In conversation with: Angela Fraleigh
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I attended Boston University for undergrad and Yale University for my MFA. I teach in Bethlehem, PA at a small liberal arts school, Moravian College where I am head of Studio and Chair of the department. I have a studio at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in NYC. I live in Allentown PA with my Husband, artist Wes Heiss and our daughter Tuesday.
Describe your creative process.
It depends on what part of the creative process I’m in at the moment. I think I go through several phases every year – almost like a changing of seasons. The research process is often the longest “season”. There is a period of “not-knowing” what’s next (which can be excruciating) and there is a lot of learning to follow-hunches, listen to clues that come through, follow the thoughts that feel intriguing while trying not to get attached or hung up on them. Usually in the research phase I’m reading a lot, I’m paying attention to things that I’m drawn to, whether it takes the form of movies, music, books, imagery, time periods, textures, Etc. As part of this research phase I’m still making paintings and drawings, but they are often awkward and unfocused. I’ll start sketching, playing around on photoshop, collaging different images together. I’ll make watercolor studies, do small thumbnail drawings. Once I have the conceptual motivation and imagery solidified, I just go straight to the really large canvases. I like being in the painting, being surrounded by the expanse of the canvas. It’s my favorite part. I like getting lost in them.
The abstraction in the resin pieces, the pours as I refer to them, all come up with the image. A lot of people think that I paint the whole painting first and then do pours on top, but it’s really a back and forth the whole way through. From the very beginning, after I sketch in the composition I’ll lay the canvas horizontal and I’ll pour mixtures of synthetic resin, gamsol and oil paint. This allows for more of a collaborative process, with the paint itself. Sometimes a day’s worth of work will be obliterated by the movement of the abstraction as it moves across the canvas but it inevitably creates painterly moments that I couldn’t fabricate myself.
Is the process of making as important as the finished piece?
I think so. When I’m working on the paintings that have the poured abstraction it is definitely more so. I have to be in the work, trusting the process, willing to lose “hard-won” passages of the paintings for a greater whole… With some of the more recent paintings that read more like collage there is still a back and forth but the process is much more slow and deliberate. It takes much longer actually but it’s still process based.
Do you keep sketchbooks or a visual diary?
Yes, I always have a Sketchbook on me, I have images all over my wall… postcards, other artists paintings, photographs etc. I have a Pinterest page that has over seven thousand pins on it… it’s a little out of control. I am regularly creating spaces of investigation. I have found over the years that when I’m in a fallow period, a phase of not knowing what the next step is, I really need to approach my interests like a detective. I try to become objective and see what all of the visual archives, notes, collected ephemera might add up to. There have been times where I’ve collected an image or made a small painting that made no sense at the time and then years later it’s the exact thing I need for a current project.
What’s the process of sourcing imagery like, do you use life models?
It’s changed over the years. I went to Boston University which was at the time was, and I think it still is, a very academic school, meaning you paint/ draw/sculpt from life 9 hours a day, three times a week at least, in addition to your other classes. So I have that working from life experience deep in my bones. The program was designed to fully understand Anatomy and Flesh, the mass and weight of the human form and the world around you.
After school I started using myself as a model for practical reasons. I needed a model and I was too broke to pay… and not enough of a “director” to work with others, even if they would do it for free.
As the work progressed I would take video of my boyfriend and I making out (purely for artistic reasons;) and then I would use those small video stills as source material. I would look in the mirror to fill in the blanks of what those shoddy stills couldn’t provide.
Now because the work is about revealing new narratives in art history I’m working mostly from reproductions of paintings. Increasingly and this is really joyful, I’m just able to fill in the blanks from memory, because I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s new and really satisfying.
Have you used any of the traditional techniques of the artists of the past who may have inspired you?
For this current body of work, the primary sources are old Master paintings, not only am I using the imagery but I’m using the approach that the Old Masters used to make them—so, for instance in a painting called These things are you’re becoming I laid down bright red cadmium as an underpainting and then added silvery green glazes on top to achieve that kind of resonant buzzing effect.
