Last week, I was invited to chat with Jennifer Brown, director of BACA Wines. In what has now become a common interview platform in this age of COVID, we spoke over Instagram Live. After talking about my professional journey (and talking about wine with Jennifer!), we opened the chat up to questions. Some of the questions kept me thinking long past the initial discussion, so I thought it would be fun to explore them further, particularly those questions pertaining to reinvention and regret.
When I was younger, I never felt like I was meant to be an artist. I grew up in an environment with a heavy focus on academic success, and although I painted as a hobby, the idea of painting professionally was never considered. I went on to study history at Yale (which I loved – often I wonder if should have been a history professor), then law at Stanford, and I began a career as a lawyer in NYC at a white-shoe firm shortly thereafter. Although not forced upon me, it felt as though this was the path that was expected of me, and I followed accordingly.
I would paint watercolors on the side, whenever my career afforded me the free time to do so. I even painted some wedding and baby shower invitations for friends and family. But that was really the extent of it.
Eventually I moved back to Boston and worked at a smaller firm with a boss I adored. Although I had a nice career with a fancy-looking CV, I was unhappy. I felt as though I was not making my mark on the world, whatever that meant at the time. And, day to day, I didn’t always love what I was doing.
Then my brother bought me an easel and oil paints and canvases for my birthday and Christmas (they are five days apart) and told me I had talent (very nice of him since I had never painted in oils … ) and that I should really try to see if I liked the medium.
So I tried it. And I liked it. And then I loved it. I read so many books on landscape painting. I looked at YouTube and most of all, I experimented ALL the time with different techniques. I did not paint well when I first started. I wasn’t sure about perspective. I didn’t know about gesso or underpainting or how to clean my brushes. Almost from the beginning though, I cared about color. And texture. The colors and the layers had to be “right” on the canvas. And I kept layering and layering until I was satisfied. I was working all the time – practicing law and then painting in the evenings and on weekends. And it just sort of started to click. My friends were meeting men and having babies. I wanted to meet someone but more often than not I ended up just working on how to become a better painter.
My two older brothers bought all of my early works, which were probably (mostly) garbage but showed maybe some early eye or talent for color. And I always had my own voice when painting. I didn’t care really in the beginning how my stuff looked because I wasn’t “supposed” to be a painter after all. I wasn’t trained! I think that gave me a lot of freedom to break some rules. I wasn’t bound by shoulds. Now of course, as a full time artist, I am much harder on myself and much more aware of how my work is perceived by the average viewer and by more traditional art gatekeepers (art advisors, curators, jurors). But still, what a blessing. I know I am very lucky. This is a career I had never even entertained as an option in my teens and twenties.
I am often asked, and I often think about, whether I regret the path I was on prior. If I wish I could take back the decade of schooling and working I spent without taking a single art class. If I wish I could have just jumped into painting sooner – in high school even. If I think putting myself into massive debt to go to law school, only to then quit the profession altogether, was a massive mistake. No, no, no. no. I have few regrets. And I don’t see those choices as mistakes at all. Everything I’ve done in my past has made me who I am today, every step I took was, in fact, a step in this direction, even though it may not immediately appear so. To regret what you cannot change is just wasted energy.
As you move forward, and you enter a new career or you otherwise reinvent yourself or leave a relationship, you come to realize that everything you’ve done along the way has gotten you to where you are now. You are you. Now. With all the layers. Every choice I made simply informs who I am now, and I think about that in my art too, as I paint multiple textured layers, one on top of the other, to create some of my favorite pieces. Every mark and color and form I add to the canvas is not a mistake, even if it is entirely painted over, as the texture remains and informs the next layer. Most of my best works are three to five full paintings painted on top of one another - in essence, each layer informs the next, both in my works and in my life.
Across my website and Instagram (and below in this post!) there are several paintings that have multiple layers of paint informing the final layer. Can you spot them? Hint: click on each piece to find out!
In the next few months, I’ll be breaking ground on my dream studio (more on this soon!), a goal I had set for myself early on along this path. To me it was an indicator of success, one of the key moments that would tell me I’ve made it as an artist. I expected it would take 15-20 years or more, yet here we are less than ten years later. Less than a decade after my brother gave me an easel and oil paint for Christmas and believed in me enough to set me on this journey.
