An Interview with Artist Tracey Adams

April, 2006

Tracey Adams studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. She received a Master’s Degree in Conducting from the New England Conservatory, also in Boston. Prior to 1992, she was a conductor in the Los Angeles area, but chose to move to northern California in 1992 to focus on painting.
In 2002, the State Department helped sponsor an exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in Slovakia where her Interval series was exhibited. Last year, she had a solo exhibition of encaustic paintings entitled The Symmetry of Asymmetry at the Monterey Museum of Art, CA. Over the last 15 years, Adams has exhibited her paintings and works on paper in numerous galleries and exhibitions, both in the U.S. and abroad. She has three upcoming solo shows this year: The Imperfection of Perfection at Bryant Street Gallery, Palo Alto, CA, Winterowd Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Melanee Cooper Gallery, Chicago, IL. Adams lives in Carmel, California where she enjoys hiking, cycling, skiing, and just about anything involving the outdoors.


Julie Karabenick: You titled a recent exhibition of your work at the Monterey Museum of Art The Symmetry of Asymmetry, and several upcoming shows The Perfection of Imperfection. Would you elaborate on the idea here?

Tracey Adams: Symmetry in and of itself is never perfect, especially in nature and science. And in fact, there is no such thing as perfection even though we may strive for it and believe we can attain it. There is a wonderful balance and variation within what appears to be symmetrical in nature.

Circuition 6, monotype, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005

JK: So in your art, you’re drawn to the less than perfect symmetry characteristic of living things?

TA: When something becomes too regimented or strongly defined, I feel the need to break it down to something more like you might see in nature. Variation and a little unpredictability are what I strive for—a sense of balance, completeness, but with a sense of variation within. I am basically a very organized and structured person who loves math, numbers, puzzles, grids and things that organize space. We all struggle with certain challenges in our work. I have had tendencies to over-organize and structuralize my work. What results is something that might look balanced, but to the eye of an artist, is too perfect. When I disrupt things, I usually feel much more satisfied.

JK: Symmetry often enters your work via the grid.

TA: Grids, patterns and repeated geometric shapes give a structure and focal point for the visual mind in a similar way the mandala does for the meditator. While the viewer is free to feel and think whatever he or she chooses, my work is ultimately about contemplation and repose as directed by my structuring and patterning.

JK: So even in a piece structured by a regular grid—like Green Grid with 8 Stones—variation is still important to you.

Green Grid with 8 Stones
Green Grid with 8 Stones, encaustic, oil and stones on panel,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 inches), 2004

TA: There are small differences and variations within each square of Green Grid, which is a result of the nature of encaustic. I like the counterpoint of those variations against the firm structure of the grid.

JK: And the seemingly irregular placement of the stones—they perhaps add a counter-rhythm to the regular, gridded intervals.

TA: Yes, and the stones are slightly irregular in shape as well.

JK: Often, you employ a more irregular grid.

Counting Circles 4
Counting Circles 4, encaustic and oil on panel,
107 x 102 cm (42 x 40 inches), 2004

TA: Counting Circles 4 employs a grid in a more subtle capacity with the circle forms coming to the foreground and the rectangular grid-like shapes moving between the foreground and background. It’s a way of organizing, but also a way of creating tension and variation within the painting. The grid is not as rigid in my recent work as it was earlier, and moves across my paintings in a looser, less symmetrical and predictable way.

JK: And in a piece like Four Orange Circles, you appear to take a different approach to structure.

TA: Four Orange Circles is an example of the integration of larger areas of colors within a geometric structure, something I have done in past work, but differently.

Four Orange Circles
Four Orange Circles, encaustic on panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 inches), 2005

JK: You’ve mentioned your interest in the patterns and proportions found in nature. Is this a source of influence on how you structure your work?

TA: There is a universal pattern-creating process in nature that results in an interconnectedness and a sense that there really is some sort of greater plan at work. A few years ago, I read the book The Power of Limits by Gyorgy Doczi, an architect who writes about proportional harmonies in nature, art and architecture. It’s about pattern-forming processes that operate without strict limits while creating limitless varieties of shapes and harmonies. I discovered that my approach to painting was similar to many of the ideas espoused by Doczi. For example, Doczi discusses the well-known formula, the golden section—the “uniquely reciprocal relationship between two unequal parts of a whole, in which the small part stands in the same proportion to the large part as the large part stands to the whole.”

JK: And visual relations based on this proportion are thought to be inherently aesthetically pleasing.

TA: Yes. I have experimented with the golden section to see whether or not it is something that appeals to me. For example, the long vertical divisions in the top section of Counting to 32 were based on that mathematical proportion.

Counting to 32
Counting to 32, encaustic, oil and pods on panel, 66 x 168 cm (26 x 66 inches), 2004

I was curious to see what would happen if I divided the picture plane in this way versus my previous approach of dividing it more intuitively. The result was very close to what I might have done intuitively without the measuring, which was interesting. I used this proportion for another few paintings, then discarded it and returned to a more intuitive placement of the grid lines.

