Sherri Belassen's oil paintings are large fields and blocks of vibrant color broken up by abstract figures, including hammock loungers, longhorn cows, tango dancers, long-legged large-hoofed horses, poppies, rancheros, and now and then the goddess of love. The color fields are often freckled with small squares that Belassen leaves untouched by the later layers of paint which then become little windows into her underpaintings, the first drips and washes she lays down on the canvas. If the backgrounds hint at the underpaintings, the figures revel in them, with horses sporting brazenly loose horizontal stripes, dancers graced with vertical drips, and poppies wearing petals made sometimes of blocks of color, and sometimes left as colorful negative spaces. The paintings also have fast, confident lines scratched into thick paint, further revealing colors and work beneath the surface. The viewer is left with a delightful sense of aesthetic paradox with regard to what is negative and what is positive space in the artwork, as well as a satisfying feeling of contained chaos... and in fact chaos as beauty, the drips and accidents are perhaps their own windows into the artist's creative process.
We sat down with Sherri Belassen to try to understand some of that creative process, and to try to tease out a glimpse of such a highly aesthetic mind.
Phoenix Gallery: I love the quote on your biography: "In life and art, I stay true to myself and listen to my own voice." Can you say a bit about how you might have struggled to find your own voice in your art?
Sherri Belassen: When I was 23 and just starting out as a painter, this older artist, a professor, came up to me and said, "You really know what you want." And I had no idea what he meant. Sometimes you don't put it together until later: professors would say things like "be true to yourself," and I didn't know what that meant. I think they can see glimpses when you're younger, and hopefully no one screws you up by making you question yourself, or messing up your markmaking. It may just be something you're born with. I think you have it, or you work really hard to get it. Recognizing your own style, and hearing your own voice is something that gets easier as you get older, and you develop more confidence. Confidence is really important. If I'm feeling down, the marks and the colors don't come, it feels forced and the colors get muddy.
PG: Often when people come into the gallery, they immediately comment on the color in your paintings-- do you have any specific color influences?Do you have an internal color palate? External influences?
SB: It's both, I guess. My external influences might be the beach, or nature, or how a figure fits into an environment. But then internally, sometimes I just feel the color and go with it, and it just makes sense. A lot of times I do think about the light of day or the space around my figure.
PG: Do you have a daily or weekly routine for your painting?
SB: I'm a night owl. I work well when there are no phone calls, no email, no one depends on you, you don't have to answer any questions. I used to stay up til three or four in the morning, though now one a.m. is pushing it. My schedule really revolves around my kid's schedule; I work when they're asleep or at school. I try to paint every day, but if I don't, I'm not going to be too hard on myself, because when I'm in a productive phase and I'm really feeling it, the work comes fast. Though, my studio is in my house, so it's always staring at me. And my kids will walk by and make little comments, like, "I think I'd like to see a little more orange in that area," things like that (laughs.)
PG: When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?
SB: I always wanted to be an artist when I was little. That was my dream: to do what I'm doing now. Early on I knew that. I'm very thankful, very grateful for my life. It's great for my kids to see that life doesn't have to be any one certain way.
PG: What was your early work like, your college work?
SB: It was figurative work then, too. And abstract. I worked large then, as well. I didn't want to be one of those people who can work small, but then when they take their work to a bigger scale the work loses it. I always wanted to be consistently on with what I was doing, whether I was working large or small.
PG: How did you come to your current process, with the underpaintings?
SB: It was an accident, really. I like those little striations that the drips would make when I was doing my underpaintings, and so I started letting them show. At first the areas I left were huge, and I'd really showcase that area. Then as I continued working with the layers, they started working into the figures, and smaller windows. What I'll leave or cover is random, yet selective. It was over the course of a few years that the style developed.
PG: What inspires you with your figures?
SB: Degas was the instigator for the dancers, I was so inspired by his dancers. My background is athletics, so that could have something to do with it. I moved to Arizona and wanted to start painting horses, at first I was nervous: the only horses I'd painted until then looked like donkeys, but I started painting them my own way, and it worked. And then one of my ex-boyfriends had a ranch in Texas and that's when I first saw those amazing Texas longhorns, and I had to get those in.
I also used to get teased about my feet when I was in high school, the kids said they were like skis, and at some point I started painting my figures with very large feet. (She laughs.) And, you know, it really works with the composition; they are stable, so my figures don't fall over.
PG: We've also had people come into the gallery, look at your work and say, "I think she's in love." Any comments about that?
SB: No. No, not really. (She laughs again.)
Well, I love where I am in life, that's probably what it is.