In late summer, we visited Bea in her studio at Porter Mill in Beverly, MA, while she was working away towards her upcoming show at HallSpace in Boston. We discussed her connection to the practice of painting, the influence of travel on her recent body of work, and her plans for the future.
Andrea Evans: Hi Bea, thanks so much for having us by your studio. It was so nice to see what you are working on.
Bea Modisett: Thanks for visiting! I like the two of you a lot.
AE: Haha, thanks. So, you studied painting at Montserrat College of Art, and still currently live and work in that area. I know that you’ve been out of school for a while now, but can you tell us a little about your time at Montserrat, and some of the biggest influences on your work that came out of your experience there?
BM: I was a pretty good student. I was always in the studio and taking on extra activities to help try and strengthen the community, not just my own practice, and this has really continued since graduation. I love being involved as much as I can as an artist, curator, organizer, juror, volunteer, etc. though recently, with deadlines looming, I’ve somewhat taken a step back to focus on my studio.
In critiques people I respected and admired would often disagree with each other (and/or me) while still maintaining completely valid points. This taught me to appreciate that everyone sees and creates differently and that no harm can come from looking harder or closer at my surroundings to find something of value. If I can’t relate to an exhibition or an artist, I still take the time to ask myself why I am responding or seeing a certain way, and learn something from that internal discussion. This gave me a tough skin too. I can take criticism well and I am thoughtful in my words to others.
Multiple classes in sculpture where I learned to physically manipulate space gave me a stronger understanding of how I construct the space in my paintings and taking classes in Italy and Africa contributed to the foundation of my interest in travel and the exploration of how that relates to my studio practice.
AE: In both your artist statement and in our conversations about your work, you’ve talked about much of your work in relation to travel and exploring new lands. Many pieces have developed from your travels in the western United States (Utah, Arizona, and Colorado), and I know you recently traveled to Thailand and Laos. What struck you about these places? What aspects of them have you brought into your work?
BM: I am going to be dramatic and slightly exaggerate by saying that when I am traveling I don’t need to paint, and when I am painting (and it’s going well) I don’t need to travel. They both fulfill the same desires: to always create and overcome problems, to learn, to put myself in uncomfortable situations, to experience the intense highs and lows that accompany a solitary and challenging endeavor and to connect with, and try to understand, myself and others. It challenges me in so many ways and excites parts of my brain that may normally lay dormant. When I return from any type of travel, I seek to recreate that stimulation and excitement in my paintings – this always leads to growth.
The landscapes I have been able to experience have undoubtedly impacted my forms and colors, but it’s the actual act of traveling, where my mind goes when left alone in a high stress situation, that has had the biggest impact on my practice.
The paintings themselves explore my connection to the landscapes I have travelled through and attempt to process and understand my experiences navigating myself and place in this world.
AE: You work a lot from your memory of these places that you have traveled. Memory is something that really fascinates me; it’s one of the major things that we use in order to make sense of our lives and our selves, and yet, it also is a construction. There is this gap between experience and remembered experience, and each time we recall something, we are constructing it, recreating it, in a slightly different way. It seems that your paintings, in a sense, touch on this constructive aspect of memory. In your recollection of these places and your experiences within them, through the process of painting, you are actually physically creating something new, a kind of hybrid between an actual and an imagined place. Is this something you think about in relation to your paintings?
BM: Absolutely. The paintings remind us of the fluidity of memory; they are visual manifestations of my own fabricated or exaggerated interactions and the dissolving clarity of situations past. Painting from memory allows the most important and impactful moments of an experience to surface, whether they “happened” or not. We highlight or obscure memories of a moment we have been distanced from; through abstraction I highlight or obscure my forms to represent this inevitability.
AE: Have you always worked in abstraction? You seem to really solidly work within the true definition of abstraction–in that you are abstracting from something (whether a place, image, or memory), rather than making truly non-objective work. How do you gauge what level of abstraction you work with? There are some elements that seem to really tie to a sense of the landscape, whether in the color of the sky and earth, or in an abstracted structure based on rock formations and the like. And yet, the paintings are not entirely “readable” in terms of representation. How much do you want to show us (or tell us), as your viewers?
BM: To me these are memories of my travels through the landscape and my attempt to understand my connection to my environment. I don’t see them as anything else, but I don’t expect everyone to see only that. I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m not trying to trick people into seeing what I see, or believing what I believe. I am not interested in creating a static image that force-feeds a narrative to my audience; rather in creating an open, ambiguous and relatable space. Having some sense of familiarity (the color of the sky or earth, etc) helps the viewer enter the piece and feel comfortable to look around and hearing their interpretations helps bring clarity to my own intentions.
AE: When I look at your work, I see someone who really loves paint and painting for its tactile, material quality. There is such a range in your work, from thick to thin applications of paint, transparent to opaque areas, controlled marks to wild marks, drips and spills next to carefully masked straight lines. You seem totally engaged with manipulating the paint and pushing it around on your substrates. I imagine there may be many paintings under each painting that you make. How clear of an idea of composition, color, form, and structure do you have at the onset of a piece? Do you work from a sketch or preliminary image, or does the work completely evolve in the process? What drives it, and what tells you when to stop?
BM: First of all, thank you. I am so glad that comes across. It’s really important to me though that these are paintings because they have to be paintings, not just because I love to paint. I am confident that what I am trying to explore can’t be done through any other medium and happily that aligns with my obsession with the material.
In terms of predetermined ideas yes, I have them, but they almost never come through clearly – the process usually takes over. I have buried many fine paintings in the quest for better ones. Sometimes that works, sometimes it backfires. Over the years I have started to realize tendencies of mine. I used to fight them, thinking that if I repeat myself it means I am not challenging myself enough. Now I have learned to embrace my tendencies and I can recognize the growth that has come from that.
In terms of drive, I just know that I have a lot of questions about the world and myself and it’s inhabitants, and painting makes me a feel a bit closer to finding some answers.
AE: Can you tell us about your choices in materials and scale? I noticed at your studio that you have been working a little on the smaller side, with a number of paintings around 16”x20” or so. And yet you do so much within that framework!
BM: I have always loved working large and did so all through college and the years following graduation. It has been in the past two years that I have paired down the physical size of my grounds. My process is slow and one large painting would take months to complete. I wasn’t able to make the amount of work I needed to be making in order to learn all that I knew I had to learn. Within this more manageable size my paintings still take months but I am working on ten at a time and each one teaches me something different. I like that the paintings are all horizontally oriented and that they relate to the landscape in that way. That said, the proportions could also accommodate a life-sized self-portrait of my head and shoulders, in that way, they also relate to the physical body that has taken me through the landscapes the paintings are referencing.
The grounds themselves are handmade panels with canvas stretched over them. I use a rag to wipe away paint a lot and the pressure of doing this to a surface for weeks and weeks caused the canvas to sag (no matter how tight it was originally stretched.) With the panel underneath I get the support I need to be physical with my work, but still have the beautiful texture of the canvas to expose if I choose to.
AE: You have a show opening in December at HallSpace in Dorchester. What else is on the horizon for you?
BM: Yes! By Way of Bangkok opens December 7th at HallSpace. This is my first solo exhibition. In March I am hanging a solo show in the Carol Schlosberg Gallery at Montserrat College of Art, and somewhere in between the two I’ll be sending my graduate school applications off.
AE: Well, congrats on the upcoming shows. I’m looking forward to checking them out. And good luck on the grad school applications!
Thanks so much for having us by your studio and for taking the time to talk with us.
BM: Thank you!
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For more information on Bea Modisett and her work: