Interview with Alia E. El-Bermani
Alia E. El-Bermani, Kitchen Window, Oil on Panel, 48 x 36 inches
Painting Perceptions is starting to attract some very good painters who are regularly stopping by, so I’m thrilled to take advantage of this by interviewing Alia E. El-Bermani a terrific emerging figure painter and still-life painter. Alia shows at the Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA and has shown in a variety of one person and group shows in California. Her blog is a good read both on her work, musing on painting and life and discusses and shows works in progress. Check out her website where there is a large number of her compelling works to enjoy.
Larry: Your painting’s subject matter often draws from familiar and
everyday women’s activities and concerns. I am also struck by the joy
in your painting’s construction in terms of design, color harmonies,
shape relationships and other formal painting concerns. How important
is the painting’s narrative to you compared to the formal aspects of
making a painting?
Alia: When I look at art whether it is a painting, sculpture, or even a performing art like dance, if is not well made, I am less likely to spend the time necessary to catch its meaning. Having said that though, for me the painting’s subject and formal aspects are not mutually exclusive. If one fails then the painting as a whole suffers. I love paint and I love ideas. When both are in sync, I find my most successful images.
I do find much joy in the work of painting. Although composition and shape relationships are a big part of how I get a painting together, I most enjoy exploring the subtlety of color and edge qualities.
I tend to work in series, where an idea or set of ideas can be explored throughout many works. As you’ve noticed, for several years now, my work has revolved around notions of beauty and women. This sprang from a conversation with a friend who asked me to summarize my entire oeuvre in a single word. ‘Beauty’ was the quiet whisper that kept coming to mind. Whether painting a dead bird, a figure or still life, it is the beauty of the subject that I am continually drawn to.
I also feel an urge to have a social consciousness present in my work. It is important for my work to raise questions, (even if this is done quietly). Currently, those questions revolve around the beauty that can be found within often overlooked or mundane objects, as well as western women’s desires to be beautiful. Personally, I’ve always felt less than beautiful and I find this a common trait in women. I hope that in sharing the beauty I find in other women (even if I haven’t yet found it in my own self) we will begin to accept ourselves, unique, flawed, and human.
Cassandra, Oil on Panel, 29 x 38 inches
Larry: Many of your paintings depict young women in front of a mirror,
as seen in your painting Cassandra, The simplicity and directness of
this image intrigues me, what can you tell us about your interest in
this subject matter and this painting in particular.
Alia: Initially, painting reflections offered me the opportunity to essentially paint two figures for the price of one. Over the years though, I’ve noticed that using mirrors often breaks down the model’s guard, which helps me see the real them, instead of the person they want me to see. I’ve seen this phenomenon happen to both the novice model (a friend or family member) as well as the seasoned professional model. Perhaps, it is a sense of safety in seeing the familiar (themselves) that allows such comfort while being examined.
At the time I started the painting Cassandra, I had been working on a series of paintings who’s primary source was photo reference. I was craving to paint directly from a live model. So, I hired Cassandra who I had drawn from at local groups. She was becoming a semi famous Los Angeles artist’s model. I started the painting purely for the love of paint and the human form. I was hoping a deeper meaning would emerge as the painting progressed but, unfortunately nothing ever came. Perhaps part of that was not having a connection to the model; not knowing her inner thoughts. I like to get to know my subjects well enough to put more into the work, but this model, although beautiful and strong, didn’t offer more of herself than the outward shell. During breaks, she sat in the corner of my studio quietly texting or reading. It was sort of uncomfortable. Although I love to look at this painting for the accomplishments of paint application and quality of seeing, this painting is one that suffers from an imbalance of content versus technical prowess. Therefore, I view this painting as a didactic reminder for myself more than as a powerful and whole image.
Larry: Your figurative compositions have a lot going on behind the
scenes and seem very considered. Do you tend to work everything out
with drawings and the like before you start painting or let the
painting evolve with its own needs as you go along?
