Saturday, July 26, 2008

Interview With An Artist

I am thrilled to finally put this post together. Four years ago T and I moved in across the street from the most precious family. I’ve blogged a bit about them before, SG lived to be 93 or 94 and was loving Jesus until the day she died. I remember her telling me her suitcase was packed. She just wanted to go home and be with Jesus. Wow! And then, her son, Uncle R lived with her. He passed away just a few short months ago. Well…in the process of getting to know this amazing family, SG would always proudly tell me about her daughter, Helen Vaughn, who is an artist. SG showed me many, many prints and originals of her art. It was, to say the least, very impressive.

One day, SG told me Helen would be coming to town and that I HAD to meet her. Well…that made me a little nervous. I majored in Fine Art with my emphasis in graphic design. I love art. I love making art. I love playing at making art. I appreciate art. But I’m not super confident in my “fine art” skills, aka drawing and painting realistically. Oh, I doodle and love to mess around with watercolors. I feel confident in those types of things, just not in say, drawing or painting a person – who looks like the person. Helen is a pro. I was afraid that when I met her she’d ask to see a sample of my work, and then, I’d be discovered! What would she think? She’d know I was just an amateur, standing on the sidelines, admiring and wanting to join the ranks of “real artists.” Over the years I’ve had the privilege of spending a little more time with Helen. She is an AMAZING woman. I greatly admire her. She has spurred me on in my love of art.

She allowed me the honor of interviewing her and I learned so much. But first, this interview was conducted via email, due to circumstances, so there won’t be any “She laughed as she replied….” kind of stuff. However, you must get a feel for Helen. She is the kind of woman who immediately puts you at ease. I feel I don’t have to be guarded when I am around her. She’s quick to laugh. She obviously loves life. She’s very generous. She’s strong – physically, but emotionally, too. More than anything, she’s shared her love of art with me. She’s encouraged me to push in areas I long to push in, but for whatever reason, feel paralyzed to do so. Just a few days ago she sat at my kitchen table, picking the breading off of MW’s chicken and giving me an art lesson. That is Helen Vaughn. She sets you at ease and she loves you, as you are. Oh I just love her!

I’ve begun collecting a bit of her work. She's been extremely kind to me and has given me two pieces. I also bought a watercolor she did in '57 from an estate sale. I’ll be posting a few photos of her work and a link to her website. Please go check her out!

So, without further adieu, here is my interview with Helen Vaughn. I hope you enjoy.

When did you first show an interest in art?
I showed an interest in art when I was about eight years old. One day I was sick and stayed home in bed. To entertain me, Mama gave me a volume of the encyclopedia and I found a painting in it, a still life as I remember. I copied it and it was good; faithful to the original if by an obviously very young hand. I knew then that drawing was something that I did well.

You obviously have a God given talent as an artist. I remember your mother telling me you had taken art lessons in the attic of a home just a short distance from your own home. How do you think art lessons impacted you? And how long did you take lessons?
What Mama probably didn’t tell you that we decided on art classes after I flunked out of ballet and tap. We didn’t even think about piano lessons.! Mrs. Frances Watford taught art in the attic of her home right around the corner from your house. We had such fun. There were probably seven of us in the once-a-week class. She taught the fundamentals and she taught them well. The first prize I won as an artist was in a show of her students work. She encouraged my interest and helped me understand that with hard work, I could accomplish much.

As a little girl, did you know you wanted to be an artist?
No. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I wanted to be a cowgirl or a movie star.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist as your vocation/to make a living?
I’d say that I made that decision when my children were toddlers.

Why did you choose to be an artist?
It’s the thing that I’m passionate about. I believe it chose me as much as the other way around. Looking back, I find that at every stage of my life, in order to feel sane and congruent, I’ve needed to be creating something. And for over thirty years, that something has been art.

What is your favorite medium?
Right now and for the last several years it’s been oil painting. It’s versatile and fits my vocabulary as a painter. I’ve been using gold leaf with oil paint on both panel and canvas in the recent past and I’m thoroughly enjoying the process and the results of that combination.

When drawing or painting, do you work from a photograph or still life, or do you ever draw or paint from your head and which is your preference?

I always work from photographs that I take. I have worked from life but I find that I don’t see well enough to do that anymore. Photographs suit my needs perfectly. I’m certainly not a slave to the photo and most of the time I will use elements of several photos for a single work. Digital photography changed my life.

Do you sketch your paintings first? And do you ever sketch on your canvas and then paint over it?
What is most common for me as a painter is to do a complete drawing before I ever begin with paint. I sometimes do thumbnail sketches if I’m unsure of a composition but for the most part, my photographer’s eye serves that function. My camera becomes my sketchbook.

Your figure paintings are amazing! Do you nail proportions naturally or is that something you have to work at?
Thank you. Proportionality has always seemed to come naturally for me. Foreshortening of the figure is more difficult. But with practice that too becomes easier.

Have you ever done portrait painting? What about of your children?
I have done a few commissioned portraits over the years for special friends but as a rule, I don’t enjoy doing them. Figurative work is different because I’m only pleasing myself. And yes, I have painted my children but they are not traditional portraits—rather they are figurative works that feature Ned and Anna. I’ve kept them and they are in my collection.

What inspires you? Do you ever hit a wall and feel dry? What gets you going again?
Of course. I think that happens to every artist. What I do in the inevitable dry spell is to either take a long break from painting or change media. For the past five years I’ve been writing as well as painting. Having two media in which to work seems to keep each one fresh for me. Right now, though, I’m painting much more than I’m writing. Painting is definitely a comfort zone in a way that writing is not. Because this has been a particularly stressful period in my life, painting is where I want to be right now.

