Artist Interview: Alessandra Maria

 – by Wendy Morley –

Just barely creeping out of her youth, Alessandra Maria already has a distinct style, a mature talent and a weighty following, including many respected artists. Working with stained paper, charcoal and walnut ink, she produces work at once familiar and unique, with a feel both ancient and modern.

Alessandra graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2012 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

Wendy Morley: I thought you were based in Hawaii, but on your site says Boston. Am I just completely mixed up?

Alessandra Maria: No, you’re not! I hop around a lot, apparently.

My fiancé and I moved from New York to Maui about 2 1/2 years go, and about five months ago we moved from Maui to Boston. Everyone laughs when they hear this because it strikes them as insane! And I guess it sort of is; we loved our time on Maui, but after about two years realized island life wasn’t for us. Island fever is a real thing!

We could have moved anywhere, and we chose Boston. We wanted somewhere close to New York that was relatively metropolitan (for me and my career) and offered good opportunities for him. But not too crazy loud and wild, like New York; something in between. Boston has been perfect; we’ve both really been enjoying our time here, even though we moved in the dead of winter, from sunny 80-degree days [Fahrenheit], to dark 30-degree ones. Our dog Abby loves the snow, so that’s been great, and I’ve found it’s been really good for my productivity.

WM: I hardly know where to begin with your art. You seem to create this incredible mix, on multiple levels. The work generally has a sepia tone that makes it feel old, and your characters often have a DaVinci feel to them, but they certainly are also modern. Do you feel a pull between old and new?

AM: I am really inspired by the work of the Renaissance, but do aim to make it feel a bit more contemporary. Everything novel that has ever been created has roots in the past; it’s just how things are put together that determines how groundbreaking it is.

WM: In the same vein, your work is at once realistic and dreamlike, though I don’t want to imply some kind of surrealism. Are you inclined toward this dreamy, otherworldly idea?

AM: I love the idea that fine art can create a visual world that others can adopt and occupy. It takes quite a bit of reaching to create images that haven’t been seen before, but the pursuit is so worthwhile. The painting that changed my life, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Klimt, was one such piece.

When I saw it in person, my reality shifted; I had never imagined a “world” like that, for lack of a better term. I had never seen a realm of beauty and magic quite like that before, but because I saw it just once, I was able to hold it and live with it in other aspects of my life.

I believe that there are a lot of ways art can serve, but for me personally, to open a new door of imagination to a viewer is a real privilege, and one I strive for every day in my studio.

WM: You really take the notion of working with graphite/black ink and turn it on its head with the addition of the stained paper, gold, and sometimes red. I notice that when you add the red in some of your works, it has the effect of both standing out and becoming one with the image. Can you tell me a little about your choices to use/not use color?

AM: Early on, I wanted the work to be solely black, brown, and gold because I wanted it to have a sense of being from antiquity, but also a good baseline for me to exploit my adoration of pattern. I believe that beauty resides in varying degrees of contrast, and the palette I have landed on is well suited to that purpose.

But to be frank, some of it was also due to my lack of technical skill with color. Up until this point, I haven’t found an adequate medium where I feel both joyful and capable while working with color. In any pieces I’ve used it to this point, I’ve just been forcing it to work because the piece necessitated it.

However, I have been playing a bit with some new mediums that are extremely promising, and have been producing some works that will eventually see the light of day. Someday. Once they’re good enough.

WM: I often feel that when a beautiful woman is the subject of art, it’s kind of cheating. Whereas you certainly use beautiful women in your art, you seem to draw something out of them – and more so the piece itself – than just their beauty, and in the end it doesn’t feel like cheating to me. Beauty is often described as transcendent, but I feel like your art transcends the subject’s beauty. Do you have any sense of the relationship between the beauty of the subject and the beauty – and effectiveness – of the work of art?

AM: Well, to a certain degree, I agree with you. I think the differentiating factor between lazy “hot women” art and art that happens to have women as its subject, is that there is something else going on in the mind of the artist while they are creating.

When I was in college, I had a professor go on a rampage against artists who just “draw women.” And while I understood what he was saying (and he wasn’t directing his ire anywhere in particular), I couldn’t help but raise my hand and say, “Sure, but I want to paint young woman because I am one.” He didn’t have a response for that.

I think it was because unfortunately, throughout the history of painting, women have been the subject, but rarely the painter (with very few brave exceptions). To paint a woman is still seen through that lens: “Oh, it’s just a painting of a hot woman,” or “it’s about sex” – boring, trite, over-done.

But to try to get into the psychology of a young woman, to not view her through a sexual lens, but rather just a human one, well, that’s not really done very often, and it’s incredibly difficult to do so convincingly when you consider the history of the subject. For me, it required a herculean effort to try to make the image convincing enough that it pierces through our social conditioning, where it forces the viewer to pause and realize “this isn’t just about beauty or sex”. To feel a different sort of connection with the “young woman” – a more human-to-human connection.

We all have these subconscious associations between “young woman” and “sex,” myself included. It’s very difficult to transcend our cultural conditioning. “A Young Woman” is the main symbol used in all our advertising to sell products, on all magazine covers, in all the art museums throughout the world, the symbol of ultimate success for men, the symbol of “winning” in movies and shows … The symbol of ultimate achievement is attaining the young woman.

