Gallery 224

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December, 2016

Featured Artist

Gina Litherland

Over the past 30 years my work as an artist has explored figurative painting using personal, invented dramas to contemplate folk tales, mythology, and the natural world. Using oil paint on panel, I begin with a decalcomania technique to create a rich sense of texture, developing images until they are sharply delineated with vibrant, deep color. I have had solo exhibitions at  Gruen Galleries in Chicago, the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, Ripon College, and have very recently had my fourth solo exhibition at Corbett vs Dempsey Gallery in Chicago. My work has also been exhibited in the Wisconsin Triennial, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Crossman Gallery at UW Whitewater, the Lawton Gallery at UW Green Bay, and has been purchased for the permanent collections at the Illinois State Museum and the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI.

I am currently participating in a project-based residency in printmaking here at Studio 224. I am using the technique of drypoint etching to create a series of intaglio prints that I would like to eventually arrange into groups of short visual stories in small books.

Visit Gina's website at



A Conversation with Gina Litherland

by Don Niederfrank

Gina and I met on a Wednesday morning at Smith Bros. for coffee and conversation. My previous practice has been to conduct an interview with the featured artist, often asking the same or similar questions. With Gina it seemed appropriate to forgo that format. Eventually, I did get to some of the standard questions.

Don:  I'm going to ask you what I think are the more interesting questions first.
Gina: Okay. Good.

D: So the first question is, in light of the recent election, in what ways can art be political or social? Is there a moral aspect to art or is it really “art for art's sake” only?
G: I think that art can be political even when it doesn't have an agenda – like by expressing an individual world view or personal freedom. I always think of the example of Modernism – Dada and Surrealism were a reaction to the insanity of the state of the world at the time, the first world war. The Dada and Surrealist artists had political convictions but their work was expressing a new way to live and to see the world – a new freedom. They set themselves apart from the Social Realists, artists either producing propaganda or work that was directly about social conditions.

D:  Right.
G:  There's a current trend in contemporary art today to be politically self-conscious – the work is about environmental issues or it's about racism or it's about gender. But art can also emerge intuitively and unconsciously and be a more direct expression of who you are in the world and still have an influence, a positive vision. In the case of my own work, it's not overtly political, but it nevertheless expresses a political point of view. It is about the fragility and beauty of the natural world, about the relationship between humans and other species.

Art can be a strongly life-affirming activity that goes against the grain of some of the political currents that are quite horrifying, like what's happening in the world right now. After the election I woke up and wondered what I could do. Angry political cartoons? But I know I'm not going to do that. I'm going to keep following my own current. It's important to be politically engaged in whatever way you choose but I'm not sure that art is the best way to do that. I don't want to do cartoons of Trump, but I think there's a place for that in the world. And some artists are really good at that kind of work, much better than I would be.

D: I'm wondering if what happens with art that is not overtly political but expresses the artist's social/political passions – that there's a way our subconsciouses speak to each other.
G: I think so.

D:  There may be a way your art, that doesn't carry the overt message that a cartoon of Donald Trump does, carries a word of affirming life.
G:  Of caring for the earth, of caring for the beings on the earth.

D:  Yeah, and there's no guarantee that someone is going to get it. They may just look at it and say, “That's the same shade of green in a sweater that I had in high school.” And that's as much as is going to happen.
G:  That's true because people are always coming from their own reference points. My work is often based on folklore and literature, and maybe other people don't know those stories. But they might know some of them or they might say, “Oh this reminds me of this” or they may remember something that they came across as a child.

D:  I was talking to one of the residents who does abstracted art, and he was saying that when somebody says to him, “What is this?” then he refuses to answer that question because as soon as the artist or the expert starts saying to the observer, “This is what you're looking at” the conversation stops.
G:  And often the person stops looking too, because they say, “Oh. Okay. Next.”