Alia: My figurative works all seem to start the same way and that is with a lot of writing. Perhaps that is strange? I tend to do all my brainstorming with words. I like to think I get as many of the obvious ideas out first before getting to the visual part. Plus, I have a horrible memory, so it’s nice to be able to go back thru my sketch journal and see what my thinking was. As the pages fill with script, slowly thumbnails emerge. This is usually where I have to make one of two choices: 1) find a model that fits the idea well, to work from life or 2) start shooting reference photos and doing studies (usually drawings).
I try to work from life as much as I can, but this is a luxury I can’t always easily arrange or afford. The more I get to work from life, the less I tend to plan out ahead of time. These paintings sort of evolve on their own. Ideally, the accidents that occur on this path fill the painting with breath. The built up layers that happen, to make adjustments in the paint, as my perception becomes more accurate are similar to the unique imperfections I enjoy celebrating in the women I observe. The flaws of my visual perception and painting skill further reinforce my own humanity and are valuable in of themselves.
Often I prefer to work from a non professional model. I’ve asked friends, relatives, strangers and even my babysitters to pose for me. In these cases, I try to do at least one sitting from life to get a value drawing and compositional sketch as well as shoot photo reference. These drawings help me interpret the photo reference and spur my visual memory. I’ve never been successful at working from printed photographs as they are so condensed and flat, but for whatever reason, a projected photograph, with light flowing thru the image, has more depth and more information preserved. Plus, I am able to blow the photos up to life size on a screen at the far end of my studio, so I am able to easily make sight measurements. There is a pretty big down side to working in this manner though, which is that for the image to be clearly visible when projected onto the screen, my working surface (usually panel, not canvas) has to be in near darkness. Well, actually I have a single spot on it which can sometimes distort color relationships. I have yet to find a color correcting (daylight) bulb that I am happy with. So for now, I finish each session and then the paintings follow me home, into different lighting situations to see what is working and what needs tweaking.
Northwestern Crow, Nobility, Oil on Panel, 16 x 12 inches
Larry: Your still life compositions with dead birds are very
compelling. I see where your parents were very involved with the
Massachusetts Audubon Society. Your juxtaposition of the bird’s
shapes and coloration with particular fabric colors and design
patterns are remarkable. Do your titles like your marvelously
painted “Northwestern Crow, Nobility” refer to the bird and the brand
name of the fabric’s pattern? Anything of interest you can tell us
about this series of work?
Alia: The connection to Massachusetts Audubon Society was actually thru my childhood best friend, whose father was the Director. He used to take us on birding expeditions up and down the eastern seaboard quizzing us constantly during these sometimes long drives… “Alia, can you explain condensation”?
My first bird painting was done almost immediately after graduating from college. It was an awkward transitional time for me, where I had little direction or ideas of what to paint. Our cat decided to help me, by leaving the most beautiful mourning dove on our back patio. I came out and saw the iridescent shimmer on the feathers, and its wonderful fetal shape and I just could not throw it away. So, I scooped it up and took one of my husband’s shirts from the closet to arrange it on. The shirt had a delicate, white paisley pattern embroidered on it and I knew it would perfectly support the innocence I found in the bird. I painted this bird for about 6 hours straight that day. When I finally realized I needed to take a break, I left the bird and painting as it was, so I could continue painting when I got back. I was only gone for a few minutes, but when I returned, my cat was on the floor with his catch, reclaimed in his mouth, feathers everywhere. The set up was too disturbed to rearrange and thus, this painting is now called a study. Later, I was able to do a more finished version, always remembering to protect my subject during breaks. A few days later, my husband (who didn’t like that shirt anyways) watched a crow get electrocuted on some power lines as he was walking to work. He faithfully scooped up and placed it in our freezer for me to find, when I got home. This is when I knew a new series was born. Ever after that, people have brought me their dead bird finds. My landlord, friends, neighbors, and fellow artists have all contributed to filling our freezer with specimens (although most refuse our dinner invitations).
With each different species of bird, I see a different quality (ie, nobility in the crow, Innocence in the dove) and it is important for me to find a fabric pattern that further enhances that quality. For example, the sort of fleur de lis pattern represented nobility to me, or how the similar colors to the Western-Wood Pewee, where no part of the bird breaks into the white of the composition shows its uncanny ability to camouflage (guise) itself. I am a novice at sewing, but I love fabric and have collections of fabric that have patterns I’m attracted to. I love going thru these boxes to find the scrap that fits with each individual bird.
