Studio Visit: Painter Angela Fraleigh on the Perks of Freezing Paintbrushes, and Why Silence Sparks Creativity
The artist is currently at work on monumental paintings inspired by the Claribel and Etta Cone sisters.
Angela Fraleigh brings the work of the Old Masters into the 21st century with gorgeously rendered figures that seemed plucked from classical Western art history, which she paints against colorful abstract backgrounds rife with references to design traditions.
For “Fluttering Still,” her first New York solo show in over a decade, which is on view at Hirschl & Adler Modern, Fraleigh has overlaid elements pulled from turn-of-the-century illustrations by pioneering female designers Ethel Reed and Gerda Wegener atop images of women painted at life size.
Ahead of last month’s opening, we spoke with Fraleigh about her recent inspirations, what she listens to in the studio, and the art-historical research behind her latest works.
What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?
The usual: good lighting, my favorite paints (Old Holland, Golden, and Gamblin products), favorite brushes, etc. Right now, extra clothing is pretty important. I just moved into a new 2,000-square-foot studio this year and one of the downsides is it never really heats up enough… . Boohoo, I know, but I am currently wearing five layers of clothing.
One weird thing that exposes my laziness, but really is indispensable to my practice, is a freezer. I put all my brushes in the freezer at the end of the day so I don’t have to wash them. When they get too grimy, I soak them in laundry detergent for way too long, and then once a month I clean all of the six mason jars full of brushes for hours on end.
What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?
As I write this I’m feeling that strange vacancy of all my work having just been delivered to Hirschl & Adler. I was deep in it for the last three months, living and breathing that one body of work non-stop, so I’m experiencing that weird vacuum feeling of “what just happened” and “what’s next?”
I’m excited to dig back into the work I started for my show at the Weatherspoon Art Museum [in Greensboro, North Carolina], which will be opening this fall. It was postponed last summer while I was in the middle of working on it, so I’m wading back in.
For that exhibition, I’ve focused on the legacy of Claribel and Etta Cone—the formidable sisters whose transformative gift of artworks helped establish the Weatherspoon’s collection and much of what has become the crown jewel of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Three large paintings in progress (96 by 72 inches) will hang against a hand-drawn backdrop of lyrical line work inspired by Matisse odalisque drawings. The works will be clotted with splinters of “things” that the Cone sisters so lovingly acquired, yet [will remain] airy and otherworldly to help evoke an illusory floating utopia.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence?
I thought I was really loosey goosey with my playlist, but I’ve realized I follow a pretty regular rhythm to what I listen to and when.
I start the morning with silence. I wake up really early when I’m on deadline—usually 4 a.m.—and I love the quiet of the day and that meditative space. When my self-flagellating thoughts start creeping in around 8 or 9 a.m., I switch to some new-agey philosophical stuff to keep me in a positive open headspace, then around mid-morning I listen to a podcasts or artist interviews.
At lunch it’s NPR/news, but never news while I’m painting. After lunch its music (lately its been Dakhabrakha, Cat Power, and Drumlines), then late afternoon I put on TV shows—always something I’ve seen before, so I’m not really tempted to watch it, but I can listen.
What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?
Craft is high on the list, feeling that magical and mesmerizing quality of a physical thing in the world.
Like a lot of artists, I probably most admire all the stuff I want to steal for my own work. I guess the “how’d they do that” quality of a thing, coupled with a depth and breadth of human experience and juicy poetic stuff to chew on. In painting, I like the topography of a surface, something that optically resonates.
As a professor [at Moravian College], I don’t think I’m allowed to despise anything. There’s a place for it all.
What snack food could your studio not function without?
I pack my lunch like an old timey union worker headed to the factory. Not many snacks laying around. I start the day with thick black coffee and I’ve got a few Amy’s meals stashed in the freezer for emergencies, but mainly I eat my pre-packed snacks of carrots and grapes and some tofurky sandwich nonsense everyday. I’ve got a Wawa and beer store 10 feet away so I’m never in any danger of going too long without sustenance.
When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?
Well, first I pretend I’m not stuck for a really long time, and I mess up everything I touch. Then after working myself into a frothy pit of despair, I finally realize that something isn’t working, and I need do something different.
I play pool or go for a walk. I read or I’ll talk with my husband, Wes Heiss, who is also an artist but has a completely different approach. Or I’ll take a nap. A nap is usually the best. Like hitting restart on the computer.
What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?
“Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale” curated by Jodi Throckmorton and Brittany Webb at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Scale and repetition are tools I think about all the time in my own work, and the artists in this show are wonderful.
If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?
Oh dear. I’m a mood board fanatic! I’ve got a bazillion going for art research, design, and teaching purposes.
What’s on front of mind right now: Feminist utopian literature; Minimalism for packrats; Gerda Wegener and Ethel Reed; threshold concepts; art-historical representations of women sleeping, waking up, and reading; studio storage solutions; and the Cone sisters’ collection.
“Angela Fraleigh: Fluttering still” is on view at Hirschl & Adler Modern, the Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, Ninth Floor, New York, New York, February 10–March 12, 2021.
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