Caetlynn Booth’s work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and internationally, most recently at Wildlife, Reservoir Art Space, and Momenta Art in New York. Booth was a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a D.A.A.D. grant for an independent painting project based in Berlin from 2011 to 2013. She was awarded a Queens Arts Fund grant in in 2014, a chashama exhibition grant in 2013, and a Kittredge Fund grant in 2012. Booth’s work has been featured in New American Paintings (Issue No. 87 & 93) and she has completed residencies at I-A-M Institut and GlogauAIR in Berlin, at the Vermont Studio Center, and at the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi. Booth received her MFA in 2011 from Rutgers University and her BA in 2002 from the University of California at Davis. She currently lives and works in Queens, NY.
My work uses personally developed iconography of the swamp as a starting point for making paintings about imagined environments, and as a backdrop for reinventing the organic forms that are found within this landscape. In the Fall of 2014, I completed an artist’s residency in Mississippi at the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, and I have been working with material through iterations: a series of paintings that depict the swamp as a constantly surprising landscape, a continuously unpredictable watery environment that parallels humanity’s relationship to the land/landscape as a whole. The swamp is a place of abstraction, metaphor, metamorphosis—it is primordial ooze; a placid expanse; a changing climate. During the residency, I spent a lot of time out on the water in a kayak before sunrise, watching as the sky and lake flickered through innumerable colors and levels of brightness within a 45-minute period. My paintings are exploring the qualities of the swamp through this light environment period of pre-dawn through sunrise, with a mirror-like reflectivity and cast of characteristics that at once seem alien and familiar.
This work is in dialog with the work of artists including Roger Brown, Ann Craven, and Philip Taaffe. The work of these artists also helps to describe qualities that I am thinking about as I make my paintings: pattern and symbolism in the landscape from a spiritually charged angle; painting as a ritual to look at the process of grieving and loss through seriality and connection through repetition; and image-making that is iconic yet incredibly specific, and capable of teasing out something profound from the unexpected.
Q&A with Caetlynn Booth
by Emily Burns
Hi Caetlynn! Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you create your compositions? Does drawing play a part in your work?
My process at its most successful is built around very routine studio time—time that I can count on in a very predictable way. Knowing that I can and will return again and again to a reliable physical space, and a dedicated mental space over time is very important to the process and development of my work.
Drawing plays a big role—it’s how I really start to visually understand the material I work with. In the beginning of a given body of work, and also at key points along the way, I will spend a lot of time making drawings to figure out how I want to work with a given subject, the structure of the composition, value, color, emphasis, scale, etc. (I use colored markers in addition to pencil, ink, etc. for drawing). I make thumbnail sketches in my journal that I sort through and make selections from to work with in a larger size, and then I make these larger drawings to further work out what stays and what goes. Throughout this process, I am also working in oil with other compositions that have already gone through this process, or in which I’ve decided to jump right in and see what something will look like in oil, skipping the drawing process altogether (except usually the under-painting has a few drawn elements). It goes back and forth, but drawing is the underpinning.
Can you talk a bit about the genesis of your recent series, Into the Swamp?
I didn’t really see this series coming—it caught me off guard! In the fall of 2014, I completed a residency at the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, and all of this work has come from that initial experience. Several things were happening at once, and all these factors gelled together to form the work I am still developing for Into the Swamp. The key factors were: an intense experience with and connection to the landscape of the swamp; how the swamp environment synched up with other strong interests in my work including mirror-imaging, color determined by time of day, imagery that I can work with easily from memory and invention, and an environment that is in constant change. Another big factor was that when I got back to NYC, I have been able to work in the same studio continuously, with a predictable routine, making the breakthroughs necessary for this work to emerge. (From 2007 to 2014 I had seven different studios in five different cities and two different countries. Moving so much lead to a lot of growth and was unbelievably great for a lot of different reasons, but somehow the depth of the swamp project coincided with the continuity that I have with my current space.)
What is the most exciting thing for you that is happening in this series so far?
