Welcome to Episode 4 of Un*varnished!
Frank questions with rad artists about those times when the going gets tough.
How do you put your creativity first without alienating your friends and family?
This week I speak with representational artist, and fine art instructor Serena Potter, who generously shares her hard-won insights on this topic, as well as the struggles and high-points of her artistic path.
Listen to the raw/unedited conversation on Soudcloud, or read the interview below.
Tell us who you are and what you do as an artist.
I am Serena Potter. I am an artist and instructor. My job title, I suppose, depends on the month. I am an adjunct instructor at various schools. I teach online for National University (around ten courses per year for them). Sometimes art history, sometimes drawing, depending on the month. I also teach at various community colleges in Southern California, mainly Mt. San Antonio College, where I teach Beginning Drawing.
Other than that I consider myself an artist; a painter. That’s my first and foremost priority.
How would you describe your art in broad strokes:
Mainly, I’m a painter. But I also create drawings with mixed media, different forms of charcoal, and to me they are almost like paintings with my process.
My work is very figurative, narrative, representational, but it doesn’t fall into one category or box. I have a hard time labeling myself. I have heard people say that my work reminds them of Golden Age American illustrators, like Norman Rockwell, or JC Leyendecker, in that the color, the props, the vintage feel that I will put into things will evoke that association. But my work is very personal and the narrative, usually, has some sort of a darker twist to it, or a sarcasm,... there is an edge behind the pretty colors.
Is art a profession or vocation for you, and how have you navigated the potential interplay between the two?
I have always created, as long as I can remember. I think I always knew I was an artist, or “artistic”, as a child. I was always drawing. I was always creating. I was always gathering bits of thrown away this-and-that, out of the trash at home, building little houses and dioramas. It took on many different forms, but it was always there.
When I was in High School I had not yet realized that art could possibly be a career. It was just something that was always me. So I was always looking around like “What am I going to be when I grow up?”I ended up taking an art class in High School, and I think it was there where I started to think this could actually be a profession, as well as the thing I love to do.
In college I did major in fine arts in my undergraduate years and planned on getting a masters in art therapy. The University of Utah had a masters degree in Art Therapy but once I had finished my BFA, the program got canceled.
So, I just continued on my art trek. I don’t know if there was an Aha-moment. It’s always been who I am, and I’ve always been looking for ways to use my art, and to earn money with my art. I’ve also had the “other” jobs alongside it, too. I also used to manage a huge bookstore.
When I went into my graduate studies, I knew I wanted to take my art to another level. I felt a little stuck and wanted to advance my skills, and learn how to earn more money with it. At that point I thought maybe teaching was a route to go, but I didn’t know if I was really interested in teaching, if I’d like it, or be good at it. In the process of being exposed to other art teachers, and watching how they did what they did, I realized “Yeah, I could be good at this!”. So the teaching has worked out. It has been a good means to support my explorations with my paintings. It pays the bills as I focus on my art career.
Have you observed a change in your studio practice after having undergone the masters program. Would you say it was beneficial?
I have always been a very disciplined person. Even before I went into a graduate program I always had that quality. I also went through seven years of illness, which really debilitated me. I wasn’t able to be out of bed for longer than a couple of hours each day. But even throughout that, I made sure that that one hour, if that’s all I had that day, that I was painting. For a long time I did little, direct paintings, painting whatever was around. Whether it was a bowl of cereal, or a shoe… I just made sure that I was painting, because I have always felt on the inside that I was an artist, and that’s what makes me who I am. After going through the MFA I realized that there was more I could be accomplishing for myself personally with that studio time. And that I could use my art to communicate in ways I didn’t realize before.
I don’t really have a problem getting into my studio because I love that space. With every painting I’m setting up challenges for myself, and problems to solve. I come in here and I already know that I can solve this problem or meet this challenge. It may mean that I’ll be sanding off layers, and that I’ll be back-tracking, and jumping through hoops. But I am confident that in the end I will get to where I want to go. For me it is harder to get out of the studio than it is getting into my studio, because the world is a scary place that doesn’t make sense to me. But in my studio it makes sense and I can control what happens here.
So, yes, going through the MFA program really exposed me to how to approach my work, and what I could use it for. How to express what I am going through, my experiences, my angst, world-craziness, personal pain and struggles, so my studio is a very safe place for me.
What would you point to as your proudest creative accomplishment, so far?
That’s a tough one for me. I recognize that I am not very good at acknowledging accomplishment, or allowing myself to be proud or enjoy an accomplishment. I tend to be skeptical. When I was offered a residency at the Long Beach Museum of Art everybody was saying “Wow, this is amazing, you should be really excited!” … and I was. But in my head I was already looking into the future. “Ok, what’s next? How am I going to bounce off of this into the next thing.” And I do realize that I actually need to take time to acknowledge when I did something good and enjoy it.
I think the thing I am most proud of, is the evolution of my work itself. In the past year I have just felt things clicking together in my brain. I am capable of composing in a way that I hadn’t been before. I can invent where I hadn’t been able to before. In the past I needed my composition completely worked out and get that perfect set of photo references to work from. Now, it is ok If I don’t actually get all the people in the same shot. I can take a bunch of references. And if I need to invent something somewhat fantastical, then I can do that, too. And I didn’t have that confidence before. It’s very exciting for me to see that I can do it. It’s that feeling of getting more and more control in my studio. With every painting I am feeling like I’m learning something new, I’m tackling something I hadn’t before and it sets me up to be able to do something even more exciting with the next one.