And finally, along that note, that is my real big advice to all of you out there. Surround yourself with positivity. My own voice may be negative at times – we all have a bit of imposter syndrome or doubt every now and again – but when I listen to my friends or family or see how my daughter looks at me (or witness my dog looking at my work haha), all of it is overwhelmingly positive. You have to surround yourself in life with people who think you’re amazing! It’s one of the best ways to respond to the small voice that sometimes tells you you’re not good enough.
I will be speaking at Lesley University as part of its signature Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series on the evening of April 14 (https://lesley.edu/news/lesley-announces-spring-2021-speakers). More on that through my Instagram account @juliaspowellart, website, and my next newsletter. My talk will delve deeper into regret and reinvention and roads taken and not taken! And there will be lots of time for questions.
Can’t wait to chat more! Thanks for reading – and responding. I appreciate you all so much!
Seven and a half months ago I gave birth to my daughter, Auden. Three months ago, a deadly infectious virus sent the world into a mad, physical distancing frenzy. Needless to say, it’s been an interesting time in my life – and in all of yours as well, I’m sure.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve reached out to share thoughts or new works or little ideas and tidbits of inspiration. This period has allowed me to reflect on several aspects of my life and art, and I hope that in sharing these reflections and new works, I can help spark some joy in your lives right now.
I had a bit of a revelation the other day thinking about a (the?) unifying theme in my work, whether it be water reflections, looking up at trees, waterlilies, birches, flower fields or sunsets/sunrises. All of these images resonate strongly with childhood. What if all I am doing is trying to get back to that feeling of wonder and freedom we all felt as kids interacting with nature? I remember gazing into the deep blue of a lake or a pond as the light jumped across the water. I remember lying on my back on the grass, looking up at trees or out into wildflower fields. I remember staring out over the abyss of the ocean as the sun set across the horizon, watching the water and the sky meld together. I remember being bored at times, and also amazed at times. Bored and hot and lost in thought in summer as frogs or flies skipped across the water. Bored but also filled with wonder. Time would slow down, and yet at the end of the day I wondered what had happened to all of that time. And I realize that there is nothing more wonderful or calming than watching the natural world around me sing, dance and occasionally, remain still.
This morning I watched my daughter pick up a roll of paper towels, fascinated by the texture, softness, patterns, bounce, and shape. This simple household item that so many of us never really think about managed to entertain her for forty-five minutes. I’m struck by her wonder at everything and everyone – she has a deep appreciation for even the most mundane things because it is all new to her. As I reflect on the beauty of this, particularly when framed in the context of the current global situation, I realize that we, too, can remind ourselves to return, every now and then, to this childlike state of unburdened wonder. So many of us right now are finding deep gratitude for family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, realizing just how much we miss contact with others. We hope we will never take anything for granted again. Just as everything is ‘new’ for Auden, so many experiences will *hopefully feel ‘new’ to us when we emerge from this period.
Perhaps this time of uncertainty, forced separation and total elimination of so many events and happenings will help us all think about childhood. Perhaps it will help us remember the slow pace of life, the beauty of a lily pad or the changing colors of a tree, and give us an appreciation for the simple and quiet things that make life wonderful.
My Flower Fields Series (and others I will share in the coming weeks) is inspired by memories of childhood, looking out into fields or gardens and watching the colors and bees and the wind fly and flutter about. Perhaps today you will notice the flowers on your way to take out the trash, appreciate a sunset or sunrise just one day this week, or pause to look up at the trees above you as you take a walk. Perhaps you will feel unburdened, if only for a brief moment. And with each of these little moments, perhaps you will remember what it was like to be a child on a hot summer day when you had nothing to do but dip your toes in the water and watch the breeze lazily wave through the leaves.
MY SHORT ACADEMIC CAREER, MY LOVE LIFE, AND MY THOUGHTS ON APPRECIATING ART. (PLUS SOME CLARIFICATIONS ABOUT MY ABILITY TO SEE COLOR)
ELLA FITZGERALD POWELL
Age seven and seven months. Lover of contemporary art. Contemplating applying to PhD programs.
