Denise Gasser is a mixed-media artist, hailing from Lehi, Utah, and is based in Vancouver with a huge collection of artwork to her credit. Even though her Geometrics, Stanley Park and Tree Portraiture pieces are a hit, there is one collection that made us stop and stare in awe – The Art After Collection.
The series, as Denise says, is an attempt to harness the tension and ambivalence that exists between her vital roles as an artist and a mother. It documents the interruptions that typically hinder the creative process.
TYS reached out to Denise to talk about her art, her life and her creative process!
Q. Let’s start with a cliché: Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Well, yes. Although, there were times when I definitely entertained other options… like dreaming of being a mall worker when I was eight, haha, but by the time I graduated high school, I had taken every art class humanly possible in my school program, and declared art as a major before I even attended my first day of college!
So it was a little surprising that when I actually got to college I began to doubt myself, and considered dozens of different majors instead of art. Maybe I was just trying to be practical. I felt lost, and had all but settled on being a dental hygienist when I finally took a basic 2D design class. This changed everything. I worked obsessively on every project while ignoring basically everything else in my life. It was like rediscovering myself. At the end of that semester my instructor told me it would be a great travesty to study dental hygiene when I was clearly so passionate about, and talented in art. She encouraged me to look into the art education program instead, which was a huge turning point in my life. I have been making art ever since.
Q. Tell us about the inspiration for your “Art After” Series.
You know that quote about inspiration being born of desperation? I think that would definitely apply here. I had just given birth to my second son, and I had a big art show just around the corner.
There was a 30 foot wall with my name on it, waiting to be filled with paintings that mostly didn’t exist yet. Being an artist and a mother began to feel utterly impossible.
Fortunately, I had two lovely friends who were fellow artist/mothers and dealing with these same feelings of ambivalence that I had. We had the idea to do a show together, each with different interpretations of how motherhood affects our creative process. As I was brainstorming my own part of this project I was thinking about the limitations of being an artist/mother, and how I could exploit them in my work. The idea of interruptions and extreme time restraints were some of the first things to come to mind, and from there it was just a matter of fine tuning how it would actually work.
The basic idea is that I am making hundreds of tiny paintings, but only allowing myself to work on each one until I’m interrupted. On the back of each panel I document the start time, the end time, and the nature of the interruption that forced me to stop…then I never touch it again.
Although the success and level of completion ranges wildly, these tiny paintings come together like a rich tapestry, where the whole is so much greater than its parts. This project has helped me to embrace the challenges that typically hinder my work. Accepting and embracing has been vitally important for me, because it leaves less room for frustration and excuses. The balancing act is definitely challenging at times, but Art After is a constant reminder of what I can still accomplish, and how my life as an artist/mother is rich, and full, and beautiful in its complexity.
Q. You document your reasons for interruption behind every painting in the series – is there any particular reason behind the same?
I really want to give the viewer a clear, and open window into my creative practice/life…the chaos, the heartache, the hilarity, all of it. These are the tiny, and ever-so-personal moments that make up the minutes of my day. Being able to share that, to let people in, is vital to the project. For some, they feel I am telling their story, and it gives them a sense of camaraderie, or being understood, or relief to see me express something they are unable to, or never thought to. For others, this is a totally foreign concept, and they find humor, or awe, or gratitude for the nature of their own challenges.
Putting this project on Instagram has been hugely inspiring and encouraging. I am still planning to show it in a gallery when I accumulate enough, but in the meantime I am sharing each piece one at a time, complete with times and interruptions on my art feed @denisegasserart. The feedback I receive definitely keeps me going. Lots of people have thanked me, confided in me, laughed with me, and shared their own struggles. I think when we are willing to get really personal, others respond to that and feel safe to do the same.
Q. Why a 5X7 Panel?
I knew the size needed to be consistent, so that the amount of space I attempted to fill would be uniform and comparable from one piece to the next. I knew it needed to be small in order to make the most of those precious minutes. I went with 5×7” because it is a standard size that everyone can picture and understand without having to see it in person. I also love the idea that at some point, people can buy them and simply pop them into a frame.
Q. Have you had times when your children come in with the funniest reasons for an interruption?
Of course! My personal favorite was from Composition 11. I started this piece in the morning, at 7:11am. I forced myself to continue painting while I watched my three-year-old pull out cold pizza and feed it to himself and my one-year-old on the floor for breakfast (I really wanted to finish this one)! I finally had to stop at 7:45am when my three-year-old was getting ready to pour himself some Sprite and my one-year-old was climbing into the dishwasher. In fact, by the time I got to him he was sitting on the open dishwasher door with a slice of pizza in hand! My longest composition has been some two hours, and the shortest ones at 1 min because my five-year-old tried to push the little one off the chair they were standing on!
Q. How much of the series is based on your days with your boys? Do they enjoy painting too?
Most of the pieces are inspired directly by our days together: still life objects from our kitchen, views from the windows of our home, objects we find on nature walks, patterns or colors from a children’s book we read together. While we are out on our day-to-day adventures I’m constantly taking photos with my phone, to inspire future Art After pieces.
Occasionally I do little experiments or random design exercises, but most of the time my inspiration can be traced directly back to time with the kids…I have a lot of it. And yes, they do enjoy drawing and painting a lot. I don’t set up specific projects or teach them techniques, I just have a lot of supplies on hand where they can reach, and I’m surprised how often they pull them out on their own and make things.
Q. Do you have a message for all the budding artists out there who don’t finish their work because of “interruptions”?
There are all kinds of interruptions. You don’t have to be a mother to experience the frustration of setbacks to your creative practice. It could be full time work at a draining job, it could be relationship stress, care-giving for parents or grandparents, or even just the steady distractions of life that keep us busy but don’t fulfill us. In fact, you don’t even have to be an artist to understand the layers of separation that stand between what you are doing, and what you truly wish you were doing.
I think the key is to stay in touch with yourself and what it is that you truly want in life.
Current circumstances may set you back or slow you down, but if you keep yourself focused on what you really want, and take steps to get there, however tiny, you will get there eventually. In fact, the ‘setbacks’ are likely strengthening you along the way and helping to prepare you for the things you want most. I constantly have to remind myself that life is long, and comes in many seasons; this is my season for mothering. If I want to make art, I often (not always) have to prioritize it above a lot of other good things, like social events, TV, housework, and naps.
What some artists accomplish in a day, might take me a month…but a month is better than never.
I am learning to be patient, and flexible when determining my markers of success. In short, stay focused on what you want, prioritize your time, be patient, be kind to yourself, and recognize the beauty and growth that is happening along the way.