We’re with Paula Gillen, Colorado artist, speaking about her work, the artist’s life, her inspiration, and the value of community today.
Paula Gillen emerged on the Baltimore art scene of the late 1970s. Like other artists of the Pictures Generation, she appropriated media and advertising images to highlight and disrupt social norms. She soon began staging her photographs, using friends as models and creating sets with cardboard, stencils and spray paint. The resulting scenarios examined women’s roles and patriarchal hierarchies “from Playboy to the Catholic Church,” Gillen says. Later, as an art student in Chicago in the 1980s, her work became increasingly psychological, addressing anxiety, mental states and gender performativity. To this day, she remains consumed by many of the same themes and techniques. Currently she incorporates her own photography, combined with found images, using digital methods to create photo montages that are figurative, narrative, and surreal. She prints her own works on an Epson printer using archival Canson Infinity paper. Editions of 8 are available, with 2 artist proofs. Spring of 2020, she exhibited two series of works, Superpower Women in Space, and her early work, Head Trip at Ten Nineteen gallery in New Orleans, LA.
INTERVIEW WITH PAULA GILLEN
Q. Tell me about yourself and what you do. What’s your background?
A. I’m an Irish-Lithuanian baby boomer from a working class family. I grew up by a shore town near New Haven, CT. My mother wanted to go to art school, but her family was unable to afford it – or didn’t support the idea, so she ended up in business school. Maybe because of this disappointment my mother was very open to my dream of being an artist. I knew at 5 that I wanted to be an artist, my brain just worked that way, and I knew intuitively that it was best to do what came natural to me. After high school I got a scholarship to study art at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore and later in the mid 80s I received a scholarship to go to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. After graduate school I moved to NYC and worked as a photo researcher and photo editor in publishing for 20 years. Working in journalism was very exciting and I loved every minute of it, even though the hours were long, and the job could be stressful. Through the subjects I researched and being exposed to a wide variety of people in NYC —my world expanded, and I became more well-rounded. In January of 2008 I moved to Boulder, CO to be with my husband who is also a photographer and a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Alex has a rather large collection of art and photography books and visually focused ephemera from the Victorian ear to present. I have been greatly influenced and inspired by his collection and have used elements of his collection in my artwork since I met him.
Q. Why do you do what you do?
A. I make art because it gives me joy. I learn about myself and about my place in the world in the creative process. There is mystery in making art, as you never know quite where you will land before you jump. I am drawn to collage as you are able to build a narrative quite quickly, and the elements are tied to a point in history, cut from a magazine, rephotographed from a book, or if you take a photograph, it is cut from the world. I’m a figurative artist, I don’t think I have ever created anything abstract, except the occasional still life. I was trained as a dancer as well as an artist, so the human figure is what I use. My work has a narrative and a point of view about being a certain woman in a specific point in time, about the world. I communicate with images not words. I enjoy photographing models or friends as it is collaborative, like jazz an improvisational dance between the subject and the photographer.
A. Each artist has their own process. I like to collect images and study them. Once they are stored in my brain, I daydream and during that process certain images or combinations of images come to the front. I try not to block that playful, humorous side of myself when I am making art. Often, I get stuck, and walking away from art for a day or two, is as good as forcing yourself to find a solution. Looking at art is also part of my creative process along with reading contemporary journals, magazines, newspapers, nonfiction books about sociology, human behavior, and the brain.
Q. What role does the arts have in society?
A. If you are live in small town USA you might have a few box stores, a gas station, a post office and not much else. I don’t think Bed Bath and Beyond, is a transformative experience except for your pocketbook. Hopefully, if you live in a small town your local high school has a drama, music or art department. Access to the arts gives young kids an entry point and their first opportunity to flourish within the creative world. Creative individuals need a place to thrive. People in society need the arts to enrich their lives. Artist working in any media, (music theater, performance, dance) open our imagination to other points of views and are expansive. Artists are portals to the future or another land. The arts are educational, dreamy, disturbing, odd, inspiring, boldly new, strange and beautiful. They give us an invitation to be more fully human and feel things rather than studying facts.
Q. What has been a seminal experience for you? Tell us about your favorite artist-in-residence experience.
A. I have had the pleasure of working with Pat Oleszko a performance artist based in NYC since the mid1970s. She came to my art school to do a lecture and I was very taken with her work. I sent her some fan mail and ended up working with her at Art Park residency near Niagara Falls in 1976. I helped her with sewing costumes (in this case for the trees) but also as a photographer documenting the collaborative process and her performances. Her work is bawdy, colorful and funny. She has inspired me over the years with her imagination, creative output, bravery, and dedication to her artwork, she also has one hell of a work ethic. More recently, in 2013 I worked with her and a team of 8 other creatives at Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) in New Smyrna Beach, FL. We created a large wooden space rocket for the beach with astronauts, turtles, and performances inspired by NASA, native people and extinction issues. You can see that work at this section of my commercial photography website.