Hi, everyone. Ella writing here. Currently on a flight to Tokyo. Hoping that some of Julia’s younger followers will enjoy this post. First, let’s clear up some misconceptions. One, I write all of my posts and handle all of my correspondence. The idea that Julia edits anything is preposterous! She is too busy and I am often lecturing in other countries so we aren’t even in the same place! You might say, “But Ella, you are a golden retriever, you don’t have fingers or opposable thumbs! How can you type this out?” Well, obviously I have an iPaw™ which allows me to communicate in this digital universe of ours. It’s like a gigantic keyboard, and it allows me to type using my four paws. It’s a delicate dance prancing about to string together words and sentences, but then again writing itself is a delicate dance. I do agility exercises (such as jumping up to kitchen counters when there’s like a roast chicken up there, or, say, sautéed fish with lemon and herbs, or a grilled rib eye that has just been … wait, I am getting distracted here) to improve my dexterity. And anyone who knows me knows I am an excellent dancer. I am pretty sure one of Beyonce’s people was trying to contact one of my people to see if I could be a backup dancer for one of her tours. But alas the negotiations got too complex. Beyonce and I are still friends though.
Let’s see what else? Oh, for all of you asking, no I am not single. I am flattered by all of the attention but I have to be honest with you. I have had two long time companions since I was little. They are both smaller and darker than me. One is a half lab/half retriever and one is a black curly-haired mutt. The boy is named Rugby, the girl is named Lola. I love that they play tag with me and don’t resent my success. We try to be active politically and currently we are organizing a petition to allow dogs to vote. Sometimes when we see what politicians you humans are electing we think it’s crazy that we aren’t allowed to vote but you are. I have some advice for those of you old enough to vote: care about the environment, care about your fellow humans, care about animals, and try to be kind every day. And for those of you who can’t vote yet: the second you can vote, make sure you do!
Another misconception is that because I am a dog, I can’t see color. Colorblind doesn’t mean dogs can’t see color. I see blues and purples and violets and greens and yellows. I do not see reds and oranges, they appear sort of greyish to me. But Julia doesn’t use a lot of red and orange (obviously for my benefit) so it doesn’t matter.
You might not know this, but just like Julia, I am self-taught. I didn’t even graduate from puppy kindergarten because the entire dog training center closed down in the middle of my class. The owner lady had a falling out with the trainer lady. I would like to say that I was a top student but the truth is, I was middle of the road. We had a midterm exam and I completely bombed it. We had to walk through this obstacle course and follow commands given to us by our human owners. So Julia would say things like “sit” “wait” “come” and “down” and I guess I was supposed to do those things. But here’s the thing: at every twist and turn in the exercise, there was food. Bacon bits, slices of cheese, even carrot sticks (which I avoided at all costs). I guess the point of the exam was to do all the commands and not eat any of the bacon and cheese. But that seems like a silly exam, doesn’t it? Absolutely no fun at all! So I raced through (super fast, I might add, I was probably the fastest in the class) and ate every single piece of cheese and bacon I could find. I vaguely remember in the background Julia yelling “no, Ella, no!” but I had to find every treat I could quickly and some were hidden! Eventually the trainer lady ran into the obstacle course and yanked my collar and pulled me out. She told Julia I had to do that exercise again or I couldn’t pass the class. But then the entire training center closed. So that’s basically a summary of my school experience.
In my opinion, which on the scale of opinions is very important (in my opinion), I don’t think you need a lot of education to appreciate art. Art is about a feeling inside you. Does something make you happy or sad, calm or energized, thoughtful or cleared of all thoughts? People write to Julia all the time and say, almost like they are ashamed or embarrassed, “I don’t know anything about art but I like your art”. Look, you can still appreciate what you appreciate even if you don’t know everything about art. My aunt Hadley is an art advisor (http://www.powellfineartadvisory.com) and she knows more about art than anyone I know. But she is always like “Ella, you like what you like, it’s okay that you didn’t graduate from college with a degree in art history and then work at Christie’s in New York. It’s okay. You do you Ella.” I think someday she and I might lecture together. If our schedules align and all.
That’s all for today folks. I’m currently reading a research paper about quantum mechanics and I have to focus on it because some of it is a bit complicated. I’m also wondering what to eat for second lunch. But I’ll figure it out, guys, don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.