While this painting uses grids and patterns, I have tempered and balanced this by the addition of a more intuitive element—a dialogue I have with my materials and composition. In Counting to 32, there is a tension among the different structuring systems that interests me: the repetition and pattern created, the geometric foundation, and the variability of the encaustic paint. This tension is created by the clear structuring of the piece versus the unpredictable results that occurred when I was scraping and fusing the upper portion of the painting.

JK: Might systems, patterns and rules both assist and, at times, hamper your creative process?

TA: The conflict of creating based on intuition versus a defined system is one that has been part of my creative life since I started painting in 1978. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy various ways of organizing a composition, but also want the freedom to challenge and experiment within that. I am striving for that balance when I paint, a way to keep things fresh and alive.

Quincunx 1
Quincunx 1, encaustic on panels, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 2004

JK: References to counting come up quite often in your work.

TA: I was an anthropology and music major as an undergraduate. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient cultures, the basic similarities between ancient cultures’s lifestyles and ours. In other words, the things that connect us all in this world and our differences, too.

Counting Grid with Stones
Counting Grid with Stones, encaustic, oil and stones on panel, 66 x 168 cm (26 x 66 inches), 2004

JK: And systems for tallying or reckoning numbers appeared quite early in humankind’s history.

TA: Yes. When I spent time in Ireland in 1998, I was introduced to the ancient Ogham Stones and stone circles, with many lines and notches inscribed on them. No one knows for sure what these inscriptions mean, but because of their mystery and beauty, I was inspired to paint my first encaustic series based on these stones.

Counting Circles 13
Counting Circles 13, encaustic on panel, 122 x 183 cm (48 x 72 in), 2004

I’ve always been interested in numbers, calendars, counting systems, and numerology. Numbers and counting systems are things that every culture shares, regardless of language or economic sophistication. Perhaps it is my way to feel connected to the world and to understand the continuum of life.

Celtic Circles 5
Celtic Circles 5, encaustic on panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2004

JK: And over the years, you’ve repeatedly come back to circular forms.

TA: I’m not sure what the significance is of my use of the circle, counting, or other geometric shapes and grids in my work. Perhaps it is the capacity that these serve as metaphors for the spiritual through their reflection in nature, their completeness, balance and, therefore, repose. It is also interesting to me that we find these simple shapes and forms in almost every culture around the world. It is something that we all share, that unifies us as human beings.

Lunar Effect 32
Lunar Effect 32, monotype, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005

JK: In addition to studying art at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, you also have an MA from the New England Conservatory of Music, also in Boston.

TA: I have formal training as a musician, studying piano for many years, than receiving my Master’s degree in Conducting. I received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, and realized early on that I really wanted to be painting rather than performing with other people. I took classes and workshops at the Museum School, California State at Long Beach and other institutions. I would paint every night and at every opportunity when school was not in session. I moved to Los Angeles in 1980 where I worked as a conductor for the next 12 years. In 1992 I moved to Carmel and decided to break with music in an active way.

JK: Did the type of music you were playing while in school influence your painting style?

TA: I’m positive that all the performance of very contemporary and atonal music played a part in leading me down the path towards geometric composition. So much of the music we performed was very linear, pared down, and seemingly disjunct. In other words, the melodies and harmonies didn’t resolve in ways familiar to our Western-trained ears. Untitled 1 is a painting from this time.

Untitled 1
Untitled 1, oil on canvas, 91 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in), 1978

Music theory was one of my favorite classes because I enjoyed the relationships of proportion and ratio in music. Music is really math with sound. There are so many parallels among art, music and poetry, but especially art and music. And I do think of my art as sharing many of the elements of music: tempo, rhythm, orchestration, melodic line, volume, and so on.

I am always creating a roadmap for the viewer—not necessarily what I want the viewer to feel or take away from my work, but how I would like the viewer to look at my painting. It has to do with a melodic line I create, something I do quite consciously. Will the viewer’s eye move slowly or quickly over a particular passage—tempo—and will the eye dwell in certain areas or return to that area—form and rhythm.

Interval 6
Interval 6, encaustic, oil, and stones on 6 panels,
76 x 51 cm (30 x 20 in), 2002

In 2002, I worked on a group of paintings for an exhibition at the Warhol Museum in Slovakia. They were part of the series, Interval, which incorporated vertical and horizontal lines, much akin to a musical composition. It was the first time I explored the relationship between lines and bands of color and between vertical and horizontal movement.

JK: And relations between color and music?

TA: There is another parallel—between tone and color. Certain colors are more closely related to one another just as certain groups of instruments, like the woodwind family, are similarly related. The resulting sound or way the colors interact creates an overall aural or visual orchestration. If you were to alter a color or instrument within a given piece, it would change the nature of that composition.

JK: You typically work in series. Does the musical notion of theme and variation have particular relevance?

TA: The composer, Igor Stravinsky, said that “we are all trying to find that order out of chaos, to extricate the straight line of our operation from the tangle of possibilities and from the indecision of vague thoughts.” The idea of freedom through discipline has stuck with me since graduate school and I know has steered me towards working in series. I like the discipline of focusing on one thing, one idea at a time. Stravinsky continued, “ … the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.”

I enjoy working on a particular series or idea, inverting it, having it appear in retrograde, changing the figure/ground relationship, experimenting with color, and so on.