The female form seems to be central to your work can you speak about this in terms of the juxtaposition of classical art and popular culture, does it reference today’s society and gender roles or is it more about removing them from their historical context?
My work is about how meaning gets made. I’m interested in how narratives become dominant, how power structures evolve, and what roles pop culture, literature, and art history play into this. From early on I’ve collapsed what I see out there with what I’ve created internally — an overlapping of cultural and personal narratives. I try to question how those cultural narratives are structured and unfolded, and how they shape our experiences.
Right after undergrad I found John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Among many other fascinating revelations in that little book, Berger identified a “split personality” that visual culture gives every woman. He states:
“A woman is always accompanied—except when quite alone—by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she had been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she came to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”
He also says, “Men act and women appear.”
Once you start looking for examples of this you can’t stop seeing them. As a result I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to dismantle those images for myself while attempting to understand the complexity of meaning that might be found in an image. Or, conversely, how seemingly simple images found in advertising and media might have a profound influence on societal structures.
In 2013, I began examining grand narratives, universal tales, origin stories, and myths to find a story that everyone, no matter race, age, geography or economic standing, could plug into. I was reading Joseph Campbell’s controversial theory of the mono-myth when I realized there were few female protagonists that fit the particular narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey. So I began to wonder if there could be a female version of the Hero’s Journey and if so, how it would differ. Obviously, gender is fluid and I don’t want to suggest there is a male version and a female version – but I was thinking about complicating an already dominant narrative. That led me to Marina Warner, a remarkable historian, who wrote “From the Beast to the Blonde.” In that text, Warner posits that places where women gathered alone offered dangerous freedom. She references several propaganda-like images from the 17th century and beyond that caution against the exchange of information between women, as their gossip–including secrets about illicit topics like sex and contraception–could result in their unruliness.
The Hero’s Journey for women often resides in fairytale. Not the sanitized Disney version, but the erotic and violent wonder tales told the world over by grandmothers, nurses, and other voiceless women who passed them on for generations. Taken out of context and devoid of their bite, these tales read as entertainment today, but at the time they could be viewed as whispers of progress–cautionary tales or emotional dramas meant to inspire rights and privileges outside normal social codes, moving towards broader terms of freedom for the narrator and her coterie. Medieval and Baroque-era tales often taught girls how to use cunning to meet life’s challenges such as avoiding abduction and rape. Many of these fairy tales were later re-written by men and changed to reflect the mores of the era. Instead of Little Red Riding Hood announcing that she must urinate outdoors in order to escape rape by the wolf, as told by women in the original story, she was saved by a father figure (the Grimm Brothers’ version) or responsible for her own rape and murder (the Charles Perrault version) in the later versions written by men.
I’m fascinated by how this kind of “editing” literally changes the course of history. A narrative that was constructed as a cautionary empowerment tale for a particular (coming of age female) audience morphs to completely disempower them when told by a more powerful, threatened male writer. This may have been well-intentioned artistic license or simply misunderstood by Charles Perrault, or the Grimms, or Disney for that matter. But I’m curious what would have happened if those oral traditions, when recorded, had been disseminated to the reading public accurately. I’m interested not only in the alternative histories that might have been, but also how we might create alternative histories now by looking at what has happened from a different point of view.
My paintings pull at the shadows of historical works of art and ask what dormant new narratives might be found in the female subjects that inhabit them. What invisible histories might be embedded or encoded? And is it possible to restore autonomy to these models—to whatever nuances of expression might have been contained in their poses? Maybe it cannot be “restored,” but perhaps it can be conceived afresh? In doing this I hope we can begin to see these previously “disempowered” female characters anew, more than as just pleasurable sexually objectified forms. When perceived as more complex, they seem more empowered. And I think acknowledging that depth of character and identifying with a lineage of bold, powerful, brave female figures may help women feel those things within themselves today.
