What’s your background?
I have been an oil painter for about 15 years—off and on. In the process I also joined and left the Air Force, lived homeless, got a chemistry degree and spent months locked in mental hospitals. I got a high school diploma, despite being homeless and was one of the first student employees for Youth on Their Own. I’ve lived in or at least hitchhiked through almost every state in the U.S. I learned to play Spades ruthlessly from Navy Vets in a V.A. Hospital in Mobile, Alabama and saw firsthand the dangers of not dealing with my PTSD. While I have come to regret much of the time I lost over the years, I also feel that so much of my content and drive to create is from my experiences—both positive and negative.
What got you interested in the arts to begin with?
My mother was a fine art, oil painter and I spent my childhood in art galleries surrounded by art. That sounds ideal for a beginning artist except I was constantly being told that artists couldn’t succeed at making a living and since I was so good with math, I should go into the sciences instead. Because of that constant discouragement, I would attribute most of my early momentum in art to having always adored books and illustration. As a child, I collected books with beautiful covers and loved trying to illustrate them myself.
When did you decide to dedicate yourself to art?
I took the long way around to becoming an artist, spending a decent time in the middle getting a degree in chemistry, because I believed the common lie that artists can’t make a living. I remember that last pivotal semester of school. I had just learned about digital painting and bought a little Wacom tablet. I was trying to make my first digital painting, but could only work on it every other week or so. I resented every minute I spent working on school work instead of art. Months passed and I couldn’t finish it.
Then I stumbled across a book cover by Donato Giancola. I instantly felt the same excitement for art that I felt when I was a child looking at book covers. After finding more of his work online, I found he was not only an amazing artist, he was also supporting himself as an artist. He was doing what I dreamed of doing as a child but had spent ten years telling myself was impossible.
That realization was so eye opening for me. That was when I decided to dedicate all my time and energy into being able to do the same. The last few weeks of school were torture. I couldn’t drop out weeks away from graduation, but I knew that I was going a different direction and would never use that degree.
When graduation came, I didn’t even consider going. I was home painting. From that first day of freedom till now, a year later, I spent almost every day painting—often for ten hours a day. I can’t imagine how much further I would be now if I hadn’t spent all those years trying so hard not to be an artist. That thought motivates me not to waste any more time doubting whether I can succeed as an artist.
Do you collect anything?
Lol. Do I… I have a serious book problem. I own thousands of books. I rarely leave the house without four or five books in my purse and commonly have shoulder pains from how heavy my purse gets. You never know when you are going to get a few minutes to read though!
There are so many types of books I enjoy reading—from scifi/fantasy to philosophy, from modern and black-mountain poetry to books on cognitive science and neurolinguistics. To me, reading is being a collector of ideas and knowledge. While I am focused on being a visual artist, I am equally dedicated to being a writer and see the two as very complementary skill sets. Luckily for me, being a good writer is aided greatly by being a prolific reader!
Do you remember your first piece of art you were really proud of? The one that made you say yes I am an artist!
It wasn’t really a specific piece of art that made me feel that way. It was the decision to stop hedging my bets and doing art on the side. But I do remember that first digital painting I did during that last semester of school. It was a painting of a woman and two levitating blue eels. I worked on it once every few weeks when I could sneak in a few hours between classes and it was the one I finished at the end of the semester. Though it is far from my best painting, it is extremely dear to me because it represented that choice.
What does visual storytelling mean to you?
My first digital painting was also the first painting I did since I was a small child where I let myself do something ‘illustrative’. Up until that point, I thought of ‘illustration’ as a bad word. It wasn’t ‘fine art’.
That was a huge shift for me. This perceived distinction between fine-art and illustration was much less distinct than I had been taught as a child. The moment I saw that Donato cover, an illustration by a currently living artist, that was also everything I loved in fine art, elucidated so much for me. Looking back, I realized most of my favorite fine artists (like Waterhouse, Draper, Sargent, the Wyeths) were also telling stories and narrating myths.
I think a significant part of my renewed motivation in art came from realizing that I was not any less of an artist for being illustrative. In fact, I think it is that quality of art that communicates and expresses, that transforms a pretty picture into art. The storytelling is essential.
How do you measure your level of success/achievement?
Success for me is consistently making progress— the act of dedicating time consistently to my art and writing, learning, improving my skills, creating more art and developing more projects.
