Friday, October 23, 2009

All Art Friday Special Edition: Artist Interview

Learning to paint for the first time is all about little successes. Loving an area of color, or a lyrical passage of scumbled paint and building on that. . . .
~ Judith Olivia HeartSong

Today's Special Edition of All Art Friday is an interview, conducted via e-mail, with award-winning artist Judith Olivia HeartSong.

I first became acquainted with Judith via her blog, where she displays her "process" photos of paintings and other work in progress and writes about her artist's life. After leaving a few comments to blog posts and corresponding a bit by e-mail, I attended a reception at Judith's Maryland studio and introduced myself. Subsequently, I contracted with Judith to license the image of her "Peacock Crimson" for a custom, limited-edition "thread painting" (Vietnamese hand-embroidery), which will become available through my company Transformational Threads next month.

All Art Friday Special Edition
Interview with Artist Judith Olivia HeartSong

Maureen Doallas: Judith, tell us a bit about your background and how it influenced your decision to become a professional artist.

Judith Olivia HeartSong: I come from a long line of artistic souls, two of the most recent being my grandfather who was a photographer and my aunt who was a professional painter. There was not a lot of money when I was young and, therefore, not a lot of toys, but my mother made me beautiful paper dolls that sat by my bedside at night and dresses out of scraps for my dolls, and my imagination was nurtured.

I learned early on to draw what I see, and [my talent] was noticed by educators. By seventh grade, a teacher called me "a diamond in the rough", and although I did not understand it at the time, her support of my artistic exploration was invaluable. I was fortunate to have several art teachers throughout my school-age years who knew that I would go on to be a professional artist, and they took their duty of nurturing the spark very seriously.

MD: Do you have an art degree? If yes, how has the degree facilitated your career; if no, do you feel that not having a degree has adversely affected your career in any way?

JOH: That is an interesting question. I do not have an art degree, and although I have studied with other artists, I am primarily self-taught. All in all, I am very glad I followed this path, as so many degree programs have a tendency to take away everything artistically and give back only those bits and pieces that fit into the mold of what the particular school is teaching. It can become very formulaic.

[On the one hand,] I am unique and my skill set and abilities are all my own. My originality has benefited my painting career. On the other hand, having a time of study that was sheltered and away from my troubled home could have been tremendously good for me.

I would encourage any artist to follow the path that feels right.

MD: When and where did you begin your artistic career?

JOH: Early!

I began to identify as an artist in the second grade, when bulletin boards needed decorating and my teacher, who had seen my drawings, gave me some large sheets of rolled paper and some direction. I drew a detailed crayfish, from an encyclopedia, and some other large-scale things that decorated our classroom that year, and the die was cast for my future.

MD: How would you characterize your style?

JOH: First and foremost, I am a painter. I paint what I see (which may not be what you see), and I never much concern myself with characterizing my style because as artists, we are always evolving. A few years ago, a friend saw a large body of my work and uttered two words that fit, and I loved them immediately as they resonated with something deep inside. She said, "Romantic Pop" in the most reverential way and that term has stuck [as a description of my work].

My large bold florals, the goddess series, all the murals . . . I paint the natural world and women because of the beauty that I see in those subjects. The curves of a pear or a leaf or of a woman's neck are all pieces of the same vocabulary for me. There is a dream-like quality to my paintings that is all my own. . . It is the way that I see the world, with a surreal twist.

MD: In what ways has your style changed or evolved over your long career?

JOH: My work used to be quite tight and controlled, and it took years of painting to loosen up and feel what the subject was telling me, and to allow that to flow from the brush to the canvas or paper. My style continues to evolve and is informed by everything I see and everything I experience. People see a lot of joy in my work and that pleases me.

MD: What are your sources of reference and inspiration?

JOH: My inspiration comes from artists who have come before me: O'Keeffe, Kahlo, Cassatt, Monet, Chagall, Klimt, and Joseph Cornell . . . just to name a few. I spend a lot of time outside, in the woods or near the water, and the natural world provides tremendous inspiration.

My sources of reference come from everything that I see and photographic references that I have taken for many years.

The Internet is another wonderful tool for researching a subject.

MD: You are a muralist, creating works in public spaces and private residences. What are the particular challenges of this kind of work?

JOH: "Muraling" is a totally different animal than easel painting. Perspective is totally different on a grander scale, and I have seen many artists who cannot translate their work from the page to the wall. You have to have an eye for it and a special knack. I was very surprised many years ago to meet a rather famous muralist who could not draw free-hand in a demonstration and had to use a grid system for his murals. It was rather stunning to me at the time, and I have never forgotten the lesson in it.

MD: You work in acrylics and watercolors, to name just two media, and do collage and 3D pieces. Recently, you've discovered photography. Is there any medium in which you haven't worked that you'd like to explore?