I haven’t painted a dead bird now for several years. When the West Nile Virus and Bird Flu were big in the news, I decided playing with dead stuff probably wasn’t the best idea. Also, having to repeatedly explain mortality issues to two small children helped to curb my dead bird addiction. But, I’m happy to report, that just the other day I picked up my first North Carolina specimen after watching it fly into an oncoming vehicle. It is a pesky Blue Jay, so I’ve yet to find that perfect fabric pattern.
Public Restroom, Oil on Panel, 20 x 30 inches
Larry: You have a rather descriptive post about your palette for flesh
tones on your blog, among other things I was struck with was your use
of Doak’s Lead White with Mica. What properties does the mica add to
the white? Anything else you might want to add about your palette and
use of color?
Alia: Doak’s Lead White with Mica is a recent addition to my palette. His website claims it has nacreous (iridescent) qualities. I do like how it reflects light under my thin layers of paint that I tend to do toward the end of a painting. Also, all his Lead White’s dry at a reasonable pace for me. They tend to try dry at about the same rate as all my other colors and I therefore have no need for any driers.
Another thing I should have added on my blog, is that I think black is probably the worst color for a beginner to have on their palette. If a black is absolutely necessary, like when starting with a grisaille, then mix your own black from a combination like raw umber and cobalt blue, so you can control how warm or cool your black and subsequent grays are. Black is too easy to reach for when you need to darken the value of a color, but it also affects the chroma (too much in my opinion) to make all colors appear dirty or muddy looking.
The only other thing I should say about my palette is that I don’t squeeze mountains of paint out each time, and that I clean off my palette at the end of each day. It must be the frugal Yankee in me. I just don’t like to waist paint, and I don’t like semi dried paint chunks mucking up my paintings the next day.
Colin, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 16 inches
Larry: You moved from California to NC not too long ago, how has this
transition to new art community been for you. Do you find much of a
difference between the east and west coast in terms of the art vibes?
How has the economic downturns affected you in North Carolina?
Alia: The move has been wonderful for my family, but honestly it’s been a very tough transition for me as an artist. There is a fairly thriving art community in this area, but it seems to be focused on more craft related arts like pottery and glass blowing. The visual arts seem to primarily be at least a decade behind the Los Angeles art trends. I’m not happy to have to re-live the 90s. I haven’t yet come across a really amazing contemporary figurative painter, but to be fair, I’ve been here only about 6 months (and had 13 years to make art connections in California). Theoretically, being closer to NYC, Boston and Washington DC is a good thing, but actually it is more of a tease for me. It’s just far enough where money and time become big issues to overcome to see a show at a gallery or museum there. More positively, I have been able to find a figure drawing group that meets every Tuesday night in Raleigh. And I’ve managed to be included in two group shows so far (which wouldn’t have come so quickly if relocating in the other direction). I also have been selected as one of the Exchange artists for the month of December at Visual Art Exchange, a non-profit exhibition space to support local artists. Also, the North Carolina Museum of Art has an amazing American collection which includes Wyeth, Homer, Beirstadt and Eakins (among other great inspirational artists).
As far as the economy, yes, North Carolina has been hit, but I can’t fully assess how much, since I didn’t experience the art market here pre-recession. I don’t fully know yet, but I assume my prices (based on California’s once booming market) will be more of a shock, than my nude subjects to the conservative viewers here.
There is one last thing I’d like to bring up that is unrelated to any of your questions. I want to let other artists out there (particularly women artists) know that it is completely possible for you to have both a wonderful, advancing career AND raise a family. My children do often take time from work that I once had to myself, but the other things they have offered far out way that loss. In fact, because of them and my dedication to them, I have gotten quite good at getting into that Zen state that is often needed for painting. I no longer fuss to find the right music, or organize the shelves. There is much more focus to the time I have dedicated to my work. And the work itself is much informed by having two small children to consider. I want to share with them the positive experiences of this world and the beauty I find all around me.