Truth's Sad Ashes: The Drawings of Christine Weir

Christine Weir,  The Unraveling  (2014-2015), Graphite on clay panel, 24 x 36 inches

Christine Weir, The Unraveling (2014-2015), Graphite on clay panel, 24 x 36 inches

by Scott Gleeson

The medium of drawing holds mythic status within the history of visual art. Once regarded as a medium reserved for preliminary sketches and cartoons for finished frescos and panel paintings, drawing has since the 20th century assumed its rightful status as a medium worthy of art historical consideration in its own right. Guided by a personal impulse to create, artist Christine Weir creates vivid abstract images in the primal medium of drawing, working exclusively in graphite. The organic, fluid movement within her compositions - visual depictions of aerial landscapes and river systems - bely the artist's meticulous process which involves careful planning, composition, and reworking. Weir's preferred material, graphite, a naturally occurring crystalized form of carbon typically reserved for industrial applications and as pencil lead, possesses distinct working properties and visual characteristics. Each drawing exploits the medium's visual properties, pushing its expressive limits and encouraging direct experience unmediated by photography or traditional glazed framing. Like another noteworthy artist exploiting graphite's expressive possibilities, Teresita Fernandez, Weir makes objects about surface as much as they are about ideas. Global politics, mapping, war, science, and environmental devastation are among the ideas and histories the artist grapples with in her practice. Peripheral Vision discusses with Weir her influences, methods, ideas, and the challenges she has overcome to pursue her art.

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

In the last 11 years since I returned to drawing, I have used Google earth to find my subject matter. My initial ideas came from overcoming a fear of flying and being able to look out of the window of an airplane. I was enthralled by the landscape and it led me to thoughts about voyeurism, how people can misunderstand unfamiliar landscapes, and conspiracy theories. My first works were concerned with circle farms, Area 51 and other military bases. At the same time I was also chronicling airport runway patterns across the US as a way to process my fear of flying, and channelling my anxiety into the drawings. 

Over time, I found Google Earth to be a great resource for drawings that helped me gain a deeper understanding about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the while I continued some of my earlier themes in commissions and as palate cleansers and idea generators. As my work evolved even further, I began to look into environmental issues, such as mapping the water sources and reservoirs for the Los Angeles aqueduct system and doing a series on nuclear contaminated landscapes. I was also intrigued by light patterns that cities made at night, and may go back to them at some point.
A little over two years ago, I came across a book about chaos theory, James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science, that made a profound impact on my thinking about life and art. At the same time I was experiencing the seemingly typical upheavals of middle age, along with an increasingly intrusive bout of anxiety and depression. I wasn’t alone — I saw pain, angst, and doubt in so many people around me as they struggled within the confines of their lives. Drawing was my escape.

For the past two years I have been diligently working on a series chronicling this period of my life. I’ve loosely been thinking of it as a group, called Qualia, which can be defined, simplistically, as personal perceptions. My hope is that they will be shown together as a narrative of loss and the possibilities that are born from those losses. Many, but not all, of the titles come from literary references, highlighting the universality of experience and perhaps helping to provide some comfort from these alienating feelings. The series is not complete, and I’m not sure where it is headed at this point. I’m still finding inspiration in some very dark places, even though I am personally feeling much better.

I continue to use Google Earth as a reference, but I am only looking for water systems that convey a specific idea or emotion that I have at the outset. Then I isolate and use that reference to create a composition that reflects the feeling. Chaos theory and fluid dynamics, in combination with my past environmental works, led me to using water as elements of motion — physical, but especially mental. In these drawings I am recognizing that rivers and minds alike are systems having both stable and unstable behaviors that are impacted by external noise.

Many people ask me about the circles. From the very beginning, I used the concentric circle pattern as a source of light, at first as a light coming up from the ground, evolving into a spotlight from some unknown observer. Later, the circles became more of a geometric device to anchor the composition. In many ways they can still be read as light, but often I think of them as of a point of origin, or most recently as the self that is being obscured and suffocated by the subject.

Christine Weir,  From Truth's Sad Ashes, Pain and Falsehood Grow  (2015) ,  Graphite on clay panel, 24 x 36 inches

Christine Weir, From Truth's Sad Ashes, Pain and Falsehood Grow (2015), Graphite on clay panel, 24 x 36 inches

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I hold a BFA in drawing, and at the time I thought I was going to be an artist. I eventually decided to pursue art history, earning a master’s degree, and working in the auction business for nearly ten years. I left this position to raise my son and did not draw or paint for a good twelve years or so.

At the time that I felt my creativity return I had a newborn son. I knew that whatever I did it had to be something that I could quickly set up and take down. Additionally, it could not take up much space because we were living in a 588 square foot house. When I quit making art 12 years earlier, I was painting. But as I looked at my surroundings I remembered how much I loved drawing and thought to myself, “your degree is in drawing for god’s sake - why did you abandon it?” I immediately went out for supplies and haven’t stopped since. 

I’ve always used the full range of Staedtler Mars Lumograph graphite pencils, but have also added in a few Prismacolor Turquoise graphites, as well as alternating between Caran d’Ache, Cretacolor, Faber-Castell and Pentalic pencils. When I started out I was working on simple Strathmore paper, then moved to 140 lb, Arches, hot pressed paper, which was my main support for the majority of the last 11 years. 

However, about 7 years ago someone recommended that I might like to try out Ampersand’s Claybord. Every once and a while I would experiment with it, but found it to be very tricky. Regardless, I kept working on clay panels until I perfected a technique. I started transitioning to these panels about 3 years ago and now I use them exclusively. I love the rich, bold, metallic, 3-D quality of the finished drawings and the crisp precision that is enhanced by the clay surface. I love the feel of working on it — the only way I can express it is like the feeling you have when you are eating a really fine meal. It’s incredibly satisfying. Conversely, it can be unforgiving and fragile and the oil from your hands can easily permeate the surface. With each drawing I continue to learn more about the medium, to exploit and coerce its inherent properties, and experiment with a little less trepidation. 

