States of Reckoning: An Interview with Julia Schwartz

Julia Schwartz,  Late night tussle while outside bullets fly , Oil on linen, 40 x 36 inches

Julia Schwartz, Late night tussle while outside bullets fly, Oil on linen, 40 x 36 inches

By Scott Gleeson

California artist Julia Schwartz regards painting as a cathartic and rigorous daily praxis rooted in notions of mindfulness and surrealist automatic drawing. The artist works on a small to medium scale, working in oils with a variegated technique blending expressive brushwork and thin washes with gray opaque scumbles. Julia shares with Peripheral Vision the motivations behind her work and offers insights about her methods and the future direction of her art. 

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 trained to be an artist exactly, I just was one, the way kids just are making art from the moment someone hands them a crayon or paint brush. I was always drawing. I did take classes in school: an excellent teacher in junior high taught us blind contour drawing, a method I still employ to this day. After high school my education was wide ranging, including dance, science, theater, then medicine and psychoanalysis, actually everything but art. In art, other than night classes in life drawing and a painting workshop, I have learned from doing and looking.

I came to the conclusion a number of years ago that my way of working comes mostly from the sum total of life experience; I’m not sure that I would make the same work if I had gone to art school straight away. Everything that I have experienced in life - medical school, psychoanalytic training, the sudden and terrible loss of my daughter in 2015 - contributes to how I make art. I think it has to do with a sensibility, to how things are connected, a sense of the precariousness of life. 

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?

I don’t have many memories of being taken to art museums the way we went to the theater while growing up (my mother was an actress), although I do remember the Tar Pits next to LACMA. I do have vivid memories of going to see the Watts Towers when I was young. There is something iconic in the shapes of the spires that imprinted itself on me. 

The artist Simon Rodia built multiple structures over more than thirty years, decorating them with shells, broken glass, and tile, materials that he collected from the surrounding neighborhood. I’m not sure how much of my response is cultural (we went to see it after the Watts riot) or emotional (my grandmother died around that time as well), but just looking at the photographs of them is an emotional jolt, and a recent trip had the same effect.

Like Rodia, I find satisfaction in working with humble and repurposed materials, and his organic, intuitive way of figuring things out without plan or design feels very compatible with my nature. I think it is also in my nature to work in solitude. I discovered recently that Rodia is one of the visionaries featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album, right next to Dylan. Although I feel part of LA's vibrant art community, I also feel "outside"; maybe all artists experience that, but it is definitely something I feel.

Julia Schwartz,  Envelope 48.96 , painted repurposed envelope

Julia Schwartz, Envelope 48.96, painted repurposed envelope

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

James Welling’s Glass House series includes a video called Sun Pavilion. The colors and sound function like a tripwire for memory and emotion, and I still feel its influence, not just when I use my camera, but kind of as a constant when thinking about the influence of color. Shows like Mike Kelley (MOCA 2014) and Frances Stark (Hammer 2015) - artists working in multiple formats like video, drawing, collage, and more - are energizing and liberating. I’ve recently been exploring new paths in my own work outside of painting and it has been inspiring to see shows in this context, that lead you back into the studio with renewed energy.  

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

In general, I feel that all my work - drawing and painting - reflects my 'situation' - the geographic and ecological, the emotional, the political, the state of the world and how I am making sense of it. These days my concerns seem to be about how to make sense of the senselessness of the everyday world and the outsized 'seismic disasters' that currently include personal loss and grief, as well as the geological, political and the cultural. In 2011, at the time of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, my work changed drastically: it was as though the figures I had been painting could no longer hold what I felt about the state of the world, so I began painting islands, and then abstracted structures of bone and ice and flesh. Thinking back prior to 2011, events - large and small, personal and collective - have often led to such changes. In 2003, I was in a night class when the news of Abu Ghraib broke; I remember it seemed trivial to continue with the assignment of drawing a costumed model. Instead I painted a series of 10 diptychs of abstracted figures including that hooded figure that became symbolic of prisoner abuse. At other times since then, I’ve made paintings referencing floods and disappearing icebergs, a small series of terrorist portraits, a painting of Eric Garner, paintings from the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, and so on, up to the recent onslaught of shooting deaths by police. In all cases, I still hold that the focus is less on the content of the painting and more on how it reflects the existential conditions of our time.

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

I live in Santa Monica and my main studio is a converted garage. This is where I work on larger canvas and linen with oil paint. The light and weather has a profound effect on my practice and my work. Maybe all places have their weather fingerprint, but the light and air is important to me, especially working in a space with all doors and windows open year round. All the colors of the garden and the outside are in the paintings - the different greens, the blue from the pool, the gray, the purples of wisteria, morning glory, and lavender, the white-soup sky, and so on. You can also find the wires and the equipment, rags, and even dead plants in the paintings. Working at home has advantages and disadvantages, you're so close to home and you're too close to home, but it has worked well for me.

Since 2012, I have made a second studio space inside my home that I refer to as the 'nightstudio'. This is where I work primarily with gouache on paper, and have experimented with different kinds over the years: yupo, bristol, book pages, and recently an archive of envelopes from the letters sent and received over decades. My pattern of night painting began several years ago when night was often the only time I could find a span of several hours to work uninterrupted, but it became a nightly ritual and remains so to this day.

