Now Featuring A’Driane Nieves
San Jose painter A’Driane Nieves exemplifies the ways in which art transforms lives. Self-taught after years of channeling energy into writing and activism, Addye paints to channel the complexity of moment-to-moment lived experience. She invites you to witness a process of constant self-reckoning that’s generous, political and intimate.
MH: To start, in an interview you talked about painting as a form of self-care. Can you talk about how you started painting in the first place, and what you were looking for when you started?
AD: I was the middle schooler whose 7th grade art teacher took one look at my still life drawing and said “It’s okay, you’re a great writer, so visual arts doesn’t have to be your ‘thing’…,” so while creative expression has always been a part of me, the visual aspect of my artistic voice wasn’t something I discovered until I was 29. I didn’t set out to do that either, it pretty much found me.
When it did, I was a single mother to two kids, a full-time college student, and newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My therapist suggested I find something constructive to do with my hands as a form of self-care. I went to Walmart to buy hooks and yarn to take up crocheting, but also ended up purchasing some cheap brushes, small canvas boards, and student grade paint on a whim. It took me about two weeks (and abandoning crochet) before I picked up a brush and started playing with the paint. When I did, I honestly wasn’t looking for anything other than a distraction; something to quiet my brain, and keep me from feeling the full weight of the loneliness and agitation I was experiencing that day. I spent almost an hour pushing acrylic paint back and forth on the canvas, smoothing and spreading it with my hands, mixing and blending the colors together.
When I finished, I noticed my mind was indeed quieter, my anxiety had subsided. I was calmer. I felt peace and I felt safe, which surprised me. It was like falling apart in a safe space, like my therapist’s office, but different. I remember feeling like I had unconsciously unloaded the full weight of all I was carrying inside out on the canvas and..it could take it, it could take ALL of me.
That Saturday afternoon in 2012 laid the foundation for what has become my primary means of creative expression. It started off as a form of self-care in my treatment plan and wound up completely replacing writing as my default medium, which I didn’t anticipate five years ago.
MH: How do you balance painting as a form of self care vs. painting as a form of expression and art? For example, I journal daily to calm my own mind, but it remains private, and doesn’t even serve as a “sketch,” as it were, for more public writing work. The public work I do is enjoyable, but in no way is its primary purpose self-care.
AD: When I was focused primarily on using painting as a form for self-care, I would make some pieces on cheap canvas boards to experiment, but I really relied heavily on my art journal/sketchbook. I still do, actually. I also use it to do “morning pages” as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way. I put all my brain clutter in there, and while I may share an image from it on Instagram, I rarely show anything that’s in it publicly.
MH: I really enjoy the movement in the paintings in your series Losing It from 2016. Each image has an energetic circular motion, kind of like a barrel-roll, which seems like it could be joyful or violent. Can you talk about this series?
AD: I think that’s a pretty accurate interpretation of this series–that it could be joyful or violent, because honestly it’s both…and everything in between! Since my work is influenced by abstract expressionism and relies heavily on emotion and intuition, I wanted to create a series that expresses the rawness and nuances of our emotional responses to what we encounter. I’m intrigued by what the impact of those encounters looks like internally, and how it alters us biologically, emotionally, subconsciously, mentally, spiritually…if you were able to look inside of me with a camera or microscope as I experience life/racism/trauma/sexism/mental illness/motherhood/aging/etc. what would you see? That’s what I want to make visible to the viewer in my paintings.
In this series specifically, I’m focused on showing emotions in all their nuance, rawness and vulnerability, and also how they move through us as we process them. Each piece is a reaction to a trigger or stimulus. The reactions range from rage at white supremacy and systemic oppression….to medication being released in my system…to the mix of shame/guilt/relief/confusion/shock I felt upon hearing the results of a genetic test…to the joy I feel when I watch my autistic son overcome a challenge or meet a milestone on his terms. Each piece is like a snapshot of that unfiltered emotional or biological response. When working on paintings for this series, I’m going for big, definitive, but fluid movement, so I use materials and tools that help me apply and move paint swiftly across the surface and extend or stretch my whole body as I paint…especially my hands. From a sensory perspective, having my hands in paint as I create pieces for this series helps ground me while whatever I’m feeling or thinking flows from me to the surface I’m working on.
MH: You have a series, Art As Protest, that is explicitly about the violence of institutionalized racism in America. Can you talk about using art to address pain that’s so enormous and complex?
AD: When Trayvon Martin was killed it was like a wake up call for me, and writing about the pain I felt as a Black woman and as a Black mother of Black and Brown boys in the wake of his death was all I knew to do. Eventually, however, writing or talking about the pain I felt over it became inadequate–I found neither were able to grasp the depth of my anger or articulate how hopeless I suddenly felt.
I finally painted a small abstract piece in my sketchbook that helped me process my reaction to his death and the verdict. I titled it For Trayvon. That was the start of a shift away from using words to respond to or process my reaction to racism and injustice in this country. For me, as a writer, using words to capture what I’m feeling around this issue became futile, because what I’m feeling is so raw, primal, intense, and yes enormous and complex, words can’t grasp it.