Lately, most of my drawings have been 24 x 36 inches, with 2 inch cradles. I also have been working on some 18 x 24 inch pieces, but I like the challenge of the bigger size. Because my work is so intricate it can sometimes take me six weeks, two months or more to finish one piece. In the last two years I’ve completed eight larger works and six smaller ones. I am about about halfway through the ninth large drawing. I’ve also had some commissions and have done a few smaller pieces, too. But the bulk of my time is spent on this series.

None of my drawings are fixed. I object to putting more chemicals into the environment. Drawing is such a clean and simple process and there’s something attractive to me about keeping these pure. Another intriguing aspect of my work is the varied sheen and texture that is likely to change when coated. In reality the finished surface isn’t as delicate as one assumes, it’s the edges that suffer. However, I do get a lot of grief from people about the unfixed nature of my drawings. I have experimented with fixative on a few pieces I didn’t like, and so far these experiments have not been successful enough for me to commit to using fixatives when there is a risk that a piece that I’ve worked on for months could be ruined. My solution is that I usually tell buyers to frame the drawings for protection, even though I prefer an unframed look.

The drawings themselves are carefully planned, even though they look rather organic and free-form. I do a lot of layering. I erase. There are many, many small details that get lost during photography.* I have a tiny little vacuum to pick up the excess graphite. I use a large compass to draw the concentric circles, at first a special handmade one that my husband made for me and more recently one that I inherited from my father who studied to be a draftsman. I work every inch of the space, and in this way I think the drawings come across more painting-like to some people.

As an aside, I have tried endless permutations to get better photos, and there is just a loss of quality that I have learned to accept. The lack of good photographic reproductions makes it difficult for people to understand the work. Every single person who sees my drawings in real life for the first time makes the same remark - "Wow.  I had no idea. I am so glad I saw these in person.”  I have learned to to chalk it up to it being one of my challenges. 

What do you feel, if anything, holds you back in reaching your artistic goals and how do/did you overcome it?

I’m anti-social, and can be a bit shy. I think it really keeps me from having a better career. It’s not that I dislike people, it’s more that I get overwhelmed. I like one-on-one meetings, having meaningful conversations and interactions in small groups, but I really dread openings and networking. My head starts to spin when I’m in big crowds where I’m expected to mingle. I suddenly forget people’s names, I feel self conscious and end up standing in the corner hiding and then I leave.

If it’s one of my openings I’m fine because I have a purpose. I know my role. I’m confident about my work and myself. Small talk is minimal and I don’t feel like I have to do a lot of self-promotion. It’s just a different kind of networking vibe that I can handle. If I’m at an event with a companion that is outgoing, knows the crowd, provides introductions and context I do much better. So I try to attend with them. Otherwise, I honestly don’t know how to overcome this trait, but I do try to make it out when I can and fight the urge to flee in a panic.

Another challenge is being the primary caregiver for my son. My husband works a lot, sometimes unpredictably late, and we have no family nearby. Since I work from home we don’t have a nanny or a lot of sitters that we rely on. This limits my ability to go out, even if I want to. I’m also not really able to participate in residencies at this point in my life. Time will be the solution to this problem, and it will be bittersweet. 

Christine Weir,  Escape is Done  (2016), graphite on clay panel, 18 x 24 inches

Christine Weir, Escape is Done (2016), graphite on clay panel, 18 x 24 inches

One of the unfortunate legacies of modern art is a persistent myth in the nobility of the struggling artist. Conversely, a speculative global art market and media coverage of secondary market auction sales creates a skewed perception that financial success is attainable. How does an awareness of the ‘art market’ affect your practice? How have you learned to negotiate market pressures, either in the commercial market or in the academic "market of ideas”?

I have an unusual view on all of this, I think, because I used to be an art appraiser for an auction house. I saw so much work that was in favor at one point in time, but no longer, and was worth $50 on the secondary market. Because of this I pay zero attention to the art market. There are so many people who do not understand the art market and misinterpret how it works. It’s unfortunate. Buyers get ripped off, artists overvalue their work and overestimate their contribution. It sounds harsh, but my experience has left me quite pragmatic about it all. I have no romanticism about being an artist. It’s just something I need to do, some weird drive.

When I was an appraiser, clients always wanted to know how they could make money off of art. My advice was buy what you like, buy something you want to live with that gives you pleasure. There are no guarantees in the market. Trends come and go. Now I follow that advice as a creator. I make what I like. I make the kind of work I want to live with. I do this for myself only. The fact that I’m making work that is good and that gets favorable and enthusiastic responses, delights me, but it’s not what fuels me.

Selling work is nice, I’m always happy to get it out of my studio to make room for newer work, but money does not compel me. And if it did, I would surely be in a deep depression. As with most artists, the thousands of us who toil at it without a whole lot of recognition, I don’t make enough money to live off the work; and sales are certainly not steady source of income. I don't work at a fast enough pace to rake in cash on commissions. I’m happy if I break even in a year, thrilled if I’m in the black, but have no expectations of any kind about income. 

This approach works well for me but it’s certainly not for everyone. We each have to find a way to balance our financial needs with our creative ones. But I think the best way to approach the problem is to be wary of compromising my work to chase money through fads in art. If I am true to my vision I will be taken seriously, which counts for a lot, even if it doesn’t pay the bills.

Learn more about Christine Weir on the artist's Profile.

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