In the Studio with Debra Vodhanel
What do you wish to accomplish with your art?
My wish is for my art to reflect the beauty of being alive, instill in others an appreciation of this mystery we call life, and an appreciation of the responsibilities and freedom with which it comes.
I want my audience to see in my work an open-ended invitation to explore their humanity. My work is abstract, I reject recognizable imagery in favor of a deeper imagining of what reality may be, the reality that exists behind our stories and hovers just below conscious identification. Reality is a concept that may be unique to each viewer. I give titles to each of my piece only so that my viewers can have a sea anchor if they wish, a solid place from which to start their looking and thinking and imagining.
How has personal experience influenced your creativity?
I am an intuitive painter, ALL of my personal experiences come into the studio with me and influence my work. Only the color palette, application tools, and support structures are predetermined. Everything else is a result of the painting process itself. I do my best to respond to the materiality of the paint, which can so quickly become chaos! I try to calm the chaos. I make repairs, pour, scrape, brush, mark and wipe away bits, trying not to suck the life out of the piece.
The remaining layers of shapes, colors, and textures either cling together into recognizable beauty, something worth looking at that I have not seen before, or they don’t. Things don’t always work out. And that is what I paint, how we never know if things will work out until they do. Or don’t. I lost my partner of forty something years three years ago, after a cruel disease that crumbled his body, bit by bit. During Covid my studio practice turned from one of grief therapy to a practice of creating sanctuaries of visible beauty to sustain others. This is where my personal experiences have led me in my studio practice as of today.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the action you produce?
Wow, I leap the other way: from action TO an idea in my head. I start from a need to act. Why I have this need to act, to paint, I don’t know. It feels like I am starting from a prayer, a meditation, a yearning to see and understand more about my given place in time and space in this continuum that is the story of our human existence. Why am I even here? I feel like I am clearing away the fog in my brain, making visible my deep-seated yearnings to make things better, to get rid of small troubles that can so easily accumulate into an overwhelming anxiety and fear of the future. I feel most at home thinking in shapes, textures, and colors, so painting unlocks a mother tongue for me that accesses my experiences of an emotional interior life. I use paint as a metaphor to resolve my questioning of who we are, what we care about, how can we make the best of this gift called life?
What is the hardest part of creating your art?
I received so many conflicting messages growing up about the “value” of being an “artist”, that I internalized a fear that being an “artist” was the same as being a flaky failure, reinforced even today by interactions I sometimes have with those who do not know me well, including birth family members. Every day I enter my studio I confront this internalized fear that “being an artist” is being a flaky failure. I get past the fear by working hard to stay in the present, to accept unconditionally what I wish the paint to do, and accept what the paints seems to want to do on its own beyond my conscious intentions. That is the hardest part, to stay in the present, to observe, to learn, to not sink into prior preconceived notions of what should /shouldn’t happen. I try to not be afraid of the future, and to not recreate the past.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by beauty and kindness. I am also inspired by the goodness that dead people that I have loved (and that have loved me) have left behind. As I paint, I work toward unwrapping the idea that the world can get better, most people can heal, most people are innately good. And that I too can leave goodness behind after I physically leave this world. I look for this possible reality. I am elated when I find it, hidden under layers of distracting activity and noise.
What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in your field?
Get to know yourself as best you can, without judgement. Find out who you are, and what you really care about and be kind to that person. Think. Feel. Do. And let live. Let yourself live your best life, only you know what that may be. Let people know who you are, and don’t care so much about what they think of you.
If you could change anything about the art world, what would it be?
We could do so much more as a society to provide conditions that support an artist’s best efforts. I would switch the focus of the contemporary art world from product acquisition to strengthening conditions in our communities that support creative, innovative work, in all fields of endeavor. What might this look like? Museums could add support of living artists to their missions, complete with stipends, live/work spaces, and lending libraries of original, contemporary work that can be checked out annually by museum members. Artist talks and demonstrations can be encouraged, held in non-traditional venues and subsidized by community organizations, to take away the mystique of how artists think and work.
I would try to erase the cultural mystique we give to “talent” and “genius”: I believe all of us have the potential to be artists, and there is no such thing as “talent”, nor “genius”. Passion and time spent on task is all that separates the professional artist from the non-artist.