Alyssa Monks is living and working in Brooklyn, NY, she is a figurative painter, blurring the line between abstraction and realism. After years of painting figures behind steam covered glass and water, she is going Outside to paint something different.
How did start Your artistic journey?
I started painting with oils at about 8 years old, maybe younger, I don’t remember. I have a memory of taking an oil painting class while I was kindergarten, too. But by the time i was about 14 I was pretty sure this was my path. I can’t say I had it all thought out, and most adults were trying to steer me into a more practical, life-sustaining career. But I was already forming much of my identity and devoting my time and focus on painting. By 17 I was totally committed and fighting for it. When it came to figuring out money, i thought I’d be an assistant or waitress for my income, so long as I could paint. That was the plan.
What Art means to You?
Art is a means of communication that goes beyond words, time, social context, beliefs, language. It speaks directly to our human experience, in a way that can be very powerful as a means of understanding ourselves, each other, connecting to one another, and learning from the past. It is a primal need. Children create things instinctively. As adults often times our greatest enjoyments are in being whimsically creative, lost in the process and exploring and seeing something new and different, peeking our curiosity.
Who was Your mentor or inspiration on this path or maybe still is? What is Your favourite subject or topic in art?
My mother, her life and her passing, have been a great source of influence on my work. She lived in a very creative way, and everything she did, she brought her own creative attitude and experimental technique to. Being so close to her was a constant lesson on how to live creatively, be willing to try new things, be willing for them to not always work out and enjoy it anyway. She knew how to enjoy life and love whatever she was doing.
This is very important for an artist, we have to love what we do, even when it isn’t delivering the satisfaction we’d hoped. We have to keep finding ways to get inspired, excited, curious, challenged. Artists who do this always inspire me.
It’s never about the artist, but a specific piece or even moment in a piece that shows daring unpredictability that makes me excited. I love art that I can’t quite walk by easily, not sure if I like it or not immediately, and am drawn to look as closely as possible to try and decode the material, the energy behind it, the process, the choices. This can happen in music and film as well as painting and photography. It can happen in cooking, dancing, conversation and most things that allow space for new thoughts.
Why oil painting?
It’s so uncontrollable and unpredictable. There seems to be endless ways to use it even after 30 years experience. It’s permanent, smells wonderful, is sensual and gorgeous. There is just so much possibility with this medium, richness, versatility, complexity. Thick, thin, transparent, impasto, warm, cool, scraping, pulling, stretching, layering…
While I am looking on Your paintings I can stop thinking about hidden secrets in the eyes of your portraits, what they are hiding? Are You trying to reveal theirs secrets?
Perhaps there are secrets in some of the older work, the water/shower series. Or maybe just the idea of secrets we all have or hold on to. We all have our vulnerability, and yes, these painting do show a certain kind of protecting that vulnerability. The new work, I think, is more transparent about that vulnerability. There is more of an uninhibited expression of longing, fear, heartache, love, grief, hope, calm, understanding, resolution…
I feel more powerful now in expressing the truth of my experience and what was vulnerable now feels like a doorway to connecting with others. I’m working on a new series of “Earth” paintings, in which I’m now using leaves, branches, sky, and earth as the filter through which to find the person within. It’s a different feeling than the shower and water pieces. More connected to others, and a bit more vulnerable. I hope it creates comfort and a feeling of connection for those who consume the work.
When I saw Your paintings, two words came to me – soft and intense. What technique do You use to achieve that kind of vulnerability?
I try to use as many different techniques in one painting as I know. This kind of approach can create a feeling of turmoil or stress or weathering or delicate fragility in the paint. I love it. I try not to be predictable or formulaic, i think this adds a human touch to the work. The result is a history of decisions and choices made by the human being, not an algorithm or machine. I try to embrace this and push this as far as possible.
You called the process of painting “connection”. What does it mean to You?
We connect to that which we are painting and to our deeper sense of being. We can go beyond our egoic ideas and beliefs about who we are or what should be and into a meditative state of just being, accepting what is, and making space to welcome in whatever is here. This is true connection. In this space it is very possible for us to reach empathy for another person, or our subject, or the whole or humanity. I think this may be why a painting from 500 years ago painted by someone you couldn’t ever know or speak to can still break your heart.
Artistic success is mostly talent or hard work?
Success is what you define it to be. It’s different for everyone and that is something to get ahead of quickly and know that you can decide that for yourself. Of course there is hard work. I suggest you work as hard as you can. I didn’t emerge from the womb with the skill I have today, I was terrible at painting. But I loved it. I think it’s about Love and attention and curiosity and a certain kind of humility and respect for the medium. But you have to love it a lot, and pay a lot of attention.
And not put expectation on it so heavily that you can get discouraged, disappointed, or feel entitled or even victimised by the medium or the art world. Learning how to love what you do is really the task at hand. Find ways to keep is exciting, inspiring, motivating. I think that is where gratitude comes in. Find your gratitude and it leads to humility, curiosity, then practice, attention, hard work, and ultimately creativity. The real success to me is in the studio. somewhere about half-way through to the near end of the painting process. i’m alone and every once in awhile, I see something no one has ever seen before. This is my favourite moment. This is what keeps me painting.
Alyssa Monks, interview by Paulina Kamińska /Artophilia