Interview with Jean Koeller

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Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Jean Koeller: I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged our creative sides as children. She took us to museums, surrounded us with music, books and hated television. She even called the TV an “idiot box” during the time it was a status item to acquirer. We were allowed to watch one hour and if we fought, it was taken away. Well, needless to say, we fought a lot. So I drew all the time, be it on walls in the bedroom or scrap paper. I also built things in the garden and wreaked havoc when I could.

I didn’t go to college right out of high school. I worked in a plastic factory for two years and then began taking classes at Ohio State. I think I declared five different majors in one year. Finally, thinking I would go into Art Therapy, I decided to transfer to Wright State University since they had a Masters in Art Therapy. I took a painting class as a requirement for an art education degree and fell in love almost immediately. That was it; I couldn’t believe people actually did this. I had no idea that WSU had such a great painting program with very good painters for professors. I have to admit, it still wasn’t clear to me how I would survive doing this so I didn’t declare Fine Arts, until Skowhegan accepted me for the summer.

10.TreeWatchingIV.36x24 copyAt Skowhegan, I was one of maybe a few undergraduates and the rest of my colleges were in graduate school or preparing for a show or completing a grant project or some noble reason for being there. Since they were all art stars, I asked them a lot of questions and was fascinated by all the different ways people approached making their work. I believe this is where I figured out how much abstract and figurative had in common and no longer saw them in different camps. But I wanted the best qualities of both worlds. Skowhegan had a great library with all sorts of catalogues of work you wouldn’t see any where near Ohio. I was very influenced by Milton Resnick and Pat Pasloff. I understood Milton’s love of paint and pathos. Yet Pasloff was much clearer, verbally and she had the most amazing eye for work in process. The rest was history.

After returning I had one more year left in completing my BFA so I got a studio and tried as many things as I could by experimenting. If someone said don’t do that, I did it, to see why or what it meant, still looking at a lot of work and reading anything I could get my hands on. After undergrad, I painted on my own for two more years before applying to graduate school. By then I had decided that I wanted to work figuratively and needed to understand what made a painting a painting. It wasn’t clear to me why you would go to graduate school unless you wanted to teach. I ended up attending Parson’s because it was based on the French Atelier and I was in love with John Heliker’s paintings. We had access to the figure eight hours a day, five days a week, which was something I wouldn’t “make” myself do or afford on my own. So it seemed like the best reason to go and it was located in New York. I liked the idea of working in an open studio where you could watch your peer’s work and interact on a day-to-day basis. I was already working alone in a studio, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to pay to do that. At the time the figure was very important to me for understanding form and space and was the basis of the work I admirered most. Even though I was more interested in studying with John Heliker, I found, I learned more from what Paul Resika and Leland Bell had to say. I miss the great museums (and food) in New York. If I got stuck I would head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I learned so much by looking and still do. I love seeing great paintings and the practice of drawing from great works of art or transcriptions.

10.ArtistPaletteThankyouKaren.15.5x14.75 copyNA: Discuss your work/thought process when starting a new painting.

JK: I usually “see” something or visually find something that is the start of the painting. Or the painting is started from something I found in the previous painting or pieces I am creating. Drawing happens during the process if I get lost or need to look at the work, but it’s not the start. I prefer the immediacy of the paint to start the conversation. I have been working primarily from perception as opposed to memory, but not copying what I see. I keep thinking that my ideas change, but they are pretty much the same in all the work. I do not start with an idea; it comes as I am working. There are threads, that I am sometimes not aware of, and then discover and they will be the reason I start a painting. I often move things around, change scale and invent. Yet I do love to paint smaller pure en plein air paintings because it teaches me and sharpens my eye and mind, and the freshness of this process is familiar and satisfying. It sometimes lets me into my subconscious and can be a relief from the larger more complicated works, those can be the “starts” for larger paintings as well. Even a color combination can be a start.

NA: You have focused primarily on still life and landscape painting. Please elaborate.

JK: I have returned to landscape over and over as a subject or a genre to hang my paintings on. I find it grounding. In my first attempt of pursing it as a subject or genre, after graduate school, I wanted to do for Ohio what Georgia O’Keeffe did for the southwest. I was looking hard at the kinds of landscapes this area possessed. Looking at the Hudson River School with their grand vistas and was thinking about how to make something out of nothing, since the landscape here is not as majestic. I found the dense views, close fence lines and areas denoting divisions or boundaries of interest. Both natural and man made boundaries created metaphors for my relationships and man’s inhumanity toward man and nature. I then became interested in the order of the picture plane, foreground, middle ground and background. The reflections I found in the water reversed and mixed up these realities and made me look harder at how a painting was composed. I love and still love to take what we see everyday and bring it to another level of consciousness. I painted for years on a property owned by Clayton Bruckner’s family. He was an Ohio inventor and I liked the history the land possessed. But the work became more about my stories, while trying to understand my relationship to the process of painting. In the winter I would return to the studio and paint from my own paintings, drawings and journal entries that led to the more narrative paintings and taught me to trust the inventive part of the painting that would happen.

