Interview with Squeak Carnwath

From the first time that I saw Squeak Carnwath’s work seven years ago at Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was completely drawn to it. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview her about her work, being a professor and more.

Carnwath “draws upon the philosophical and mundane experiences of daily life in her paintings and prints, which can be identified by lush fields of color combined with text, patterns, and identifiable images,” according to her website, squeakcarnwath.com.

Lucky Dog, through March 24, Tayloe Piggott Gallery, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Songs, through March 28, James Harris Gallery, Seattle

She has received numerous awards including the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, two Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Award for Individual Artists from the Flintridge Foundation.

Carnwath is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives and works in Oakland.

Brenda Hope Zappitell: Can you describe your process and materials for your paintings?

Get Off, 2012, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas, 12" x 9".

Get Off, 2012, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas, 12″ x 9″.

Squeak Carnwath: I use oil and alkyd because the alkyd is a flexible medium that dries fast and is more flexible than linseed oil. It’s on panel because I don’t like to fix them. The only reason for that is the way I paint — it’s a delicate surface so I need it on a hard panel.

BHZ: Over the years you have used different images (boats, records, etc.) and words in your work. Do these images and words appear intuitively or do you think about them for a while and then incorporate them into your work?

SC: All the images relate to each other. They all come from some unconscious source and they evolve from one to the other. Like the boats are related to the ghost in My Own Ghost, and if you were to pull out images of all the paintings, you would see shapes that repeat, and that’s why I say they reincarnate into this other thing. But they’re really all the same thing.

BHZ: Do you think that being a professor at Berkeley has enhanced your work in any way?

Star Chart, 2012, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 75" x 65".

Star Chart, 2012, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 75″ x 65″.

SC: Yes, it did. I had to learn how to teach people what I wasn’t taught. So I became really interested in all the different ways that artists painted, especially Rembrandt or Watteau or anybody who painted really beautiful paintings. Because I wasn’t taught that — we were just given brushes and told to go paint. I decided to teach people what I didn’t know and that made me more rigorous, more dedicated to what a painting really is. It’s not just a picture, but that it’s a whole event, and that it is a living thing. And the only way to do that is to actually paint, not just draw. A lot of people use paint as a drawing tool. I wanted it to have a resonance and light in it that I see in old paintings. Painting is the queen of the arts because even though we cannot bump into or displace space with it, it is a real thing to our eyes. And our perception, the way our brain works, lets us believe in the reality of the painting… even if it is abstract or non-objective.

I also taught drawing and since I was a terrible drawer, I had to figure out ways to get students to see the possibility of drawing as something inherently different from painting. Paintings are built. The painter has to build the light in a painting. Teaching drawing and using lots of black-and-white mediums taught me that drawing (and by extension, printmaking) is all about available light. (The light that is from the paper.) Charcoal is a great teacher of light. Because I was using charcoal to make my own large-scale drawings, I learned about light. Charcoal can skim across a sheet of paper and leave very opaque evidence, or marks as thin as a veil. It is a very beautiful material to work with. Also I saw teaching drawing as an opportunity to teach students to see the value of taking risks. For me teaching is a way for students to learn courage.

BHZ: What is a typical day like for you?

SC: I do personal stuff in the morning — I’m not an early riser, that is why I have the job I have. Artists can make their own schedule. Making art is a privilege because it is the only time when we have complete control.

In the afternoon I paint, and I often paint into the night as well. And then when I finish a painting, I reward myself by going to the movies.

Click here to read the list of artists that Squeak Carnath is drawn to...

BHZ: What artists are you drawn to?

SC: (see list in photograph at right)

BHZ: What do you think social media is doing for artist’s careers, if anything?

SC: I’m not sure. I think it might be doing something. I do some of that stuff, but I think that the impact is negligible at this point, unless you have a bazillion followers or something and it’s out there in a really public way, like national magazines, TV, radio or wide-reaching media. I’m just not sure that for the rest of us who aren’t on the 5 o’clock news or getting astronomical auction prices, that it’s changing things that much. It means you can share things more readily, more rapidly, as you finish paintings or during the painting’s process, but I don’t see how it impacts me, really.

BHZ: Tell us about an experience in your art career that really made an impact on you.

SC: The first time I traveled to Italy I saw all these really fabulous paintings in the museums and also an incredible amount of history was on the walls of the cities. Embedded into the walls in Florence and in Rome. Also the quality of light, and that changed my paintings. That was a huge experience that influenced my paintings. And traveling around Italy made me realize that the Bay Area has a similar kind of ambient light.

Shuffle, 2014, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 70" x 70".

Shuffle, 2014, by Squeak Carnwath. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 70″ x 70″.

BHZ: Do you prefer gallery exhibitions or museum exhibitions?

SC: Well, one pays for the habit, if they sell things, and the other one is more prestigious because it’s a museum. I think they’re both good. I just want the work to get out there.

BHZ: I read that you said you were a painting chauvinist — can you explain what you meant by that or whether that statement is still accurate?

SC: Yes, it’s accurate, because painting is the queen of the arts. I think painting is a philosophical enterprise, and I think that paintings aren’t real like sculptures are real — it’s all in our heads, even though there’s an actual image, an object on the wall, but it takes our thinking to complete it, and to be attentive to all the nuances in it. It’s not real — it’s a flat surface, basically dirt stuck onto a flat surface, but we believe in its reality. It is magic.

More information about Squeak Carnwath and images of her work can be found at squeakcarnwath.com.

Brenda Hope Zappitell creates abstract expressionist works not only born out of intuition but also serendipitously influenced by nature and life experiences. She earned her B.S.W. from Florida State University in 1986 and her J.D. from University of Miami Law School in 1990. Zappitell is mostly self-taught but has attended classes and workshops in New Mexico, Mexico and Florida. She is represented at galleries around the country and has participated in solo and group exhibitions. Her work is in both private and public collections. Visit zappitellstudio.com.