As a painter who makes expressionist, intuitive based work, addressing the nuances of this problem and sharing my experiences as a marginalized person through a visual medium can begin to hold it. Using visual art in this way also frees me from constantly having to explain or justify my reaction or experience. I find that while people may have a visceral reaction to these pieces, they’re more likely to sit with whatever it is their feeling and use it to confront themselves on this issue instead of immediately lashing out in defensiveness. For me as an artist and a marginalized person, it’s just a safer, freer, healthier, more constructive way to address it.
MH: Writing seems to be a central part of your creative process. How does that form of self-expression intersect with (or diverge from) the expressionism in your paintings?
AD: Writing has been a way for me to process my life experiences and understand or discover dormant parts of myself since I was 13. In the past, Even when I first started painting, writing was still my primary means of expression and the first tool I turned to in my creative process. I’d paint, but I’d still need to write to process.
Over the last 24 months though, that’s changed. I think it started with being unable to articulate my commentary and emotions about injustice in written form and expanded to pretty much every other area of my life. I’m finding the more I paint, the less I need to rely on writing to process or communicate. Writing has become something I find restrictive, which feels both odd and freeing to admit, but I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it completely. I’ve been studying Cy Twombly and Basquiat’s use of writing in their paintings, and am feeling inspired to integrate my words into my visual work..
MH: After a few years of working, how has your painting practice changed and evolved? What are some important lessons you’ve taught yourself?
AD: When I first started, I focused primarily on just blending two or three colors together on canvas–everything kind of just ran together. A lot of it was chaotic, most of it very simplistic. I also didn’t have clear intentions about what I was making, since the focus was primarily on self-care/experimentation rather than communication. Early on I didn’t invest in really learning anything concrete or in using quality materials as I do now. I didn’t have a desire to “speak” through what I was creating–I relied on writing for that.
After Trayvon died, though, and I couldn’t really process what I was feeling in words, I decided to become more intentional in the images I was constructing; that pushed me to start really studying art and discovering what styles resonated with me, and scouring YouTube/the internet to learn how to develop different techniques, like layering and adding texture. I started thinking about how I would construct a piece, what I wanted to say, and sketched most ideas before putting them to canvas. I’ve taught myself how to integrate intention into my practice while using the intuitive nature of my process. I’m also learning how to be raw but exercise some form of restraint in my work–that’s really difficult for me, but I want to be smarter in both my approach and execution.
I spent all of 2016 diving deep into discovering what kind of work I want to create and what themes or ideas are important for me to communicate, and what I hope my art does for the person viewing it. None of that has been easy, but it’s taught quite a bit about myself.
MH: How do you make space as a mother the being a practice like painting? It’s hard enough to do on its own once our adult habits and competencies feel ingrained, but I know that your boys are also relatively young and so must require a lot of you.
AD: Honestly? I steal moments. Sometimes I can steal a lot, most of days I can’t steal any because life with kids is just that consuming. I develop my practice and work in the cracks and crevices of the time I have every day while my older two are in school, and my youngest is occupied with toys or the television. Most days, my three year old is standing next to me in the studio painting a corner of the piece I’m working on in that moment.
Initially I felt a lot of guilt about taking time from them during the week and on the weekends to create, but I let that go once I realized that for me, it’s far more important that they see me not just as their mother, but as a whole person who does what she loves. I want them to know that I have interests and passions outside of being a mother and I want them to see it’s possible to be a parent and not lose your identity to it. There’s a lot of discussion about women having it all and can women artists balance art and motherhood…without getting into how the dynamics of race/class/privilege/access to resources play out and intersect for women on this issue, I will say that at a very basic level, I think that doing something that is strictly for yourself is imperative.
My hope is that by taking time to paint, submit, and exhibit my work, my boys learn how to discover what they’re passionate about and use it to take care of themselves as they navigate life. This is incredibly important for me to do as their mother because they are of color and because they are neurodiverse. (Two have autism, one has ADHD.) So yes, pursuing painting both as practice and career while being a mother requires more of me than I have to give some days, but I make as much space in my life as I can for it because it’s what helps me be a whole person. I’m a better mother to them when I do.
MH: What artists do you find exciting right now? I can see why Basquiat and Twombly would be important touchstones right now.
AD: Those two definitely are as I look to integrate my writing and more figures of people into my paintings. Others include the women of the abstract expressionism movement (especially Joan Mitchell and Alma Thomas), Carmen Herrera, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, of course Kara Walker, Kesha Bruce, Jonni Cheatwood, Nava Waxman, Jaeyeol Han, Jasmin Charles from the music duo Chargaux, Pava Wulfert, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and photographer Anthony Hernandez…I also have friends who are creating really beautiful, powerful, feminist work through their collages, paintings, and photography: Leslie Fandrich, Christa Myers, Karen Walrond and Alisha Sommer. And finally, my favorite contemporary painter: Nakoto Fujimura. I’m obsessed with his paintings, writing, and process.