Heart First: An Interview with Rachael Edwards

Rachael Edwards,  RAWWWR! , acrylic on canvas

Rachael Edwards, RAWWWR!, acrylic on canvas

by Scott Gleeson

Artist Rachael Edwards investigates the potential of contemporary painting to convey harsh social realities, creating large canvases blending pop, realist, street art, and old master influences. Primarily a painter of figurative compositions, Edwards' human subjects inhabit bleak, abandoned landscapes recalling crime scenes, killing fields, and derelict urban wastelands. The self-taught artist has developed a personal style privileging economy of form, drama, pathos, and clarity reminiscent of such luminaries as Caravaggio, Francisco de Zurbarán, Francisco de Goya, and Honoré Daumier. Each painting's somber pallet asserts a new relevance for the significance of these psycho-semiological attributes within a contemporary visual culture saturated with brightly hued images intended for and fetishizing digital presentation and immediate visual gratification. Turning away from a digital visual language so prevalent in contemporary painting, which favors rainbow, toon, candy, moiré, and glitch aesthetics, Edwards revives the tenebrism of old master painting and realist lithography as a foil to digital mass culture, a deft maneuver which situates her work within the spheres of politics and religion, and steers the flow of western art historical narrative on an intersecting trajectory with contemporary street art and children's book illustration. At the core of her practice, which spans traditional easel painting and urban interventions, is a fundamental validation of human agency and the power of empathy to foster connectedness. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist her influences, methods and inspirations.

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

Although there have certainly been many individual pieces that have influenced me from Banksy to Vermeer, one of the earliest and strongest was "Christine's World" by Andrew Wyeth. It is one of the few pieces that had the power to make me love it and hate it at the same time. From a very young age I wanted to look at it forever, yet, never see it again. It was a complete mystery to me. I could feel this massive purpose but couldn't figure it out. Until I finally sought it out. It was brilliant to me. The artist had mastered what art does. It provided an emotional outlet for the answers to its questions. Why couldn't I take the large feeling of isolation it gave me? Everything felt so far away... and not just lonely but, in a separate unique place of loneliness. It was masterfully done. You could feel the sun; you could count individual blades of grass. You could see birds flying from the barn. But it was horrible. It offered evidence of life going on as usual, but no one was there. You just wanted her to get up and run back to the house. This piece didn't illustrate what it was like for a person to be handicapped on a farm. It pulled you into her life; it made you feel what it was like to be so far away from normal... from everyone else. Its brilliance went beyond technique and color theory. Within its ability to include, it created empathy. It is because of this that I hold such a deep respect for it and its artist on so many levels, and often think of it when I’m doing my own work.

What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?

The earliest art I remember was in my most beloved book as a kid, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. It didn't take long to memorize the story, but I would sit with that book and just look at the picture of every page over and over. It was an incredible experience. I knew the story by heart because there is barely a sentence per page yet, just looking at the artwork made the story seem so big and boundless. It made me feel like I could find more words to the story if I just looked at the pictures. It was kind of dark, but not scary. You could feel everything. It offered that connection to feel something uncomfortable without being repulsed. In fact, it had a kind of uneasiness that was appealing... that you wanted to go back too so you could experience the story again. It made it exhilarating to be in that place outside of your normal zone. I drew constantly as most typical kids, but I remember feeling that I wanted my drawings to "say" things, like Sendak's did. I strive for that to this day. In fact, my recent contemporary figurative painting "RAWWWr!" was highly influenced by that book and the depth of its illustration.

Rachael Edwards,  Heart First , acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Rachael Edwards, Heart First, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches


How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I never "decided" to become an artist. I just ...was one and that's just what I did. My parents were jazz musicians, so they naturally had that creative mindset and experience that enabled me at every turn. My mom even let me paint all over my bedroom walls as a teenager, her only stipulations being "make it moral, keep it ethical, and no graffiti junk, I want to see your artwork". Technically, I have no formal training and am self-taught. I do feel training would have certainly provided a much larger tool belt much quicker than having to figure it out by trial and error. However, to this day, I have never felt that I shouldn't try or do something because that "wasn't the way it should be done". I have never felt limited to try or do anything. I was never even confined to one or two mediums. I paint on everything. I have had shows for figurative work on canvas and shows for street style spray paint on cardboard. I paint indoors on stretched drop cloth and roam around outside some days looking for supplies to create a new arena for an audience. Maybe the trade-off for not being able to receive formal training was that it took longer to get to certain planes, but I had total creative freedom when I got there.