How important is it to have a narrative in your work?
I don’t think of my work as a narrative in the sense that there’s a plot and a story arc. My work doesn’t illustrate the actual tales so much as showcase the women telling the stories and exposing the foundation of narrative as a place of questioning. Here storytelling becomes a form of activism. The work sets itself up against dominant cultural narratives and challenges power dynamics while revealing invisible histories.
Do you consider the viewer when you map out your compositions?
Yes, the paintings are fairly large and they’re often scaled up to an heroic scale/ history painting scale. Smaller intimate imagery or Boudoir paintings are blown up to 6 x 8ft. In my mind its a way of making the personal political. Not only does it highlight the body language between the characters but by scaling the images up to such a degree we’re forced to literally look up to these diminutive seemingly passive female characters.
How do you scale up your work from the preparatory piece to the finished artwork?
I just eyeball it, like I mentioned I’m working usually from a 2 by 2 inch thumbnail or from an image on my computer so I just get some soft vine charcoal and go at it. Wipe it down so just a ghost of the drawing remains and then I block in the color.
How long does it take to complete a painting?
Well, I worked for a year on the exhibition at the Everson museum but most of that was research and materials exploration. Most of the actual painting and sculpting was in the summer. I teach so my most productive months are during that time. I did the math, because it’s one of the most popular questions, and it came out to average about 1 to 1 1/2 weeks per painting. Some take longer than others. Some just flow out while others aren’t as cooperative. Once I have an idea of what I want, it comes more easily. It’s that preparatory part, for me, that can take a while.
You successfully balance abstraction and realism in your work, how easy/difficult is it to get this relationship right?
Thank you. At this point it’s fairly intuitive. In the beginning, when I first started playing with the two in the same space it really felt like something you just can’t do. It just isn’t done, and it shouldn’t be. But over time it’s felt more familiar and less awkward. I kind of feel my way into what makes for a good balance/ good competition. For me the abstraction needs to remain as seductive and engaging as the figuration. Neither can overpower the other. At least that’s what I strive for.
Do you ever have any studio disasters or happy accidents?
Almost every new technique or approach in my work has come from “happy accidents”… or more likely, reaching such a point of frustration, that I get to a breaking point and do something “drastic” that yields a nice surprise. That’s where the pouring came from, the gold leaf, the sanding etc.
What do you think hinders your creativity?
For me, self-criticism, lack of trusting the process, discomfort with not knowing, throwing away ideas prematurely. I have a very critical internal dialogue that will disparage every move I make or think about making. If I’m not vigilant it will take over and paralyze me, so I need to meditate and take long walks and purposefully think happy thoughts to balance it out. It sounds lame but that’s the truth of it. That and not having a deadline. I need a deadline to work towards, even if it’s self-made.
How important is marketing yourself and keeping your social media platforms up to date?
I imagine it’s really important although I don’t think I’m always consistent. I teach a professional practices class and so I tell my students how important it is all the time but there’s lots of other things are important to this work, like having a really great artist statement or feeling really confident in the way you talk about your work, maintaining friendships in the art world, going out and supporting your peers at their openings, applying for residencies and grants, curating shows, writing, making opportunities for yourself because no one is going to swoop in and “discover” you. You really have to go out and pitch. And pitch and pitch and pitch. I find most opportunities don’t always come from the head on pitch but through a side door. BUT without the constant pitching, those other things wouldn’t come. SO, you have to pitch.
Have you any advice for students who may be struggling to move work forward?
