Anda Dubinskis is a Philadelphia-based artist and educator whom I first met in 2009.
For some time, her work has consisted of drawing, painting, printmaking and installations that make use of pattern as an intricately formal and conceptual field. Dubinskis has exhibited work extensively; recent local exhibitions include Schmidt Dean Gallery, Abington Art Center, Woodmere Museum of Art, Fleisher Memorial and the Print Center. The following conversation originated at her work and living space in Northern Liberties while looking at drawings in the studio.
Jacob Lunderby: Looking at the drawings that we discussed in your studio, I was struck by the complexity of pattern weaving in space and the discrete sense of narrative that is generated by your connection to the motifs. Would you describe your process for starting a drawing?
Anda Dubinskis: Usually, each drawing starts with a distinct idea—early on, it was a preconceived notion of what the finished piece would look like. However, it has since changed to starting with a singular element and reacting to smears made by inadvertently dragging my hand across the surface of the drawing. So then I developed the idea of one drawing relating or morphing into the next. Sort of wallpaper on LSD.
In some cases, I have a very clear idea of what I want a drawing to look like when I am done with it, and other drawings are started with just a vague idea, i.e., dark in the center, a light empty space at the top. But even with those mental images where I think that I know exactly what the finished piece will look like, I am always surprised. The process of drawing takes me on very different paths than I expect: perhaps while refining a calligraphic arch, an adjoining area is smudged, and this smudge alters the space around the crisper form…. I have to pay attention to what the drawing itself is saying. At some point, a drawing takes on a life of its own, and it tells you where it is going. I have to respect that, instead of trying to beat it into submission to conform to my initial idea.
I started Peony and Tumult at the same time—both were variations on carvings I had seen in temples in and around Beijing. The shadowy ginkgo leaves twining around the solidly rendered Peony (actually, it seems to be crossed with a lotus) are a reference to the very first woodblock print made, which featured a trailing vine across a bricklike pattern in the background. Although ginkgo trees are native to China, they are also familiar to the streets of Philadelphia. I love the fact that these are trees that existed when dinosaurs were around.
The third piece Chrysanthemum, started with an embroidered flower found on a Thanka painting, which was then superimposed on turkey tail mushrooms usually found on rotting logs in the woods in Maine. I spend summers in Maine and am drawn to the bugs, weeds and plants of that region.
Adelphia, Adelphia Continued, Adelphia Finis
Adelphia, Adelphia Continued, and Finis are meant to be seen as a triptych, even though they were not drawn at the same time. I interspersed making other drawings as I was drawing the separate panels of this piece . The first drawings were conceived in groups of three (I have room for three sheets of Stonehenge paper on my drawing wall): the first three employed decorative motifs seen in Tibetan Thanka paintings or Chinese architectural elements (this because I had just returned from a trip to Beijing). The complicated mounting of the Thanka paintings, utilizing damasks, rich colors and a range of scale gave me a sense of freedom to juxtapose a variety of elements in my own work. These paintings had an aggressive force,, evil and churning activity in them as well as a passive, pliant calm and beauty.
JL: You mentioned that the study of calligraphy was an important part of your foundations education, and that connection continues to inform the sense of gesture in your work. In addition to mark making, is there something from the practice of calligraphy that informs your decisions in organizing movement from layer to layer of pattern?
AD: I studied calligraphy in art school and the deliberate quality of each form—the interior of a shape, the exterior, and the line itself—informed my sensibility in making paintings and drawings for a long time. I loved the crispness of calligraphy, as much as I loved the clarity of quattrocento Italian painting and the cold distinct light of Maine’s summers.
JL: Do you search for a group of patterns that can be organized to signify a comprehensive narrative, or does the significance of the narrative unfold through accumulation of motifs?
AD: It works both ways. I started a drawing based on the pattern of a dress my great grandmother was wearing in a cherished family photograph, and that led to incorporating the image of plaited hair—a traditional eastern European hairstyle that my sister wore as a child—and that in turn led to using a scruffy, unruly plant that dominates my studio- the Night Blooming Cereus. It blooms once a year at night, and the flower is spectacular- large as a dinner plate and it has an excruciatingly sweet aroma- some people find it disgustingly sweet. This was a plant my mother cultivated: she had a house full of exotic plants. Three disparate elements found their way into this narrative of three generations of women in a family
On the other hand, I started Chintz with a dominant paisley form and then looked for patterns that were used in that very popular textile at the turn of the 18th century.
Chintz/Hollow At The Core
Hollow At The Core started with the idea of the center part of the image being empty or white and being surrounded by a dense design of blackness. The pattern elements were related to lacework and basket weaving—two different ways of creating a “fabric” from different materials.
These drawings are about the activity and process of making the drawings. Generally, each starts with a single element derived from a wide array of sources, e.g, botany, fabric, wallpaper, architectural details or ironwork, decorative ceramics. Once the primary component of the image has been established, conscious or unconscious associations with other patterns create a response in the act of drawing. One element is refined as another is obscured. Foggy, indistinct edges sidle up to those with calligraphic clarity, creating slippage from foreground to background. These drawings are about movement—about a slough, a breath, the suggestion of something passing—rather than something locked into place.