JOH: I have actually loved photography since early high school, when I would take a camera out in the woods and, thinking of Ansel Adams, take pictures of leaves and waterfalls and mossy trees. With the advent of the digital camera and the ability to take hundreds of images of a subject, my skill and ability have increased. Now, I take almost all of my own reference photos for paintings.

A medium  that I would love to explore would be stone sculpting. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Pamela Soldwedel's studio, and I was enthralled. The idea of finding an object inside of a beautiful piece of stone calls me . . . maybe the next time around.

MD: Tell us about the preparations you make once you get an idea for a work of art.

JOH: A painting idea is usually generated from a photograph I have taken or something I have seen. Some of these ideas have been percolating for years and refining themselves in my mind. Usually, I will poke around on the Internet or look for a book on the subject, and then some thumbnail sketches may result; but often, I go straight to the canvas or paper and start sketching. A sketch may sit for a while as I work out details and then, when I can pretty well see the finished painting in my mind, I begin to paint.

MD: You currently have a studio in The Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts, VisArts at Rockville, in Rockville, Maryland. What are the benefits of being a resident studio artist? Any negatives?

JOH: I love my studio at the art center, and it is my home away from home. Many artists who come to see me say that they could not work in such a public space, with a huge glass window fronting the studio, but having [painted murals] in public spaces for many, many years, I am oblivious to being watched and think that it is probably fascinating for a lot of people (adults and children alike) to be able to peek in on the artistic process. I  try to always be available for questions and am very much a people person, so those interactions can be really wonderful.

A huge benefit to being there is the access to large numbers of visitors who come by to visit or attend events at the art center who might not have seen my work otherwise. The flip side of that is making sure that I stay on schedule with the work that I want to accomplish in a very social atmosphere. First and foremost, it is all about the work.

MD: You teach quite a range of popular art classes. What kinds of students do your classes attract, and what advice or encouraging words do you offer, especially to those who confide they aspire to be artists?

JOH: I  think most of my students come because I am a nurturing person and my studio, visually, is a very nurturing space that reflects who I am. People are drawn to my space and say that it is a happy place with good energy that they want to explore.

Some people want to get back to their creativity in a supportive environment, and that is probably the number one goal of my teaching: to be supportive and positive. Over the course of many years of teaching, I have led workshops for all sorts of groups, including police officers, healthcare professionals, troubled teens, and so many people who were positive that they could not paint. With instruction, explanation of materials, and step-by-step support, everyone can learn how to paint and enjoy the process.

Learning to paint for the first time is all about little successes. Loving an area of color, or a lyrical passage of scumbled paint and building on that. Teachers must always remember that it is not "their" piece being created but the students' vision and work. I celebrate the effort.

For those who would be artists, I provide encouragement, because even though everyone might not get to a place where they are selling their work, every single person can benefit from the creativity and stress-relief that artistic endeavors provide. There just might be an artist inside every person.

MD: What's the most unusual art-related workshop you've ever taught?

JOH: Probably the spontaneous watercolor workshop for police officers and detectives. They were not allowed to bring their guns and, by the end, they were blowing paint through straws and delighted with their painting successes, with a great deal of camaraderie and laughter. I was so proud of the fact that they let down their defenses and allowed themselves to have fun.

MD: You consider requests for mural and painting commissions. What do you view as the pros and cons of accepting commissions? What's the most interesting commission you've every accepted?

JOH: Murals and painting commissions have been beneficial to my career over time, because they have placed my work in notable locations and collections. Murals, of course, take time and energy and months can be spent on one piece.

Commissions are wonderful when you find the right client with a similar energy and vision. I am fortunate now that I can be very choosy about which commissions I accept and, if it feels as though it might be too much of a challenge to work with someone, or if the person is not clear about what it is that he or she wants, I can gracefully decline and send the person in another direction. After years in this business, I can usually tell immediately if there is a good fit with a potential client.

I am also in the early stages of working on mural design that I hire out to muralists to execute, which frees up more time for me to work in the studio while keeping my hand in the process.

My most interesting mural commission to date? It is a tie between the large mural at the National Zoo [in Washington, D.C.] and the year I spent as an artist in residence at a Florida elementary school, painting murals and working with hundreds of children.

MD: As I gotten to know you, I have been impressed by your strong business skills. How do you market yourself as an artist?

JOH: Ahhh, the "M" word! Some artists are allergic [to] and hate the idea of marketing themselves or putting their work forward. Some have a misplaced notion that if they paint it, someone will come [buy it]. In this age of the Internet and instant accessibility to thousands of artists and their works, marketing has become even more important, especially with current economic challenges.

