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August 2, 2013

Members Show Featured Artist: Constance Culpepper

About the Author
Erica Minutella

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The first annual Members Show brings together three artist collectives from Crane Arts – InLiquid, Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, and Second State Press – to highlight the best work of their membership. Today’s Members Show featured artist is InLiquid member Constance Culpepper.
I visited your website and the first thing that caught my eye was the photograph of your grandmother’s house. I’ve got a softspot for black-and-white glimpses into the past. Can you tell me a bit more about how this “museum-like house” inspired your pursuit of art, and continues to inspire it today?
This is a complicated answer!!!
My family moved frequently when I was a child, so the only places that really felt like ‘home’ to me were my grandmothers’ houses. My relationship with both of these incredible women and their homes left lasting impressions on me. Because my mom had such a large family and I was one of many grandchildren in that setting and my father, on the other hand, was an only child, my time with Willie Dell was more undivided and stronger in my memory.
I have two younger brothers, but I would often spend weeks in the summer with Willie Dell, since I, luckily, was the only granddaughter. She was widowed when I was 8 years old, so it was just the two of us in this house that had been in my family since 1894. Both my father and Wille Dell grew up there, so it was (and still is!) filled with many family heirlooms. WD traveled all over the world (Egypt, China, France, Russia…..) and would tell me long stories about her adventures. I would spend hours exploring her house, admiring things from her travels or from her past, later asking her questions about where certain things came from, what they were for, who they once belonged to or just inventing my own stories. It’s these items – stained glass windows, textiles, china, ceramic figures, wedding cake chandeliers, antique furniture (you name it! tables, chairs, armoires, more chairs, beds -it’s a BIG house, she was one of 6 children), costume jewelry, and more, that make their way into my paintings!
Willie Dell was an opinionated, college educated, spit-fire of a woman, who was somewhat private and stoic. We never called her ‘Grandmother’ or any other term of endearment, just ‘Willie Dell.’ All the belongings in her home awakened my curiosity about her life, my family’s past and foreign lands. My paintings are how I explore this by telling the story of me, her, my family and, simply, daily life as I see it. She certainly was not passionless, but was undemonstrative. This idea of restraint and disguise is very much a part of my work, because these intimate scenes, which are intended to invite the viewer in, are not always happy ones.
In addition to the above, growing up primarily in rural Texas, I wasn’t exposed to much art or culture – just didn’t have access to it, but my time with Willie Dell (besides truly feeling like I was in a museum when I was in her house) was spent visiting the Kimball Museum in Ft. Worth or taking drama classes in town or hearing about the museums she visited on her trips. She also had stacks of Vogue and various home magazines that I would flip through and tear pages out of and draw and doodle beside. I still do this today. I would also spend hours looking at the quilts that her sisters and other women in town had made – the colors, the designs. I could never get enough of that. All those crazy patterns – I’m still always looking for patterns and putting a rendition of something i’ve seen into my work.
You also mentioned that psychology influences your work. Can you tell me a bit more about your graduate work in this field and how it relates to your painting?
I was studying for my Ph.D. in Clinical Developmental Psychology at Bryn Mawr College. I completed my Master’s degree in the midst of having 3 children, which sort of got in the way of finishing my Ph.D. Specifically, my Master’s thesis was about anxiety and how it affects behavior as well as specific brain structures. In the larger scheme of things, I have always been interested in emotion and how it plays into family dynamics. Because my paintings are filled with vivid colors, which is what I’m drawn toward, people tend to describe my work with positive words, but that’s not always what it’s about for me. Maybe the scene I’ve created looks inviting, but where are the people, what’s been going on? I purposely leave out the figure or anything living. I don’t want those elements to set the tone – from a figure’s expression or body language. I’d rather try to capture an overall mood by simply depicting the space. Then the viewer can make up their own story. (The few times I do include the figure, I leave them unfinished so that they are ambiguous. And I love flowers, but I only feel right having them in my paintings if they are black, grey – making them dead, inanimate. At least for now…)
We all fill our personal space with objects that have meaning to us, that make us happy or comforted, but is an interior space a true reflection of how the inhabitant(s) feels internally? Perhaps the space is a mask that hides what’s really going on underneath the surface? Or maybe it’s an accurate representation of the occupant’s emotions?
I’m intrigued by appearances and how they can be a pretense to cover up or a glimpse exposing genuine emotions.
I see that you did archival photography work at the Barnes. What was that like? Did you take anything away from that experience?
