WTP Artist: Teresa Stanley

WTP Artist: Teresa Stanley

“The dance between the scientific inquiry and the artistic one.”

by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor

Teresa Stanley
Teresa Stanley in her studio

Teresa Stanley has exhibited her work extensively both nationally and internationally. She received her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley. A professor at Humboldt State University, she is the recipient of an individual artist grant from the Ingrid Nikelson Trust and the Samuel E. and Adele Golden Foundation. Her work was recently featured in the book Acrylic Innovations: Styles and Techniques of 64 Visionary Artists as well as the Summer 2010 issue of Studio Visit magazine. Her work is in the permanent collection of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya as well other public and private collections including the City of Walnut Creek, Oracle Corporation, Intel Corporation, and Freddie Mac Corporation.

Jaeger: Your series of paintings, “Subterranean,” which appear in this month’s issue, began with the discovery of your late father’s electronic schematic drawings which you layered with paint and ink. How did you know these mechanical drawings were the making of a series? Could you talk about the evolution of the project? 

Stanley: My father was trained in Australia as an electrical engineer and was an early pioneer in the field of radio astronomy. Later in life, he designed a type of radiometer, radio receivers used to measure the average power of the noise coming from a radio telescope in a well-defined frequency range. My father left behind (among many things) a series of very beautiful drawings of these instruments that he made in pencil using a variety of simple plastic templates and rulers. I loved the drawings for the simplicity and clarity of form as well as the fact that they were hand drawn although I had no idea how to read them! I kept both the drawings and the plastic templates on my desk for several years before I found a way to use them. 

Teresa Stanley's father's drawings
Electronic schematic drawings by Teresa Stanley’s father.

What intrigued me most of all about them was the specificity of the visual language he used, a language that allowed the translation of unseen or undetectable energy into a visible form, allowing it to be understood, built and ultimately utilized. They made manifest the very abstract idea of energy – a bit of alchemy at work! In this way, I saw an analogy between the way I work as a painter: using a visual language to make manifest ideas that are often abstract and complex. 

Growing up, my father and I never completely saw eye to eye. I was the rebel and artist while he was the engineer and scientist. And never shall the twain meet. I now realize that we had more in common than not, and this has helped affirm my belief that the same impulses that guide the artistic process also guide the scientific inquiry. Both focus on an open-ended inquiry that courts failure as a necessary component and both employ considerable creative thinking and problem solving. This commonality that artists and scientists share informs aspects of my work and is something I often think about. It is important to think of these two endeavors as related and not as occupying completely separate spheres.

Untitled by Teresa Stanley
Untitled by Teresa Stanley

My working method is fairly simple. Using my father’s plastic templates and rulers, I incorporate elements of his drawings into my paintings as a starting point. I then respond with my own marks in paint that eventually become very haphazard and confusing. I then work back and forth between my more organic forms and the more linear forms until I manage to puzzle out the painting. It becomes a conversation and ultimately a reconciliation between two very different ways of visualizing this complex world as well as an exploration how we use visual language to describe our experience and our ideas.

Jaeger: One prominent element of the series is your layering of drawing and painting. How do each of these modes influence your process?

Stanley: I like to think of both as a way of responding and analyzing. The paint becomes part of a more emotional, intuitive response that can sometimes get messy and chaotic. The drawn lines help to rein things in and give it focus using objective analysis. I will often stop at points throughout the painting when things get out of control and draw back into it. It is a bit like the editing process in writing, perhaps. With one approach, you are using your intuition and with the other, your powers of analysis. I like to think of making paintings as solving puzzles. Initially, you make marks that introduce chaos and then you work to figure out how to reestablish a sense of coherence or balance. Perhaps this is where I see the dance between the scientific inquiry and the artistic one, which some people have characterized as being data driven as opposed to emotionally driven.

Jaeger: In many of your paintings, sporadic moments of shape and color seem to function as entropy. Could you talk about how your interest in the unpredictability of life might have affected composition in this series? 

Stanley: I am not interested in making images that seem perfect or manufactured. I see beauty in imperfection or decay. To me, this is an affirmation of life and not a denial. Part of life is accepting that nothing is guaranteed and that we are all subject to the effects of random events and changes, that everything eventually comes to an end. However, while we are here it is our compulsion as humans is to try and make sense of it all, much the same way our minds organize the random images and events in our dreams. 

That being said, most of us seek security in the world even though it is quite evident that to live a meaningful life is to simultaneously accept that there are no guarantees. Recently, I’ve been reading Alan Watts, who spoke so eloquently about this over 60 years ago and long before the current fad for “mindfulness.” He wrote: “There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.” I struggle with this same paradox and I feel that these two contradictions play out within my work. Again, Alan Watts puts it so much more eloquently; “the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

Teresa Stanley's studio
Teresa Stanley’s studio

Jaeger: What is one of the biggest risks you took with this series?