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

The most dominant theme in my work is humanity. I make works that are statements of how people are treated and how we should treat each other. Even when they are politically charged, the underlying message is the effect of action on others. I've largely been a figurative painter concerned with human form, but as I experienced the power of visual art I began to push the limits with what I was saying and how loud I was saying it. At times, the work I produce is to champion the lower rung as it were, but as a whole, my recent work has become an extension of what I feel emotionally about the treatment of life and the importance of cherishing it.

Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?

My workspace isn't a separate environment. I live with my work. Since my art makes social statements, I see the majority of my subject matter in the news, indie films, documentaries, and through personal social interactions. Such a constant personal relationship with each piece enhances not only the experience I have with the work, but the desire to enhance the connection for the viewer.

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

I am with my work from beginning to end, building its frame and stretching its canvas. I use flow acrylics from bottles because I have a fairly dark pallet, but paint on large areas (usually 36" x 48" to 36" x 60"). Therefore the bottles of white and black are 3 times the size of any other paint. I had always been astounded by the power of Renaissance pieces with the constant force of beautifully placed color within a dark surrounding, thus, my pallet is usually consistent with large amounts of Black, Umber, White, and smaller amounts of Red, Yellow and Blue. Patience is a large part of my work. Although the emotional goal is the connection of each other through empathy for one another, I also want the audience to feel the importance of their role within the amount time and attention I put into what I present to them.

Rachael Edwards,  Art of War , acrylic on canvas

Rachael Edwards, Art of War, acrylic on canvas

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

There are days when I am working that I require silence in the studio – I need to be quiet and "listen" to what I am thinking as I am working. Most times I listen to music, but it varies all across the board depending on the mood of the piece I am working on or how I plan on it being presented. Usually David Bowie can cover anything.

Tell us about your current body of work?

My portfolio has developed as a set of sub-series and, recently, each series has become more and more distinctive, yet each tending to focus on social issues. With each project I strive to represent subjects that are immediately socially relevant in a legible, usually figurative, style. I introduce abstraction or surrealism to certain compositions to enhance the work’s emotional impact. Subjects that interest me most include anti-war protest, homelessness, suicide, and political authority. Depth is an overwhelming factor in that I want each piece to be more like a novel or movie. I want viewers to take their time with these images and find value in the process of looking.

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

One piece I consider to be transitional is "RAWWWr!," the first painting in a sub-series I recently began calling "Paper Monsters". I showed this work in a solo exhibition in 2015 called "The Difference Between Nobody". It was the first time I displayed a body of work exclusively addressing social issue, and “RAWWWr!" was pivotal in this group. I wanted a way to communicate ideas that were well understood, but do it in a bold way that would bring them back to relevance. I mixed techniques and styles into the same piece in order to have two factors that would amplify each other, rather than butting heads and fighting for attention. The result was a piece that showed the reality of its story within its figurative foundation and bluntly stated its truth through a contemporary mouthpiece: the infusion of childlike artwork fitted into a darkly figurative painting. The very essence of this piece was to simply "tell it like it is," evoking beautiful and positively charged reactions. With that reaction I wanted to turn up the volume on its underlying meaning so I then made a guerrilla art installment based on it, painting more than 300 cardboard boxes emblazoned with its anthem...the blunt statement of "You Are Not Disposable" on one side and a spray painted version of the monster character from the painting on the opposite side. After spending all night putting these out around town, people noticed them, took pictures with them, and even took them home. This was about the time I mixed in the use of street art on cardboard into fine art shows. People got the messages, and I wanted them to be able to keep them. I wanted them to feel involved in the art. Now, more than ever, I look for ways to "involve" the audience both emotionally and physically with factors not just inclusive of the content of the work, but even how it is displayed and presented. I want the messages of the tangible pieces to reach the audience outside of the gallery.

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

As far as simply painting a tangible piece of work, physically nothing was in the way but learning patience. But the biggest wall I had to break was being so incredibly guarded about my own feelings. I couldn’t yell with a closed mouth. As for future goals, the broader the scope of accessibility and inclusion I wish to offer, the farther beyond bottles of paint I go. Realizing the importance of the goal provides the motivation to find ways of reaching it.