An Interview with Artist Grace DeGennaro

December, 2007

Grace DeGennaro is a painter living in Yarmouth, ME. Her paintings and work on paper utilize traditional symbols and an abstract, nonlinear perspective. DeGennaro received a BS from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, and an MFA from Columbia University, New York, NY. She is the recipient of grants from the New England Foundation for the Arts and the Maine Arts Commission. Her work has been exhibited in New York and New England, including at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME; the Maine Center for Contemporary Art, Rockport, ME; the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, MA; and the University of New England, Portland, ME. DeGennaro was a studio instructor in the Graduate Studies program at the Maine College of Art, Portland, ME from 1998-2002. She has been a visiting artist at Skidmore College as well as Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME.

Julie Karabenick: Both the geometric forms and the highly abstracted figurative images in your paintings are richly symbolic.

Grace DeGennaro: I have always been drawn to symbolism, metaphor and narrative. My studio practice is one of identifying and depicting images that are resonant with meaning. I use these images to communicate the recurrent themes of ritual, growth, duality, and the passage of time.

River Series (Temple)
River Series (Temple), gouache & watercolor on
Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

I make abstract paintings with a vocabulary of traditional images to evoke the ancient mystery and associations that the images carry. My work is clearly rooted in Symbolism and the abstract painting— for example the work of Paul Klee—that developed out of Symbolism.

Truth 2
Truth 2, gouache & watercolor on Arches
paper, 104 x 74 cm (41 x 29 in), 2005

JK: You’ve observed that typically, images first appear in your work because you’ve had strong personal responses to them—they were resonant to you, often years before you learned the history of their symbolism.

River Series (Night 2)
River Series (Night #2), gouache & watercolor on
Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

GD: Yes. I was intuitively drawn to geometric shapes early on, but was not fully aware of how much poetry these forms are imbued with. Roger Lipsey writes in The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art: “Universal meaning finds its way into art with or without discursive intellectual effort, but it requires a certain receptivity from the artist who turns toward that level of meaning, that aspect of his or her inner life.”

Nostalgia 5
Nostalgia 5, oil on linen, 30 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 1999

JK: It seems you were well on your way toward developing this type of receptivity at a young age. We can see this, for example, in your early fascination with dream imagery.

GD: I have been interested in dreams since I was a child, and I’ve been recording my dreams in journals for 27 years. In 1981, newly married, I had a vivid dream that I was lying on a sterile operating table delivering a baby. When the baby was delivered, it was a tube of Mars gold paint. This was such a startling image. I felt that it addressed my roles as artist, wife and potential mother.

JK: And your interest in symbols and visual metaphor also dates to your childhood.

GD: Metaphorical images possessed mystery and resonance for me from an early age. Music, literature and Catholicism were very important in our household. Reading was my passion as a child, and my imagination was shaped by Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths and a picture Bible. Particular images from my childhood reading have remained with me to this day.

Holy Week (Saturday)
Holy Week (Saturday), oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2000

For example, one of my favorite Grimm Brothers’ tales was The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which 12 sisters pass three groves of trees on the way to their mysterious nightly dancing. The third grove of trees has leaves of diamonds. I loved this image, although at the time I was not aware of the diamond’s symbolic meaning: constancy. In the above painting from my Holy Week series the diamonds also suggest the rosary.

JK: Your research into the symbolism of shapes and images has led you to a variety of sources for your painting, including Jung’s theory of archetypes, the iconography of many cultures and spiritual traditions, and the realm of sacred geometry.

GD: This research has provided additional meaning and context for my work. Studying Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious contributed to my sense of the connection of all cultures and the existence of a universal vocabulary of images.

Four Milky Rivers
Four Milky Rivers, oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2004

During graduate school, I began to look more closely at the work produced by indigenous cultures. The 1984 Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled Primitivism in 20th Century Art enabled me to see the importance of religion and ritual in non-European work.

JK: And sacred geometry—in which geometric forms and certain mathematical proportions are thought to reflect the underlying organizational principles of the universe …

GD: My interest in sacred geometry lies in its description of systems that illuminate some of the universal facts of existence. Plato considered geometrical knowledge to be innate in us, like archetypes. In Sacred Geometry, Robert Lawlor writes:”Geometry deals with pure form and philosophical geometry re-enacts the unfolding of each form out of a preceding one. It is a way by which the essential creative mystery is rendered visible.”

Pattern Memory (Figure EIght)
Pattern Memory (Figure Eight), oil on linen,
102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2003

The subject of sacred geometry encompasses all of my interests: metaphor, spirituality, duality, the passage of time and universal images. Even the most basic shapes of the circle and the square are freighted with meaning in sacred geometry. I think that these shapes carry intuitive, multiple meanings even to the uninitiated viewer.