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Hi everyone! Welcome to my blog. Anyone who knows me knows that I have lots of thoughts and feelings about many, many different things! Some of it is art focused and some of it is just random reflections about life and the world. My aim is to make us all think and also maybe to add some light humor to the day. Ella has recently received an iPaw (an iPad designed for golden retrievers) and is also very excited to write guest posts (when she can fit them into her busy schedule).
I am hoping the blog can be somewhat interactive ... I am looking forward to answering questions that you guys ask and/or posing questions to you and posting those answers.
Before I became a professional artist, I went to law school and practiced law. So the US criminal justice system and politics interests me a lot. I also was a pretty serious athlete when I was younger and so sports also interests me. Luckily I was born and raised just outside of Boston so we are always winning something (sorry New York! Sorry LA! But don’t worry you guys are better at almost everything else! So relax!).
One thing I think a lot about with ART is the visual aesthetics of it all. When people invest in art for their own use, they often think about these essential questions: “do I like looking at this“ and “does this make the room more beautiful or interesting”. When museums invest in art these days are they asking the same questions? Or is it more: “does this make me think even if I hate looking at it”. Because making people uncomfortable is certainly one of art’s goals. But is that compatible with installation in homes? And therefore is there a fundamental disconnect between what museums are looking for and what individual collectors are looking for? Should painters take this into account? How hard is it to be a marketable artist who sells well AND is also accepted by the art/curatorial establishment?
Anyway. This is just one of my thoughts about art – especially painting. What are you thoughts? Happy Monday!
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Last Saturday, I had been working all day on a large-scale oil painting. It was the kind of piece that gets me very excited because it involves several layers of paint and the use of different tools (two kinds of brushes, a palette knife, paper towels, my fingers, and a printing roller) and different blended colors and I don’t know where it is even going. Because I paint from my mind and not from photos (or looking outside), my oil paintings can pivot in different directions throughout the painting process, particularly my abstract sea/sky horizon landscapes.
I had just worked in a series of thin and delicate lines and the studio was starting to get a little stifling with all the oil paints. So I took a break to do some serious Easter egg dyeing. When I was in my twenties, I was a little bit of a crazy person about Easter eggs. I needed between twenty and twenty-five Easter eggs for my own personal use and then the rest of my family could do what they wanted with other Easter eggs. I’ve mellowed in my thirties, but tonight it seemed like the time to raise my game and create a bit of a competition where my followers on Instagram could decide which egg was the best. What I loved about the competition was how seriously people took it. I got messages like “it’s insane to me that anyone would choose anything besides Egg 1. It’s clearly the best one and it’s killing me that it’s losing. WHAT ARE PEOPLE THINKING?” and “Are you RIGGING the votes? Egg four should be destroying the competition??” and “Personally I feel like number six has no business being there. It’s an outlier. How in god’s name is it in even in the running?”
It’s fun to take non-serious things seriously. This world is becoming increasingly serious. We have climate change to think about, and artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation of embryos and whether robots will take over the world. It’s an intense and scary time for many people, including me. So when you can get fired up about whether one Easter egg is dyed better than another Easter egg it feels like a safe thing to get riled up about. When I was a kid my older brother used to create all these little competitions for us – usually involving throwing and hitting things. Scraps of crumpled paper into a trashcan, tennis balls against a street sign, rocks against a tree. Elaborate scoring and calculation methods. Everything felt so important then – I guess that’s what it is like to be a kid. And when I lost, which I invariably did because my brother was five years older and has insane hand-eye coordination, I experienced, let’s call them temporary dark times. One time we played ping-pong and after an epic battle, I beat him 27 – 25 (the game is to 21 but you have to win by two so it went into OT). My brother casually tossed his paddle in the air with his left hand and caught it with his right hand and then said “Nice work. Now beat me righty”. I was so incensed, because I thought I had finally beaten him legitimately, that I chased him around our barn trying to tackle him and beat him up with my paddle. Somehow his 6 foot 4 frame eluded me. I still remember that rage and indignation in my adolescent body. If you ever want to read the most brilliant and funny piece that captures childhood and meaningless (but really the most meaningful ever) competition, read Simon Rich’s 'The Foosball Championship of the Whole Entire Universe' in the New Yorker.
That’s all for now. Expect fairly frequent posts by Ella. She’s working on a novel, teaching herself quantum mechanics, and thinking about applying to PhD programs in sociology, so it’s a busy time for her. But she’ll make time for you guys.
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