D:  Right. “Next slide please.”
G:  I was just thinking of Diego Rivera who did both political murals and more personal paintings, and he once said – it was such a beautiful thing – “I need to produce paintings like a plant needs to produce flowers.” I love that analogy. Sometimes it (the art) means something and sometimes it's just a flower. You're giving back to the world. Throughout my life I've had wonderful things to look at and books to read. And at a certain point you can't just keep taking it all in and not give something back. You want to start producing something of your own that's a response to that. And not just responding to culture – books and literature – but nature, too, like looking at this extraordinary sky every day. How else can you express it? You can talk about it, you can say “That's a great sky.” But as a painter you can put it into a painting or try to capture some of that light. And that's a problem. How to make dirt look like light, because basically what you're working with is ground-up stones and dirt.

D:  What you said reminds me of the Georgia O'Keefe line, “It's just a flower.”
G:  Well she got a belly-full of all the sexual interpretations of her work, too. She also said, “Well, they're talking about themselves. They're not talking about the painting.”

D:  Right.
G:  Actually one of the fascinating aspects of nature is that forms echo each other, so of course there are similarities of natural forms and something can look like part of the human body and also like a plant or like an animal. It's kind of astonishing. Those are the impressions that we store in our minds that inspire us. I'm always inspired by taking walks and looking at natural forms.

D:  I like brain science.
G:  I do too.

D:  I know that the auditory aspect of the brains of musicians is physically enhanced. I think this is true for artists, certainly true for photographers that go for walks. But you see more. I think people who spend time on doing things that ask them to see and think about what they are seeing develop those sort of mental muscles by looking.
G:  Your saying that, and looking at the lake right now reminded me of something. Years ago I was with a friend and we were driving down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and I said – “Look at the sky and look at the lake.” And I commented on the tone of the sky, which was darker than the lake, which is unusual. And my friend said, “You see so much.” That surprised me. And then I realized that that was another side effect of painting every day, which isn't so bad.

D:  No. I think that's necessary. I mean that in order to do art one has to be able to see things. I mean that's part of it. And then there's just the craft of being able to... just the eye-hand coordination. But there are people who can do that but don't have the passion for doing it.
G:  Right. That's true. And I don't know what it is. Some people have a drive to do it.

D:  Do you prefer the term “make art” or “do art”? Are those interchangeable?
G:  I don't particularly like “make art.” I don't know why. Actually I don't say “do art” either, usually I just say “paint” or “draw.” I don't even call it “art.” I'd rather be specific. “Art” is such a loaded term. Is it art? Maybe it isn't art. It's like saying you're an artist; it always has a tinge of pretension to it.

D:  What happens to you when you paint?
G:  It's a wonderful kind of absorption that nothing else can compare to. I think it settles me down a lot. I'm an internally busy person, and it's really wonderful, painting in particular. I've just started etching, and that's a whole other ball game. That's a new thing to wrap my head around. But painting is unique. It is like looking at the sky and figuring out what color it is. You get absorbed into an elaborate puzzle that involves form and color. It has to be or I couldn't do it day after day. There's nothing quite like it. Painting has this whole sensual aspect to it of mixing color. It's really lovely. I still get entranced with the colors. You're trying to get the tone just right. It enthralls you while you're doing it, and that's the hook. And then for me there is also making up these little narratives and stories and trying to make those come to life in some way. Elaborating on them more and more. When I begin a painting it's rough and unformed, and then it becomes more and more specific. It still feels like this unbelievable thing as these narratives start happening, these elusive stories.

D:  When you're doing a work is there a moment when you say, “That's it. This is done.” Or are there times after that when you go back and look at again and change it? Or are your works always available to be altered?
G:  No, I don't go back to a painting two years later and alter it. It's done when I decide it's done. Sometimes I'll say, “This is almost done, but I think I want to put one more layer on this section." I might put it away for a while to dry, and go back to it later. But generally, at some point the painting will turn a corner and it's really funny, sometimes I won't know in the morning that I will complete it later that day. That is an odd thing.

