Today we have an interview with artist Haley Farthing. She is a lecturer in the art department at Southern Illinois University- Carbondale. Farthing holds a MFA and BFA in painting from the University of Washington and Boston University respectively. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Haley in her studio to talk about her artwork.
Tell us about your artistic work? What media do you tend to use and what are some of the concepts you want to address?
As I mentioned earlier it’s changing so those are things I’m trying to figure out. The main thing I’m still working on is imagery that represents the natural or physical world.
In terms of media, I think of the imagery in the natural world as very impermanent, which a lot of artists deal with (losing nature and humanity taking over). Nature is always changing and evolving and disappearing. So I like to work with materials that show that impermanence. If I’m using wet material, I use things that are translucent like watercolor or translucent ink and if it’s a dry material I like things like pastel and charcoal: that when you get close to them they become like pure dust and they lose their form completely. I like that relationship with the materials, that from a distance they seem solid and they seem substantial but from up close they break down and lose their form.
I’m definitely more of a formalist than a conceptualist. I think that in order for a work of art, and this is not for everybody, but for me it needs to be visually interesting and engaging in order for it to be successful. So a lot of the things that I do think about are color relationships and building form or contrast with light.
In terms of concepts [I look at] my relationship to the world and then, bigger than that, society’s relationship to nature. What is has been in the past is more of this appreciation of these moments that are overlooked. But now I’m thinking about the idea that we all love nature and think it’s beautiful but don’t like to be in nature and deal with bugs and heat. (It was very hot the day of the interview). But we love to tame nature and organize nature and structure nature in terms of pattern to decorate our spaces- that idea of liking and appreciating nature but only when we can control it. And so I’m moving more towards showing that a little more. I’m starting to not just represent it (nature) but transforming it from what it is to decoration.
And then I guess the other thing too, and this isn’t something I think of when I make my image but it is absolutely a part of my images, is the femininity of them. I’m not out there as a feminist artist but I think that my images are delicate in nature. I’m starting now to incorporate elements that are associated, traditionally, with females like sewing and fabric. I’m excited to show the creative and artistic potential of those media and having that come to a forefront.
I’m quoting two things (for the interview): One is about Bridget Riley whose art is absolutely nothing like mine. A critic wrote about Riley, “If I had to track down a feminine footprint here I would point to a certain unforced patience; that quality which can add the thousandth stitch to the 999th without a tremor of triumph.” I think that is really amazing and what I want in my work as well; that appreciation of a patience and dedication and determination that it takes to make art. I think that is a strong part of being female; I mean not all women are patient. But, maybe we have a little bit more (patience), and that should be appreciated and shown and showcased so I want that to come into the art a little more. I used to think, “well I’m going to do more wood images than leaf images because the leaves look too much like flowers, which is too feminine and I don’t want it to look like a couch painting and I don’t want to be a female Thomas Kinkade so I’m going do something different!” Instead of moving away from it (the feminine) I’m going to move towards it in very purposeful ways.
Are you experimenting with any new processes or starting a new project right now?
The other thing I want to start to do is a transition from representation to pattern. One of the ways I want to start doing that is with layering, which I had been experimenting with before just because of my translucent materials. When working on the wood, I never thought of it as a support. I thought of it as a separate element with that wood grain and so I was always thinking about layering images together.
But I want to start doing that even more. And I want it to be one layer of representation and then one layer of slightly abstracted pattern and then slowly transitioning to make that shift from the real to decoration within the image.
I’m going to quote someone talking about the pattern and decoration movement from the 1970s, which I’ve been researching a lot: “Patterns, which can be complex in themselves, when juxtaposed, superimposed or inner penetrated establish spatial complexity which I think is the most potent metaphor for contemporary experience.” Since my art is about our relationship to the world, which seems to be getting so much more chaotic and complex and insane, I do like the (formal) challenge to combine a bunch of elements together and find a way to make it work visually so that it is not overwhelming, but so it makes sense as a whole and can be broken down into parts. So I want to do that with materials.
I’m playing with paper cut outs. I’m playing with layering fabric and drawing on fabric and sewing. I’m playing with hand stitching so that some of the elements are actually drawn through the stitch. I’m trying to find different ways to layer so that there is a dominant and subordinate; so that it makes sense as a whole but on closer inspection you start to see these transformations and different parts. Lately I’ve been teaching myself hand and machine sewing, which is not something I’m very good at yet. I’ve been doing my own papermaking. I like the idea of going out and getting leaves in nature and using it to make the (paper’s) surface. There is some sort of potential there.