The most exciting thing that’s been happening lately is the mutability of the subject matter and the genesis of unexpected elements that keep coming up in my drawings from one to the next. As I work with an idea that was a thumbnail sketch in a larger format, I have been then taking the ideas that pop up during the process, and working with them in the next drawing or painting, and repeating this process with what has become a whole succession of works that are quotes, references, spin-offs or meditations about the ones that have come before. At times it feels like I’m going down the rabbit hole. It is several generations in the same room together. Working with a sequence of images between states of solid and liquid, between the darkness of night and the intense colors of daybreak, and the figurative elements of the swamp that, by their nature, walk with their feet in both representation and abstraction, has been a very eye-opening and important experience.
Can you talk about your relationship with color in your work?
Recently I realized that the experience of having a set of German beeswax crayons (they are rectangular and come in a flat metal tin, with the basic primary and secondary colors) had a significant impact. I have this impulse to include these colors, representing the simplified shades of the rainbow, in every painting I make. This isn’t always possible, but many times the blacks, browns, or really any other color I use has at least some portion of its compliment mixed in, and many times, I’ll pick two emphasis colors to mix together, and then also use both of their compliments to fine-tune the color. My color sensitivity has become more heightened with the swamp series. When I’m mixing color, I will mix several colors ahead of time from imagining the color/shade that I think I want, paying close attention to how they interact with each other. I love this process because the palette is one of the major defining forces behind what my painting will become.
You seem to work primarily with oil—have you experimented with other media? What do you like most about oil?
Oil is my favorite medium for painting, and in some ways, I think it chose me. Growing up, I learned to sew fairly young and made quilts and some of my own clothes. My emphasis in undergrad was sculpture and printmaking, and then after undergrad, I went back to get a certificate in photography, making my own B&W and color prints in the darkroom. At this point, I was definitely experimenting a lot with other media too, including acrylic and spray paint, and all kinds of other materials. I had actually been waiting until after school to really delve into oil painting because it felt like something that I needed to explore on my own, outside of a class environment. I started oil painting when I rented my first studio, and then several years later, I decided to return for my master’s in painting.
The main reasons I choose oil over other mediums are: the touch of its viscosity—the silky texture of the brush and the medium while painting on panel, paper or linen; the way the color looks—molecules of pigment suspended in oil—it is an organic, three-dimensional material; how it mixes, how mediums change it, how each pigment has its own characteristics based on the chemical properties of the mineral, or whatever it is derived from. I love that it is hard to work with.
When I’m on the road especially, I work with watercolor and gouache too—I like this material, but just not as much as working in oil.
I love the effect of the texture of the oil paint on paper in your most recent series. Do you use a particular type of paper or prepare the surface in a particular way to allow it to support and withstand the oil paint?
A friend of mine recommended Arches Huile cotton rag paper, and I love it! It’s made especially for painting in oil directly on the paper—no preparation necessary.
What is the Bushwick and Ridgewood art scene and community like? Is this important to your work?
I think the most important thing about the environment that I find myself in at the moment is that it is supportive. I have only lived here for 2 ½ years, but in that time, thanks to friends who were already in the area, my husband and I have found a place to live, studio space, and day jobs that allow us to keep our lives as artists in balance.
It also seems like the community of Bushwick/Ridgewood and surrounding areas, is large enough that you can really define your practice as anything you want it to be—there is a freedom to not being pinned down that I think is a strength of the community. There are all kinds of sub-groups of artists co-existing with their own interests and trends—I feel like I don’t need to be a part of anything that isn’t the right fit, which is liberating.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical studio day starts by going to gym in the morning and then heading to the studio right after lunch. My studio is very close to my apartment, and doesn’t have any windows, so it’s a bit like going into a space unaffected by time. It all depends on what’s going on in the studio, whether I’m prepping or in the middle of a painting, but many times I’ll spend an hour or two mixing paint, a few hours painting, some time making drawings or an under painting, or working up ideas in my journal. I’ll head home around 7pm, and usually won’t return to the studio, but will work on drawings or ideas for paintings at home after dinner.