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

It is unusual for me to start a painting with a conscious idea or concept. When I come into the studio, I’m trying to be present with the materials; later there is a kind of back and forth 'dialogue' between me and the work. The painting starts with a mark, a color, usually from a dirty brush. The history of my painting lives in those brushes and palette so I try not to clean them very often. At this point I'm looking rather than thinking. Looking could be out the window of the studio at the greens and other colors, but I am also looking nowhere or in which is like being in a transitional kind of space, maybe a slightly altered kind of mind-space. I'm not looking at the painting so much as being with the painting. I've written before that my intention is to paint without conscious intention. In the early part, it is important to just stay in that area of not-thinking. It is only near the end when editing is important, when I want to start thinking about the painting. Then I'm looking at the painting in a different way; looking at versus being with the painting. I suppose people think of that as painting intuitively, but there is a bit more to it than that.

I have learned a great deal from looking at art and also visiting with other artists and reading or talking about their processes. Artists are usually pretty generous so I’ve learned how to clean brushes, mix paints and medium. I’ve learned a lot that way. That said, I think I’ve mostly learned how to paint from doing it. And learning from experience that when I “try” too hard I usually fail. This is what I mean: for painting (or art in general) to work for me, it has to come less from technique, effort, and methods, and more from being really grounded in the making.

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

During the day I listen to my local NPR station- KCRW- in the studio as the shows cycle from news to music to various talk shows. There have been times when I listened to particular music as accompaniment- GusGus or Spoon or Flying Lotus or soundtracks like Synecdoche, NY, Never Let Me Go and so on. When my mother was dying I listened endlessly to Liz Phair’s Exile on Guyville. Sometimes now I need silence so I can hear birds.

At night I stream shows, and although I rarely look up it has to be decent enough to listen to; if the shows are too good I can’t paint because I end up watching.

Tell us about your current body of work?

One long-term project is a series of gouaches on book pages. This has been an important component of my work during the past couple of years and I’m now painting into three books—actually one is completed, so two books are active. These are medical reference books, and I paint directly into the books leaving the pages intact. I suppose this functions a bit like a journal although it isn’t exactly sequential.

For another series, I started taking objects that belonged to my daughter and others into the studio. I suspect the objects have become stand-ins for loss. The materials undergo some process of transformation that involve breakage (in the case of glass) or painting (in the case of fabric or paper). I see a connection to Rodia’s Towers and to Kelley’s Memory Ware in the sense of reusing, repurposing, and re-contextualizing materials; but in my case re-sourcing the personal objects of loved ones allows them to function as relics or reliquaries. I suppose these works convey a state, being shattered, and maybe show how art is the way through a shattered existence.

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why? Is there a work you consider to be transitional?

This is a tough question because it requires an assessment. And this answer isn’t really about a body of work per se but about a phase of creative development that remains somewhat in flux. There was a point when I (mostly) stopped thinking about what I was doing in relation to what other people were doing, a point when I mostly stopped thinking about whether there was consistency or not, whether it looked like anything or anyone else’s work. I think that might be pivotal. When you can be interested in the world of art- what people are doing and making, what art looks like, and so on- without comparing and assessing yourself in relation to others, that is an accomplishment. It allows you to enjoy art in the world without worrying about your place in it. I say mostly because sometimes it’s hard to feel out of place, out of step. A friend of mine refers to it as needing to find “your people” in a community of artists. Sometimes that happens more easily when you have gone to art school. So I say mostly because sometimes I fall backwards. But I feel that in the past 2 years especially I am finding my own voice and language, and that does feel pivotal.

Julia Schwartz,  Missing You , Oil on linen, 24 x 16 inches

Julia Schwartz, Missing You, Oil on linen, 24 x 16 inches


Talk about a recent exhibition of your art. What pieces did you show and how do they relate to other works in your portfolio?

This summer I was in a three-person show called “Dig For Fire” at an artist-run space in Los Angeles called Eastside International; it included painter David Lloyd and sculptor Rochelle Botello. I showed works from earlier this year loosely titled Dispersal paintings. I was painting on linen again and it was great to be out there in fresh air in the garage-studio, working larger, and in oil. The spring green came through in the paintings as I was coming to new states of reckoning about loss and death and existence. The word dispersal has so many meanings: how we split up and distribute belongings, how plants spread seeds, and I was thinking a lot about how maybe we all in the end are just dispersed the same way, like milkweed seeds. So in amongst the greens of the garden there are bits of flesh.

We also had a wall on which the three of us taped our ‘night studio’ work on paper, all mixed together; that was a highlight for many people who also prefer intimate drawings over bigger paintings.

What is next for you in your art practice?

I have a few shows coming up in the next several months. For the most part, I expect I will keep painting as always. I’d like to keep going with the object-based work, although I don’t think it will replace painting. And I have some ideas that are new directions for me that involve working collaboratively, either with individuals or in a public setting. I would also like to try my hand at making books with the envelopes and book pages.

Part of our mission as a publication is to raise awareness about obstacles facing artist mothers. Tell us about your experiences as a working artist and mother.

I was a parent before I was an artist although I had another career as well, so I was accustomed to a very non-linear way of being. I think you get used to juggling, to compartmentalizing, and to deciding what is essential— sometimes work comes first and family has to wait, and other times work takes a back seat. For me, art and therapy are very humane and humanizing fields of study and practice. Those are things worth teaching to our children.

It was helpful to have a studio space at home, which made it possible to work in spurts of time. I definitely missed out on things like residencies - I never even applied. Once I started my late night painting, I had several hours of undisturbed studio time, although as my daughter got older she hung out with me while I painted! I miss that terribly now, I really do, those late hours- it took me weeks after her passing before I could even sit in that room. Now it’s like she is there with me, really every space everywhere is laden with her memory, and I suppose that is how I go on.

Learn more about Julia Schwartz on the artist's Profile.

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