Interview with Rebekah Callaghan

by Aubrey Levinthal

I went to visit painter Rebekah Callaghan on a chilly afternoon in late January. Her studio is in the top floor of her three story Kensington home. Despite the blustery, gray day and her recent move from an exterior studio, her workspace felt welcoming and bright. Talking to Rebekah was like that too. We sat cross-legged on the floor and rambled about anything from the best oil stick colors to recent exhibitions to teaching successes and gripes. Her work sets an inviting tone, pinned to the walls and living in boxes. Hundreds of paintings on paper fill the space with bright, immediate drawn marks. But the beauty of the color relationships and the delicacy of the paper bring the work to an organic, intimate place which was where our discussion began.



Aubrey Levinthal: Your work seems to derive from looking and organic shapes like plants. Can you talk a little about what you paint from and why?


Rebekah Callaghan: I started drawing and painting from my studio plants a few years ago and they continue to provide rich material for me. I like the idea of working from familiar, or even ordinary surroundings (in this case my studio) again and again, and exploring it until I can make something that surprises me. It creates a nice context of working between comfort and unpredictability.


AL: The work all feels immediate and responsive, but there is a variety in where the works seem to stop.  What are you after when you begin a painting?  Does that change during the process?


RC: I think I’ve been making the same painting for a long time and it just keeps ending in a different place at a different point. I want to capture light as a subject and preserve it in the painting. I also want to show a sensibility that straddles what I encounter with the way I encountered it. I paint with urgency so not every detail gets shown, but I hope to grasp an overall feeling in the painting that might be enhanced through color, transparency, or luminosity. It doesn’t all happen in one piece, so I’ll keep painting to a place where the end might look like the beginning, and then I get to try again.


AL:  A lot of the paintings in your studio feel very intimate in person.  I keep thinking about the contradiction of traditionally heroic themes of landscape, color, and form, and how you are approaching them.  You mentioned tension being important in the work particularly with regards to material.  Can you discuss that?


RC: I’ve never thought of my work as some grandiose presentation, but more as a hopeful invitation. I think about using color as a way to spark a conversation. How many ways can I ask the same question? How can I use color to phrase it in a way I haven’t tried before? As far as tension goes, I’m constantly trying to marry the idea of seeing with searching. In other words, I’m negotiating how my endearment towards material can interact with my experience of looking. Maybe it has to do with my family: I have nine siblings so while we were growing up sharing was key. Similarly, I want sight and paint to be friends in my paintings and share responsibility.


AL: We talked about how everyone seems to have such complicated views on beauty in painting.  You explained how you are challenging your own preconceived feelings of what is beautiful when you paint.  Can you elaborate on that?


RC: My struggle with beauty is always evolving. I went through a weird phase where I would be at the store and out of all the identical shirts on the rack, I’d buy the one with a slight malfunction – a pocket was crooked or there was a mistake in the pattern. I loved how this imperfection made the shirt unusual and one-of-a-kind. I also liked the idea of a slight dissonance, or that something could be simultaneously functional and incorrect. I look for beauty that’s based in reality and usually that’s a little harder to ascertain. Oftentimes, beauty seems to carry an unspoken stigma, like it’s perceived as being too easy or ineffective. I find most things to be complicated enough. So I’m okay with an aspect of ease, frivolity, and maybe even a little joy.


AL: What is a typical studio day like for you?


RC: I’ll prep surfaces or make lots of paintings on paper. I like working on paper because it’s so economical and accessible. It offers a freer mental space for me than canvas does, so I can go through a bunch of ideas pretty quickly. After I’ve made a body of work on paper, I’ll use it as visual inventory for the paintings on canvas. I like watching the images change from the source to the paper to the canvas. I’m curious to see what’s kept and what’s left out. And although I usually paint them one at a time, I like to have a lot of surfaces ready to go because the paintings happen in varying times. Also, there has to be some noise—either music or a podcast.


AL:  What is one unshakeable truth you believe when you are in your studio and making work?


RC: Snacks—bananas, almonds, dark chocolate.


AL: What are your favorite things that impact your painting that you are willing to share with others—painters of influence, books, or music?


RC: Having a window in the studio! Even if there is a curtain or shade drawn, I like to know what time of day it is and what the light outside is doing when I’m working. I keep books of my favorites nearby—Fairfield Porter, Lois Dodd, Milton Avery, Alex Katz, Pierre . But right now, I’m most excited about the work my friends are making—Celia Gray, Alan Prazniak, Re McBride, Adam Sultan, and L.A. based painter Dustin Metz.


While saying our goodbyes in Rebekah’s entryway, I happened to glance up. High above the front door was a little painting (pictured) of hers. I told her it felt just right like it was watching over those who came through and sending us out into the world with good vibes. It felt funny that it was all the way up there but functioned in just the way Rebekah intends her work; an unassuming, inviting beacon for those who stop and look.


Rebekah Callaghan is a painter living and working in Philadelphia. She received her MFA from the Mason Gross School of Visual Arts at Rutgers University in 2013.

Aubrey Levinthal is a painter, instructor and art writer in the Philadelphia region.