Featured artist: Louise LeBourgeois
Louise LeBourgeois paints waterscapes like no one else. The water brings her back to the places she found magical as a child and the paintings she creates are pure magic made from pigments, oil, and Claybord. Very few oil painters gravitate towards Claybord, but for Louise, nothing compares.
When did you first call yourself an artist?
I’ve been making art ever since I could hold a crayon. As a child, you don’t have a lot of control over your life, so I invented worlds in which I had complete say-so over what was happening. Drawing was a way to give free rein to my imagination and to exercise my autonomy as a kid. Even though I was an art major in college, I didn’t truly claim to be an artist until my mid-twenties when I committed to being an artist come hell or high water. Before that, I’d always had Plan B in the back of my mind. I started to call myself an artist when I gave up the idea of Plan B.
What memorable responses have you had with regard to your work?
My water and sky paintings are based on my experience of seeing Lake Michigan almost daily, and open water swimming in the summer. People in Chicago, where I live, have told me that my paintings have changed the way they perceive the lake. Whenever my art helps people expand and deepen their connection to the natural world, I feel I am fulfilling my purpose for being alive on the planet. About a year ago, Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco sold a large painting of mine. The gallery director emailed me to say that the collector commented, "I can’t imagine living without this painting in my life". I was incredibly moved by this response. Of course, in a literal sense, this person could live without my painting. In the hierarchy of needs, a painting is not like food or shelter. But at its best, art connects its audience with meaning. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that good art connects. The collector’s comment conveyed to me that the image in my mind, the one I spent several weeks crafting into a tangible work, connected with a powerful feeling of necessity in this person. I think it must’ve connected with their sense of being alive and well in the world. This is what I always hope for, and it meant a lot to me to receive that short, powerful message.
What was your journey to finding your current style and subject matter?
When I was in 9th grade, we had an assignment to select a short story from Ray Bradbury’s "Illustrated Man" and illustrate it in comic book form. I chose my short story with care because I didn’t want to draw a bunch of clutter. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited by the assignment, but the idea of having to draw panel after panel of things wasn’t what I was after. I decided on "Kaleidoscope", a story in which a rocket explodes in outer space, and the survivors are left floating around and talking to each other on special phones in their helmets until they die in one way or another. I drew the rocket. I drew the explosion. Then I drew a blissful series of panels in which a white-suited astronaut floats around in pitch-black space, in dialogue with other, unseen astronauts. The final panel shows a scene back on earth, where a boy and his mother see the protagonist as a shooting star against the evening sky. The mother tells her son to make a wish. I still have this comic book. It’s probably my favorite piece of art I created as a kid. I recently looked at it again and realized, at age 54, that what I was after at age 13 is the same thing I’m after as an artist now: a cursory nod to the tangible while my true interest lies in space and atmosphere. "Kaleidoscope" seems tragic because of the untimely death of the astronauts, but it’s also poetic in that we are meant to infer that the astronaut’s life (the shooting star) will become a guiding light in the boy’s life. The astronaut’s body may have been incinerated, but he lives on through the boy’s wish. My hope is that my paintings can serve in this way as well, as a guidepost directing us to something beyond ourselves. I could write a lot more about the changes in my art over the last three decades, but what has remained constant is also interesting.
What is your favorite Ampersand surface and why?
Claybord, Claybord, Claybord. For some unknown reason, I have always hated the texture and bounce of stretched canvas. When I first learned to stretch my own canvases, I stretched them so tightly that I’d warp my stretcher bars. In graduate school, I realized I could paint on Masonite panels. Soon after that, I started to gesso and sand the Masonite in multiple layers to achieve a completely smooth surface. All experienced artists have idiosyncratic relationships to their materials. We all develop our own processes. These processes become a signal to our creativity that it’s time to wake up. I thoroughly enjoyed creating my own smooth painting surfaces. But it is a lot of work and it is hard on my body. Not only does Claybord have the smooth surface I adore, but it’s also sensuous, almost buttery. But "buttery" is only partly right because the Claybord surface absorbs the oiliness of oil paint in the first one or two layers (and butter wouldn’t do that). I actually love the absorption in the beginning. It’s a resistance that helps you gain momentum. I’ve used Claybord panels for almost a decade, and haven’t experienced anything but joy and appreciation using this product. My older paintings have held up well. I can’t imagine a better surface to paint on.
How did you find Ampersand, or start using our panels?
I used to gesso my own panels on my back porch. Because I live in Chicago, and can only work outside during the five warm months of the year, I used to take about two weeks every summer and gesso a year’s worth of panels. I would sand between layers to create a perfectly smooth surface. In 2009, the summer I was 45, I gave myself tendonitis from the repetitive motion of sanding. I knew that sanding would not get easier as I got older. I’d noticed Claybord and Gessobord panels in the art supply store I frequented. I bought a small panel of each to experiment with. I realized that the Claybord was exactly the surface I craved—it was the surface I’d injured myself to create. I was thrilled I could buy these panels ready to go. Also, in 2009 I decided to make bigger paintings. I’d spent my career making small work. Back then, a 24"x"24” painting was huge for me. Because I was so fond of the Claybord surface, I started custom ordering larger panels from Ampersand. I commonly use 48"x48", 30"x60", and 42"x84" panels. An added bonus to custom ordering panels from Ampersand is that I’ve developed a lovely friendship with Dana Brown, who handles my orders. He even named his baby daughter Louise! I know Dana and his wife didn’t name her after me, but I still love that her name is Louise.
What artists do you most identify with?