What are the things that prevent you from doing your creative work, be they personal patterns or outside forces. How do you counter them?
Foremost it’s that, as much as we are artists, we are also humans and we have to live life. And life gets in the way.
As teachers we are dealing with a lot of different personalities, and students, and issues. And we have family issues, too. For me it is learning how to shut those things out. Once I get into my studio I have to be able to shut off those “other” things, because my work takes so much problem solving. Whether it’s just mixing the right color, and there are so many choices, you have to be able to focus.
Where I do run into problems is if I am unable to leave out those distractions. Sometimes I’ll come in and realize “I just wasted the day, or a week on something because my brain wasn’t in gear, in focus on what I was creating.” Other things were getting in the way and I wasn’t making the right choices.
I also schedule my life a lot. I let family know for example that I am available in the morning to run errands, exercise, go get lunch, but by 2pm I’m in my studio and I’m not coming out til 9 or 9.30. If my daughters are around they might want to watch a movie with me. And my response will be: “Sure, I’ll watch it with you at 9 o’clock!”
Has it been easy to establish these ground rules in your family?
Because I have always been pretty got at it, they expect it from me now. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get push-back at times. Where I have had to really put my foot down, is when we have a lot of family coming to visit and they want to go do things. I need them to understand that this is my job. This is what I do. I can’t go to the beach every day. I’ll say “I’m available on Saturday from this time to this time.”
It doesn’t always go over well. But, especially as artists, we have to protect our studio time. If we were going to a job and worked 9-5, they would understand that: “Oh, you work tomorrow.”
Are there any physical things or mental affirmations you go to when you are stuck?
When I need to come up with the next idea, if I have total brain fog, and nothing is coming together, it often takes me getting away… going on a drive. My husband is great for this because he understands my process. We’ll get in the car and go someplace for the weekend. Even for a trip to Utah, to visit the family, the part that I look forward to is the nine hours in the car, because I’m just looking at empty space of dessert and tumble weeds and that’s when I start talking through what I’ve been going through, and what I need to communicate. I can usually find the next idea on the inside. “What’s been on my mind? What emotions have I been going through? What has sparked those emotions and how can I work that into a painting?” We bounce that back and forth and I always have my little sketchbook and take notes and work it through.
Another thing I will do is go to my local coffee shop with my sketchbook and get my iced latte, put my feet up and just start jotting down thoughts. Journaling about “What are these thoughts and emotions? What do I need to do to take the next step?” If I already have the idea in place then I might have to come up with the visual. “Where do I want this to take place? Who do I know who’d be a good character in this painting? What props do I need?” I start listing things out. I make lots of lists. So, list-making and driving around local communities, often looking for locations that inspire me or give me ideas for backgrounds that might play into my stories.
Do your paintings always start as ideas and emotions and then comes the image or do they also sometimes already start out as visuals? Do you have a preference?
Sometimes I will see an image in my head or have a memory of something and then I’ll try and break it down into what I am associating with that image or memory. Usually, whatever it is that I’m seeing in my head, is not something I will translate literally but it might inspire a painting.
I don’t have a preference but it does matter where it’s coming from. Sometimes I’ll be watching an old movie and I’ll see a scene and I’ll just love the composition or the lighting, and that will make me think about what kind of narrative could I paint that reflects that sort of lighting or feel.
Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you picked up along the way from mentors, friends or artists you admire, that help get you out of sticky creative spots?
In my undergraduate program before we were “kicked out”, I had one instructor who said:
“Only one in ten of you will ever actually continue to create art in your life, or be artists. The one thing you can do, to ensure that you stick with it, is to always have that place where you create. Even if you just rent a room in an apartment with a bunch of other people, you make sure that there is a corner in that room that has your table or easel and your supplies, and that you don’t have to clean it up. Because if you have to clean it up you won’t get the stuff out again and keep making that mess. You have to have a place where you can have that mess.”
I have always taken this to heart. Even when we lived in England, in student housing with two little kids. I went to Salvation Army and bought this giant wardrobe with two doors. One side had shelves, the other a rod for hanging clothes, and I turned that into my art studio. My art supplies were on the one side on the shelves, and on the doors I put hooks, so I could hang a canvas on them. And then I could just shut it and lock the doors when I was done. I’ve always made sure I had my space. It also tells the rest of the household that it’s important to you, so it’s important to them, too.
Also, I don’t remember who said this, but “If you want to learn to do something, look to the ones who are already doing it.” I tend to look around me and look at the artists who have the careers I admire, create the work I admire, or have the studio practice that I admire. And I’ll try to learn from them. If I have a technical challenge and don’t know exactly how to approach it, then I look to the artist who have already figured it out in their work. Sometimes it means contacting them, but most of the times it just means watching how they are doing what they do. Even on social media, I’m not just looking that they are producing work but what else do they do? Like studio visits, connecting with other artists and building that community, which is what you are doing with Cura. I think that is so important. And that part is a little bit more difficult for me, because once I am in my studio I have a hard time getting out. It is that balance though. You have to have the work, in order to show it, so that means making it. And mine isn’t just something that happens quickly.
Ello as @serenapotter
Tumblr as Serenamuse