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Julia Fish 1994 Interview with Kent Smith, Curator and Director of Art, Illinois State Museum, Springfield

In 1987, at the Robbin Lockett Gallery in Chicago, I first encountered the paintings of Julia Fish. In that same year the Illinois State Museum purchased her painting Pier for its permanent fine art collection. Since that time, I have been interested in presenting her work. This exhibition provides that opportunity and a chance to talk with Fish about the drawings selected for this exhibition. Using images lifted from direct experience, Fish’s work is known for its careful layering of information and balancing of nature, abstraction, and representation to achieve a unique visual equipoise. The interview that follows took place on September 28, 1994 in her studio where we could look through the window out across the garden

Kent Smith: I want to ask if you would talk about the role drawing has played as part of the work you create.

Julia Fish: Yes, well, I’ve always found drawing to be so immediate. It was an important part of my undergraduate education in Oregon. The kind of life or liveliness that one frequently finds in drawings or artists’ notebooks or sketchbooks has helped me understand drawing as an activity that is critical to the way I think about making a work. I don’t believe I could have realized many of the paintings without drawing, without drawing preceding them in some way. And when I’ve seen other artists’ drawings it seems there is always some key to understanding the other works that they do, how drawing is connected to notation and to writing, just visualizing something. Even in conversation – the drawing on the napkin across the dinner table, that’s how close I really think drawing can get; it is talking and drawing at the same time, or thinking and drawing.

These works with chalk that started roughly in 1988 provided a couple of things for me. They provided an intensity of color, a saturation of color that affected the paintings; they were not only studies for paintings in a traditional sense, they also pumped up the color on the palette, and color contributed to meaning. They offered a granular surface that started to suggest what had previously been happening with the paint and the weave in the works on canvas. There was a correspondence in scale of pigment and surface that was useful. There is a similar density in this work that the paintings have, but the drawings don’t have a range of resolution of mark that the paintings have. Everything gets translated into dust on these pages. And that’s both what is amazing about them to me and limiting, relative to the paintings. The paintings can have a different kind of resolution of an edge.

KS: You have used a particular paper for the Water Drawings and for the studies for Frost and No Moon. There’s layering and depth to all aspects of these, the way the water and the pigment have taken to the paper in different ways across its surface.

JF: Yes. After our move in 1991, when I began drawing again, I shifted into the group of Water Drawings. They took off into an extended investigation of water as a subject, at first to clarify my thinking for the painting Tide. Then there was this extra gift of using water as the material – what the ink wash did on the paper was parallel to the subject of water, there was a double meaning to me. Frequently what the paper does with any choice of medium is something that I haven’t anticipated. When it works, the paper supports the subject and extends meaning. It does something that wouldn’t happen on a canvas, because canvas as a material has an overall neutrality to it. For example, this handmade paper from India has an irregular edge and a tangible weight, a scale for the mark that seemed appropriate.

KS: The deckling repeats the pattern in the paper.
JF: Yes, and all of that just made sense.

KS: In these drawings you were concerned with painting images of the water, and working with the tide. The drawings describe water and its transformative qualities, moving toward ice, then thawing and moving back to liquid. There is also the seasonal transformation outside your window here, and certainly we can feel those currents in our lives. How do you see the relationship between water, the moon, and the tide that has been the subject in some of your paintings ?

JF: Growing up along the Pacific coast there is a consciousness of a huge body of water right there. It is a force that one experiences walking up and down the beach. You go to the Pacific and you walk – there is an active walking along.

KS: It’s wild, the beach is covered with debris tossed up from who knows where.

JF: Everything is polished – all that silvery wood. So the Water Drawings were based on that experience or an attempt to understand that, as well as a reference to the lake, here.

KS: Working Drawing for Floor appears to be unique among the group to be included in this exhibition, although it shares some visual structure with the Water Drawings and the Garden Drawings. How do you see its relationship to the other drawings ?

JF: Well, perhaps the distinction is suggested by the title Working Drawing for Floor. Unlike many others in the exhibition which are “studies,” this drawing was made to establish a template for the painting Floor. The drawing was re-worked as revisions in the painting were required, and those adjustments are visible. As in other recent paintings, Floor involved translating the subject at actual size; given the complexity of the source – the tiles – I needed to test the slight shift in perspective, then transfer the given information to the painting surface. But the drawing also has some of the attributes I value in drawing generally. The material, the graphite, contributed in its way to understanding the subject – the hardness and translucency of the tiles, the surface.

KS: What prompted you, then, to begin the series based on the garden ?

JF: I knew that I wanted to do some drawings about the experience of seeing the garden in all seasons, but I didn’t know what form it would take. I carried images in my head for quite awhile. Then I found this paper, and the paper was the key. It is a Japanese calligraphy sheet, like the lined papers that we have. So the printed grid in the paper provided the support to attach very loose information from memory, from walking through the garden to the studio.

KS: In some of these drawings there’s a great deal of the paper showing through, others are extremely dense, all of them are obsessive in their detail.

JF: That kind of density is a characteristic of my work generally, that’s true for the paintings as well. The rimmed garden plots themselves provide a similar kind of density. Much of my work from 1986 to 1990, that preceded our move here, was involved with things that I saw in transit, walking from home to studio. There wasn’t a sense of cultivation right under one’s view in the same way that I sense is here, now.

KS: When I think about the mid-nineteenth century landscape painters, and some reviews about your work which mention the Luminist movement, I can certainly see the parallels in the concern with stillness, and light, and the sense of place that’s in your paintings. Can you talk about that in the drawings ?

JF: Yes, stillness is something that I’ve learned from those painters – Martin Johnson Heade and John Kensett especially. But these drawings record something that is momentary, gestural. The first Garden Drawings were tentative, they were just possibility. Then there was a certain point where it was clear that it was promise, not just possibility, it was very productive. I think of the word garden, it is both a place and an activity – to garden. I do consider whether the title for a work is a noun or an activity. Sometimes it’s both, without me doing anything at all – just saying the word, it can go either way. The word condenses something.

KS: And of all the things you could have focused on in your paintings and in your drawings here, you have chosen these things that are very close at hand and elemental. There seems to be a consistent logic from chalk to water and now to garden, a sort of unrelenting sequence which has power in it. I recall that medieval poets used the image of the walled garden as a world set apart. In Indian poetry there’s the image of a walled garden as a metaphor for the self. Is that at work in any of your garden drawings ?

JF: Not as a conscious literary reference, no. But that’s a wonderful parallel. One phrase that I recall from what I’ve read about gardening is that the state of one’s garden is a reflection of the state of one’s mind; that if one is attentive to caring for the garden, it demonstrates a kind of attention to things in one’s life. We spoke of cultivation I think, earlier on – coaxing something, being extremely attentive to when things are coming up and when things are dying back. So it becomes a factor of time – available to do that work, gardening, and do this work in the studio. They are very similar activities I think, literally transplanting things becomes …a way to think about relocating parts of ideas or giving things better light. One can speak metaphorically.

This interview was transcribed and edited, from the 1995 exhibition brochure: FOCI: Julia Fish, Selected Drawings 1990 – 1994, at The Illinois Art Gallery, Chicago, January 20 – March 17, © 1995, Kent Smith, Curator, as part of FOCI, (Forms of Contemporary Illinois), a solo exhibition series spotlighting divergent art directions explored by contemporary artists in Illinois; funded in part by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a State Agency.