In the Studio – Kristen Flemington

I knew this was going to be a great interview when Kristen greeted us each with a cup of green tea. We are so excited to have her paintings up in the gallery this month, so prepare for the opening this Thursday by learning a bit more about Kristen and her process.

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D: Tell us a little about your art background.

 KF: I went to art school in Indiana and Chicago and ended up getting a degree in photography because it seemed like a skill. I ended up working in that realm, but I would paint and draw just to relax and for fun, it was sort of a stress relief or happy place I would go to. I’ve been in Portland for about 7 years now, and I paint and draw whenever time allows and for relaxation. That and cooking, it’s similar to me.

D: Do you like to follow the recipe when you cook?

KF: I like to kitchen sink, throw things together. Chopping things and seeing what it makes. It seems similar to painting, you go through the processes, mixing color, hoping that the result at the end is something that tastes or looks good. Baking vs cooking seems similar to the difference between photography vs. painting. Photography you have to follow the recipe, you have to be within one stop of a this when you expose or your won’t have a good photograph, whereas with painting, if you make a bad stroke or decision you can go back and paint over it and over and over. It’s this instant gratification of a malleable process which is fun and less stressful. I’ve never been good at watercolors for that reason, you only get one chance. Like this painting, when I started it was all over here and when I left for the night I was like ‘great, perfect’ and when I came back I thought, “Oh that’s terrible!” So I just painted over it.

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D: So the painting behind you is the newest one?

KF: Yes this is the newest one, this is my friend Megan, she’s got such an interesting face and clarity that is fun to try and portray. We’ll see if it comes across.

D: Do you notice a difference in painters vs. photographers? A better eye for instant composition? As a photographer do you think it’s helped as a painter?

KF: Yeah, and maybe there’s something about a photographer’s composition that comes naturally to a certain degree. I feel happy when things are composed well. It’s interesting because with photography, you’re always trying to take the natural world and frame it in an interesting way. My habit with painting is to take an interesting thing and replicate it. I think you’ll notice in a lot of my paintings, it’s a person centered in the middle of a canvas with little to no background, which is very different than how I would go about photographing someone. I think it’s more a study of recreating that object, where as with photography that’s the point, it’s already recreating it.

D: How do you choose your subjects?

KF: I’m a shy person when it comes to making things, or introverted. I’m very private about making artwork and for the longest time I would only paint in my bedroom so roommates wouldn’t walk by. So I painted a million self-portraits because I was the only one there. But that started to feel very narcissistic, so I made myself reach out to people, usually people I’m really comfortable with. It’s been interesting painting other people, it makes me paint differently. With myself, I never minded making myself look terrible or weird, exaggerating certain things because part of the idea of painting is to express a feeling, so if you’re feeling quirky in one way or another you can take those liberties with yourself. I feel with other people you’re trying to figure out their likeness, especially with a total stranger. At least with someone I’m comfortable with, I can preface ‘this may not look like you, but I have this idea or feeling about how I want it to come off and I hope you’re ok with that.’ It’s odd too, some people I know for a lot less time but feel totally comfortable saying ‘hey come sit in my creepy basement and let me paint your picture.’

D: Do you usually work from life or photographs?

KF: Both, I’ve been trying to do more from life, because it’s more challenging. I paint very differently with a live model, but especially for the larger pieces, I work from photographs out of necessity. It’s also a fun way to combine photography and painting because you can compose different shot or play with the lighting.

D: What artists do you look at when you’re looking for inspiration?

KF: I really love portrait painters, I went to school for art and photography and there was always this quest for concept and profoundness in that way, and though I love contemporary art and conceptual art, I’ll go to a museum and go to the portrait gallery. Paintings by an artist that I’ve never heard before and my heart will explode, because it’s a really simple bust of a working person or a commissioned painting and it’s just breathtaking. Alice Neal is a more contemporary portrait artist that’s amazing and I find myself aspiring to that looseness to a certain degree. It’s taken me a really long time to appreciate that it’s a really old tradition. It’s something to continually be improved upon, I don’t think I’m improving it necessarily, I feel like I’m just catching up. Most of the old portrait artists, that’s all they did, all day, everyday. This is my hobby in my spare time, I couldn’t expect to get anywhere near where they were.


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D: Do you work primarily in oils or acrylics?

KF: I go back and forth, I lean more towards acrylics, I think that if they are used well they can have a nice effect and are just easier to work with. I’m pretty impatient, so waiting two days to put on a new layer is torture. I also feel similar to the smell of oil and paint thinner as I do to the smell of a darkroom at this point, where you spent so much time in it, that the smell gives me this feeling of  ‘oh no, it’s going to be a really long night!’ It’s this bad-time feeling, so acrylic is more of a neutral feeling for me.

