WTP 2017 Winner: Catherine Spencer

WTP 2017 Winner: Catherine Spencer

Third Place for Fine Art

Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer

Jennifer Nelson

Catherine Spencer is a Cleveland-based artist originally from the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. She spent a year at Santa Reparata International School of Art (SRISA) in Florence, Italy, before completing her BFA at New York State College of Ceramics (NYSCC) at Alfred University in 2013. Her work has been exhibited at numerous galleries in Ohio, New York, California, and Michigan. She has won several awards, including a month-long residency at the Cleveland West Art League (CWAL). In 2015, she was a guest lecturer at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.

Nelson: The works that won third place in this year’s first annual WTP competition are particularly striking as to your color choices, ones that seem to predominate in your recent works, especially as to gray and orange. And in their play against each other, they are remarkable in their sense of depth. What informed these choices?

Spencer: The choices have a lot to do with my obsession with opposites and associating color combinations with complex emotions. Pairing muted dull colors with bold bright colors is what gives these paintings life. The color combinations have significant meaning to me personally, but I’ve seen a variety of interpretations, which is always fascinating to me.

Nelson: In recent acrylic works, as in “Collision,” you paint clearly defined shapes in strong contrasting colors. How does acrylic lend itself to this technique?

Spencer: I generally tend to paint more with oils, so acrylic is a fun challenge to adapt to. If I’m working with acrylic, I have to make sure that I water down the paint and work quickly before it dries. I first create a dynamic composition to work off of with acrylic and identify areas that need more saturation. I then enhance those areas with oil.

Catherine Spencer, Collision. Oil on acrylic on canvas, 30” x 30”

Nelson: In your oil paintings, such as “Detox,” you use a process that involves layering paint, scraping it away, and then more layering. One would never imagine what the canvas went through given that the painting ends with a physically smooth surface. How does oil paint lend itself to this process, and how does it help you achieve the results you’re looking for?

Spencer: I took lessons from a watercolor artist as a child, which has a lot to do with the development of my technique. Oil has a level of fluidity which allows me to treat it like a watercolor painting at the very beginning. What I tend to do is begin laying down a vibrant color and wiping it away to begin to distinguish a shape. I then will build around those shapes with flat bold colors. If I decide that the shape isn’t right, I’ll keep layering and removing paint. Since it’s oil-based paint, it doesn’t dry right away, so I’m able to keep changing the composition days later.

Catherine Spencer, Detox. Oil on canvas, 30” x 24”

Nelson: Your earlier work, such as “Selective Hearing,” contrasts with more recent paintings in that images have textured surfaces and soft blended colors, and are painted on Masonite, a type of hardboard. Can you comment on the technique used to create these paintings?

Spencer: Painting on Masonite or other wooden surfaces is really fun for me. The oil can be slightly absorbed into the board so it’s a bit harder to move the paint, but it’s much easier to manipulate textures. Using texture on this surface is a bit easier because it holds the thick oil paint a bit more. What I’ve noticed with this surface is that I can manipulate the paint to be as smooth or textured as I want. With this surface, I tend to work quickly and can sometimes finish a painting in one sitting.

Nelson: Your paintings often challenge the perception of scale. For example, in “Detox,” large organic forms gravitate to the edge of the frame, giving a feeling of expansiveness to the painting, which is 30″ by 20″. How do you decide the size of the canvas you use? Why not just use a bigger canvas to convey vastness?

Spencer: I enjoy the challenge of painting both large- and small-scale paintings. The small studies that I create force me to adapt my compositions to produce environments with depth and detail. These smaller paintings create a foundation for a consistent style represented in all of the larger works. I also find that looking at a smaller work of art can feel more intimate than massive pieces, which is appealing to me.

Nelson: How has growing up in rural America impacted your art?

Spencer: We had a large backyard, so my sisters and I would be outside almost every day. Being able to explore new environments by just stepping outside definitely reinforced my curiosity with the natural world. I now create my own world for others to discover. On a more political note, being from a small town and having lived in Cleveland, I’ve experienced a wide variety of opinions from both conservatives and liberals, which has propelled me to question everything from different viewpoints. In my current body of work, I’ve been using division as a main source of inspiration. My hope is to create works that promote discussion about inclusion and openness.

Nelson: Your works are sophisticated and quite complex in their abstraction for one just launching her career—you seem already to have found your “voice” as an artist. How do you see your work having already evolved from when you first started to paint?

Catherine Spencer in her studio

Spencer: I started off focused on faces and eyes as a child. After gaining some technically skills with watercolor and acrylic I focused on realism and vibrant colors. My work now is completely different in style and technique from when I first started. but I still have the same fascination with color combinations and the act of painting itself. The initial technical skills that I learned were crucial to my development, and I’ve been able to continue to add to my skillset.

Nelson: I’m fascinated by how such paintings as “I Thought I Buried Those Feelings” immediately conjure up a concrete object, in my case, a brain. You seem to seamlessly bridge the gap between abstract and representational art. When you begin a painting, do you have an image in mind, or do you just let your subconscious lead you?

Spencer: I generally let my subconscious lead me. In the past I’ve tried using a reference image or configured a composition beforehand, which completely hindered my creative ability. I would get so stuck in what the image was supposed to look like that I couldn’t fully express myself. Not having a reference image allows for complete creative freedom and interpretation. After finishing a painting, only then do I fully comprehend its meaning.

Nelson: How has studying at SRISA in Italy influenced the artwork you create today?

Spencer: I had a professor while I was attending SRISA who prompted my transition into abstract. I began painting paper towels that I would arrange and paint as still-lives. I also began taking images of nature that were already abstracted and working from those. Working with images that were already abstracted was fundamental in pushing me past my previous notion that what I painted had to be something recognizable.

Nelson: How do you see your work evolving in the future? Do you think living in a city and your involvement with CWAL will impact your growth as an artist?

Spencer: So far, I’ve starting to play with different textured surfaces like velvet to create more interactive pieces. I hope to continue to experiment with a variety of surfaces. CWAL and living in the city opened up a lot of opportunities for me. Since moving, I’ve been fortunate to meet very supportive and positive people in the art world. I have no doubt that what I’ve learned in Cleveland will continue to impact my growth as an artist.

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