I guess it depends on where the struggle comes from. As I mentioned, I teach, so I see a lot of different versions of that struggle to move forward. If it’s a student who seems somewhat stubborn and are unable or unwilling to change, I often create mandatory exercises that will force them to do almost the exact opposite of what they’re comfortable with. If it’s a matter of approaching a project too superficially I encourage students to do certain kinds of research, to help draw them out of that. I often coach my students on the importance of formal elements in the communicative process of a work of art. How are they using light to communicate an idea? How are they using dynamic /passive composition? The content elements of your works, are they being described visually as well as through the material itself? If they are like me and their head gets in the way I’ll prescribe a project where they have to make 100 paintings in a week. If they are struggling with content I’ll encourage the collection process, have them read, look, listen etc. to figure out what they are authentically interested in. Sometimes I prescribe a process called “morning pages” from the book The Artist’s Way, where you write three pages every morning as soon as you wake up. A lot can be revealed through writing and it gets the tough stuff out of your head and unclogs the pathways.
How do you balance your teaching career and your art practice?
Teaching is wonderful, because I get to talk about art everyday. I have a set curriculum but I find what I’m thinking about in the studio inevitably seeps into the coursework and what I hear myself saying to my students is often what I need to hear most as well. It also helps keep me current and thinking more broadly. In order to best serve my students it is my job to be informed and thinking critically about the current landscape of the contemporary art world as well as revealing new ideas around past and present. Even with all the wonderful aspects of teaching it is still a time commitment that doesn’t always make it easy to get a good flow going in the studio.
So to counter that, I have two days a week that are almost always non-negotiable– meaning I will not schedule anything on those days even if it’s the only time a student or a committee can meet. I respect my art practice as if it were any other job that depended on my being there. Of course, life happens, my kid has to go to the doctor or there is an event I have to attend at school, but for the most part I adhere to that principle. And at least two of those days every month are spent in studio visits or going to openings. So the answer is, it’s hard, but we manage.
I read somewhere recently that you if you are embarking on a creative activity you need to have 5 hours of uninterrupted time and I think it’s true. I have a hard time getting work done in little bursts… but I’m always in conversation with the work. I have a small studio at home where I can keep “conversations warm” so to speak. I can pop in and say hello to what I’m working on and think about it while I’m making dinner or getting my kid to bed.
I’m best in the morning so during crunch time those two studio days turn into every morning up at 4am morning and working until 7am. You do what you have to do.
Have you any advice/tips for students who may want to apply for art shows and residencies, how do you set yourself apart from the competition?
There’s multiple ways to set yourself apart from the competition but first I should say that rejection is a part of the process and every artist needs to get very comfortable with it. Rejection sucks. It never not sucks, but you get better at brushing it off and going for the next thing. The best way to combat rejection is to blast the world with applications and proposals so you never put all your eggs in one basket. And even if you are rejected from one you should still apply over and over again, if it is something you really want.
I went to an artist lecture, a living artist who is in history books, who said they applied to the Guggenheim 15 times before receiving one. This person literally helped change the course of history and still had to suffer the “shame” of 15 rejections by a committee of jurors; Jurors who have their own agenda that you may or may not fit into that year. Don’t let it get you down. Feel sad, muster, move on. It’s not you, it’s them. Or it’s just not a match. Appreciate the things that are coming. We don’t appreciate the easy things that come nearly enough. Love the opportunities you do have. It can be uphill at various points, not just the beginning, and you have to be willing to stay the course.
I think setting yourself up for success is first and foremost. Have a strong artist statement– have writers, artists, other trusted art professionals look at it before putting it out to the world. Having a group of images that are consistent, show ambition, and are focused. Your images are the most important element in the application. If they aren’t strong the committee won’t look at anything else. Think about ways to build your resume. Get out there and exhibit as much as you can. Get your info out to the press people who have written about similar work etc.
Organize early, have all your materials in one place. Every application will ask for something totally different so it’s important to keep a record of what you’ve applied to, what you used for that application, you’ll need to have an image list, need to have your information on every single piece of text that goes out. Follow the instructions! Committees’ will throw out your application immediately if it doesn’t follow the rules.
Other than that just apply to 3-5 things a week. Just keep applying, keep putting yourself out there. You know you’re applying “enough” when the rejection feels like, oh, okay, whatevs, NEXT!
