Since March of 2011, I’ve committed myself to featuring a different local artist in each issue of the Signal Tribune. We’ve used their works to add beauty, vitality and even mystery to our front page, and we’ve dedicated space in our Culture section each week to profile these artistic individuals– shedding light on the creative process, as well as the challenges and satisfaction that come with producing meaningful work. I relish the opportunity to provide encouragement to these folks, and, for purely selfish reasons, I use these interviews as educational tools, since I’m an artist myself.
On this, the second anniversary of publishing these profiles, I’m reaching back to this feature’s beginnings to revisit the very first artist we profiled– Alejandra Vernon.
In that inaugural piece, we discussed, to some degree, how she creates her elaborate collages– a process she described as “long and complicated.” She said it all begins with the drawing, which has to look “right,” otherwise the final piece won’t work. “The composition is the most essential part of every piece,” she said. “The rest is a mixture of layers…paper, watercolor, gouache, acrylic varnish, and shellac.”
We also discussed how her overcoming breast cancer greatly impacted her life (increased empathy for all living creatures and a heightened sensitization) and her work (the pieces became simpler, more colorful, and some even included a dash of humor that was new to her art). There had also been a devastating fire at her home five years prior that destroyed all but six of her pieces and the records of the hundreds she had sold up to that point. In that first interview, she characterized her lifetime as being in two parts: a “pre-fire” life and a “post-fire” life. Interestingly, in our more recent interview, she still divides her life into two portions, but now it has to do with a particular Russian singer-songwriter.
My life has changed radically, so in some way it must show up in my work. If you had told me that I would feel this well, and would travel twice to Europe (Warsaw and Berlin) two years ago, I would not have believed it.
Where have you shown or what artistic endeavors have you participated in in the last two years?
Several exhibits at Gallery Expo and Long Beach Arts, as well as a project to do British authors for Allport Editions, who make greeting cards. I didn’t get back to full productivity until 2012 though…in 2011, I made only seven pictures and later destroyed four of them!
What’s the story with destroying four of your pieces?
I just didn’t like them a lot…don’t want to leave behind things that don’t have enough “energy” in them. Hard to explain. The liking or not liking of pieces is so hard to evaluate. I was glad you liked the one of my mother in the chair. It’s actually an older piece– one of the very few I got out of the fire. The “V” is for Vivian…her name. I have always liked that piece. I think I just nailed the way she looked. Her feet. Everything…and it has a lot of symbolism. You are the first person (and I’ve shown this piece a lot) who has SEEN it. People would walk by it like it wasn’t on the wall. So weird! So liking/audience approval/etc. is very, very weird. You just have to be so damned sure of yourself at all times.
Saying all this in case there’s a painting someday you love and no one “sees” it. Just give it time.
As for time, and what I leave behind, I must have a couple of thousand pieces scattered around the world. I know, a few years after my death, I may just be “discovered.” So want to keep my last pieces at a fairly good standard (though there are some at the library that don’t quite meet the standard. I had all that wall space to cover!) Allowances must be made for large exhibits.
Tell me about the newest pieces you created for the exhibit at the Long Beach Library.
I tried to make a balance between portraits, still lifes and animals. Since my favorite things to do are portraits, it can easily get out of balance. I make a map of how I want the final exhibit to look, and stick to that plan.
What do you use as source material for creating the images in your collages?
I cut up books and good-quality magazines. You’ll see me in thrift stores in the book section finding art books to use.
One thing that is different about you from two years ago is your undeniable love for [Russian musician] Vitas. To what degree would you say he has become your muse?
My life is divided into “pre-Vitas” and “post-Vitas.” He has brought so much joy, adventure, and peace into my life.
What is it about him that appeals to you?
He is all about love. Just watching him on stage is so delightful it can expand your heart chakra, leading to empathy and touching the lives of others. I’m a little ripple in his ocean of love. He is also the simplest, kindest individual in person. Getting a Vitas hug is like having wings wrapped around you. He’s very special.
How do you feel when people ask you to explain the meaning of your art?
So happy they are interested!
Do you listen to music or engage in any other activity (watching TV, listening to radio, eating, talking, etc.) while you work?
I like to watch a movie, listen to a CD or KUSC. Keeping my mind partially occupied tends to free the intuitive factors and the picture takes on a life of its own. Works better with movies I’ve seen repeatedly… I have some I never tire of.
From where do you typically draw inspiration?
From other artists, and people who have had tremendous courage and changed history, like Rosa Parks.
Who are your favorite artists, or what is your favorite type of art?
I tend to go from 15th century Italians and Russian icons, to 20th century art. Botticelli, Lotto, Klee, Chagall, Rothko.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve done?
My favorite piece of art since childhood has been Botticelli’s “Giuliano de Medici” (which I got to see in Berlin!), and my favorite piece I’ve done is a combination of that Botticelli “Giuliano” and Vitas.
What would you say is the most unconventional material or method you’ve used in your work?
In the ‘70s I worked with leaves, petals, and cloth. I occasionally get emails from people who own them and show me the photos. I’m amazed at how well they have maintained their color and texture.
What do you think your life would be like if, for some reason, you couldn’t make art?
As a child, what I really wanted to do was be a musician [but] became a dancer instead, then artist. I think I’d be alright, I’m so happy within myself. Maybe I’d take up the piccolo!
Vernon’s newest work will be on display at the main branch of the Long Beach Public Library, 101 Pacific Ave., through April 30.