Ab­stract and sur­real art

The Amer­i­can artist and teacher tells Gary Evans about art as a ca­reer, so­cial me­dia ac­cept­abil­ity, and why paint­ing is like find­ing faces in clouds

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I could lose hours por­ing over Vanessa’s sump­tu­ous art­work. Treat your­self to the same time on page 46.

Dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view, Vanessa Le­men was asked why she de­cided to “pur­sue” a ca­reer in art. The Amer­i­can said that paint­ing was just what she did. It was what she wanted to keep do­ing, even if no­body ever paid her to do it. She never de­cided to pur­sue any­thing.

Vanessa used her col­umn for the fan­tasy art site Muddy Col­ors to elab­o­rate on her ca­reer in art so far. In high school, she painted huge Christ­mas dis­plays at a gro­cery store and made big mu­rals of al­bum cov­ers on the walls of a record shop. In her 20s, she worked as an il­lus­tra­tor and lay­out artist at a craft sup­plies place.

Af­ter col­lege, she went to work for an ad­ver­tis­ing agency, then spent al­most a decade at a greet­ing cards com­pany. She did other jobs, in­clud­ing be­ing a file clerk and a wait­ress, but at night she al­ways went home and worked on her own stuff. None of th­ese jobs in­volved mak­ing the kind of art she was into per­son­ally, the work she’s known for now: a dreamy, some­times night­mar­ish mix of ab­stract shapes, ab­stract worlds, fig­ure paint­ing, por­trai­ture and fan­tasy.

So when Vanessa is asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion about her ed­u­ca­tion in art – two uni­ver­si­ties, an­other two com­mu­nity col­leges, var­i­ous ate­liers and work­shops – she replies with a sim­i­lar re­sponse.

“If you want a list of schools I’ve gone to,” she says, “I can pro­vide

Sub­tlety is an amaz­ing thing. When some­thing is sub­tle it can feel as if it’s gone un­no­ticed. But then you find your­self drawn into it…

that, but it’s the com­bi­na­tion of those col­lege ex­pe­ri­ences, as well as my work and life ex­pe­ri­ences, that has made me who I am.

alw ays evolv ing

“My ed­u­ca­tion his­tory is pretty di­verse and eclec­tic,” Vanessa con­tin­ues. “I think that’s re­ally helped shape what my art be­came and also what it can be­come – the no­tion that it still has the op­por­tu­nity or po­ten­tial to be­come some­thing that’s evolved from what it is cur­rently. I think that comes from my eclec­tic back­ground. I guess I’ve never been one to feel as if my ed­u­ca­tion will ever stop. I hope to con­tinue to learn and evolve and grow as long as I live.”

Much of Vanessa’s work is por­trai­ture. She of­ten paints her sub­jects with re­strained fa­cial ex­pres­sions. There’s a sub­tlety to her work, an am­bi­gu­ity, a sense that she wants the viewer to do some of the work. Is this a hard skill to hone?

“It’s not a skill to hone. It’s a way of be­ing. All of us have the abil­ity to give the viewer the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Not all of us do it, but all of us have the ca­pac­ity to. Sub­tlety is an amaz­ing thing. When some­thing is sub­tle it can feel as if it’s gone un­no­ticed. But then you find your­self drawn into it – not know­ing why, but feel­ing as if you’d made that choice to go there. Be­cause you have. You were drawn in

My ed­u­ca­tion his­tory is pretty di­verse and eclec­tic. That’s helped shape my art

by way of a sub­tle in­vi­ta­tion. That sub­tle in­vi­ta­tion left it up to you to de­cide whether to en­gage or not, and once you do, how you will en­gage is open as well.

“Or am­bi­gu­ity could very well be what the draw is. The un­known is al­ways a cu­ri­ous draw, and if we can re­main open while step­ping into the un­known, that leaves so much room to ex­plore and dis­cover. To those who are al­ways seek­ing, and even to those who find them­selves drawn in un­ex­pect­edly, the un­known or un­ex­plained has that pull. It

Within/With­out The“AndBeatleslife­flowspro­vide­donwithin Vanes­say­ouand with­outwith­in­spi­ra­tionyou.” for–ThethisBea­tles piece: “And life flows on within you and with­out you.”

Let­ters To A Young Poet “A paint­ing in­spired by the book Let­ters To A Young Poet. It was writ­ten by Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet and novelist, to a young poet try­ing to find his way.”

Fiery Mind “She is a fiery mind, a fiery heart. She is a re­flec­tion. I can look at her face and see our story there.”

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