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  • Manuel Hernandez

Interview with Debra Clem


What artists have influenced your work?

I love post-impressionist painting – but I also think Bouguereau was an awesome painter. He is a little bit sentimental – but I think he’s regained more respect these days than 40-50 years ago. He’s a great figurative realist. Also, John Singer Sargent is amazing. Among the living, I have always admired David Hockney (for the breadth of his ability and curiosity). I feel the same way about Gerhard Richter. I love painters who have control of the media, and I want to be surprised by variations in work and style. I get bored if I see someone doing the same thing for their entire lives. I also like Julie Heffernan, April Gornick, and Amy Sherald. I like artists who do their own painting, rather than work done in a production setting by a lot of different hired artists. The exception would be muralists – where it makes sense to have a lot of people involved. There are so many amazing artists in the world, and I am glad diversity has become important (unlike when I was school when white male artists of European descent pretty much dominated contemporary and historical painting).

What is the biggest painting you have done? What challenges come about making larger paintings.

84” x 90” and 117” x 55”. The physical parts are really challenging – building the panel or stretcher, handling the support, stretching, priming – all of that stuff. It’s backbreaking – and you need room to maneuver. Another huge issue is getting your body in front of areas – standing on a ladder is awful, especially for any detail. I’ve purchased scaffolding, built a platform for elevating my body while I work. Plus, storage and moving the work… and, who wants to buy a 10-foot painting anyway? I don’t recommend it – but on the other hand, working so large can be fun – you are swallowed by the surface, so you are definitely engaged in the process totally.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Always shoot for the best, don’t give up – something will happen if you hang in there. Don’t be discouraged by rejection (it happens more frequently than acceptance). Just try to seek honesty – be yourself in your work. Don’t try to imitate the fashionable art trends of the time (or what you think is fashionable). Work as hard as you possibly can. Don’t internalize the negative (it will grind you down), but find something useful in what people have to say about your work. It took me years to understand and to defend my own work. The world is big enough for lots of different styles, philosophies and approaches – so build your own path. I got distracted, because I worried too much about the validity of representational work in a modern context. I was too sensitive and sometimes lacked confidence in my natural stylistic tendencies. I lost a lot of time trying to run away from what I really wanted to do.

What do you aim to say with your work?

I want to do hard stuff – but I really want to capture the resonance of personality. I want images to draw in the viewer – and I want to create a vibration for the viewer. Yes, it’s about embracing skill, but the main goal is to do something beyond skill – post skill – something where the figure or portrait takes on a life of its own. Like virtual reality – but not. It’s weird, I know.

What was your experience in grad school? What are the pros and cons?

If you want to be an artist, grad school is usually a place that helps get you there. I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, so it was a necessity. I went to grad school a long time ago, and I assume a lot has changed. The cons - I had no women professors, and I felt unsupported as a figurative artist. I felt isolated at times. The pros – the degree allowed me to teach at the college level. I met other students who are still my friends. I saw a lot more art, and grew from that. I got better as a painter and absorbed many more influences and ideas. I had a graduate assistantship and grad school was basically free. I came out with no debt. Grad school allowed me to become singularly focused, I knew I had to make art. It sealed the deal for me.

What challenges come about making larger paintings?

The physical parts are really challenging – building the panel or stretcher, handling the support, stretching, priming – all of that stuff. It’s backbreaking – and you need room to maneuver. Another huge issue is getting your body in front of areas – standing on a ladder is awful, especially for any detail. I’ve purchased scaffolding, built a platform for elevating my body while I work. Plus, storage and moving the work… and, who wants to buy a 10-foot painting anyway? I don’t recommend it – but on the other hand, working so large can be fun – you are swallowed by the surface, so you are definitely engaged in the process totally.

For examples of my work, here is my website: www.debraclem.com