I grew up in small-town, coastal Connecticut and came to Washington, DC, to study at Georgetown. Restless and anxious to escape the confines of a somewhat insular campus, I would often leave the hilltop and walk into what was for me a new urban world.
A favorite outing was to the legendary Phillips Collection (or Phillips Gallery as it was called then) where, in the quiet oak-paneled Victorian rooms of a brownstone, I first saw paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, the French Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, and the American modernists Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Morris Graves; and I was introduced to Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko’s works. It would be awhile before I could even begin to understand Rothko’s vision of the sacred in color and color’s enigmatic correspondence to the interior world of the artist.
At around the same time, I was developing a strong interest in photography’s literal interpretation of the external, visible world. I bought, for a few dollars, a used 35mm camera. I took a leave of absence from college (the first of several), learned photography and 16mm filmmaking, tinkered in the craft of restoring antique furniture, and attended modern dance classes.
Still restless and seeking (or, was I fleeing from reality?), I eventually moved to San Francisco and got a job building exhibits in an Asian museum. I set up a darkroom in my very affordable (in those days) Haight-Ashbury apartment, took pictures in my spare time (random city shots, female and male nudes, portraits of friends, landscapes and more), and attended lectures at the Art Institute where I met some of the masters such as Imogen Cunningham and Aaron Siskind. Returning to Washington, I began writing about art and photography for venues such as the Washington Review of the Arts, The Washington Star, NPR and the New Art Examiner.
In the 80s and 90s, I took a kind of sabbatical from the art world (I chickened out, no money) and built a career in health care communications. And I began a family. When my children were small, I was taken with the playfulness and simple beauty of the art they made in school: the squiggly expressionist lines and bold clashing colors. Soon the refrigerator, doors and walls were covered with their crayoned drawings, finger paintings and collages. When they got stuck on an art project, I gladly pitched in to help. As much as the giants of art history at places such as the Phillips opened my eyes to visual pleasures, so, too, did the innocent works of my two children. As my children got older, I began taking art classes. I had never stopped taking pictures, and now I was also picking up a brush.
I live and have a studio in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Cassell Interviews Cassell
Q. Why do you make art?
A. The process is absorbing and there’s a sense of discovery. Making art takes me to a more secluded or even an unknown place in myself. And unlike life, where you can get hit by a car crossing the street, with art the journey is relatively safe.
Q. You qualified that statement with “relatively.” What does that mean?
A. As an artist, you have to be daring. But the end result of a piece can be scary, too. Or, at the least, sometimes a little embarrassing or even trite, when you set out with such serious intentions.
Q. What do you mean?
A. You reveal yourself, your desires, obsessions. Even the use of color can seem risky, since it’s so personal. Of course, sometimes when you create something, you don’t completely recognize it as your own. You wonder where it came from.
Q. You used to be a photographer. How does painting/collage differ from making photographs?
A. The creative work in photography occurs largely in those brief moments when you select what you see around you. So it’s fairly time-limited. Painting is an ongoing process that takes you inward. There’s a continuous dialogue between your head and what you see on the canvas.
Q. What are some of the issues you struggle with as an artist?
A. Whether my technical abilities are up to par. You worry about not being good enough. At the same time, you can worry too much about technical issues to the point where it can cloud what you’re trying to do.
Q. How do you know when a work is finished?
A. Like most artists, you can obsess over whether something is done or not. The answer is, I think, you never really know for sure. Besides, there are many possible “finishes.”
A. On your blog, you comment occasionally on art exhibits. What do you see as the role of the critic?
Q. I think critics/reviewers should try to expand the conversation or discourse which an artist’s works have already begun. Just to grade an artist’s work seems pretty limited to me.