10.GeraniumNight.16x13.75 copyAs for my still life paintings, those happened when my VR job got more complicated. Painting out side takes a lot of effort and time to find a place and set up and you are at the mercy of so many elements. Because I had less time and needed to paint, I needed to just walk into the studio and get to work. At first it was a relief and funny how easy it was and why did I make it so hard by painting outside? I had no intention at first to paint still life; it came out of painting cityscapes from the windows and then bringing flowers and plants into the studio (somehow bringing the landscape into the studio). The color became a result of teaching in France for a summer. Seeing that light and being in that landscape. It is important to me to feel something about what I paint from, to have or feel the life energy or be alive in some way or another, before I can paint it. I found that I was visually attracted to a bouquet of flowers in someone’s house, the same way I am attached to a painting made by a human as opposed to a reproduction. I never understood how anyone could live with reproductions after experiencing a real painting, good or bad. So, I followed this impulse, it was just a whim to paint flowers and then I starting thinking that it takes a lot of guts to be a woman painting flowers in bright colors at the beginning of the 21st century. My experience with the Feminist Movement certainly did not prepare me for this turn in my work. Yet for me, flowers are far deeper than their superficial beauty for my understanding of being a woman, they can represent the ephemeral qualities of the body: how the body, especially the female body, changes so rapidly, even on a day-to-day basis from one state to another. If you look closely, I am interested in all the states in which flowers exist through time. Time and change were very much on my mind those days for I was going through menopause. I am amazed how one day I would be calm and moving along feeling fine, and then the next day the extreme opposite feelings in my mind and body appear, making me feel like I am out of control. I realize that I am far from extraordinary, yet since this is happening to me and to my body, the universal in menopause becomes inevitably deeply personal and individualized in that work.

10.LegsII.30x30 copyI have taken these feelings and represented them in various symbolic states with the objects and combinations that I have composed in the paintings. For the use of time I have found that mirrors not only reflect what is not there, bringing what is outside the immediate view of my picture plane, often including myself physically, but it also multiplies the objects or just gives me an opportunity to explore more that one side of what I am feeling. I also use paintings of my own paintings, differently from how I used them in the landscapes, within the composition to carry the physical transition or creating a past window in the new piece. My highly individualized experience with this ancient balance through imbalance in the female body is reflected in the use of paint and color. I hope that intensity represents how I am pairing concrete still life materials such as objects with ephemeral aspects such as light, color, and time.

My return to the most recent landscapes came after moving to our “death” house. One floor, small, last move house. We purchased this new location because I saw paintings in the land surrounding the house. I am continuing to explore the essence of life in the landscape; still pursing stories, the body and right now seeing the trees as a metaphor. They display the continual process of life in their birth, growth, and inevitable decline into aging, death and renewal. Very much like the flowers in the still lifes. I am still fascinated by light, using color to describe its’ meaning, expression and its’ time.

NA: You have worked as the Visual Resource Curator for the University of Dayton from 1992-2007. Discuss your experiences.

10.WinterII.12x12 copyJK: I taught for a number of years and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. I thought more about the student’s work than they did, less about my own work. I was also aware of how little my colleges painted while in these jobs. So, I fell into this VR position. This position allowed me to focus on my own work. I could avoid meetings and a lot of the politics. What I loved about it at first, when it was a slide library, is that I could paint in the morning, which was my best time and then go to work. I also had fun with it, in that I saw it as my personal collection. I could collect the images of art I loved and they were right there to look at anytime I wanted to see something. I knew it wasn’t a replacement for the real thing, but close. It also exposed me to a lot of art I wouldn’t have looked at on my own. I enjoyed finding images for the faculty, helping them express their teaching ideas and discussing what to use to present them. I enjoyed thinking about the issues for VR professionals, quality of an image and how images shape history and point of view of future artists. When we moved to digital, it got more complicated and I wasn’t trained to do that kind of work. I did what I could to educate myself but became more unhappy about sitting at a computer for hours, and dealing with the IT people, who weren’t interested in supporting what I was expected to do, which was to convert the slide collection to digital images and bridge the faculty in the classroom with the technology they were expected to use. It moved farther and farther away from the meaning and teaching of art, I felt so out of my element, so it was time to leave.

The job did prepare me for this digital change and web responsibility that has become a part of our world. However I still feel like I am always technically behind. Yet, it compels me to keep technology out of my process of making the paintings, to preserve that human element even more.

I have to say, there is life after academia. I am keeping my head above water even though my timing wasn’t advantageous. I can’t believe how meaningful this whole process has become.

10.LegsIII.30x30 copyNA: You recently took a trip to India. Has that experience filtered into your current work?

JK: I think the meditative quality—such as my “Tree Watching” series is a result of that experience. I hope the Mythopoeic is more present in the work. First and foremost I want the work to be a great visual structure, I know that they can be paintings about paintings, but they aren’t just landscapes. My color sense became more intuitive, expansive and expressive. Since it was my first third world experience, I have a larger consciousness and better awareness of what is happening in the paintings as I make them and their relationship to the world, I don’t mean that to sound bigger than it is, but it’s in my context as a painter.

NA: You have an upcoming solo show with Keny Galleries in Columbus Ohio. How long have you been with the gallery and how was the relationship started?

10.CreekVII.12x9 copyJK: I have been with the Keny Galleries since 2007. Prior to the KG, I was represented by Shirley Jones Gallery in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Michael Jones and Karen Shirley, who are artists themselves, very caring people, had a wonderful gallery and aesthetic that they projected with the work they sold and showed. When they had to close the gallery, they were very gracious to make the introduction. I have had my eye on the KG for a while since they have been established for a long period of time. I also loved the historical shows they curated and their view of museum and American painting. The Keny’s weren’t looking, but, in Tim’s own words, when they saw my paintings in real life, they wanted to work with me. This lead to my first show in 2008 and my second show opens in June 16, 2010.

NA: Who are some of your favorite painters?

JK: I always go back to Matisse. I look at a lot of different work and sources. Right now it’s Rembrandt, Guston, Cecily Brown, Van Gogh, Diebenkorn, Beckmann, Soutine, DeStael, Gretna Campbel, Hoffman, Emily Carr, Pousin, Frieda Kahlo, Richard Tuttle, Bill Jensen, George McNeil, and the list can go on… Abstract Expressionists….

www.jeankoeller.com