In conversation with Colleen Herman

“Always when I look at anyone’s art, I get flashes of the person. If I walk into a room and there’s a painting by Joan Mitchell, I say, ‘There’s Joannie.’ Or Grace, if it’s Grace Hartigan. And to me, all art is self-portraits.” – Elaine de Kooning 

Colleen Herman is deep in the throes of artistic evolution. This summer, after the loss of her mother, she escaped to the Hudson Valley. She is there to make art, to translate her grief through paint and canvas, as all artists do. She is returning to her own history – her classical training – yet her approach is that of a new Colleen, influenced by her surroundings, her emotions and new inspiration from film and music. She is transformed, or is in the process of transforming, like a chrysalis compressing sorrow to harvest a butterfly.

And while she is painting the female form of others, it is impossible to avoid the reality that in some way, as Elaine de Kooning says, she is also painting herself. As we delve into Colleen’s studio practice, her desire to make art and her willingness to foster community among other female artists, it certainly feels as though Colleen is perpetually in motion, forging her own path ahead.

My mom passed away in June and the pace of the city – the noise, the smells, the heat – everything just felt too invasive. Here in Tivoli, we’re surrounded by a cacophony of nature sounds. It’s a return to something naive or childlike, and that has brought me back to a lot of my classical training as an artist in figure drawing and still life. All of those ideas around painting and color theory are coming alive, rising to the surface. Being in nature, because of the space, has opened up a channel to some of these things. I knew that I wanted to set up an impromptu studio and paint, but I didn’t really know what was going to come out. I’ve been taking long drives, especially in the evening at sunset, and the colors have just been burned in my brain… incredible green blacks, and then pastel skies. It’s a different kind of palette than I was used to using in New York or even Mexico. So there’s new inspiration. The eyes are being filled with something else.

Colleen’s work during this period has also been heavily influenced by Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece, “La Belle Noiseuse”. The film chronicles the quiet life of a reclusive painter and his wife, played by Jane Birkin. Upon the arrival of Marianne, the artist’s new model and muse, the dynamic of the narrative shifts. 

There’s a tango between artist and muse. It’s so beautiful, it will blow your mind. I’ve been watching the film every day and then extracting different scenes, which has been supporting the work that I’m doing now. I’m seeing the film first as an opportunity to inhabit his studio – it’s summer and it’s bodies and flesh and juice and Jane Birkin is grieving what’s going on – I see so much of myself in her in this weird way. And the artist is struggling to find something that he can extract from his model and then put into this work. There are different dynamics at play, be it subtle or more aggressive. So I watch a little, pause to think about it, and watch more. 

There’s a really interesting switch in the film, where it’s not male artist sees woman figure as model, but instead, it’s model and woman who wants to be seen and take up space. The artist is simply capturing that, so I almost see him as a photo-journalist. It’s not about the objectification of her body, but about her showing who she really is. In that moment, she comes alive and her body transforms. My work upstate is a culmination of the film, the colors of the Hudson Valley and my exploration this deserted 18th-century town. And that’s how I came to paint legs and backs, beautiful clavicles and the crest of a shoulder.  

Considering her previous abstract works, this evolution in Coleen’s practice marks a major development, reflective of her current state of mind. The strength of these figures is impossible to avoid. 

It feels like I’m a sculptor instead of a painter. If feels like every brushstroke is kind of tracing the form and to me, she looks more like a mountain than anything. Again, it goes back to my mom and mothers and births and mountains… I almost feel like I’m practicing to work with a model at some point in the future. Getting to know the figure again in this level of depth, so come the fall or winter, that will feel more comfortable. I feel like I’m prepared for that moment after having done this exercise. 

Typical of Colleen’s work, color is at the forefront. While some of these new paintings highlight the ripeness of the female form in soft peach tones, there are others that are chalkier, almost lacking in blood. 

The more opaque almost milky colors are drawn from the golden clouds during the sunset walks that I’m taking, against this black, brackish greens of the trees. I’m so blown away by the contrast of the sky and the earth. That’s what I wanted to bring into the bodies. They take on the levity of the sky and the clouds and then the background holding them up is the trees and the leaves and the trunks grounding to earth. The works that are warmer and peachier are how all the paintings start. They’re underpaintings and to be honest, there’s one in particular, that’s almost like a rainbow but that I don’t feel is done. I just put that one off to the side for now. 

Thinking about the realm of feeling and memory, it feels inevitable that Colleen would use painting as a conduit for catharsis and healing. She has immersed herself in her new environment and draws from an abundance of source material, including literature in her new abode. 

Where I’m staying, there was a Willem de Kooning book, which I read alongside Ninth Street Women, where I got to know Elaine (de Kooning) so well. There’s such a contrast between this MoMA publication, which is male-dominated and focused on Willem’s Woman series. He painted these over a course of years, later in his career, and I began studying them and reading the critical essays. The women in these works are fierce. They have sharp teeth, crazy eyes and the colors are stunning, but there’s a fierceness about them, like they’re animals. They are beautiful but very crude. 

Back to what we know about Elaine from the Nine Street Women, these two artists were so influential on each other’s work. For me, that also inspired painting more than one woman, or looking at different poses and going back again and again. Try it this way and try it that way and don’t get so hung up on one thing and then move on. I wanted to see this summer as a time to dive in – dive into the paint, dive into the palette, and create a woman series inspired by, but very different from, what de Kooning did. 

As with many artists, Colleen’s studio operates within the framework of distinct rituals. These habitual actions indelibly shape her art marking process and shift dependent on her location.