Q. How has your practice changed over time?
A. In high school I was attracted to 40s and 50s vintage imagery, old magazines, and postcards – so that has stayed the same through today. I have a traditional art background, drawing and sculpting from models, and working in sculpture with plaster, clay, and metals. In college I felt constrained by painting and loosened up when I had a camera in my hand. When I tried to turn the camera on myself, to make art using myself as a model, I mostly failed. However, when I documented the performances of my friends or used them as models instead of myself, my work kind of took off. The large amount of bad art that went nowhere could make a mountain. It took me a long time to develop my eye, sense of composition and color. There has been some large detours from doing photography. For ten years I did figurative, comical, clay sculpture in NYC when I worked long hours in the publishing industry before digital photography came along. Rather than just stop making art, I always do what I can as I believe that any art practice that you can try will lead one to have a better trained eye and hand.
Q. What art has influenced you?
A. Surrealism, Dadaism, 70s conceptual art, the colors and moral drama of the Catholic Church, Classical Greek and Roman art, Romare Bearden, Matisse, Louise Bourgeois, and Mickalene Thomas. I like the work of the contemporary artists from the Picture Generation, such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Rock and Roll, rebellion, the punk movement and feminism are strong influences as well.
Q. What themes do you pursue?
A. In the past ten years I have used materials from scrapbook albums, vintage books and magazines as a jumping off point. I rephotograph and collage these elements together to create narratives that obliquely comment on society. For a recent digital collages’ series, Roman Trumpe–l’oeil, I fused images of Julius Cesar and his cohorts, as depicted in Ancient Roman sculpture, with the faces of current US political figures. In this series, several acts of illusion—those of history, power, and the means of artistic representation—dramatically unravel. With my most recent series, Superpower Women in Space started in the fall of 2018 I was yearning to escape earthly issues and conflict and found breathing room in space and its promise of discovery and as a platform for my fantasies. This fictional platform I’ve staged with a variety of women who are relaxed and in control of their destiny. Blending NASA imagery, 30s Fortune magazines, op art and fashion, along with my own original photographs, I have created a multiverse and populated it with bold, heroic women.
Q. Tell me about a real-life situation that inspired you.
A. My mother made me and my sister scrub toilets as young kids, it was on a list of chores that we did. I was a part of the team, called a family, and I was expected to show up and chip in. There is no free ride in an Irish family. Hard work and personal responsibility is encouraged. My strong work ethic has served me well and I attribute it to my mother making me do chores as a child, despite my squeamishness and resistance. I danced quite intensively in high school and in the process, I learned discipline and how to push through pain and fatigue. It was also a lot of fun – a great way to get through adolescence! Any craft takes patience and practice, and those are the skills you need to be an artist. Growing up in a working class family you develop grit, you either thrive or you drown, your choice—there is not a lot of money to throw at a problem. I knew at a young age that I was an artist, there was not much choice in the matter, as being an artist was the only thing I was good at. But why doubt your intuition? After college I had no idea how to make a living being an artist, and still quite don’t, but no matter, it gives me something to get up in the morning for and that is priceless.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it? Do you have suggestions about how to use isolation positively?
A. I don’t think the artistic life is lonely, its bloody fantastic! But you make hard choices to be an artist, one I didn’t have any children, as children would have taken me too far away from making art, and that was my primary goal. After you make the art, the hard part is finding people to share your art with. Without showing it, it’s very hard to get the creative feedback or motivation to keep going. I find that putting one artwork in a group show will get me to focus and finalize a piece. Making art is much easier than the framing, the publicity, the pricing, the selling of art —that is the hard part. The creative part is fun. The biggest gift I have now is being part of the creative community in Boulder. The artists are friendly and encourage me on when I feel like giving up. Boulder and Denver have multiple arts organizations and that is inspiring. Small things like sharing on Facebook and Instagram a couple of times a week can break your isolation. I would encourage anyone to volunteer with an arts organization to find like-minded individuals. Try hanging a show besides making art and that will give you a different perspective and you’ll have more sympathy for curators! To break isolation during Covid is hard, we are all struggling with the mental stress of the ongoing crisis. Again, I believe in the power of volunteering – for any organization, once you reach out and help another person in any capacity, be it listening to someone on a help line or handing out food, your stress level will go down. We are social creatures and we need to feel useful and needed.
A. I basically self-fund, I really don’t like filling out forms. I would rather make my own money and use it to support myself as an artist. Some people are good at filling out forms, and they get grants, and all that is terrific. I support arts funding in general, as I don’t think box stores and shopping malls offer enough stimulation for any human community to thrive.
A. My superpower would be to force all box stores and chain stores in the world to have regional artistically themed stores inside and out. This would be accomplished by allowing the employees to decorate the stores as they see fit. They would get paid overtime for this task. My other superpower would be to boost my imagination and eyesight to be ten times more powerful than what I have currently. These superpowers would allow me to be less constrained by my limited “human” sense of the world. It would be terrific to be a Bumble Bee for a day.
A. I like walking in the woods and going down a path where I might get lost. I love the line where the water meets the sky, that is quite lovely. Light, I love light as without light we couldn’t see, and what a gift seeing is.
Anita Solick Oswald
About the author
Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. Her essays have appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, the Faircloth Literary Review, The Fat City Review, and Avalon Literary Review. She studied journalism at Marquette University and holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Colorado. She lives in Niwot, Colorado, with her husband and two cats.