JL: Prior to charcoal drawings, you were making paintings with figures in compressed spaces. How did the transition in your work from figure-based painting to pattern-based drawing occur? Did your thinking of narrative change in this transition?
AD: The figure paintings always sprang from a very specific narrative. I daydreamed about the story unfolding as I painted those images. My figures were isolated on a very plain, almost abstract background. The space they inhabited was shallow, ledge-like space. With those works, I eliminated everything but the most essential elements. Gestures, the interaction of the figures and the psychological space they evoked were my concerns. Once I had children, though, everything changed. The figures seemed too fraught and self-conscious. “Diarizing” my own life seemed trivial.
My Father’s Backyard
I made a series of small gouaches on patterned rice paper. Gouache was a material I could put down and pick up where I left off if interrupted by the demands of children. I superimposed figures and scenes on the patterned paper. The image broke the flatness of the patterned page. These evolved to the point where the pattern was more compelling to me than the figure or still life I was painting. The intimate scale of the gouache paintings seemed to keep the patterns within the context of fabric or wallpaper. A change in scale, from small to large, really made a difference in these drawings.
. With the move into pattern elements, the narrative is much looser and more apt to wander. The work became more associative, more freeform. I use my body in making these drawings- the arc in many of these drawings is the swing of my arm across the page. I stoop to get to the bottom of a page, I lean against the drawing to refine or redact. With the figurative work, the end product was usually pretty close to what I had initially envisioned. The process of making the charcoal drawings is more exploratory, and the end result can be a real surprise.
Laying my hand on the surface of the page to refine a shape would invariably lead to a smudge on an adjacent form. I exploited the evaporation of the edge and made a less linear description of space. I teach my students that painting and drawing are about space, and although I am still dealing with a compressed space, I wind up achieving it through different means.
Rather than relying on well laid-out plans prior to starting a piece, I now regularly reach a place where I have no idea how the image will be resolved. It’s scary, but it forces me to plunge recklessly into uncharted territory. I am always sure that I have lost the drawing, but this is where something new or surprising develops. I feel relief when a piece has been brought back from the edge of disaster.
JL: Philadelphia has changed since you’ve settled here; the neighborhood that your living and work space is in has significantly changed. Can you discuss any specific influences that changes in your environment have had on your work or on your sense of being an artist in Philadelphia?
AD: Philadelphia has had a varied and active group of artists that has influenced me. I used to paint figures juxtaposed with images of the neighborhood—its emptiness and desolation seemed to heighten the import of any gesture or action. Now the neighborhood seems more like any other in town, and I don’t have an interest in chronicling a “normal affluent” neighborhood.
When I returned to Philadelphia after a sojourn in Louisiana and Maine, there were a lot of galleries showing really interesting figurative work. Now the number of commercial galleries has dwindled, but I find myself interested in the artists involved in artist collectives. Sometimes they have a different sensibility than mine but I enjoy the challenges and energy they present. Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Grizzly Grizzly sponsored a Community Supported Arts project, in which supporters bought a share of a portfolio created by several artists. The shares were reasonably priced and were meant to appeal to an audience that might not usually collect art. I made an embossed silkscreen print which was then embellished with gouache, making each print unique. Philagrafika invited me to participate in a portfolio of Artists Prints for which I made a five color silkscreen print at the Fabric Workshop. I have made wall pieces for Wave Hill Arboretum in NYC and one for the Academy of Natural Sciences, as well as one for a show in Beijing, China. These larger pieces have taken my work off the easel, and my drawings are much larger than most of my earlier work.
JL: What is it like being an artist married to another artist?
It’s ideal in that we share a passion in art as well as love. We understand that we each need undisturbed time in the studio. As an added bonus, we have immediate access to a valued peer’s critical input about our work. I may initially bristle at some of my husband’s observations, but ultimately, I value what he has to say—he has a good eye. The downside is that we need a space large enough to accommodate two studios. But we are lucky in that we found a great space early on in our relationship and have tailored it to meet our shifting needs. When we first moved into Northern Liberties, the space was raw—primarily a huge studio and a small bare bones living area. It was illegal to live in the building, so we kept our kitchen very minimal. We had a three-burner gas ring to cook on, no oven, a sofa bed, two folding chairs, and a funky formica table that we found down by the Delaware River. Once we had kids, we built a real bathroom, finally added a bedroom with a door(!) and moved the woodshop downstairs. Slowly, we have made other improvements.
The neighborhood has gentrified around us. Now we have people around us instead of tumbleweeds and packs of wild dogs roaming the streets. I hope the new families with children will choose to stay in the city and make the urban schools worthy of this city. I think the neighborhood is evolving from a “party” area to a real neighborhood with families. Unfortunately, most young artists have been priced out of the area, so our neighbors are no longer other artists.