JK: You refer to your approach to geometric form as “sensual.”

GD: Initially I was not interested in being labeled a “geometric” artist because I thought that label suggested the dryness of math. Eva Hesse referred to her work as “sensual geometry.” This phrase reflects the duality in my own work.

For the last two years I have been interested in a book on 19th and early 20th century Navajo blankets. I am particularly drawn to the repetition of geometric shapes and patterns in the Navajo blankets. Also of interest to me is the idea that the composition is conceived as symmetrical, but the final product contains asymmetry as a result of the weaving process. It is a beautiful example of sensual geometry. The influence of the hand work softens and humanizes the geometric forms. In my recent work with symmetrical, centralized images, asymmetry occurs as a result of the rendering process.

Weaving
Weaving, oil on linen,
66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

JK: As seen in Nesting, your paint handling contributes to the sensuality of your work.

GD: Initially, many layers of loosely brushed, transparent washes are applied to the paper. The final layer of dots and beads is carefully painted with very small brushes.

Nesting, gouache & watercolor on Arches
paper, 104 x 74 cm (41 x 29 in), 2004
Nesting detail

JK: And the colors you prefer?

GD: My palette is also sensual—for example, pinks and reds are common in my work. The Indian yellow glaze on Pattern Memory (Waves) suggests amber, a substance in which ancient fragments of vegetation and animals can be found.

 Blood, Milk & Water, gouache & watercolor
on Arches paper, 104 x 74 cm
(41 x 29 in), 2005
 Pattern Memory (Waves), oil on linen,
102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2003

JK: Your forms themselves are often quite sensual.

GD: Many of my recurrent geometric forms suggest the body. In Green River, the leaf image is made with a template of the vesica piscis, a shape formed by the overlap of two circles—as seen in the diagram. The river and vine shapes curve like torsos.

Green River, oil on linen,
66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007
shaded area represents the vesica piscis

JK: Yet your work also reveals a certain austerity or restraint.

GD: I realize that austere and sensual may seem mutually exclusive; however, in my mind, there is a relationship between the two. I’m thinking specifically of objects and forms found in nature, for example a conch shell. It’s clean and smooth, austere, but very sensual. The images in my work are pared down to simple and symmetrical shapes rendered with precise edges and even brushwork.

River Series (Night)
River Series (Night), gouache & watercolor on
Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

JK: People often sense a spiritual quality in your work.

GD: Carol Armstrong, writing in Art Forum in 2005, states: “…even in a secular culture, the best of it [art] has always been connected to the sacred: sacred as in setting aside an island in time for the imagination to recreate itself, sacred as in making space for an antidote to the distraction and degradation of the everyday.”

Lingua (Diamond)
Lingua Series (Diamond), gouache & watercolor on
Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2006

Being raised Catholic gave me a sense of the existence of both the visible and the invisible. My temperament included a liking for solitude and an inwardness that proved to be receptive to this abstract idea.

Although my initial draw to spiritualism was through Catholicism, my interest in the subject is much broader. For many years now I have been most interested in visual art that is created for religious and/or ritual purposes, for example, Indian Tantra drawings made as aids for meditation, or the transcribed “visions” of Shaker gift drawings. I would like my work to be seen in the context of these beautiful, mysterious bodies of work made for devotional use.

Lingua Series (Pyramids)
Lingua Series (Pyramids), gouache & watercolor on
Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

JK: The idea of ritual also contributes to the spiritual aspects of your painting.

GD: The rituals of the Catholic Church reflect the ideas of continuity and the passage of time—both dominant themes in my work. Here, images of the phases of the moon and the red beads convey the experience of rituals. The phases of the moon symbolize the passage of time and the strands of beads evoke the saying of the rosary.

Holy Week (Thursday)
Holy Week (Thursday), oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2000

JK: There are strong suggestions of ritual and reverence in both your working methods and your studio environment.

GD: I did not set out to make spiritual work. But I can see that I created a studio practice and environment that foster ritual and a sense of spirituality. My studio is large and spare with long narrow tables in the center. At the far end of the space are two tall windows overlooking the Androscoggin River.

Grace DeGennaro's studio
Grace DeGennaro’s studio in Brunswick, ME
Photo credit: Luc Demers

Ten years ago, I made a conscious decision not to listen to music or talk radio in the studio. My process is slow and relies on intuitive leaps—in sharp contrast to the culture that we are experiencing today. It’s important for me to spend time in the studio daily, waiting for those rare moments when it becomes crystal clear which two or three images to juxtapose and what colors to paint them.

