By Maria Teicher, MFA 2013
Even though Aleah and I are in the same age bracket, going to the same school and she is someone I would consider a friend or confidant, I was nervous to interview her. Risking sounding strange, I admit that I'm a big fan. Her work has always exuded this pure sincerity and it is something I am continually striving for myself. Only one year ahead of me at the New York Academy of Art, I look up to her, her work ethic and ability to stay who she is (while continuing to discover who she's becoming) in an ever-changing art world.
I photographed Aleah in her studio about a month before she graduated this May. She had just been accepted as one of the four finalists in the 2012 BP Portrait Awards. An exciting time for her for sure and the entire school was also buzzing with joy. We met up early in the morning and began talking about her recent success. Albeit filled with excitement, she was calm and rather serene, simply happy to have been a finalist and gotten that far. I can exclaim now, that just a few months ago, Aleah has been named the winner of this year's BP Portrait award. With it comes the prestigious first prize of £25,000 and a commission worth £4,000. This is an incredible achievement for anyone and certainly for someone only 26 years of age, graduating from getting her masters just a month before. In case you haven't heard, Aleah is also staying aboard at NYAA, as she has been awarded one of three fellowships. We're pretty excited that we get to keep her for another year and I am certainly thrilled to be able to watch her work and learn from her for another two semesters.
With all the great accomplishments surrounding Aleah this summer, she found some time to answer a few of my questions about her life, her work and what's been happening.
Aleah grew up on an island north of Seattle about as far west on this continent as possible. She had to make a quick adjustment to NY, moving in just four days prior to starting her first semester, but feels like she's really discovering a new city now, two years later. " I've spent the majority of the last two years at my studio at NYAA, so now that I'm graduated, its like adjusting to a whole new city, one that I have only seen bits and pieces of." She's recently settled into a studio in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn in a building that is full of artists, many figurative. "It feels good to burrow myself into a new part of this city, but I am really looking forward to coming back to the Academy in the fall for the Fellowship!"
Maria: "What does your artistic background look like?"
Aleah: "My artistic background is quite varied. I've been extremely lucky to have parents who are very supportive (and artists themselves). Throughout high school, I would go one evening a week to the studio of a local artist named Pete Jordan. By 18, I knew I didn't want to stop painting. I attending Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA and received a degree in painting and video. This school was fantastic in opening up my eyes to where I could take art and what I could do with it. Throughout college, I took several one week painting workshops at Gage Academy. I also did a study abroad at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. In my year between college and NYAA, I attended an intensive 2 month drawing program in Paris at a small and wonderful school called Studio Escalier. "
M: "Why have you chosen to pursue becoming a fine artist?"
A: "Besides a few rocky years in high school, I have known I wanted to be an artist. I remember drawing a tree when I was about 4 years old, and thinking "this feels good". So, maybe thats how it all started? Or going to my mom's studio early in the morning and watching her paint when I was so young I can barely remember. "
When I asked Aleah what drew her to the academy she tells me that the moment she saw the website, "It felt like home. I had to go." "It was like if someone said 'dream of your ideal school' and voila, here it is. I couldn't quite believe there was an MFA program that was focused on painting, drawing and sculpting the human body," she says. Now, about three years later, one of Aleah's paintings is on the first page of the academy's site. One can only imagine that her work is now inspiring others to feel the same way and send their applications in.
M: "How would you describe your first year at the academy? Your 2nd year?
What's the most valuable thing your learned?"
A: "My time at NYAA was the most exhausting, invigorating and inspiring two years of my life. I didn't know I could work this hard, or paint this many hours a day, this many days a week. The first year is heavy with assignments, which I suppose could have been frustrating, but honestly, each one, no matter how simple, I felt that I could put my own artistic vision to and get something out of. It was a challenge, but a very rewarding one. I came into my first day of school thinking I knew exactly the kind of work I wanted to do. It was sometime in the first few weeks that I realized I had to let go of my "plan" if I wanted to grow and become a better artist. It wasn't until the spring when I felt like I was perhaps finding something. The summer between first and second year, after a lot of confusion, I realized that what I was finding was myself - confidence and acceptance in the kind of person I am and of work I want to make."
Aleah accredits the community at NYAA as being one of the most vital aspects of her two years studying. She considers them something beyond peers and more like family. "I think they are just as important in my education and development of my work as the teachers have been." I have to agree with her there. The academy is a place where you really learn from everyone, most importantly those around you. Having open studios within the school during the semesters allows you to keep a consistent flow of energy around you at all times. From personal experience I can tell you that breaks from painting, drawing and sculpting include walking around your peer's studios, discussing projects, pieces, the art world at large and grabbing coffee with those available. It's an inspiring place to be at all times, as you're growing and learning every minute you spend there. I can personally credit Aleah to encouraging me to take attend a dissection class at the end of my first semester. It was one of the highlights of my NYAA career thus far, and if I hadn't felt like I was part of this little family, I never would've asked her advice about it.
M: "What are you planning for your year as a fellow?"
A: "I am really excited about this coming year as a Fellow. I don't know exactly what the work will look like, but something that I learned over the past two years is to trust that the most honest work comes from being okay with not having a plan and being led by personal inspiration and intuition. What I do know is that it will be an extension of my thesis, the Aunties Project. I think that an artist's best works comes from being honest with who they are, making work about what they know, which can only come from the life that you have lived."
