I paint under a window, even on gray days. I work in my lap, like a child coloring or a woman quilting, my face close to the surface, searching for its subtle textures and tonalities in the shifting natural light. If the canvas is too large to hold I lay it on a tabletop and paint from a low chair, at eye-level, moving around so my hands can touch the soft, raking shadows upon the surface.
My work often borrows from antique embroidery samplers. I like their obsessive handiwork, gorgeous materiality, their somber mood and feminine energy. I unravel their imagery, layering over and then picking at it with brushes and fingers, burying it and dusting it off until each painting seems to breathe and buzz in its own color climate.
To make paintings requires utter attention and complete care. In a noisy world, it’s a radical act of being quiet, being open, and looking with eyes wide like it’s dark out.
Interview with Clare Grill
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Clare! can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist? Were there any early experiences or influences that piqued your interest in painting?
I didn’t grow up with much awareness of artists or artworks. Really I played in the backyard with my siblings and neighbors. My sister and I drew together, did a lot of copying pictures from our coloring books, and we painted with watercolors sometimes. We loved embossing stamps with glitter! But we mostly did plays and made radio shows and pretended things in the backyard. I first used oil paint in my college dorm room and loved it. I was a studio art major but never had a crit—it was a very small program. I had my own studio senior year and went there all the time so I think that’s where I developed a studio practice but I didn’t look at art or read any contemporary art writing until my MFA at Pratt starting in 2003.
Can you give us some insight into how you begin a painting? What is your overall process like?
Rabbit skin glue and oil ground on linen first. Then I rub dirty painting rags into the white surface, just to kind of season it and reveal the weave. I lay the canvas flat on a tabletop and loosely and quickly put down some imagery using oil bars and paint. I look to things around me in my studio—drawings of mine, kid drawings, old paint piles on my palette, images of embroidery and quilts, this old book of sewing I have, personal photographs… This part is very improvisational and fast just to get something there to respond to. Sometimes I’m looking to establish specific structure, sometimes I start with just rubbing color all over the surface. It depends on the painting. They change very much after that, go through many lives.
At one point you were making drawings that were more directly inspired by needlepoint and embroidery—to the point where the paintings looked like beautiful, soft embroideries themselves, with hazy but still identifiable shapes and objects within them. When did you begin to work more abstractly? Are you still working from similar subject matter as a starting point?
I still make them! Though I’ve been lazy about it recently. They are a parallel body of work that stands on its own and also generates new paintings. Making them has been a way to develop my own touch and my own vocabulary as a jumping off place from which to paint. The more abstract work is hand-in-hand and concurrent with the Sampler drawings. I’ve felt a real freedom working from them as a source rather than directly from images of samplers because they’re mine and they’re physical, they are objects that have been made and handled, not images, which feels right to me.
One of the most obvious shifts from the prior work is a difference in color—the older works have generally light backgrounds and bold, bright forms, whereas the newer works stay within a narrower, lighter value range. Can you talk a bit about this shift and how it came about?
I have to look at something when I paint, I can’t just invent from thin air. Sometime around 2012 I thought, maybe something as seemingly insignificant as a little smudge on a drawing or a stain on an old tablecloth could be enough to paint from. I recently read a Leon Golub quote which said “Some of the most beautiful things that exist are just pieces of things” and I think that’s really right. There’s a beauty and a melancholy in the off-moment, the thing happening just outside the frame, in the slip, the in-between, the incomplete. I wanted to celebrate these parts, shine a light on them like they’re most important, quiet but complex figures on a ground. In larger paintings I like to wash over or “un-see” the figure or the imagery that’s there, so that I can get lost in little details rather than describing the imagery. I think it’s a scale thing for me. There are images embedded in all my paintings, but they get transformed through my process of covering over and digging back up.
You were once a figurative painter—can you tell us a bit about what influenced you to start working more abstractly? Was it a conscious, abrupt decision or did it happen more organically over time?
