half of them, which I’m told is par for the course. The publishing industry has changed considerably since the advent of digital printing and is being affect by the pandemic as well. I’m considering next steps to get the book published and what would be best to get it out into the world.

Who are some artists who are inspiring you right now?

One of my very favorite artists is Juan Gris, who along with Picasso and Braque developed cubism. In my opinion, Gris was the best and his compositions are so elegant and beautiful. I read Clive Bell’s philosophy of art book and he talks of “significant form,” which helped me see Juan Gris’ work in a new way. 

I just finished a book on the drawings and watercolors, most of them of people, by the artist Egon Schiele. He has amazing observational skills coupled with a superb coordination between his eye and hand. And at the same time, they are psychologically intense portrayals.

And I would like to put in a plug for an art podcast that I listen too which is always inspiring: “The Lonely Palette”, hosted by Tamar Avishi. In each episode she looks in-depth at one work of art, jumping around to different time periods and styles. That show always leaves me inspired.

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