What are your influences? And what motivates you to make artwork?
I mentioned the pattern and decoration movement; that is definitely a big influence right now. Specifically, Miriam Schapiro and Robert Kushner. Schapiro more for her feminine aspect and incorporating craft, like the sewing and the quilting. Robert Kushner: I don’t even know exactly what it is that I like about his paintings. One, I think it’s the relationship to Asian art, which I think has always been an influence for me. I find Asian art extremely beautiful in its simplicity. I like that it bridges between drawing and painting, which is where I feel like I am. I definitely don’t consider myself a painter but I use a lot of wet media and I kinda cross the lines. And so I find Asian art very inspiring and very beautiful. So I like his (Kushner’s) flatness, I like his divisions into screens. His paintings are a little too “gold leaf decorative” for me personally.
I ask Haley what she calls herself, since she does not consider herself a “painter.”
I’m a draftsman. It’s weird because all my degrees are in painting. And I definitely love to paint but I feel a connection with paper that I don’t feel with canvas. Even though my images are very finished and specific and structured, I find a stiffness in paint that I don’t find when I’m working with drawing materials such as watercolor or ink on paper.
We talk a little bit more about drawing and John Berger’s essay on the medium. Haley adds, “I have always felt more connected when I can see the pressure of the pencil into the paper.”
Other influences: I’ve been looking more at quilting and textile art. It’s more for my own research and how it’s done and how people can make it interesting. And then there is a Japanese artist, Kaori Miyayama, who I looked at a lot. She does woodcuts and she prints onto a really thin fabric so its semi sheer and she wraps it around a frame so you get this layering. You actually get a little bit of depth to it so you see the woodcut through different layers and slightly different colors. And then she does some really simple stitching on top. I think they’re really beautiful and elegant. Aesthetically we are very different but I like to look at her work for inspiration to strive towards.
In terms of what motivates me to make art, it’s completely selfish. It’s trying to understand where I fit in in the world and what my relationship is to the world. There’s a Kiki Smith quote and she’s talking about proof; being able to hold something that acts as proof that you were there and you existed and you did something that day.
As an educator, what do you want students to know about what it is like to be a professional artist?
It is hard and that’s the thing, not to discourage people from doing it, but to prepare people for a career in the arts. It’s hard. And, oftentimes, creative people might not be so organized and so being aware that that’s something, however they do it it doesn’t matter, but finding a way to be organized and dedicated and motivated to set aside studio time to get things made. I definitely talk a lot in class about how hard it is. You’re going to have to have a job that pays your rent and it’s going to take up your time and you’re going to have whatever kind of social life you have and you have to make making art a priority or it just won’t happen. Especially when you don’t have professors hanging over your head saying, “Get this done!”
So that’s my first thing, it is hard and so you have to be confident and persistent in the fact that this is what you want to do. The second part, going along with that, is not to get discouraged when you get rejections. This is a career that, for most people, takes a long time and so when things don’t happen right away it doesn’t mean you are not good or that you won’t get there. Every juror of every juried show is looking for something different and so you’re going to get rejections all the time. And when you send out packets to galleries if you don’t hear back, it’s not because you’re doing bad stuff necessarily it’s just …. who knows! They might not have even looked at it. Continue working. Continue sending things out. Keep making work that is meaningful and is good to you.
Be aware of what is going on. You can’t always be aware of every single thing and every new artist that comes out, but try to stay informed. Whatever it is; getting Art in America, reading a blog every day, or going to the galleries every month if you are in a city where they have gallery walks.
I mention the community aspect of being a professional artist. I didn’t say the word “network” but that an emerging artist must be a visible part of an arts community and not in a bad way.
I got my second gallery because they have a relationship with my first gallery and so even though I never met the owner of this gallery, if I had pissed off or upset the woman who owned the gallery I was showing at, that second one would have never happened… Being a good person to work with helps a lot and goes a long way.
Thanks Haley for your time! If you are in the southern Illinois region, you can see Haley’s work this fall in the faculty exhibition and also online at www.haleyfarthing.com