Pierogi: Across many different series of your works, there is a focus on natural elements, particularly flowers. What draws you to depicting flowers in the ways you do?
Claire McConaughy: I’m attracted to landscape elements. They’re beautiful, they have great colors, unusual shapes, they’re fun to paint and they make great metaphors for everything from joy and renewal to a memento mori. I’ve painted landscapes and trees for as long as I can remember. Regarding the way I depict them, they can become more or less painterly and distorted depending on the overall image, but I usually depict the objects in a fairly straightforward way.
The pieces that are in the Flat Files right now are observational paintings of wilted dahlias from the local deli. They are those potted flowers that you can buy with reflective foil around the pot. Of course they weren’t wilted at first, but after several weeks of having them around the studio they dried out and they were still beautiful. I loved the colors and shapes of the foil around the base, especially since it was a strong contrast to the colors and shapes of the flowers.
P: What are some of the primary references that inform your work? Do you draw from specific inspirations, places, or experiences?
CM: Most of my references are common day-to-day scenes and events, my memory, and the objects I see around me. I make sketches and take lots of photographs of everything from trees in parks to weeds growing in sidewalks, oil rainbows on the pavement and rugs. I pull from my early life and my present. I’m originally from a rural area and a small town where there are rolling hills, mountains and woods and those places are often featured in my paintings.
I’ve always connected with 19th-century American landscape painting. The intangible qualities that are present in those paintings through the depictions of landscapes are profound. They never fail to pull me in. I can place myself completely in Martin Johnson Heade’s “Approaching Thunder Storm”. Heade and Blakelock, just to name two, are masters of contemplation. Another reference is that open-ended ambiguity that exists in poetry. I love the simple moments that Kay Ryan creates that encapsulate much larger life. She has a poem titled, “The Niagara River”, where in 15 or so lines with clear, crisp imagery she opens the door for personal reflection and reflection on life itself.
P: How do you approach your artistic practice in general; do you work in certain settings or blocks of time?
CM: I paint almost every day. The amount of time varies depending on my other obligations, so some days I get eight to ten hours and some days it can be an hour and a half. Longer blocks of time are great because I can really get into it and stay with the painting; but having the time broken up isn’t really so bad either, it makes me focus and the time and effort is much more condensed and precise. On days when I can’t get to the studio, I have sketchbooks and watercolor blocks that I work in at home. For these works in the Flat Files, it was nice to do a series of observational paintings while I was working on more complicated oil paintings. It’s simple and meditative to paint what I see. Eventually the dahlias may make their way into some of the oil paintings, we’ll see. I used light washes of acrylic paint on paper so they are very immediate. Once I make a mark on the paper it’s not so easy to rework an area without the paint getting bogged down and murky, so they are lightly painted and light feeling.
P: As a painter, do you experiment with different modes of working: particular mediums, scales, etc.? Do you have a drawing or other artistic practice alongside your painting?
CM: I work primarily with oil paint on canvas. I also make watercolors and acrylic on paper pieces. I sketch from life and use photos for resources when I don’t have the actual place or object nearby. The average size would be 60×36. It’s a good size that I can handle right now. There are so many elements to juggle in a painting and right now I feel comfortable with that size.
I have also been working on very small 8×10 inch landscapes. They’re great to work on because even though they can take a few weeks to totally complete, each session feels like it goes far. In one painting session I can cover the canvas and work it a few times whereas on a large painting it can take many sessions to even make the first pass. So, I can see movement in the small pieces quickly – the larger ones require more patience and determination. It’s nice to have these different options so the workflow is smoother. It’s a working rhythm to go from one piece, then take a break, work on something else, then go back.
P: Are you attracted to the same themes now as an artist as you were when you first began making art?
CM: I’ve been making art all of my life, so naturally I’ve experimented with different mediums and tried out a variety of styles. In college, a professor that I truly respected watched me experiment with art movements that were important at the time, conceptual art and minimalism, which really weren’t a good fit for me. I was searching for my artistic voice when he gave an assignment to make a short film and I chose my rustbelt hometown for the subject of the film. I wasn’t sure if that was challenging or provocative enough to be art, but my professor helped me see that using my own experience as a resource was all that I needed. I’m so grateful he gave me permission to not think I had to create a grand theme, but that my own experience was the right material for my art. Since then, the work I’ve felt to be the most successful has been work that reflects my personal internal and external worlds.
I have used flowers and natural elements in my work for many series. I made a group of interior genre scene paintings with floral patterned rugs, sheets, clothes etc. I spent a few years making linear drawings and paintings of orchids. At one point I was painting directly onto floral patterned wallpaper and fabric. I liked that they were feminine and could be feminist, and were a great way to elevate, through beauty, what would be a mundane domestic interior.
P: What have you been working on recently?
CM: Right now I’m working on paintings that have layers of images that create open-ended narratives. Lately, I’ve been using the flowers in a more surreal way. The elements connect in a dreamlike logic – sometimes the associations are obvious and sometimes they aren’t. I’ve been starting with landscapes of trees and sky in the background then layering forward, closer to the picture plane, flowers and household items like vases – it’s possible that there will be lamps or other objects, too. So the elements are from both interior and exterior environments. I think they could make some interesting combinations, whose relationships would be compelling and would allow the viewer to complete the narrative.