In my studio in New York, I always work in natural light. But when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, I preferred to work at night. That was the best… I would pour mezcal and start painting at eleven at night and keep going until three in the morning. During the day I wanted to experience the color of the architecture, the buildings, the sky, the people and their dress. Their ribbons in the breeze and the dancers in the streets. There was so much to take in through the eyes, and in turn, to draw from in the studio that evening. There was something about the work that has come out of those residencies in Oaxaca. It’s super saturated, very vibrant. 

But wherever I am, the first thing I do is I put on studio shoes. I think it’s sort of stepping into the space that allows the artist to come forth. There’s a shedding of the outer layer that symbolizes stepping into another self. And then comes music. The ritual around music has been really significant over the past few years and typically I’ll be a one-track woman for maybe weeks at a time. I’ve probably listened to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” a thousand times, no exaggeration. Or Alice Coltrane’s “Journey to Satchindananda” was a really big one on repeat. And last year it was Arvo Pärt’s “Summa”. The music totally infiltrates the work. 

Because of the repetition, with both the music and the shoes, I can enter a vortex that’s no longer my own and can also be new. There’s comfort in creating the same conditions – setting up all of these variables to support the artistic world to come through. 

Dissecting Colleen’s path to becoming an artist, it becomes apparent that the act of painting was deeply intertwined with her modality of self-expression from an early age. 

I can’t remember ever not painting. It was expression through color, and it can be very physical. I get my hands into the paint all the time. When I’m feeling confused I explore that through art-making.  And painting has been a consistent through-line since childhood and adolescence. As I eventually transitioned into my own fine arts practice, it just felt like oxygen. The motivation to paint is more like a survival tactic these days. I’m constantly planning in my mind…. when can I steal away more hours? Do I have one less drink at dinner so I can paint tonight and not be cross-eyed after three mezcals? Or can I steal away four weeks in the fall and go to Italy and hole up and paint every day? Because that’s what makes me so happy, to express in this way. 

A big part of my work is fumbling around and wrestling with my own language in terms of art-making, color, contrast, and technique. There’s so much learning that goes along with the outward expression. There’s always something new to discover: with myself, with the work, or with the dialogue around the work itself. 

Balancing this introversion is Colleen’s ability to cultivate community among fellow artists through her Sunday salons. 

I was taking a class at MoMA and the retrospective of Louise Bourgeois was up. We visited her studio townhouse in the West Village, or maybe Chelsea, and it was so inspiring and absolutely incredible how she left her home. But what I came to learn, was that every Sunday she would open her doors to anyone who wanted to come and bring work, and she would hold critiques on her kitchen table. She would throw down a bottle of whiskey and a chocolate bar, and the only criteria were that you had to bring work. That became the impetus for me to start getting people together to talk about their work because I sensed a little isolation.

I was craving community because I found it so beneficial when I was in college. The constructive feedback you receive from new eyeballs on your work. Sometimes you just get in a hole and you need something fresh. But the beautiful thing about the inspiration from Louise is that everybody is welcome, throw down your stuff, and let’s hear from everybody. So I put together an email flyer with a photo of Louise and that it! Sunday salons, although we’ve never actually held it on a Sunday. 

We started about two years ago and rotate between artists studios. At the first one, it was about eight of us sitting in my studio and I was petrified. It felt as though I was being exposed… you’re standing there completely nude and they’re looking at my cellulite and I’m crying inside. 

Yet, it was also incredibly therapeutic when we all started talking about the work, and everyone was really nice. We also shared information about different residency programs and projects, which led to the realization that it was really important.  This community needs to happen and everyone’s excited. So from there, it grew. We went from eight to 15 and now there are 90 people on our list. All from word of mouth and people who are willing to share. I think people were starving for community without agenda. 

New York, as a perennial epicenter of cultural growth, seems the perfect incubator for such open collaboration. However, Colleen is quick to point out how the current climate was instrumental to the conception of the group.

It’s a safe space. It began in the shadow of the Women’s March and #MeToo, so it felt like a really good time for women artists to band together. I’ve always been completely inspired by the abstract expressionist group and “Ninth Street Women” is now telling that story in a new way. They used to have salon gatherings on St Marks and Elaine was a big proponent of that. So Elaine, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan would all come together and talk about their work alongside the men. But what we read is generally centered around the men. The idea of women coming together to talk about their work felt validating and it’s been nothing but since. It’s just growing and hopefully, will continue to grow.

While this artistic community and its exuberance are vital, Colleen is also she mindful of the quiet and meditative moments in between art-making, be that inside or outside of the studio. Cultivating the experiences that eventually shape her perspective, the act of living in the world, becomes the difference between creating art and creating a product. 

You’re not a machine. There’s work to be done when you’re simply sitting. Those times are almost more important than the actual making. There must be the space around the creation and I think to just sit in the studio is just as important as picking up the brush. 

When considering the unrealistic expectations that society places on artists to produce an abundance of work, she sees the ideal way forward to do less in a more meaningful way.

I watched this great interview with Helen Frankenthaler where she speaks to a group of college students telling them it was ok to take time off from the art-making. Sometimes she would leave it for three months and travel, or catch up with friends, or fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter. There needs to be time to fill up the well. You can’t just, like a robot, churn things out. It has to come from somewhere. The sincerity is imperative and you see that in art. You can feel it coming through because it’s not just a carbon copy or a factory-made piece, you can smell that sincerity. It’s kind of awesome when you’re really looking at an original. 


Image via @colleenmherman.