Interval 20Interval 15
Interval 20, encaustic on panel,
107 x 102 cm (42 x 40 in), 2006
Interval 15, encaustic on panel,
107 x 102 cm (42 x 40 in), 2006

I suppose the idea of variations on a theme or rondo form—abaca—could be a way of looking at creative tendencies. I keep coming back to grids, color fields and geometry. By returning to a process or form I’ve used before, I’m challenged by trying to integrate it with whatever idea I am currently exploring. That is why many elements keep returning to my work, even after 25 years.

JK: In some of your monoprint series, theme and variation occurs as you actually cut up and reuse parts of a composition.

TA: David Salgado at Trillium Press used the term “cannibalize” to describe my process of deconstructing my pieces to create new and different work. It is interesting how much our work is a mirror of our lives. I am always looking for a new challenge, a way to do something differently. For example, Lunar Shadow 3 was the original monoprint, and I cut it up to help create Lunar Shadow 11.

Lunar Shadow 3Lunar Shadow 11
Lunar Shadow 3, monoprint, 61 x 102 cm (24 x 40 in), 2004Lunar Shadow 11, monoprint,
30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2004

JK: And you sometimes combine several prints to create new works.

TA: In the Circuition series, I have used several different monoprints to create a new print, as in Circuition 11. This process is particularly fun and satisfying as it is like working on a jigsaw puzzle: all these different pieces of various compositions and how to make them into a complete and balanced piece.

Circuition 11
Circuition 11, monotype, 20 x 66 cm (8 x 26 in), 2005

JK: And you’re able to work fairly large, both in encaustic and monotype.

TA: I try not to let limitations stop me. With encaustic, there’s a lot of scraping with different size razors, fusing, and patience that are required in order to create an even surface that doesn’t look like it was painted with many brush strokes and layers.

For prints, I have a large etching press with a custom-made bed that allows me to work on long horizontal prints 28 by 50 inches, a size I’ve been using for many years. In the Circuition series, I use a collograph plate for texture and a stencil for the circles.

the artist making a monotype
The artist making a monotype from the Circuition series

JK: And you achieve a great deal of depth in your work.

TA: I love the painterly quality of the monotype and the fact that I can run a print through the press seven or eight times, which creates incredible depth. In the Circuition series, I use a collograph, stencil, as well as areas of rolled on ink. Once the work has dried, I use colored pencils, pastels, and charcoal when doing hand work.

Circuition 18, monoprint, 30 x 66 cm (12 x 26 in), 2005

With encaustic, I am mesmerized by the melting wax, by the history of marks and layers that appear unexpectedly while fusing or scraping back. I love the finished and polished surface and its luminosity.

Recently, I’ve experimented with mounting these prints on plywood panels, then coating them with many layers of encaustic medium and light applications of oil in between the medium. They are very different from the encaustic paintings and monotypes. Revolution 1 is an example.

Revolution 1
Revolution 1, encaustic, monoprint, and oil on 4 panels, 30 x 122 cm (12 x 48 in), 2006

JK: You seem to favor techniques that require a pretty constant attention to process.

TA: For the most part, my work in the studio is a time of peaceful focusing, of observing and emptying the mind. I try to be present and intuitive with what I am working on, not planning what a composition is going to look like. I like to respond to whatever comes up, and often it is very uncomfortable and requires deep work. It takes the control factor away to a certain degree, and for me that is good.

JK: So you welcome happy accidents as you work?

TA: One of the reasons I love the monotype and working in encaustic is that there are so many unpredictable things that happen during the course of creating a piece. It is these departures and the process of solving particular issues within the work that keep me coming back day after day.

JK: Some of your works are quite minimal.

TA: My work has, for the most part, been a “less is more” approach. My parents collected Asian prints from the mid-twentieth century, so I got to hang out around these as a child. I grew up surrounded by that aesthetic, especially in the interior design and landscape of our home. I am also very familiar with the music of Phillip Glass and other minimal composers. Ikat 11 is a painting where the grid and composition are very subtle and depth has become a more dominant factor.

Ikat 11
Ikat 11, encaustic on panel, 107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 2006

Spatial depth becomes a much more important element when my work has less activity going on. Over the last few years, the rhythmic activity in my work has diminished somewhat. The work has become quieter, with larger spaces within which the viewer can reside.

JK: You seem to favor warm earthy tones.

Revolution 26
Revolution 26, encaustic on panel, 66 x 168 cm (26 x 66 in), 2006

TA: I almost always work in warm tones despite the fact that I’ve tried to work with a cooler palette. My palette is definitely a lighter, brighter one, which probably reflects the fact that I live on the coast of central California with a lot of light reflected from the ocean. I live near the ocean amidst lots of pine and cedar trees, very rural and very close to nature. This is a great influence on my work in terms of color and composition.

JK: Would it be accurate to say that, over the years, your work continues to point us toward the interconnectedness of all things and the underlying harmonies of life?

TA: To quote Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, Zen master and author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony.”

View from the artist's street
View of Point Lobos, taken from the artist’s street, Carmel, California

More about Tracey Adams at

Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Tracey Adams. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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