Throughout my career, I have been responsible for all of my own marketing and, over the years, I have gotten quite good at it. Early in my career, I sent out two or three times a year to my collectors a physical mailing with photos of recent work, clippings or recent articles, and a personal note. My brightly colored envelopes stood out, and the people at my local post office would smile when I came in with my bins for mailing. Six years ago, an old friend and collector of my work pulled out a handful of those envelopes that she had saved for years. And that was when I realized how effective my marketing had been. It was a delight to see those envelopes again!

Now so much client contact happens via e-mail and, as times have changed, so has my strategy. I keep my Website updated with current work and workshop offerings, and maintain the site itself. I also put out a monthly Constant Contact newsletter that is bright and artsy and interesting, with articles and information on upcoming shows and events, links to click on, and, sometimes, coupons that offer a discount on my work. I keep a daily artist blog that has now received almost 60,000 hits and regular readers hear about an artist's daily life and inspirations, and also see the very first process shots of new paintings.

I take every opportunity to promote my work and offer my business card, as I am my own best advocate, and nobody is more motivated to see my business succeed. On the outside of my studio window, postcards and business cards with my images are always available, as well as brochures that list my class offerings. So, my marketing works for me, even when I am not there [at my studio] to speak with people.

In this economy, I am also moving into the giclee market with my work to provide high-quality reproductions at a fraction of the price of originals. I am also producing smaller items, like notecards, that people can feel good about buying without spending more than their budget will allow.

Sometimes business deals come along, like the limited-edition prints of four of my pieces for Princess Cruise Line.

All of those opportunities cast the net a little wider to bring a new audience [to me].

MD: What types of social media do you use to facilitate your artistic career or promote the exhibition and sale of your art?

JOH: My blog has forged all sorts of new relationships with potential buyers and clients. I also maintain a profile through LinkedIn, as I really appreciate the level of professionalism that I find there. Networking is now a vital part of any business strategy, and you ignore the Internet at your own peril as an artist.

MD: Do you have gallery representation? Any upcoming exhibitions?

JOH: I currently have work in several galleries and shops, including the VisArts, TOO! gallery shop, nominated for a Niche award this year, and Angel Eyes Gallery in Rehoboth, Delaware. I am always interested in exploring new possibilities with galleries but like to take a hands-on approach with my own sales.

Early this year, I had a solo show at the Washington School of Photography that joined my paintings with my reference photos. I am just now completing a Resident Artists' show at VisArts, and my photographs are featured in a show at Art House Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia; the exhibit will move to San Francisco in January. In October of 2013, my work will be featured in a large format show at The Ratner Museum. In the meantime, I am sure that other exhibit opportunities will appear.

MD: What is the price range of your art?

JOH: My original watercolors start at several hundred dollars and large, intricate canvases can range upward of $4,000.00. There is a price point for everyone and a payment plan is always a possibility.

For me, it is certainly not all about the money, and there have been times that I knew a painting was meant for a certain person and I have made sure that the person could afford the piece. I have also given a few [pieces] away. I believe that art should be accessible to everyone.

MD: Of what piece of artwork are you most proud, and why?

JOH: I am usually most proud of the piece that I am currently working on. [All of my pieces] are important to me for one reason or another. Some will go out into the world and some stay with me for a time. But the current piece is always the freshest view of what is happening in my world. . . perhaps a new technique is being explored, or some new idea is being fleshed out.

MD: What would you describe as your "lucky break" as an artist?

JOH: I have been fortunate to have some tremendous patrons and supporters who have nurtured my career and have afforded opportunities through their associations and connections. So many instances of wonderful people offering support have lit my path along the way, making so many things possible: from the art store owners who took me under their wing early in my career and provided advice and discounts and total support of my endeavors, to the businessman who has for years counseled me and offered his business expertise, even hand-delivering one of my paintings to First Lady Hillary Clinton at [her husband's] first inauguration. The mural opportunity at the National Zoo, the Princess Cruise Line prints. All of these things have helped along the way, and down the road, more wonderful things will happen.

MD: You are fast approaching 30 years as a professional artist. What are your plans for celebrating those 30 years?

JOH: I am just starting to really think about that number. The celebration will definitely involve a party, and I would love to see lots of my collectors and supporters who have been there so long in attendance. There will probably be a drawing on my daily blog for a major painting. I delight in seeing all sorts of people having the opportunity to own a piece of art and, over the years, those drawings for art have been tremendously popular. Maybe I will plan a trip somewhere with fantastic light and paint quietly outside. Take a trip to a major museum. Who knows? It is all about the journey and the process and the work, and I am so fortunate that I have had the opportunity to spend my life as a working artist.

MD: Judith,  thank you. We are fortunate that you could find time in your always busy days to respond to my request for this interview. You have shared much wonderful information about your painter's life, a rather enchanted if challenging life, I'd say, and one in which you so completely engage.

Judith may be reached at

Copyright 2009 Maureen E. Doallas. All Rights Reserved.

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