Welcome back to Spotlight: INSPIRATION! Last month’s wonder was the lovely singer/songwriter, Lindsay Stiem. If you missed that post, you can find it here.
This February I sat down with the amazingly talented visual artist, Grace Isabell.
Grace is a long-time friend of mine. She’s beautiful, adventurous, has a poetic soul, loves to laugh, is a bit clumsy (like me), adores nature, and can always go for a quesadilla.
I’m so excited to share her story and work with you.
Me: Tell me about your journey with art.
Grace: I remember this one time being in the woods and there was this little, tiny patch of light and it hit this patch of moss. It was like an organic still-life how it was set-up. And I just remember wanting to be inside of that, whatever that was.
Me: How old were you?
Grace: Oh, I think, eight or nine. Then all through high school I was over-processing visually. I always made drawings but it wasn’t a formal thing. Then I started taking art lessons as a sophomore in High School…
I was planning on going to college for sports medicine, and then during my senior year I decided to go to art school instead.
I started at Pafa (Philadelphia Acadamy of Fine Arts) and I went into that wanting to do figurative landscape paintings and then my entire course changed over my senior year of college…
Me: How so?
Grace: I took a wood cut course, by accident. I realized I was much more interested in the OBJECT and MATERIAL than the image.
At the same time, I was doing a lot of black and white drawings. I was drawing a lot of memories…I had been going through a lot at that time and I was trying to understand the year. So I was making memory drawings and these woodcuts at the same time. They were becoming more abstract. I was becoming more interested in things that were distilled. And I realized it was much harder to distil reality than expound of it, almost.
So my senior year I made a series of paintings that I felt like God was just moving in my life. They were very personal. It was from a grieving state. I had had a lot of loss that year, so I really do feel like it was a digging in deeper as a way of understanding it.
And they were all about weather phenomenons – all about the winter. And I wanted you feel cold. They were about atmosphere and feelings and temperature to express them. But since my senior year I had the thought, ‘How much can you make work that is like digging at the bottom of the same barrel?’
Me: That’s an interesting visual there.
Grace: Yeah…so I needed a break. I don’t know what has happened exactly, but something has shifted, and I feel like my work is outside of myself now. My pervious work was about internal things. Now, a lot of it has come from spending a lot of time outside where I feel very, very small.
Me: On the topic of tapping into feelings, I know for me, I rely heavily on emotion to tackle something creatively. And at the heart of my work, the core of it is feeling and connection. What is it like for you?
Grace: Exactly. And I feel like when you’re looking for it (inspiration or emotion), it doesn’t happen…I think I’ve been very dependent on waiting on that big feeling, that big gust of energy and I haven’t had that recently. I used to be able to stay up until 4:30 in the morning, and I haven’t had that and it’s been a little bit scary, but I think it’s good.
One thing I’ve realized is that I’m a complete pendulum. So, I’m on or I’m not. I’ve learned to be ok to not work today. And it doesn’t make you less of a person or less of an artist. AND, doing other things IS working. Like, going for a walk is part of my work. Trips, are part of my work.
Your art becomes much more enriched if you let yourself be enriched by other things.
(The Glaciers Made You. 2014)
Me: Tell me more. People need to hear more on this.
Grace: Well, I loved my school, but it was DRILLED into me that you’re supposed to work harder than anyone else. And I respect that to a degree. But I’m learning how to prioritize my time. And let myself have that time when I need it.
I felt perpetually selfish for making paintings when I was younger. It felt so solitary and I wasn’t giving back to anyone. Because it took up so much of my time from people.
Then I was telling a guy I was dating at the time, “I wish I could just make this stuff and not show anyone, except for two or three people and then put it in a closet. I’d be so much happier.”
Then he said, “You’re being really selfish. Think all the books you’ve read and the art you’ve seen that if you hadn’t seen them, you wouldn’t feel so understood and would probably be a very different person.”
I realized that was very true. I didn’t really want to hear it, but it’s true and I’m so grateful those artists who were honest and created amazing things. And so if I can create things that bring people to a place of beauty in peace in what I make, it’s in a weird way, serving other people. It’s taken me years to accept that.
Me: Yes!! Even when you post your work on social media, it’s refreshing to me. To see something beautiful that can really struggle to see beauty. It comes maybe a little easier for us, it’s not always as easy for other people. So to put that in front of other people is a gift.
Grace: Yes, I want to become better at sharing what I’m working on, because I love when other people share what they’re creating too.
(Trapp Woods, Mid-Winter. 2012)
Me: Was there ever any resistance from the people in your life that gave you the message that maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time on art?
Grace: Oh yeah. I say no to a lot. And I think people who have been hurt by that because they don’t understand. It think it comes down to when people don’t understand how I operate by as introvert. I think people are confused by it still. I’m learning how to do it better.
Me: How do you find value in what you’re doing and the pieces that you’re making?
Grace: To be honest with you, I don’t know what else I would do. It just comes out of me. It’s how I think, it’s how I operate. I can’t not do this.
Me: Tell me what inspires you.
Grace: Travel, for sure. And I think you have to pull out beauty from the things you see everyday. I think it’s a lame excuse to say, ‘I’m not seeing anything beautiful.’ Also, climbing has significantly slowed down my painting. Because it’s about being extremely specific with your body movement and detail and to read a line through the rock and it’s almost like dance. That slowing down of my brain has slowed down my painting and the process.
Me: It sounds like a lot of your work in solitude, but what part does community play in your art?
Grace: I had one or two friends in college and I think I’d be a very different artist without their words. It was less about changing who I was and affirming who I already was. There are people who come in your life who do that. I wouldn’t be as brave to doing what I was doing.
Me: Lastly, do you have any advice for people who are lacking courage to go after the things they’re interested in artistically?
Grace: Trust your instinct and how you want to do something. Everyone sees different things every day and values different things every day. And it’s really crucial to trust your own instincts. You’re the only person who has your very own instict. It takes a lot of courage, but it’s good to learn how to do things your own way. And sometimes you don’t know what that is for a while, and that’s why you can take time to learn, that’s ok. But, capitalize in the way you do what you do.
Me: Right, you can’t fully measure how what you’re doing is going to be received. It’s kind of a waste of time to guess. So, just do it.
See more of Grace Isabell’s work here.
“I feel like my paintings are asking questions, not answering anything.”