Do you have much control over how your exhibition and press material will look? What is the process like from studio to gallery wall?
It depends on the exhibition. Some institutions are much more hands-on, others are more collaborative. In the beginning it was all me. As a result, I make my students take graphic design classes so they can do their own publicity. We learn lighting and how to document work. If you’re really bad at any of it find someone who is good and trade services for artwork.
Even when you have the backing of a fantastic gallery or museum you still have to get the work out to your networks, follow-up, arrange studio visits, reach out… In my experience everyone has a million things they are doing so you have to step up and do the work of getting yourself out there yourself to help reap the biggest rewards.
As far as the curatorial ideas, I like to hand that over to the curator or gallerist as much as possible. I have ideas, but I find objective eyes seem to be much better at organizing my work than I am. It’s always a nice surprise.
What is your favourite piece of art, yours or someone else’s?
Too hard. Can’t answer.
Tell us about your new show Between Tongue and Teeth.
While they fall into a few separate groups, all the paintings and ceramics I made for Between Tongue and Teeth are about presenting a revisionist history that points to powerful contributions made by women at that time (and highlighting how often those historical figures are overlooked). At the same time, I am also positing that if we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. I’m really just asking a simple question: can history be rewritten in order to change the present? Can we uncover and augment the complexities of power women held throughout art history to buoy and propel women today? And can we simultaneously soften the male gaze and find more room for a female eye in order to restore power to women of the present?
In terms of the groups of new works, one is comprised of large-scale paintings based on a series of Japanese woodblock prints of three women harvesting silkworms by Kitagawa Utamaro, which is in the Everson’s collection. I used the prints as a jumping-off point to think about women gathering together, and how gathering can be a progressive, rebellious, subversive, and revolutionary act. I then combined aspects of those prints with other Japanese images that referenced the pleasure districts of the Edo period. I also utilized fragments of other paintings from the Baroque and Rococo periods, as well as by other European painters like Gérôme, Rubens, Jordaens, and Ferdinand Keller.
The women are playing out narratives, but importantly, most are acting as storytellers. Storytelling is really the connecting thread. For example, and this is subtle, I used Japanese prints not only for their content, but also as a reference to the first novel ever written, which as far as we know is The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman. Another famous female storyteller, Scheherazade, sits in the center of one painting, rolling out tales to save her life and the lives of all women. And in another, Diana tells a story to her nymphs after the hunt, etc. For me, collapsing all of these together—the fragments, remnants, figures—helps weave together the power of women’s words.
I also created a separate series of small portraits of regional suffragists; not the most famous, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but of the lesser known figures, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage and Quaker sisters Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright, who were instrumental in creating the woman’s suffrage movement. I also included Pretty Flower, a Haudenosaunee woman who represents the influence that Native American communities had on the movement—they were much more equitable—as well as Hester Jeffrey who organized the Susan B. Anthony Club for Colored Women and served as its first president.
I also created portraits of a group of British Suffragettes who infamously attacked paintings by male artists as a form of protest. In some ways, I’m drawing parallels between their actions and my revisionist creations as a means of drawing attention to the disparities of gender equality past and present.
I created several sculptures, busts, and a painted vessel. As I mentioned before I was drawn to the work of Adelaide Alsop Robineau.
I’m not a potter but I was immediately attracted to her surfaces as there are obvious formal parallels between her crystalline glazes and my abstract painted pours. The only way I knew how to work from “clay to finish” like she did, was to create sculptures. So I created several portrait busts with a crystalline surface effect. I also collaborated with a potter friend and colleague, Renzo Faggioli, to make the vessel.
Learning and working through a whole new medium was challenging but exciting! Hours would go by and I was so deeply entranced in the task before me that I would forget where I was or how long I had been working. What can I say? Adelaide Robineau inspired me—woman as catalyst, just as she should be.
A big thank you to Angela for being so generous in her responses, to see more of her work visit Angela’s website here