Who is your favorite artist/work of art?
What a difficult question to answer. Certainly I’ll always include Sargent, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Edward Hopper, Helen Frankenthaler, Chuck Close. Those are just a few. As for favorite paintings—the Monet haystacks, the Rembrandt self-portraits, some of the van Gogh landscapes, Manet’s Olympia (?) reclining on a couch (I don’t remember the title), almost any of the Sargent portraits. But you could ask that question next week and get a slightly different list.

What do you think about while you're painting? In your mind, are you going "okay, control your hand, a little more here or there...or are you painting/drawing and your mind wanders from time to time?
If it’s a difficult passage I’m working on, I’m thinking about form and color and value—making it right. If it’s not particularly challenging, my mind might well be wandering. The control of my hand is automatic by now. I’m unconscious of it. I’ve don’t it so long.

How do you know you're finished with a piece?
It’s a realization when I look at the work that it’s all there. I’ve left it all on the canvas and I’m satisfied.

Do you ever think you're finished, and then walk past a piece the next day and see something you want to change? What about after you've sold a piece or had it framed?
This has happened occasionally, but not often, And after I sell a piece, I don’t have any desire to do anything else to it, even if I see flaws which I always will—especially with work that I made very early in my career.

Do you ever do and redo? Like, you paint something and you aren't happy with it, so you scrape it off or paint over it?
Sometimes, but not very often. I’m very careful in the drawing stage of a piece. I know if the drawing is correct then everything else is easier.

What was your favorite class in college?
I was an English major and a drama minor so those were my favorite classes. Especially the Literature courses.

Are you good about keeping your brushes clean? What about your studio? Are you orderly, or more "free spirited" in terms of organization?
I faithfully clean my brushes and my studio is organized and neat. I don’t work well in a cluttered environment.

Do you work on multiple paintings at once, or do you start one and work on it until you're finished?
I’m almost always working on two or three things at a time. Right now, I have four paintings in my studio in various stages.

I understand you make a living selling your work, but does it make you at all sad to see a piece go? Do you ever feel like it's a little piece of you leaving?
I will sometimes hang onto a painting because I can’t let it go—for whatever reason. There’s also a rule at our house that whatever Ed loves and wants to keep, we keep. I actually enjoy seeing others enjoy what I do and I’m not sad to sell them. It was harder in the beginning years but not any more. When you move the inventory, it means you’re doing something that others want. I just go out to the studio and make more.

How old were you when you sold your first piece of art? When you bought your first piece of art?
I was either thirteen or fourteen years old and I sold a portrait of a young girl for $25 I think it was. Sis Moss, the daughter of good friends of my parents in Birmingham bought it. The pastel painting was of her daughter.

Do you collect any one artist or theme? How do you process the decision to buy art? Is it based on anything in particular or do you decide to purchase something because it makes you happy, etc.?
I’m not a collector. I buy the paintings and pottery that I love. Sometimes I know and love the artist as well, but sometimes not.

And what is your opinion of "sofa art?" As in, art purchased to match the sofa/room.
As a general rule, I don’t like it—I find much of it bland and uninteresting. I have had the occasional client who has asked that I change a color in a painting to match something in their house. My response has been polite but negative. The painting is what it is.

Have you ever dealt with criticism regarding nudes in your art? If so, how have you responded if at all?
There’s been hardly any criticism. The one time I had a drawing of a nude removed from a juried exhibition in a small town, several of the other artists took their work down as well in protest. We all thought it was pretty funny.

Who is your biggest fan?
I don’t know; I’ve never thought about it. I do have several clients who have bought multiple pieces over the years.

Have you ever hit a wall and thought you'd never pick up a brush/pencil again?
Yep! I took a year off and didn’t pick up a brush or open a tube of paint.

Do you use your art as a way to express your emotions?
No, I don’t think I do.

What about patchwork quilts and oriental rugs has drawn you?
I love the patterns. And the colors in the oriental rugs are just so much fun to paint.

Tell me about "All the Sheep Came to the Birthday Party." It's one of my personal favorites!
My daughter Anna took the photo that was the reference for that painting. She was living and studying in Germany at the time. She made friends with her downstairs neighbor who had a small child. For the child’s fifth birthday, there was a picnic in a nearby meadow and Anna was invited. The sheep were in that same meadow. When Anna told me the story, I knew I had the title for the painting.

If you don't mind, share with me the role your mother played in encouraging you in your art. She always praised your talents and abilities!
Mama always let me know that she was in my corner. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. She and Daddy also made it clear to Reed and me that not to try something because you’re afraid, cuts you off from many of life’s best experiences. I learned so much through failing a time or two before getting it right. I had the luxury of knowing that my parents loved me whether I succeeded or failed at a given endeavor. I also had a wonderful role model in my mother. Wonderfully talented herself, she worked hard and succeeded at what she set out to do. I learned the value of hard work from both my parents.

And if you aren't too tired of typing, anything else you want to add?
I can’t think of anything. If any of my answers bring up other questions in your mind, shoot me another email and I’ll try to answer. This has been fun!!

So there you have it…my interview with the famous Helen Vaughn!

Helen, thank you for enduring such a long list of questions and for being so thorough in your answers. I love you and appreciate you! And I’m planning to shoot some photos of my kids on the sofa tomorrow – while they’re still in their church clothes – hopefully I’ll come up with a good composition! And then I’ll begin working the grid and doing a few studies! Thank you for inspiring me to take that first step! (And by the way, I’m still terrified I’m going to fall flat on my face, but as you said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”) (FYI to my readers, this is in reference to an earlier post listing my summer “goals,” one of which was to attempt a painting of my children…)

To see more of Helen’s work, check her out at:

I mean really, how cool to actually know someone with that kind of talent!!! She’s awesome!

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