Being at the Barnes was great! I was working with Barbara Beaucar, the head Archivist (and an artist as well), to create an archival photograph collection from the thousands of photographs amassed at the Foundation since its inception. The job required someone with fine art training to discern which photographs were of archival quality. It was like opening a Pandora’s Box. I found a missing Man Ray photograph from the 1920s of one of the Barnes’ African Masks [Face Mask (mukudi) A282] as well as 30 photographs of Soutine paintings that were once part of Dr. Barnes’ collection. There were handwritten notes by Dr. Barnes on the backs of many of the photographs, including one on Van Gogh’s Starry Night that simply said, “No,” stating that he wasn’t interested in buying it. The majority of the photographs, though, were of the Barnes Foundation collection from the 1930s, and the conservation team was able to use some of these photograph’s when cleaning and restoring the pieces before the move.
There are two things that I really took away from that experience: seeing reproductions of the Barnes collection in black and white – Picassos, Matisses, Modiglianis, Cezannes. Without the color, it was a completely different experience. The composition became the most important element of the work. I was doing a meticulous inspection of these photographs, and my opinion of some of the art work changed after looking at them so closely and for so long. I also fell in love with the African sculpture and masks. The beauty of the simple lines is incredible. I felt a connection with my work and the masks in particular – how your space, your house, all your possessions, can sometimes disguise what’s going on behind the scenes.
The first time I saw one of your paintings, I had the urge to jump inside one to see what was going on beyond the frame – to explore the rest of the house. If you could choose one painting to ‘jump into’, what would it be and why?
Hmmm… surprisingly, I think ballroom. I painted this in the midst of one of my close friend’s battle with cancer. She had been sick for almost a year without the doctors being able to figure out what was wrong. She kept having surgeries and treatments to no avail, until they finally discovered she had thyroid cancer and many (about 50!) tumors, which they were able to remove successfully.
The painting is a large ambiguous room with hallways and doors that lead, in my mind, to many vast spaces. There are round yellow lights which are suspended in the air and repeat from foreground to background and a table which is set that hovers in the lower lefthand side of the canvas. I was imaging a cavernous space, like a ballroom, where you could run around and get lost, giving you the sense of freedom you normally experience from a large, unconfined outdoor space. The pattern and repetition, though, restricted the space, enclosing the viewer. I wanted to invite my friend here, where she could race around carefree – like children do, exploring the room and what lies beyond it, maybe providing a respite to the struggle she was going through. I wanted it to be festive without being frivolous and be a place we could also sit together and enjoy a meal or each other’s company without worrying about everything else that was going on in real life.
What are you up to now, and what do you have in the works for the near future?
Painting! and keeping three children entertained and busy over the summer (I guess I should list “chauffeur” as my primary job title?). I’m trying to carve out more time for working in the studio. I’ve also been doing more work on paper – trying to make use of small periods of time when I don’t have a full day to work.
I’m showing at Select-Fair Miami at Art Basel in December with fellow InLiquid and 3rd Street Gallery member, Melissa Maddonni Haims, so I’m getting ready for that. I’m really excited! Our work will look great together – all that color in paint and fabric of some sort!
Can you tell me a bit more about the piece you’ll have in the Members Show?
I’ll be showing my painting, blue soup. Unlike most of my interiors, it is a fairly accurate depiction of a room in my house at the time it was painted. When I finished it, I remember stepping back from it and realizing it was the 5th or 6th painting in a row I’d done of an interior space. I was painting more intuitively, not forcing things, but letting it just happen on the canvas. Just before this, I had been painting almost abstractly and with a really dark color palette. I had never really painted that way before, and it didn’t feel right. I was going through some personal turmoil and think I needed to get it out of my system. Somehow, I gradually moved towards what I do now – not that it hasn’t progressed, but since blue soup, it just feels sincere. And besides that, my whole family loves this painting. My middle son, Aidan, painted a reproduction of it for a 5th grade art project.
What has your experience as an InLiquid member been like so far?
I like being part of a bigger collective of people who are artists or are interested in art. InLiquid is a great online resource, not only do artists benefit from the support and exposure, but it’s where to go to find art opportunities as well as to see what’s going on – who’s showing when and where. I’ve definitely been busier from people finding me through InLiquid and I’ve been in a handful of exhibitions I’ve found through y’all.
What are you hoping audiences will take away from the collaborative Members Show?
I hope they’ll see what a talented and diverse pool of artists we are! I hope people will feel energized by the art and whatever passion they have, it will spur them to pursue it! (maybe that sounds a bit lofty, but it’s how i feel after seeing anything that inspires me!)
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