Slowly and organically over time. About three years. Working figuratively from photographs, I felt a distance between me and the painting, like I was abstracting someone else’s pictures. It felt too intellectual, and not “felt” enough, and I learned I wanted to arrive at paintings through making them, really looking at them closely and patiently and responding, giving, taking, rather than arriving ahead of time, like making a plan. It’s more fun for me to let the painting as it unfolds be my “source image”, instead of a 2D picture because I tend to feel beholden to it and all the meaning and messaging it carries.
Can you tell us a bit about your studio? What are the most important components of your studio space? Is there anything you love about your current setup?
The most important thing is a big window because I like to paint in natural light that shifts and changes how my painting looks. I love my studio. It is in Long Island City a couple miles from my home in Sunnyside and I can see the sky and the Queensboro Bridge. It’s in a neat old building with good old-building juju.
You have lived in New York City for fifteen years. How has being in the city influenced your work, practice, or career thus far?
NYC has given me artists! And I get to see so much and hear so much. Opportunities and ideas spring up all over the place because here you connect and intersect with so many people. Also you have to learn to improvise here which is a good life skill. All artists have to improvise to make their work and live a life, but NYC has special challenges because it’s expensive and so fast-paced. You have to be really creative in arranging things so you can have enough money to be able to afford rent and studio time and peace of mind and all that. Not unique to NYC of course, but If you can figure it out here, you’re in good shape because it really tests your resolve and your grit. I think it’s why having a baby has not felt particularly shocking nor upsetting to my art practice at all. I’ve been figuring out how to improvise for the past fifteen years and I’m good at it by now! You just make it work.
You recently spent a semester as the artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee School of Art. What was this experience like?
I loved my semester at UT because I got to try out teaching, having never done it before, in a completely supportive and positive place. I was there with my husband and our 5-month old so that was a huge part of my experience. It was lovely to be in a new place during a very new phase in our lives. Zero pressure to do anything but what needed doing. And Knoxville is a cool town.
Are residencies an important component of being an artist for you? Did your time at Skowhegan or other residencies change your trajectory? I think residencies change you if you need changing. They can give you a framework in which to risk. Skowhegan completely was instrumental for me because I was eager to locate a different way of entering making a painting. Also I felt firm enough on my “artist feet” to be pushed hard and not fall over.
From past interviews, it seems that the materials you work with are of the utmost importance to you. Can you talk a bit about the most important material elements in your work and how you decided they were indispensable? How long have these tools been a part of your process?
Robert Doak’s goop I’ve been using for about 10 years. It’s an extender like Galkyd gel but not alkyd-based so it’s not shiny looking. I use it in various viscosities and I love it. Linen is indispensable because, you know, linen. But what really matters is what you do with materials, how you make them look.
Labor, care, and attention to the tiniest details seem paramount in your paintings. Would you say these attributes translate into other areas of your life?
I hope they translate to my relationships! I’m a terrible cook and I am not very neat but I do knit with extreme care and attention to detail. I’ll unravel a whole sweater and start over if the weave looks wrong to me. I’m super fussy about buying presents for people. I want them to be perfect gifts. And I wrap them the same way, as if they’re little painted sculptures.
In response to your work, C. Sean Horton has written: "Grill’s paintings encourage quiet and often melancholic contemplation.” How do you foster an environment that is conducive to this type of meditative practice, amidst the hustle of daily life, especially within the borders of New York City?
I go to my studio like it’s my job and let myself get lost in paintings. Noise-cancelling headphones with songs on repeat helps sometimes but you know, moments of meditative-like attention are not the norm, nor are they something I can really control. I wish they were, but I’m human and distractable and my mind wanders so easily.
In addition, if you reach a sort of meditative state when you're working, have you always been able to do this or was this a skill you developed over time? Are there days when you can't get to this point mentally? Is there anything that helps or hinders your ability to reach a state of concentration?