Do you feel like it is important to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Yes. This is a crucially important part. Anticipation plays a role in terms of preparing—knowing that I will be going to the studio, and reviewing my notes from last time, or making a list of what I want to accomplish over the next few studio days. It’s important that I’m not hungry when I arrive, that I have a bottle of sparkling water with me, the right clothes for the temperature, etc. These don’t seem like big things, but they can throw the whole thing off if I’m not prepared in advance to be in the studio for a few hours.
What are the most important components of your studio?
The door to make it a private space; a clear wall for working & recent paintings & drawings nearby; collection of oil paints & mediums; brushes; disposable grey-tone palettes; primed panels and paper as surfaces; rolling table for mixing; shelves for storage; desk area/chair; computer & projector; apron; black nitrile gloves; fan or space heater depending on the season; headphones & music.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
Lately I’ve been listening to all of the music on my phone on shuffle so that it’s very random—a song by Morphine will be followed by a track from a meditation album, followed by a Magnetic Fields song followed by a track from Puccini’s Tosca, etc. This random access to so many familiar tracks from different points in time and interests feels good at the moment.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past few years was “The Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler—it helped to me to articulate for myself what I value in terms of quality of life and how transportation fits into this.
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Rubin & Ed.” It is one of the best, quintessentially human films out there. I recently finished reading “The End of Absence,” by Michael Harris; I’m currently reading “American Building, The Historical Forces that Shaped It,” by James Marston Fitch, and Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” and I hope in the near future to read “H is for Hawk,” by Helen Macdonald.
I need to add that one of the most influential paintings for me is Adam Elsheimer’s “Flight into Egypt,” 1609. Wanting to study this painting was the inspiration behind my Fulbright project, and it has forever changed the way I conceive of painting.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
There are so many artists whose work I return to, or love to see in person any chance I get. The artists I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are Roger Brown, Ann Craven and Philip Taaffe. Other artists whose work I love to look at are: Albert Pinkham Ryder, Jess, Yvonne Jacquette, Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Joan Brown, Mary Heilmann, Charles Burchfield, George Alt, Adam Elsheimer, etc.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
I have received a lot of very useful advice over the years from all kinds of sources, but usually what’s most relevant to me at a particular time is what markedly stands out—something I’ve read or heard that I can’t get out of my head. I recently read an article about Mark Bradford in an issue of the New Yorker from 2015 and something he said really stood out: Don’t try to find people who can help you; try to find people who you can help.
I’ve also used the following quote from Plato as a kind of mantra for a long time:
Courage is knowing what not to fear.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
I really loved the Ellsworth Kelly photography show at Matthew Marks Gallery this year, and in 2015, the Roger Brown shows at DC Moore and Maccarone; Sarah Charlesworth at the New Museum; and Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series at MoMA were all terrific.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
Hmmmmmm… I would say that I’ve come to terms with FB and think it’s most useful for event invitations. I have a blog and flickr account that I post on quarterly with images from shows I’ve seen. For keeping in touch, I prefer good old email, and also have an account with Madmimi for sending studio updates. I look at my husband’s Instagram account occasionally.
Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Everyone has different goals for their work, and I think it’s key to become aware of what your priorities are in this respect. What’s most valuable to you about being an artist? If you’re in the studio, or wherever you make your work, and are spending the time not only to make your work, but to know its character and to become an expert on your own work, you will find success. Making work in school is a lot different than making it on the outside. Your friends and colleagues are a great resource because they know and care about you—share your goals with them. Engage in activities that support your confidence in your work, and keep going. I know a lot of artists who have pooled their resources to create collective exhibition spaces.
What are a few of your favorite links, apps, resources or other stuff that you have found to be helpful as an artist or human?
This membership program has reciprocal benefits that provide for 1 or 2 free tickets to most museums in the US.
This comprehensive list of residencies—join their email list for monthly list of upcoming deadlines.
Artist resources for archiving your work.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I will be in the show “Seeing Water” at Zoller Gallery at Penn State in the fall, and in October, I will be participating in Bushwick Open Studios through Reservoir Art Space, where my studio is located. I have a few things on the horizon for next year, and we’ll see what else happens between now and then!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Caetlynn and her work, check out her website.