But idealization is still dehumanization. In all the above circumstances, the young woman is displayed for the viewer, empty and without her own humanity. A symbol, but never a human.

So how do you transcend that? How do you flip such a powerful cultural narrative and cause the viewer to pause and see a human being, instead? It’s something I’ve succeeded at a couple times and utterly failed at many others. But it was a necessary battle, because all of my work is deeply personal, and I felt the only way to come close to expressing what I wanted to was by portraying people in the same phase of life as myself and sometimes, through actual self-portraits.

All of that being said, I am getting older now, and it’s been the biggest relief of my life. And as a result, I’ve been diving into magical realism recently, and seeing where that takes me. I suspect my drawings will have subjects whose age mirrors mine throughout life. I’m not sure, but I have less of a desire to draw 20-somethings these days, and more 30-somethings. I also foresee drawing children in my worlds if I ever have the privilege of having my own.

WM: Do you consider the person observing your art when you create it, or is it a wholly personal thing?

AM: I try to keep it wholly personal. I’ve found that when you allow the viewer into your creative process, it can ruin the purity of your intention. “What will they think of this? What about that?” and it’s always obvious when work is created out of fear rather than love.

I try to create from a place of love, of obsession, of joy. You can only get there when you are 100% absorbed in what interests you; that’s what generates the best work.

“What is most personal is most universal” (Carl Rogers) – is a guiding principle. When I am honest with myself and about what I am drawn to and trying to communicate, I’ve found that others resonate with it, too.

WM: This site is mostly about the artist, whether visual, musical or otherwise, as a creator, and as one living an art-full life. Life as a creator can be both exceptionally rewarding and exceptionally challenging. Is there anything you would say to a person of any age who’s deciding to live this creative life?

AM: Art is a practice – not a career, not a profession, not a means of making money.

You will eventually do well if you’re the type who continues to work daily or even weekly, despite failure. If you continue being honest in your work despite a lack of response from the outside world. If you don’t see sales as a barometer of success.

Overall, consistently working despite the storms of life is the key to making excellent work.

Prioritizing “making good work” over stupid goals like “getting into a gallery” is crucial.

Don’t envy the friend who has more money than you, and who can afford the workshops, training, and schooling; recognize that your hunger for making good work is the ultimate asset, and the thing that wins out above all else. Outwork them, and you always win.

Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about your work, set your standards incredibly high, and good work will eventually follow. Lastly, there is no such thing as talent. I struggled with drawing for years, and it took a decade of consistent hard work to build my capabilities. There are no shortcuts, no magic techniques, no magic bullets that can compete with good old hard (intelligent) work.

Most important: create out of love, never out of fear. Never from a place of, “what will they think of this?” but rather, “what do I think of this?” and “why do I like this?”

As of posting, end of Feb, 2019, Alessandra is between a couple of group shows, Galerie Fledermaus in Chicago will be showing her work during the summer.

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From Alessandra’s blog:

I often wonder if it would be enough to create in a vacuum, devoid of both spectators and competitors. Where manifesting something would be a pure exercise in saying something about the world or yourself to yourself. Where the critics and the eyes of others didn’t exist, where the work wouldn’t be judged on any spectrum of quality, except one of your own making. 

Would we find it as satisfying? As necessary? I’m not sure.

I think what makes art worthwhile is the fact that it must be shown, commented on, observed. Because fundamentally, that’s vulnerability.
Without the social aspect, there is no vulnerability, and without vulnerability, there is no risk. 

In a way, vulnerability is what gives art its power.

But we attach baggage to art too, baggage that doesn’t help or strengthen it. We want success, we want accolades, we want to be known for our work. We want to be “vulnerable” but not too vulnerable; enough to be called brave, but not enough to open our truth and hearts up to merciless criticism.

Despite our desire to open up, to be true, we have an equally strong desire to viciously protect our core, to guard that last little shred of ourselves. Then, when the criticism inevitably comes, we can sit back and take it, knowing we didn’t fully expose ourselves. There is still plenty of us left that has not been judged, condemned.

It’s understandable though, isn’t it? This fierce tendency towards self-protection? It’s something we all do, it’s fundamental to human nature. To expose our whole selves to public condemnation runs directly counter to our evolutionary wiring.

It manifests as the piece that is too derivative (I have been guilty of this); after all, when someone else has been praised in the past, doesn’t that mean it’s safer for you to do something relatively similar? It manifests as the work that never gets done; it is easier to pretend your idea is brilliant in your head, than to create it and see it’s fallen short. It manifests as the false bravado and wordy artist statement; you’ve clearly read your theory and are intelligent, therefore how could the work possibly be considered bad? It goes on an on, to a million different forms of self-protection, but with one common thread: you are afraid of cutting the bullshit, and making work that is fully, completely vulnerable and true to you. Brene Brown’s words are particularly relevant:

“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure… (And) courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

Who are you? Who are you truly? What sort of art do you wish existed in the world, deep down? If you were to work with courage, with humility, and with utter honesty, what sort of work would you be making? 

What sort of art do you like, but are afraid to admit it because it’s unfashionable? What do you find yourself drawn to, but don’t see as a “legitimate” form of expression? How are you held back by the biases of those around you, and the art world at large? 

And here is the hardest question: How different is the work you’re making now from the work you wish you had the courage to create?

 

 

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