Cindy Sullivan is a self-proclaimed “self-taught artist who loves to capture the spirit of the good old days”, whose paintings caught the eye of our contributing writer Luiza Lukova at The Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts this past June 21-23. Intrigued by their homeliness and their rich character, seemingly inspired by the primitive folk painting of the days of yore, Lukova wanted to dig deeper into the meaning behind their pastoral quality. She recently was able to sit down and interview with Sullivan, chatting about her artistic process, her history with the Lake Oswego Open Show, and her creative direction.
— by Lusi Lukova
Luiza Lukova: First of all, congratulations on your recent awarding of the Best of Show ribbon in the Open Show of the Lake Oswego Arts Festival! If my memory serves me, this isn’t your first time submitting work to this exhibition?
Cindy Sullivan: This is actually my fifth year participating in the Open Show. I’ve been very fortunate to receive an award every year which confirmed that there’s something here that the judges are responding too.
LL: How have you seen yourself and your work progressing over the years? Has the festival pushed your practice in a certain direction?
CS: My friends and family tell me I’m getting better and better. I had Jerry Saltz, the New York Art Critic, post one of my pieces on his “Goodnight,...” artist series on Instagram which again helped to solidify that I’m doing ok. I feel I’m becoming more confident that the subject matter I play in resonates.
I began to realize I might need to paint bigger if I want to be in galleries (the walls are so huge) so I decided to make Best in Show my biggest piece yet, hoping it would be well received, and it was.
LL: I feel you excited quite the commotion this year! From comments that I heard, visitors either instantly were in love with your pieces or they were confused by them. With this kind of Open Festival, full of landscapes and abstract canvases, your subject matter and style is definitely unconventional in comparison. What is the reaction you wish to strike in a viewer? Is this similar to what you feel when you yourself are painting the works?
CS: Unconventional is the perfect description for my work (ha, love it). I paint from photos which evoke a nostalgic feeling for me personally so that’s what I hope my viewers may experience. I want my work to be relatable and comforting in these uncomfortable times. I love painting pieces that strike a familiar chord in me. I suppose I have a longing for past with no cell phones or internet.
LL: Your work is at once soft and jarring, at least to me when I’m confronted with, say “Best in Show” or “A Bedtime Story”! The colors and subject matter are calming, the scenes are easily recognizable, but there is something about your perspective and the angles of your figures that lend some puzzlement. For example, the lines of the woman’s face, the folds in her skirt, or the squiggle in the arm rest of her seat, all make you take a step back and really consider what’s going on in the piece. Is this contortion intentional?
CS: My intention with all my paintings is to be evocative. That is to say, I want people who view my art to see themselves or their own families/friends in [the works] and feel the sense of nostalgia I felt when I first looked at the picture from which I painted. The softness of my characters and, for that matter, much of the imagery in each work allows viewers to fill in their own blanks or extend the imagery into something familiar to them.
CS: Similarly with “A Bedtime Story” at first glance, the narrative you are telling is a familiar one, a couple in bed with their beloved dog. However, on closer inspection, the scene starts to shift and maybe it wasn’t what I originally thought. I ask myself, is the couple outside? Why is the lamp so high? What is that banister on the right, and where does it lead to? The sign, which is above their bed and also confusing, reads “Desert Cabin” but I want to say they’re at the beach? If anything, all of these things just make me more fascinated by the piece - can you speak to these small details?
CS: I really began painting in earnest in 2014 so my style is a bit naive. This likely explains why the perspectives are skewed at times. I had a gut feeling very early on as I got into my paintings that I should never take lessons for fear that doing so would interfere with my painting/artistic voice. Feedback from all the shows I have entered validated this feeling and so I continue to strive to maintain my unique style. I of course do my very best to depict the details of the people and surrounding scenes clearly, albeit in a softer style than say a portraiture artist.
Bedtime story takes place in the desert. We had a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Yucca Valley, California. The only fun place to go was the hot springs, hence we had some beach-like towels and totes that you saw which throw off the sense of place.
LL: Thinking about a piece like "The Great Outdoors" or "The Washroom" it’s almost as if you’re making us comfortable with the uncomfortable, by painting something so mundane and familiar but adding your own spin on it. What is your process with a piece from beginning to end?