JK: Your use of many small drops of paint to form images suggests the repetition involved in ritual.mmm

Reliquaries, oil on linen,
122 x 76 cm (48 x 30 in), 2006
Reliquaries detail

GD: I began using many dots and beads of color to render images in 1997. The beads are a direct reference to the counting of beads, each bead marking the saying of a prayer on the rosary. My labor-intensive working process reflects and supports the recurrent themes of ritual, growth, and the passage of time. The dots also reference Byzantine mosaics, Australian Aboriginal Art, tatoos, mehndi, beading and weaving.

JK: Growth is another important theme in your work.

GD: I am interested in the relationship between growth and the passage of time—not just the growth in a plant, but the growth of consciousness in an individual. Gnomonic growth, a tenet of sacred geometry, is a growth by accretion in which the seed of the form is both reflected and contained in the final shape. Bones, teeth, and shells are all examples of this type of growth.

JK: So forms change in size, but not in shape.

GD: Yes. In Radiants, I made a perfect circle of beads in the center of the paper and then made wider and wider concentric circles. The final circle of beads reflects the shape of the original circle, but has taken on an idiosyncratic shape through the freehand process. The fact that gnomonic expansion makes growth visible seems profound to me. The visible growth gives the passage of time an image.

Lingua Series (Radiants), gouache & watercolor
on Okawara paper, 66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2006

The above painting is from the Lingua series in which each work features a tongue at the top of the support. The impetus was a dream in which I perceived the tongue as a metaphor or symbol for speaking out. In the Lingua series each painting presents an image from my “lingua”—my visual vocabulary.

Early art and architecture made use of the idea that geometric or numerical relationships underlie the natural world. For example, the concept of gnomonic growth was used to design temples. An initial square was laid with bricks, additional bricks surround it and so on. The initial square is the important “seed” of the temple. My interest in sacred geometry lies in this example—an ancient expression of the relationship between nature and religion, between the symbolic and the sacred.

JK: Turning to your art education, you entered Skidmore College in 1974 as an English major.

GD: I planned to study literature with the goal of becoming a fiction writer. However, I enrolled in a drawing class my second semester and was hooked. I didn’t have any background in drawing or painting, and the courses at Skidmore provided a rigorous perceptual training. Drawing was like reading—it had the ability to lift me out of myself for hours at a time. I loved the materials—the way they felt and smelled. I began to see everything anew.

JK: In 1984, you began an MFA program at Columbia University.

GD: Yes. My goal on entering the graduate program was to make work that was not perceptual, but rather initiated from within myself. My thesis at Columbia was on the use of dreams in 20th century visual art.

The initial sources for my first mature work were narrative—literature and dreams. The images were always metaphors. For example, in Body of Water, lower left, the image of water seen at cross-section was taken from a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay in which she used a deep pond as a metaphor for dreaming. I was thinking about the body of water image as a metaphor for the passage of time—reinforced by its hourglass shape—as well as for the collective unconscious and a woman’s body.

Body of Water, oil on linen,
213 x 154 cm (84 x 60 in), 1991
Hourglass, oil on linen,
41 x 30 cm (16 x 12 in), 1992

In Hourglass, upper right, the image of the body of water has become simplified, more symmetrical and less organic. The year that I painted Hourglass, I was doing a lot of gardening. I found myself always wanting symmetry in the garden, too. My attraction to symmetry was related to natural forms and also to classical ideas of beauty.mmmmm

JK: Much of your work is characterized by centralized imagery.

GD: In the late 1980s, I read Lucy Lippard’s book of essays titled From the Center. In discussing female imagery, Lippard cites interior space and “central-core” imagery as prevalent in work by women. This reading gave me permission to present images in central and iconic compositions. The hourglass and the vesica piscis forms also suggest the female torso and reflect my engagement with feminism

.JK: Soon less referentially specific geometric forms begin to appear in your work.

GD: The geometric images that I began to use were from a turn of the century family dictionary that is illustrated with black and white engravings of natural and geometric forms. The organization of the engravings in a grid suggested to me that the forms were a vocabulary. The forms themselves were both simple and arcane.

Equiant Leaves, oil on linen, 51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 1994

I began pairing these botanical and geometric images in my work, evoking the idea of duality. In the painting, Equitant Leaves, the space has again become more abstract. The spare, centralized composition and color suggest a religious icon

Geometry #1, hand-colored drypoint with chine-collé,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 1997

Geometry #1 is part of a large series of hand-colored drypoints featuring a matrix of geometric images. The central, hand-painted images were organic, again evoking the idea of duality. Previously my work had included a horizon line. Here I abandoned the landscape space for a non-illusional notebook or journal space where I present a personal iconography to the viewer.

