Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interview with Artist Donna Z. Falcone (Part 1)

Interview with Artist Donna Z. Falcone
Part 1

Cover Art by Donna Z. Falcone for A is for Azure 

Debut illustrator Donna Z. Falcone collaborated with writer and poet L.L. Barkat to create for T.S. Poetry Press the children's alphabet book A is for Azure (2017). Curious about her professional and personal transformation from childhood educator to artist, I invited Donna to do an in-depth interview with me via e-mail, to discuss both her new career and, more specifically, her artistic collaboration with L.L. (I know both women.) Donna graciously responded in the positive. In today's post, she and I explore her background, her personal views of creatives and art-making, her media, tools, and techniques, and other more general aspects of art. In Part 2, we talk about Donna's project with L.L. Barkat and how it came to fruition, as well as possible future art activities. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length. All ink-on-tile images are courtesy of T.S. Poetry Press or the artist.)

Maureen Doallas: Donna, you have a background in early childhood education. You now devote your time to art-making and are the illustrator of the recently published T.S. Poetry Press title A is for Azure, a children's alphabet book. What got you interested enough in art to change careers?

Donna Z. Falcone: My career change came about because of unfortunate circumstances. After 30-plus years as an early childhood educator, I found myself forced out of both classroom and workplace because of long-misdiagnosed Lyme disease. Ongoing physical constraints and relapses prevented me from returning to teaching.

During a difficult, sometimes nearly hopeless, period of treatment and recovery, I began dabbling and out of that grew my art-making. I spent my days on the sun porch of our family home in Pennsylvania learning about web design, poetry, photography, and, eventually, alcohol inks and tile-painting. Once I began using the inks (more about that later), I found it impossible to stop.

The Letter C: Cranberry
(Selection from A is for Azure Illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone)

MD: What did your experience as an early childhood educator reveal to you that you subsequently have applied to your art?

DZF: In a way, being a childhood educator laid an important foundation for my own artistic process. Having learned the value of freedom in creative endeavors, which I had guarded vehemently for the young students and children in my care and having worked with teachers to get them to do the same, I got to experience for the first time in my life what such freedom could do for me—and it was wonderful!

Who knew that in all the years I concerned myself with children's readiness, I secretly was developing my own?!

MD: Have you studied art formally or are you primarily self-taught?

DZF: I am mostly self-taught, although I have found some wonderful artists online and in the physical and virtual communities I frequent who are more than happy to share their knowledge, especially about the use of alcohol inks, an unusual and relatively unknown material. We learn from each other.

MD: What comes to mind when you hear the word artist, especially as it applies to you?

DZF: I think of someone who brings forth something unique and soul-touching. . . someone who immerses herself in the act of creation almost all the time. . . who not only creates art whenever she gets the chance but who, even when she is not physically making something, is thinking about art, whether while seeking out other artists, noticing the play of light, wondering how this shade or that tone can be created, or developing new ways to use a medium. Anyone dedicated to the practice of art elevates her skill level to the point of outgrowing it and then wanting to do more. . . pushing the material to grow with her.

MD: Who is your favorite artist or children's book illustrator and why?

DZF: Hands down, my favorite illustrator is Eric Carle. His work is so free and bold, colorful and creative. I really love his mixed media, how he uses collage and paint. His work is abstract, and that appeals to me, too.

MD: Do you think children are natural artists and, if yes, do you think that makes your job as illustrator of a children's book any more challenging? In what ways?

DZF: Well, not exactly, which may surprise you, given my career in early childhood education; however, I do think children are naturally creative and that they are natural explorers of whatever they happen to find in their surroundings.

I believe deeply that art materials should be available to children in all learning environments and in multiple ways, so that children can use them to make discoveries. Art materials are tools, as important as, if not more important than, anything else in the classroom. When art materials are made available, children might discover that they love to create with paint or clay or collage or, over time, find out that art-making's not for them. They might be drawn to different creative endeavors, which is wonderful. They might, for example, develop an intense interest in human anatomy; it's not difficult to see how experiences with form, color, shape, layering with paint, sculpting with clay, or running yarn through glue and affixing it to pieces of wood and paper tubes can support appreciation of the intricacies of how muscles, bones, and nerves all layer and connect beneath our skin. You see, even if a child is deemed "very artistic," his focus might shift and change over time but still be supported by or underlie his early discoveries through art. As my son once so eloquently put it, at the ripe old age of 8, "Mom, just because I'm good at something doesn't mean I have to be it."

The Letter H: Heliotrope
(Selection from A is for Azure Illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone)

MD: Do you make art a daily practice, at a particular time of day, for a set number of hours, for example, or whenever inspiration strikes? Do you need to work in particular conditions (for example, alone, in quiet) to make your art?

DZF: I don't make art every day, although I am always working on art in my mind, while learning something new, or when involved on a project that has emerged because of my art-making. For example, currently, I am not in the studio because I am preparing for my first juried art show and sale. There is a lot of work in that; it just goes with being an artist.

There are times, however, when I work in my studio every single day for weeks or months!

When I am making art, I prefer to work in one of two environments: in perfect quiet or with music, usually soft, meditative music with no lyrics, playing in the background.