No email or internet or newspaper before I go to the studio. This takes discipline but it helps. When my studio was at home, we used to unplug the router at night so the morning was distraction-free. But I paint in the afternoon now so it’s harder to avoid the outside world till then. Plus all the garbage stuff happening…It is very hard to shut off the radio much of the time.
In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, you said that, “it was paradise” to make the paintings for a show you had in 2015 at Zieher Smith & Horton. Can you elaborate on this? Is accessing “paradise” more difficult now, in 2018, than it was in the past?
Haha that sounds really dramatic to read now. But I think what I meant was I felt really good making those paintings. It was basically a 2 month period of intense connection and attention to my work and I just felt confident and unaware of other people’s expectations, a great place to be.
Is drawing a part of your practice—whether as preparatory sketches or finished works? Can you draw, say, on the train?
I can’t draw on the train. I need my studio cocoon. I treat drawings like paintings-like I draw something and I instinctively have to do something to the drawing, touch it again with my fingers or a brush, alter it somehow. I have difficulty letting a drawing just be a line on paper, and walking away and I’m jealous of those who can do it well. It feels unresolved and distant to me this way. I want to turn it into a finished artwork then and there with a few more passes of my hands which is weird because the way I paint takes months sometimes years to reach resolution.
In an interview with Gorky’s Granddaughter from 2012, you mentioned that you often eliminate the elements in a painting that are easy to put words to—is this something you still think about? How do you write about your work?
I like for paintings to open up rather than shut down, and sometimes nameable images carry with them other associations and meanings that for me as a painter close down the possibilities and distract from the paint.
You have said that as an artist you have to paint a lot—how has working consistently impacted your practice? Did you always know this was important to your growth as an artist?
Yeah. I think you have to make a lot to figure out how and what you make. It’s how you develop your intuition as an artist how you discover what gets the axe and what you want to look at/make more of. I think of it like exercising and strengthening a muscle only it’s your gut muscle.
As someone who spends a lot of time in the studio, what keeps the work fresh and sustains your interest in making the work over time?
The desire to make a painting! To bring these things to life. Someone said to me a painting is finished when it has a face and looks back at you. She was talking about presence, that force a painting has when it really breathes and is strong and fully-grown and no longer needs you. Guston spoke about leaving a studio full of people at night when he’d go in for dinner. This is such a curious and powerful feeling. Also I use different linens and all different size canvases to keep things from feeling formulaic.
Who are some of the artists you look at most often?
Most often in the studio these days I look at folk art, craft, and kid art. I’ve had a Ron Gorchov book and a Morandi book out for a while.
What is the best exhibition your have seen recently?
Kathy Butterly at James Cohan
Is there any advice you have received that you remember often?
Paintings are bad until they’re good.
If you can imagine what you want to make five years from now, what are you waiting for?
Go down your own rabbit-hole and stay awhile.
To paint a flower is to paint a lie. To paint a painting is to paint a flower. (not advice to me really but a thing Richard Pousette-Dart said that changed me and that I think of often).
What is a typical day like for you?
I hang out with Fan in the morning and walk to the studio around 11:30. Paint till like 5:30/6 and then run home. Bill cooks wonderful dinners every night and we talk. Then usually we watch a show.
How do you balance your studio practice with other day-to-day life responsibilities? How do you prioritize making work?
I just go there and do it. I have always made sure to build my studio time in to my life, and to make sure the other responsibilities in our life support and include my studio practice. I think you have to choose it and commit to it and protect it.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I’m reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and Milk by Dorthea Lasky. I’m listening to too much news, Karen Dalton, Sturgill Simpson, Grateful Dead, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl, Sylvan Esso, Ludivico Einaudi, WDVX Knoxville’s radio station, David Sedaris reading Calypso on audible, Joe Frank, Rumblestrip Podcast, just finished the Homecoming podcast…
What are some of your interests outside of art?
Knitting, camping, horror movies, family parties, running races, sad music, holidays, Cubs baseball
Any news, exhibitions, residencies, etc. coming up in the near future?
Making lots of new paintings.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Clare and her work, check out her website.