I was interested in the geometric forms the way I was interested in hieroglyphs: the forms themselves made up a language. It was exciting to realize that triangles and the vesicas piscis shape were also hieroglyphics. This was the beginning of my understanding that geometric images were both mathematical and poetic.

JK: You abandoned the juxtapositions of geometric and botanical images.

GD: In subsequent work, organic images were actually made from geometric shapes. I chose the geometric shapes for their organic qualities and began to use organic shapes in a stylized fashion. This allowed my work to become more abstract without sacrificing the suggestion of imagery.

Working with a circle template, I overlapped two circles and produced an image that provoked a deep response in me. The image was symmetrical, yet suggested organic images such as an eye, an almond, and a leaf. Researching the shape, I discovered that it was called the “vesica piscis” and is a symbol of unity achieved from duality

Nostalgia #2, oil on linen, 30 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 1999

Nostalgia #2 has a single flower-like form comprised of eight overlapping vesicas that suggest a mandala.

JK: You’ve used these compound vesica shapes to form symmetrical grids.

GD: The grids created a meditative background on which to present a central image. In Sanctuary, the space is more conceptual and abstract. Five full moons delineate a basic house shape and, along with the two strings of beads, represent the time passed in a home.

Sanctuary, oil on linen, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1999

JK: The Holy Week series continues the use of the flower-like vesica forms.

Holy Week (Sunday), oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2000

GD: In this series, each painting conveys the quality of one of the days of Holy Week through color and images. This series directly acknowledged the connection between Catholicism and the spirituality in my work. Cubes drawn with beads ascend to heaven. Ascension and the continuum between life and death continue to be underlying themes in my work.

JK: Your next series represented a breakthrough.

GD: The Pattern Memory series is the first body of work that is a manifestation rather than a representation of the spiritual. Throughout this series of paintings, I sustained a limited vocabulary of abstract images, palette and scale.

Pattern Memory (Spray), oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2003

Layering and glazing images and rendering them with multiple layers of dots of color is a labor-intensive process. The tiny dots were initially suggested by grains of sand—they sift through an hourglass to measure time. I was interested in slowing the viewer’s experience and evoking the idea of a reverence for time.

Pattern Memory (Beads), oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2003

JK: Your Dreambody series that followed continued the use of the vesica shape.

GD: The “spine” of vesicas is a stand-in for the body—or even for myself. The symmetry of these forms evokes balance and beauty. I think about symmetry functioning as a way to suggest the iconic rather than the inert.

Dreambody, oil on linen, 102 x 81 cm (40 x 32 in), 2004

JK: In Marker the flower-shapes are composed of tongues, which resemble the vesica piscis shape.The undulating rows of colored beads symbolize the Jungian idea of amplification—a process in which an individual makes many associations to a particular image in a dream, thus expanding understanding. Amplification mirrors my own studio practice of researching the meanings of traditional symbols in various cultures.

Marker, oil on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 2004

GD: Marker was made in response to my father’s death. Elegaic in mood, it is a “marker” of his death, an hourglass form made from transparent tongue shapes. I wanted Marker to be a very simple, iconic painting.

JK: In recent series, your images are centralized, highly simplified and quite symmetrical.

GD: In the last several years I have simplified my compositions in order to achieve clarity and resonance of a central image.

Chakras, oil on linen,
66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

JK: And in your most recent series, rivers and vines traverse the field from top to bottom, suggesting continuation beyond the support.

Night River, oil on linen,
66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

GD: In this series the river symbolizes creative power, the passage of life, and a place of ritual ablution and purification. Its movement suggests the spiritual and the earthly, heaven and hell, north and south. My preoccupation with these opposing directions and dualities has crept up on me over the years. I think that holding the concepts of both earth and heaven simultaneously is an attempt to understand life and death.

Gnomonic Growth, oil on linen,
66 x 41 cm (26 x 16 in), 2007

At this point in my practice I do not see myself searching for another vocabulary—rather I anticipate continuing to refine the vocabulary of images that I have worked with for the last 10 years. My goal is to present my iconography in a clear and intense form, finding the best palette and scale to support each image. I would like my work to have that resonant “inner sound” identified by Kandinsky.

Grace DeGennaro in her studio
Photo credit: Joe Poirier

More information about Grace DeGennaro at gracedegennaro.com

Interview images and text copyright©2007 Julie Karabenick and Grace DeGennaro. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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