D: Your painting have the same qualities as an oil painting because they are so loose and generous with the brush strokes.

KF: I try to use different thinners and media; acrylic paints have come a long way. When I started, the people teaching me how to paint would say the colors aren’t as good as oils, and it’s just not the case anymore. And just using plenty of paint, you have to make yourself do it and it makes a big difference.


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D: I saw a lot of your earlier work on paper, but it looks like you’re moving over to canvas or harder surfaces.

KF: I like both, I tend to use paper when I’m using drawing and painting together. Painting feels more physical, you can really get in it, take harder brushstrokes and paper feels more delicate and get it in your first go. I often think or paper as something I’ll do in one night, but with board or canvas it feels more like an object you can interact more with more aggressively, so maybe I’ve been in more of an aggressive mood lately! Plus there’s nothing comparable to painting on canvas, maybe it’s sentimental. I used to paint on canvas a lot when I worked for this woman that made handbags, and there was a ton of scrap fabric, which was amazing because I had a lot of free material at a time when I didn’t have much money and I could use whatever what around. Maybe not the most archival thing, so since then I’ve made myself get decent materials and do it the right way. I definitely like to make canvas; it’s like constructing anything else. The place in Indiana where I started painting, they made you construct everything. You had to go to the woodshop and make your bars and put it all together. We had extensive exercises in color theory, mixing everything, very old school approach to painting, which was a really great way to learn, so I have nostalgia for constructing everything from the beginning. It was interesting to go from there to a school that was more contemporary with digital photography and web design and it was in downtown Chicago, with professors that were thirty years younger who worked in digital media and hadn’t been painting in oil paints for the past 50 years, which was very different. But somehow the two both soaked in in a good way.

D: It seems like a good balance between knowing and appreciating the traditional methods or painting and the new ways of doing things that can push the work further.

KF: Yeah they can definitely inform each other. Even just learning color theory really well just helps, it makes it more fun.

D: It definitely shows in the work, especially with your skin tones, like in this portrait of the man with the beard.

KF: That was my friend Adam and I think I was a little offensive because I kept saying “I’ve never painting a redhead before!” I kept painting how I thought his hair looked, but I needed to figure out how it actually looks, and it was an interesting exercise in the color of his skin tone vs the color of his beard vs his hair. it took me awhile to look and realize what that color actually was, my brain just went to a really exaggerated color of red. I like figuring out those problems, what part of a person’s nose makes them look like them, what their skin tone actually is.


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D: Did your recent trip to Alaska bring any new inspiration?

KF: You know, I think with the trip to Alaska was a lot of just hiking and not that much talking because you get tired of each other. All of the things that were happening in your brain that you were working on fade, and I began having really vivid dreams. I would wake up and tell my friends about these dreams with a ‘babbling brook and making cheese under a rock..’ and I realized I hadn’t been having dreams that were as whimsical as these. One thing that was cool and I was inspired by were these low plants, lichen and tiny wildflowers. it’s not just one kind, it was white lichen with little purple wildflowers, then you would walk 20 minutes and it would be dark green lichen with orange tips and blue wildflowers. So each patch of land had it’s only little ecosystem. It took awhile to notice but when you’re hike for five days and staring at the ground you start to see it. The colors were just so rich, so I took a lot of pictures of that, not sure how that translates to portraiture, but maybe something about color and composition.

D: It can maybe just heighten that appreciation.

KF: Yeah and just the absence of stimuli, I work at a job where I’m on the internet constantly and then outside my job, cause you know, it’s the internet. You just have things in your face constantly. There is something to being away from everything I definitely came back more refreshed. I came back overwhelmed, thinking ‘I own too many things; I do too many things, and know too many people! I need to live a quiet life in the woods!’ That went away pretty quickly, but I have been a bit of a hermit painting in my basement, in a good way a constructive way.

D: So when you were painting behind closed doors, was it just the process of making that you kept hidden or did you have plans to show the work when it was done?

KF: I think both, painting is a very therapeutic thing, so some of the things I make are worth showing to other people and some are the result of a whim. I do creative work professionally which is very fulfilling, so I’m not motivated to enter the high art scene, but I do make things that I’m proud of and think are interesting so I’m happy to share them with my friends. So my intentions aren’t super public, but there are different stages of confidence too, sometimes I’m very extroverted and want to share.

D: How much of the show at Duplex will be new work?

KF: I think the majority, if not all. I was trying to think of the common thread between the paintings, and it sounds like such an arty thing to say, but it really is just a feeling, a state of mind or the people and how I relate to them. They are really simple portraits of people on plain backgrounds, but they can express a lot of the time and place.

 See more photos here.


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