D:  I wonder if it's a dialogue that goes on. That the painting knows when it's done; it's waiting for Gina to know when it's done.
G:  Yes, that's the terminology I use. “The painting will tell me when it's done." Sometimes, Hal, you know, he's a wonderful artist, he'll come in and say, “It's done. Sign it.” But I'll have to say, “No, it's not. It's not done.”

D:  When you approach a blank canvas, how much do you know is going to be on that canvas?
G:  More and more I've been working with preliminary drawings for the main part of the painting, but I don't like to decide every square inch of the painting. The first thing I do is get rid of the white. But sometimes I have worked where I just swirl different colors around, and I have a mess. A good mess. I'll put that aside for awhile and won't look at it. I did one painting, The Three Spinsters. It eventually became three old women spinning. It began as a panel just covered with swirls of paint that were stamped with saran wrap and different materials, just swirling color. And I looked at that all morning, and I saw one of the women. And then I saw the other one and the other one. That whole painting came together. I loved those old women so much. I didn't know where they came from. It got to where I really enjoyed seeing them in the morning because I thought, “Where did they come from?” But usually what I like to draw out at least a partial idea. Especially if I have a spatially complicated idea, I need to draw it out on paper first. Like right now I'm working on a painting that's 24” x 30”, that's quite complicated. It's a stage with an audience that I plotted out carefully. But there's always some improvisation within that. Everything isn't worked out. I've never worked with a grid either. It's too rigid.

D:  So you do preliminary drawings.
G:  In a notebook or a sketch book.

D:  Do you do studies?
G:  Sometimes. You mean like draw something from life in a particular way? I'll do that with a drawing not a painting. Sometimes I'm too impatient, and I go directly to paint. But then it's wrong and I keep rubbing it out. So it's more economical to draw it in black and white. It's always easier to see something in black and white, because color adds another complication. Especially when I'm painting people – I paint people without using a model and if I draw it in pencil quickly I'll get the movement and proportions much more accurately. But when I'm noodling on a painting very carefully I can lose the movement of the figure. It's better to do it quickly, and then you see the gesture, the relationships of the different parts of the body.

D:  Do you do oils or acrylics?
G:  Oils.

D:  Have you ever done watercolors?
G:  Oh yes. I've done lots of watercolor and gouache. I'm not a transparent watercolorist, I work differently. I do some splatter techniques, and then I'll find something in it and develop an image from there.

D:  It sounds like there's always an edge. It sounds like what you're saying is that you're always touching the experimental.
G:  Very much so. I never know what I'm doing. I come to a painting, and I'll say, “I don't know how to do this one.” I feel okay with that now, because I remember as a younger artist I was fortunate to know the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, while I lived in Chicago and got to be friends with her. Before I had met her she had been my idol, practically, I admired her work so much, and she just happened to live in Oak Park for a while. She had been with the Paris surrealists back in the 30s. I said to her once – we were talking about painting – and I said, “Well, it's different for you. You know what you're doing.” And she said, “Oh, come on, Gina. You never know what you're doing.” I thought, “Well, yeah. Of course. I knew that.” I mean if you're pushing yourself and know we're always trying to know the world, to understand the world more as individuals, understand people, understand ourselves.

That's why I read literature. I read because I'm trying to figure out what's going on with life and people. Why people suffer, why relationships can be so complicated. That's what the great novelists talk about, so I'm always looking for that in my work. Or why the natural world touches me so much. What's so poignant about it, what's so fragile. And what these old stories were trying to tell us. And folk tales, the most basic oral storytelling in its raw state. Those are all the things I'm ruminating on all the time and trying to figure out in my work.

D:  Have you read any Carl Jung?
G:  Yes. I've read quite a few of Jung's books. I liked him because he was interested in all of these fascinating things, like alchemy and mythology, and he's very visual.

D:  One of my favorite Jungian quotes above a cabin door was “Bidden or unbidden, the Divine is present.” That's one of my favorite theological statements, an Indian from southern Mexico who said to a group of us Anglos there, “God was here before you came.”
G:  That's beautiful.