One of my favorite times to paint is before the sun comes up, when I maybe light a candle or  two and set music to playing softly (for example, music such as Native American flute players perform).

A rigid commitment to create art every day leaves me feeling confined and pressured. Allowing myself the freedom to create or not create is, I think, central to my desire to return to my studio and become immersed for a while.

Now, none of this is to say that an idea doesn't sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night, making me drag myself out of bed and into the studio. That happens, thankfully! It's one of the most exciting times for me to create!

MD: What most inspires you to make art?

DZF: Sometimes my mood drives me and I turn to inks to express myself; mostly, however, it's the simple drive to create and play that inspires me to make art. Sometimes I'm curious about materials or want to experiment with something that has popped into my head. . . can it do this? What will it do if I do that?

MD: What does your art-making space look like?

DZF: My art space is color-stained and comfy!

Art-Making Space of Artist Donna Z. Falcone

My formerly white plastic folding table is covered with streaks of ink and smears of acrylic paint, and I like it that way. It reminds me that I can do whatever I want in this space.

My inks are organized meticulously by color (in ROY G BIV fashion) on two multi-tiered storage racks intended for use as nail polish holders. I've stacked clean ceramic tiles of various sizes on a table to my right, within arm's reach, and filled bins with extra materials on the table beside my inks. Also near to hand are a lighter for burning ink, a spray bottle, a glass eye dropper, a large white plastic bottle filled with 91 percent alcohol, and, for extra-messy experiments, rubber gloves. A lazy Susan (which I swiped from my spice cabinet) sits in the center of all this, waiting to hold and turn any new tile artwork I'm making. A bright red sofa covered in pillows (it opens up to a bed for company) gives me a nice place to stretch out and rest, think, or listen to music.

MD: What media and techniques do you use regularly?

DZF: Although I am learning how to sketch and draw, I have never been very interested in realism. My mother was a very talented artist whose flower and nature paintings were exquisite and so realistic. But, for me, I love inks, because they invite me to work and play with their properties. The flow of ink and the way it behaves while I'm tile-painting are magical.

To create my artworks, I generally use fire (yes, real flames), forced air (from a hand-held vacuum that I've reverse-engineered), centrifugal or other forces (I use that old lazy Susan I swiped from my spice cabinet), and gravity to move inks around on tiles. I sometimes use brushes to coax an ink to travel in a particular direction or to add a bit of detail but mostly my pieces seem to come into being without my using any real tools at all.

MD: Do you have an art mentor or someone who champions your art-making?

DZF: I am truly blessed to having such loving support for my art, starting with my husband Joe, who, by providing encouragement, feedback, and ink(!) — we laugh when I tell him he is my chief financial investor — definitely champions my art-making.

My sister is directly responsible for introducing me to alcohol inks. She kept sending me little pictures of tiles she had painted when she first discovered this magical medium. It's as if she had been sitting on my shoulder and telling me, "Come on. . . try it. . . you know you want to!"

My parents also have been very supportive. As I noted earlier, my mother was a beautiful artist — A is for Azure is dedicated to her and to L.L. Barkat's two daughters.

And writer L.L. Barkat? She has been instrumental to my artistic life. It was her ongoing support and enthusiasm that led to A is for Azure in the first place. 


Donna Z. Falcone hails from the small town of Spencerport, New York, which she describes as "up north on the Erie Canal, complete with towpath and a lift bridge." She and her husband Joe, who met in graduate school, are the parents of two sons and caretakers of "our rather large dog 'Gruffy' who suffers from the delusion that he is a Pomeranian." They have moved their family hither and yon—first to the warm(er) clime of North Carolina and then to Tennessee. After five years in the South, in 2000, they decided to relocate again, and packed up their belongings and headed to northeast Pennsylvania, where they spent the next 16 years until, faced with an empty nest but a still-to-fill dog bowl, Donna and Joe headed off with Gruffy to plant a few new roots in South Georgia. Their now-grown children are content to "hold down the fort" in Pennsylvania.

Donna's work in early childhood education spanned 30 years and four states. In 2009, when Lyme disease and multiple co-infections "brought my career to a screeching halt," she turned to her "earlier love of writing" and gave her dreams of becoming an artist room to develop and grow. 

In addition to creating visual art with "a playful splash of alcohol inks and paint," Donna has published poetry in Poetry Nook (Vol. 3), When Women Waken (see "If Hearts Had Handles", Issue 3), Every Day Poems, and Her work also has appeared alongside that of other artists at the Websites for Inanna House (see "The Works of Donna Falcone", November 2013), Makes You Mom, and Tweetspeak Poetry blog. Now "living far south of Atlanta," Donna takes "my chocolate dark, my coffee light, and my tea touched by stevia. As for wine, please make mine Merlot," she adds.

Donna blogs at Painting Goodbye. Also see The Brighter Side: Living with Lyme.


Sandra Heska King said...

Such an awesome and in depth interview. Donna, you are an inspiration.

L.L. Barkat said...

I love this interview! And, Donna, what an honor to be a part of your artistic life. :)