M: "Name some of your favorite painters."
A: "Some of my favorite artists are Jenny Saville, Ron Mueck, Lucian Freud, Rembrandt, Velasquez. "
She goes a bit further to tell me some of the experiences she's had with those that inspire her.
"I remember walking into the National Gallery in London when I was 16 and seeing a hyper real sculpture of a women laying on her back, her belly sagging slightly beneath the weight of her newborn child. This was Ron Mueck, and that show has stuck with me for the last 10 years.
In my first drawing class at Cornish College of the Arts, my teacher showed us a book of incredible figure paintings. They were simple; unidealized figures lounging on beds, their pale flesh painted in big, gooey, confident brush strokes. Of course I completely forgot the name of this artist and spent the next 6 months running into every book store I saw and frantically browsing the art section. Finally I found the book: Lucian Freud. Of course, I haven't forgotten his name since then. "
M: "Is there anything you keep in your studio for luck or inspiration?"
A: "For the 4 years I studied with Pete Jordan in high school, I had a piece of cardboard which I would put all my paints on. This increasingly got smothered in paint and became something I had to always have in my studio. I think I still have this bit of cardboard somewhere. And then there is my apron. It was my moms before it became mine 10 years ago, and was covered in paint then. I have finally retired it (but not thrown it away!) because it has become so stiff with layers of paint that I've been told that much heavy metal on my body could be dangerous…but I am very attached to it. "
M: "Where does your drive to create come from?"
A: "My inspiration comes from different places. One is just that I love paint. I am a bit obsessed with it. And risking sounding cheesy, I believe it has magic. It can be extremely frustrating at times, mushing around in all the wrong ways, but when its working, the whole world disappears, and its just me and the canvas. Oil paint's ability to not only re-present flesh, but become flesh, is one of the reasons I love to paint people. But I think I also paint people to better understand them. "
Going to Aleah's studio for the first time, it was evident immediately that she just loved paint. It was most certainly everywhere, including layers on her computer. When I first walked in to take a few photos, she made the joke that her laptop was actually her thesis work and the rest was really nothing. Although I have never actually seen the cardboard piece she keeps or her mother's old apron, previously mentioned, I can imagine they look similar and it gives some wonderful "behind-the-scenes" about how often Aleah paints and how much she simply loves the material she uses. Her dedication to painting shows within the walls of her studio, beyond the finished pieces that most only get to see on white gallery walls.
M: "How important is your studio space to your creative practice?"
A: "The most important part of my studio practice is dedication, and perhaps a good cup of coffee. Going into the studio every day, even if I don't feel the slightest bit of inspiration, is extremely important. Treating it like a job but not in the negative sense. When it's your job, you give it a certain amount of priority in your life, it gains that extra importance and becomes routine. For me, this routine gives me the freedom to feel inspired and excited. And when I'm not at "work" I'm able to relax. This last part is harder, and something I'm trying to work on. But I have found that having a schedule of some kind gives me the permission to enjoy life a bit which is vital for creating work. "
M: "Do you work on several projects at a time or just one? How long does a piece take you to complete?"
A: "I generally work on a few paintings at a time. I never used to do this, but since my painting days have become longer, I have found that having a few projects going on at once helps a lot. My paintings vary in size quite a lot, and so does the time working on them. The smallest take about a week, the largest one, 6ft x 10 ft, I've been working on since January. But most are about 2-6 weeks. "
M: "Any advice for artists thinking about grad school?"
A: "My advice for artists looking into grad school is find a place that feels like home. One that you can take risks in, push yourself in directions you never knew existed. But also be ready for it. Be in a place in your own work where you are confidant, where you don't just want to hide away for two years, but want to get out into the art world and show it what you have to offer. Its a combination of these two things; freedom to experiment, but also the confidence to show your work. "
As Aleah's future is shaping up to be a beautiful one, she tells me bit more about her current state. It has taken her a while to finally feel like she was making work that was honest. This is clearly important to her and her practice. "I had to let go of thinking I had to make work that was 'important', 'smart' or 'clever'." It's a motto she goes by and continues to strive for.
"I finally began to examine, and really accept, my own life and world. The subjects in my current series are women that I have known since birth. Titled The Aunties Project, this work examines my personal history through the people who have shaped it. On our bodies is left a map of our journey through life. The process of painting these women allowed me a glimpse of that journey and brought me into the present moment of our shared history. What has also happened since I began this project a year ago, is a transition from personal to more universal. I'm finding myself wanting to paint images that are not only representations of specific people, but explore something larger. I don't know exactly what this is yet, but the evolution of discovery that painting leads me through is really exciting. "
The BP Portrait award is still so fresh in our minds. Being such a wonderful accomplishment it is something we're all so proud of Aleah for winning. She tells me she's know about it for years but never felt like she had anything strong enough to submit until the last year. "I was just crossing my fingers to get into the show, so what happened - getting in and winning - is absolutely the best thing ever. Honestly, its still sinking in. Recently, a lot of good things have come my way. I feel incredibly lucky to be graduating with such support and my only hope is that I can live up to it all. "
We know she will.