D:  What is for you the hardest part of painting, of your work? What aspects of painting asks the most of you?
G:  It's very demanding. I'm fine with that, but it's demanding. It's amazing how much of me is pulled into it and thinks about it all the time. I don't regret that, but I see that, especially as I get older, that it's such a commitment. In terms of difficulty, when I'm developing a painting there's invariably a time when I hit an impasse. And that impasse can really make me feel a sense of despair. Why am I doing this? This is going nowhere. You really have to have the fortitude to just ride that out. It still knocks me over sometimes, but I just tell myself, “You've been through this before. It's okay. It's going to be okay.”

D:  Does the demand come from without or within?
G:  Oh, from within, totally from within.

D:  So it would be difficult for you to not do any painting or expressive work for a month?
G:  I'm trying think if I've ever gone a month without painting. I have gone a month. It was during a time of grief. It's really so much a part of me. And even in my twenties when I wasn't doing it much, I always had a hankering for it. I wanted to do something. I was an inwardly restless person. I'd have to do something, like write or play music.

D:  What do non-artists not know about art? When you tell people that you paint or that you're an artist what do you know they are not going to understand?
G:  I think for a lot of people they relate to it like a hobby. If you're an artist it's a vocation, not even a job. It feels different from a job, more like a calling that envelops everything in your being. It's almost like a religion. It's your whole world view, a philosophy. You're always thinking about it; you're always looking at things differently. When you read, you're thinking about it. You're working on your own piece. You're gathering stuff. When you look at the world you're always gathering things for this project, whether you use it or not.

D:  That makes sense. And for people who paint there may be a spectrum like people who practice a religion. Some people only show up for high holy days and some people go to mass every morning.
G:  There are some people that only dress like artists.

D:  There some people who only do art for ten years and then do something else.
G:  The other thing about it – and I don't know if this is different from religion or philosophy – it takes so much confidence to do it. I know so many really gifted people who have lacked that. They think “Well, this isn't worth anything” and they don't want to show their work to anybody. So much of it is sticking to your guns and finding your voice is and listening to it, and that can be tough, if you're not getting a lot of strokes for it right away or maybe you don't have the support for it from your family or friends. Or sometimes you're your own worst enemy. I know some people who are so self-critical. And we all have that. You have to give yourself a chance to express it and save the judgments for later.

D:  You did art as a child?
G:  Probably just like other kids do.

D:  Did you take classes in high school?
G:  Oh I had a wonderful art teacher in high school, Father McKinnon, a very progressive, brilliant man, and I studied art with him for four years. I also had a great literature teacher in high school. These were big gifts. I watched my mom paint. My mom always painted in the basement, and I always just thought it was something wonderful. I think as a child I just felt a beautiful feeling about creative activity from watching her. That's a great gift to a child. I had my show at the Haggerty Museum in Milwaukee, and I gave a public talk, and my mom was there, it was so moving to me. She was in the front row, and I said, “All of you women artists who have kids – don't give up painting. Paint in front of your kids. It's a wonderful thing to show a child". I also remember having a show at Woodland Pattern Book Center, and this woman I worked with brought her son – he was nine years old, very precocious – and she said to me, “I just wanted him to see that there are people who do this every day. That it's not just in museums.” I thought that was such a nice thing.

D:  Was there a time in your life when you thought, “I'm an artist!” You talk about art as a vocation and it doesn't sound like it's a choice any more.
G: No, I don't think it ever was a choice.  I can see that it was inside of me all along. My earliest memory is watching my mom do Japanese brush painting and sitting on a rocking horse watching her. And I would close myself up in my room and read fairy tales for hours. I always loved to draw. When I was little I thought, "Maybe I could illustrate children's books." My mother actually told me when I was quite young, "Don't become an artist, there's no money in it." I must have been thinking about it. It was always a big pull. I used to love to look through the Compton's encyclopedia and I'd go straight to the painting section. I was very young, and I loved Dali's "Persistence of Memory" and I loved the Chagall paintings, like "Birthday". We didn't have art books, we didn't have an art museum, but there was that attraction all the time.

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