There are so many. I’ll name six: Vija Celmins, Agnes Martin, Elsa Muñoz, Joan Nelson, Pat Stier, and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. These artists engage the natural world along a continuum from spare abstraction to lush representation. They use ideas inherent in landscape, and at the same time, they transcend the idea of landscape as a genre. A few months ago I visited the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, which has several Agnes Martin paintings. Martin’s work is minimalist; many of her paintings have a few straight lines drawn in pencil, with horizontal bands of pale color. There are not many marks or much paint on them at all, yet they are powerful works. It’s as if the visible qualities of her paintings exist less to be seen and more to be perceived as an energetic presence. Of course, the energy of the paintings wouldn’t exist without the visual aspect. Martin’s work is enigmatic, with its constant tug between sight and perception. I think all the artists I named above achieve this quality in their work, to one degree or another, even though they use very different imagery. Great work communicates so much more than the visual—the quality of touch, underlying color, barely perceptible texture, as some examples—often beneath the level of conscious awareness.
How do emotions play into your artwork?
They don’t, really. Emotions are like the weather. They come and go. As an adult, I do my best to keep them in perspective and observe them as useful feedback about events and situations. That’s not to say that I discount emotions, or that I’m not sometimes wracked with powerful emotions. I feel a lot of different things when I’m working: gratitude, sadness, elation, rage, joy, impatience, contentment, boredom, satisfaction, or frustration. On and on. These feelings may or may not have anything to do with the work I’m doing at the moment, and they’re rarely good reasons to alter what I’m doing. I aim for something beyond the transitory nature of emotion in my art. If I could express in words exactly what I aim for in my paintings, I wouldn’t need to paint. But I think I can get close if I say I aim to put into my painting a thrum that’s consistent throughout the universe. Maybe you could define that thrum as simply being. I usually decide a painting is finished about three or four times before I finally decide it’s finished. That’s the point when I stop fussing with it. Even then, I always think I could still make some infinitesimal change. I could, but to what end? I need to let it go. With every painting I’ve finished, I get a feeling in my gut that’s like a "click" or a "thunk" like everything fits together the way it’s supposed to. I wouldn’t describe that as an emotion, really, more like a good, satisfying exhale.
What is your proudest moment as an artist?
I can’t think of one single proudest moment. I’ve had several highlights in my career, great conversations with artists I admire, relationships with truly nurturing galleries, wonderful openings, one-person shows I’m very proud of, and my students who now have art careers of their own. Thinking about all of these things makes me proud. What I’m actually proudest of is my grit and determination as an artist over time—how every step along the way has enhanced my skill and sensibility to a level that I can now create the work I’m able to create. In my twenties or thirties, I couldn’t have made the paintings I now paint. I simply wasn’t there yet. Realizing this, makes me excited to imagine what I might be capable of in another decade or two. I could not make the paintings I make now without the people who’ve encouraged and mentored me along the way, the teachers I’ve had, the gallerists and curators I’ve worked with, the collectors who’ve bought my work, the organizations that have given me grants, close friends who are also artists, and my husband, Steve Carrelli, a painter and installation artist. The support from every single one of these people has been vital in my life as an artist. I am also incredibly proud of and grateful for these relationships.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Show up and do the work. It doesn’t matter whether you feel inspired or not. Inspiration comes when you've made the time and space for it to appear. "I don’t feel inspired" is not a legitimate reason to skip going to the studio. You can’t get away with that if you’re a teacher, a dentist, or a bus driver. Why should you if you’re an artist? There are valid reasons why I might not go to the studio. I might need to attend to other parts of my life. I might need to relax after a particularly intensive period of work. It’s OK to take breaks. But my work grows only when I consistently show up to paint. It’s true that I can think of new ideas away from my studio. But what I see in my imagination and what I’m actually able to paint are two separate things. My materials and my facility with paint have limitations, so there’s always some resistance when I paint. Conversely, the act of painting itself allows me to make breakthroughs that I could not have conceptualized beforehand. Some discoveries are only possible with brush in hand. Show up and do the work. I’ve heard this advice a million times, and each time it rings true.
What is your dream project?
Great question! This sounds out there, but here goes: I’d love to create a public installation in a park or forest preserve, someplace semi-secluded, perhaps surrounded by trees, within or near a densely populated area. You’d walk a winding path to get there, maybe a quarter of a mile long. There’d be places to sit around the edges of a clearing, which would be about half the size of a soccer field, sizeable but intimate. There would be a system of vents just beneath the surface of the ground that would emit mist at intervals. Sometimes the mist would be barely visible, and sometimes it would be thick and rise high. It would depend on the air temperature and some predetermined schedule. I imagine it to be mesmerizing, watching the mist rise and fall. It would be a place to sit and be quiet for a while. Alternatively, I’d love to create one day a huge mosaic based on one of my water/sky paintings and install it in a very busy place in downtown Chicago or another city. It would be a visual oasis in the midst of people’s busy lives.
Louise LeBourgeois is a painter, writer, and open water swimmer. The flux, heft, and ever-changing moods of Lake Michigan inspire her paintings. She uses the simple elements of sky, horizon, and water to explore the boundless possibilities of emotional temperature.
As an open water swimmer, LeBourgeois is mesmerized by the luminosity of deep water. She aims for a similar radiance in her painting. Using layers of opaque color and transparent glazes, she sands between each layer, slightly abrading the surface and eliminating evidence of brushstrokes. She achieves the illusion of depth in her work through this repeated accumulation and subtraction of color. To see more of Louise's work, visit her website and Instagram.