Q&A with Award Winner Cristy West

Cristy West and her mixed-media painting Regenesis (pictured below) won the Marshall Award for best in show in this month’s all-media exhibit, in The Art League Gallery through April 30. Juror Joseph Di Bella said of the painting, “The color modulation is beautiful. The shapes, color, marks, and use of space really work. There is a fine sense of proportional relationships and groupings, which organize the piece. It’s dynamic, yet controlled.” Cristy told us more about her artwork and the story behind Regenesis.

What is your artistic process like?
Cristy West: I often start with messy scribbles, then work in a couple layers of color, and at some point slap on a piece of collage or a fragment of an old painting I have cut up. There is usually music going in the background and this helps me stay focused and motivated. I paint and step back, paint and step back. If a piece begins to go dead, I set it aside and work on another. It usually takes me an hour or two to get in the “the zone” and I have to stop when I begin to run out of steam and start becoming too fussy. There is much more control than may be obvious from the end product. I draw intuitively on color theory and design principles, using my knowledge of different media to achieve different effects. And my work is informed by diverse artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Mitchell whose work, along with many others, I return to again and again for inspiration.

What media did you use in Regenesis?
Media include acrylic paints and gels, collage, marks of graphite pencil and caran d’ache crayon, artist’s tape. I work on Arches watercolor paper which I coat on both sides with two coats of gesso.

Is there a story behind Regenesis? What was your inspiration or motive for the piece?
Regenesis grew out of an earlier painting, Night in Rio, which appeared in the “Carnival” show in 2011. The strength of the earlier painting, I thought, was its raw energy, but in retrospect, it had begun to seem too chaotic and rather garish, lacking in particular a modulated range of values. So I took it out of its mat and frame and set aside. Some weeks later I attacked it anew, veiling over parts with gesso, toning down the color and simplifying the design, trying to be careful to let some of the old painting show through. Here are before and after versions:

Before: Night in Rio (upside down from how it was shown)

After: Regenesis (upper right shows some of earlier painting)

Thus, on one level, the title refers to the way the new painting was a “regenerated” out of the old, a kind of phoenix rising from the fiery flames. However, there was, in addition, another more personal layer of meaning to the title.

Keep reading for more about how Cristy rediscovered her artistic voice!

For several months my work had not been going well. I had too many interruptions and distractions, not enough studio time, and when I did get to the studio, the work seemed forced and the results too controlled and even fearful. I was in a dry period and I needed to get back to something more alive and authentic. One of my strategies at such junctures is go back and rework old failures as a kind of start-up exercise.

In this case, I achieved a sense of “rightness” right away and stopped before going further. Was it finished? There was still a freshness I liked but now more control overall. Here is what I jotted in the ongoing art journal where I make notes to myself:

The sense of stylistic identity here has me excited. Am I delusional? Trying to figure out what it consists of… something like primal vision. What is that phrase from William James… “blooming buzzing confusion”—yes! That’s what I want to hang onto. A primary encounter with the world—pre-verbal—keep it loose.

In this sense the painting became a “new beginning” — a regenesis — in which I rediscovered my artistic voice after a dry spell — and learned something new in the process.

Is this piece part of a series? If so, how did the series start, and how did it evolve to where it is now?
I have done many paintings which are this size and in the same general idiom. I think of them not so much as a series so much as a deepening exploration and articulation of my artistic voice. I am drawn to a square format because it seems to provide order and containment.

Why do you work in mixed media and abstract art?
One of my early teachers at the Corcoran used to say that the primary requirement for an abstract artist is a tolerance for frustration. For me the challenge is not just to tolerate frustration but to invite it — and then transform it. It is rewarding to to take old failures and turn them around into something better. In so doing I feel that I am actually transforming myself. The process is a deeply spiritual process, immensely liberating. I feel fortunate to have discovered this path.

What do you want the viewer to come away with?
I am pleased and surprised when viewers notice my work at all. I think perhaps it communicates the struggle I go through and also the exhilaration I achieve when a piece hangs together. It is not necessarily pretty but, if I am lucky — and not just deluding myself! — maybe it says something about the human condition, something that resonates with viewers at an unconscious level.

Where do you see your work going next, or what are you working on now?
I am getting ready for a show of recent work coming up this July in Maine. In general my goal is simply to keep on working, trusting that the process will bring new surprises and new solutions.

You can read interviews with this month’s other award winners, and previous winners, here.

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