CS: From the very beginning it has always started with a photo. The characters in these old photographs beckon me to paint them. Again, its purely intuitive, as I’ll keep coming back to the photo which speaks to me in some way. Ironically, I often misplace said photo and spend hours and sometimes days combing the house to find it! That’s usually a strong indicator that it will get painted.
As I look through old family photographs I am drawn to and prefer the relaxed compositions like in the piece “The Great Outdoors.” This piece shows my family camping at a new campground in 1969. My Dad’s in white pants and a polo shirt and I look to be about 5 years old. I loved all the details in it, like the seven or more tv trays scattered about (why are there so many I wonder), the Coleman ice chest, Coleman lantern, lawn chairs and a smoking barbecue. It just reeks of nostalgia and gives the scene a time stamp. Most of the photos I reference are black and white so it’s a blank slate in terms of color. If there’s not much background to it, I sit with it for a while and wait for inspiration to occur. Then I paint quite slowly. I know I am done when I just have nothing more to say.
LL: You are a self-taught artist, having only recently begun to paint. On your website you note Grandma Moses, Alice Neel and Milton Avery as influences. What lead you to start painting later in life?
CS: I love the simple story these images have going for them, like a day on the beach or hanging with family. When I have a photo and the person or persons are compelling enough I set it aside and spend time imagining what I’d like to see happening. Sometimes I’ll embellish it with wallpaper or household items from that time period. Often those items are already there and that’s why I respond to it. I then begin painting a ground in either black or sometimes red so that I can outline a light sketch in white paint to lay out and see how it can come together.
Next, I always start with the face. You can become very intimate with the individual you’re painting by studying every detail of their face. I’ll slowly move to their clothing and try to catch every nuance. It’s a very slow process for me. I stand back a lot from the painting and my body seems to initiate what needs fixing. I’m generally adding and subtracting elements as I go. I just feel it inside. It’s not a mind thing at all.
Before 2014 I had spent 10 years working with clay and mosaics while raising a family. When cutting tiny pieces of tile and finally coming to the realization that I did not have the patience to let the clay harden enough in order to shape it is when I began to lose enthusiasm for the medium. I found a book on expressive painting which really captured my heart. I created many black and white paintings while experimenting with the concept of using your body intuitively to respond to paint on paper. It was freeing and allowed me to venture into color. In the fall of 2014, I was going through some old photographs and came across a photo of my husband’s aunts and I felt this strong urge to paint them (this piece is on my website). From there I have never looked back.
LL: Where do you paint?
CS: I don’t paint anywhere glamorous. I started at the dining room table and when my son graduated college and moved out, I made his room my studio because of the great lighting. I’m always following the light and where it is most illuminating. I do dream of having a studio someday that has cement floors and white walls. I think all artists desire a proper studio.
LL: Do your commissioned projects differ from the work you create? Obviously, the image source from which you are working is different - does that make it harder to connect emotionally with the painting?
CS: My commissioned projects don’t feel any different. They evolve in the same way and take on my same artistic style even though they’re contemporary. Once I start painting them I usually become emotionally involved because I spend a lot of time up close with it. I do ask my clients if they want any embellishments or if I should add any flavor or humor to the piece.
LL: Any thoughts on where your practice might take you next? Do you have any other shows coming up?
CS: I have so much material for future paintings. For now I’m sticking with what I’m doing because it’s what I know how to do, although I’ll strive to paint larger. Instagram has been such a boon for me personally. I love following other artists. It's a very supportive platform and I feel I’ve made friends with many of my followers and those that I personally follow. It’s a great community for artists and has far-reaching connections with its global impact.
I would love to do a show. I feel like I have a large enough body of work to do one now. So, this year I’ll start reaching out to concrete galleries as well as online ones to see if we’re a match.
Although The Open Show at The Lake Oswego Festival of Arts concluded last weekend, that was not the last opportunity to experience Sullivan’s charming paintings for yourself. You can find her work online at www.cindysullivanartist.com or on instagram @cindysullivanart. Follow Art & About PDX for the latest updates on and upcoming shows for Cindy Sullivan in the Portland metro area.