Stanley: I am by nature risk-averse in all things except my creative work! I am constantly pushing myself to try different things because certain avenues reach their logical end and then you must find ways to reboot or die. I am a strict adherent of Philip Guston‘s remark that the worst thing a painter can do is to go to sleep in their own style. In this series, I introduced collaged fabric into my paintings. Not a huge risk but certainly an interesting formal challenge. Perhaps it is also a tiny homage to my mother, who was a frustrated creative, and also to the long line of women in my family who sewed. I am not sure. I was interested in the idea of very utilitarian fabric (ticking, seersucker) and bought bolts of it that I cut up into interesting shapes for collage.

Throughout my career, I have employed certain intransigent elements into my work – whether it be shaped canvases, collage material, holes in the surface of the painting – that I need to work around in order to resolve the work. I guess I am attracted to the challenge they present and in that way, they represent a form of risk taking.

Beneath 5 by Teresa Stanley
Beneath 5 by Teresa Stanley

Jaeger: In your artist’s statement, you write that you have a fascination with gardens, and that all of your paintings deal with “organic matter – specifically plants.” This might seem like a polar opposite of mechanical drawings. Could you talk about how you reconcile the two in your art?

Stanley: I like the metaphor of the garden because it represents the rhythmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Right now, as I write this, I can see my once exuberant garden begin to slowly wind down. There is a sadness there, but also a realization that the cycle will begin again and that is part of what we accept in our transitory time here on earth. 

I feel that I straddle two worlds at all times in my many roles as artist, teacher, and mother. There is the one world that accepts, even courts, uncertainty and change with no promises or expectations and another world where I believe that everything can be made clear and grounded with explanations, data, graphs, and evidence. This is my own foolish paradox!  Thus the juxtaposition in my work of these seemingly polar opposites, the organic and the rational, bring full expression to this idea. 

Jaeger: Many of your paintings employ light and pastel colors, with hints of deeper tones. Why did you choose this color palette for “Subterranean”? 

Stanley: To be quite honest, I don’t believe I really ascribe symbolic meaning to my color choices. When I look at my work, I realize that I am deeply influenced by the quality of light at the time of year I am working, as well as colors in my immediate environment. My winter palette cools down while my spring and summer palette warms up. Sometimes I will visit a different part of the world and become deeply influenced by the colors in the landscape there. I feel a strong connection to light in the landscape, and that remains a powerful influence on my color choices.

Jaeger: How does your process differ when you are working on a series versus an individual painting? 

Stanley: I rarely work on just one painting for any extended period of time. I tend to have a group of paintings that I work on simultaneously. When one painting becomes problematic, then I can turn my attention to another. While working on the next painting, solutions to the previous painting become clear to me. In this way, the paintings begin to have a conversation and play off one another, almost forming one continuous thought. 

Teresa Stanley in her studio
Teresa Stanley in her studio

Jaeger: Why did you choose to title this series “Subterranean”?

Stanley: I think that all of my paintings grow naturally out of my daily life so that I can actually look back on them and remember a particular time in my life, the time of year, what I was doing, and experiencing. Sometimes I can even remember what I was listening to when the painting resolved itself!

In this series, I was thinking a lot about what goes on beneath the surface of things. The mysterious and complex processes that work behind the scenes.

Beneath 2 by Teresa Stanley
Beneath 2 by Teresa Stanley

Jaeger: Who or what are some of your greatest influences and how do you see them in this most recent work? 

Stanley: Oh, that’s a tough one!  As far as artists, I would say my first loves and some of my deepest influences have been Philip Guston (for his monumentality and overall wisdom), Cézanne (structure of his abstract forms), Matisse (color), Diebenkorn (paint quality and composition). I think about these artists every time I go to the studio. I also love Joan Mitchell (expressiveness) and a lot of the artists who sought to fuse abstraction with a narrative impulse, such as Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, and Ciel Bergman, who I studied with at UCSB. I also look at Medieval art, Islamic art, and the art of other non-Western traditions. In the contemporary world, I am drawn to the work abstract painters such as Amy Sillman, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, and Charline von Heyl as well as figurative painters such as Kerry James Marshall and Nicole Eisenman. My interest in art is very wide ranging – I love photography, sculpture, installation – things I would never do myself but nevertheless engage my imagination as well as move and change me.

Outside of the immediate influence of the art world, I draw influence from reading, particularly contemporary fiction. I would say that a similar influence comes from great filmmaking, of which I am a devotee. In both of these, the narrative impulse is a strong influence. I am also deeply influenced by the students I teach, who challenge me and keep me on my toes. I live in a very beautiful part of Northern California, and since living here the landscape has always managed to work its way into my paintings. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I draw enormous inspiration from my family, my husband, and son, who keep me grounded and focused on what is truly important.

I also must mention the influence of music, particularly rock and roll, because I still have a little bit of that rebel thing going on!

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