In a more conventional sense of success though, I would say being able to market my work effectively. Not only would I like to be financially stable through my creative work, I would also like to be able to connect with more people. I think isolation is one of the worst feelings for a creative person; like singing to an empty room, writing poetry to a wall, painting for the darkness. So much of what we create is to communicate, to connect, to express to others and that to me is an incredibly important aspect of being successful.
What themes and ideas do you pursue?
In both my visual art and writing, much of my work deals with psychological challenges. Part of this comes from my own personal struggles with mental illness, but also from my strong interest in cognitive science, psychology and philosophy. I feel one of the most important qualities of any art is its ability to communicate ideas and to transcribe personal experiences into a more universal medium that connects us.
Many of my paintings deal with coping with trauma, being faced with mortality and isolation, of choices that determine who we become. I often explore relationships with the subconscious, animal aspects of the mind, the defense mechanisms as compared to the self-aware aspects of the mind, the conscious desire to heal and grow. Many of my paintings are centered in moments of transitions—from the civilized world to the badlands, from life to death, from broken and unconscious living to being a self-realized and deliberate being.
While my paintings are often in some way autobiographical, they are often archetypal and metaphorical enough for many to see their own experiences in the narrative. Though my work is often considered dark, I also hope to convey a sense of the grandeur of the human experience and an existential optimism for our own ability to create ourselves despite obstacles.
What is your dream project? If there were no time or money restrictions, what would you create?
With no restrictions, the amount of projects I would do would be an enormous ever-growing list! I always have a dozen huge projects in mind that I wish I could do at any given time. Most involve writing my own novels and poetry books and filling them with elaborate illustrations. If I could, I would create volumes of work. The illustrations I would create would be from enormous paintings, at least five or six feet wide and would fill pages and pages throughout the books.
What are you working on right now? What are you currently obsessed with?
I actually have begun work on one illustrated novel about changeling children—wildings taken from their homes by other wildings to live feral in small tribes. Ideally, I would like to have a whole series of these stories with different tribes in different areas of the world. This project is extremely personal to me and I have struggled with the fear of writing it. There is a feeling of vulnerability and fear of rejection in creating something that connected with themes in my own life, but recently in the Painting Drama art class I took, these paintings of changeling children started to keep coming out of me, one after the other and it was such a revelatory experience. I knew I had to push forward and create it.
Professionally, what are your goals?
There are so many things I would love to do! I’d love to illustrate book covers and possibly even interior illustrations for other authors. I’d also love to be able to create my own novels and stories and illustrate them extensively. And of course, the usual, to sell my original art—though I would like to focus on larger scale prints and paintings. In truth, just being able to create my own original art for a living, whatever form that takes, is the dream for me; especially if others are able to connect with it and find value in it.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
Only three?! Donato. Waterhouse. Brad Kunkle.
I might have my work cut out for me!
How do you keep your creative spark? What keeps you motivated?
I’ve never had trouble with keeping my creative spark. If anything, I struggle with too many ideas, too many projects, too much excitement. I often feel as though I am bursting at the seams with the pressure of it. So many things fuel it. Other creative work fuels it, like evocative paintings, books that churn my mind, music that immerses me; but also the everyday things, a turn of phrase in a conversation, an article on a recent science advancement or old piece of writing by a philosopher, an economic idea, a strange tree growing by the side of the road, a weird dream I had. All these things are constantly stirring my creative fire and more often than not, I mourn for not being able to catch them all.
Staying motivated, however, is a different struggle. Not only do I get overwhelmed by all my projects sometimes, I also get profoundly discouraged at times. For years, I created sporadically in isolation. Not having people to share my work with was one of the most difficult obstacles for me. Part of that came from the belief that I could never be financially successful as an artist, so I never tried to share it or put it out into the world. In the last year I’ve connected with so many great artists and created different avenues to put my work out for others to see. That has done so much for my motivation.
I’ve also struggled with being hypercritical of myself. Often I create a sense of failure for myself; no matter what I accomplish, there is a part of my brain pointing out what I could have done better and I get overwhelmed with the sense of never truly succeeding. Having connected with other artists and seeing people connect with my art has given me external encouragement that balances out the internal criticism. Seeing others find value in what I create helps motivate me to focus on that rather than on trying to reach some unattainable feeling of perfection.
What sacrifices have you made for your art?
Unfortunately, it was my art that got sacrificed over the years. I never trusted my ability to succeed and so I constantly pushed it to the side. It is only in the last year that I finally gained the realization that success is possible and gained the courage to pursue it.
What advice would you have given yourself ten years ago?
Don’t hedge your bets. Dive into your art now. Give it everything.