Every week, we'll be sitting down with one of our gallery artists to discuss their work, process, inspiration, and stories. This week we're speaking with Josette Urso.
Josette Urso's bright, airy studio is in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn, in a loft building with a sweeping view over the borough, the Manhattan skyline shining on the horizon. Her workspace blends seamlessly with her living space, works in progress hanging on the wall, palettes waiting next to brushes, drawings being sorted on a table. We sit down at her kitchen table, a plate of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies set out before us, and start to talk.
What are some of your earliest memories of being introduced to art and exploring it yourself?
When I was in the third grade, one of my dad's math students was also an art major, and she would come to our house on Wednesdays and give me an art lesson. We would set up the card table in my bedroom, and first we'd do things that were kind of structured like drawing perspective, and then we'd do things with color, and then we'd make some objects from clay. I really liked and connected with art, and my parents noticed that, so any time there was a local art class they would always take me to them. Then in the fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Avery, was the first person besides my parents to notice that I liked to draw and I was kind of good at it, and she would give me some extra projects. That was very important to me because I had been really shy up until that point, and then somebody noticed something I was good at and encouraged me, and I became less shy. I had this thing, now, that I could feel confident about.
Your mother was a painter, and your father is a mathematician. Does their background have any effect on your work at all? Did their different approaches to your art as you were growing up influence how it developed?
You know, I feel like I'm always balancing these opposites and living in that space in between. My father's very methodical and systematic, but he's also very creative. He taught himself guitar, and English was his third language. And my mom always made life really fun. We were always doing projects together, like we'd make these giant sheet cakes in the shapes of different animals, and she'd always come up with something for us to explore together. So I think the playfulness of my work comes from all of those things we'd do together, and my approach is influenced by my dad. Both of my parents were extremely supportive all along the way. They also had us when they were really young -- my dad was still in grad school -- so it's like we kind of grew up together in a lot of ways.
Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you spent some time in Ireland and that it had affected your work a lot. What was the turning point for you after you got back from Ireland?
There was something about the magical nature of that environment. We were in County Mayo, the rugged Northwestern coast of Ireland. It's like being at the very edge of the world. It was so otherworldly and magical, and there was something about being there that really made me think about connecting with my environment and connecting the environment to my paintings. Every day there was every kind of weather that you could imagine, and you could never quite predict what you were going to discover. There was a lot of surprise and this element of not quite being able to get a handle of a place, and I really thrive on that, especially when it comes to my work.
I'm wondering if that was the beginning of a sense of urgency being a really important influence to you. You mention it as being a driving force of your work in your artist statement. How do you find that reflects in your work, and how did that start becoming an inspiration?
Yes, since that was the time when I was looking so much to the environment as an inspiration and was always being outside, there's always this element of urgency. For one thing, it's a very finite situation. If you're traveling, you're only there for a certain number of days -- although I was in Ireland for two months during my first trip -- so you have to get as much as you can quickly. When you're working outside, you're chasing the light and things are changing and shifting, and sometimes you're trying to race against the rain, especially in Ireland. So when you're working outside it always brings about that sense of urgency. Although, I've always had a lot of energy. I'm always running around. I walk fast, I talk fast. So, that urgency probably comes from other places too.
What are some of the most important elements of your work that you find yourself returning to again and again?
I work very intuitively, I'm always very playful, and I always try to step off the path. I'm very exploratory and experimental with my process. I'm always trying to hunt for some kind of surprise. I don't want to ever know. I thrive on the not knowing. It's like this journey, stumbling upon situations you didn't know existed until you discover them through your work. I never know how the painting's going to look until it happens; I just kind of figure it out along the way.
Up until that shift when I was in Ireland, everything I made was based on an imaginary, internal landscape, and then things changed for many reasons. Another big point for me was when I found myself at a residency in Spain, and my studio looked over a wall, and I was always thinking how much I wanted to be painting outside. Then, all of a sudden, rather than working on these internal landscapes I started responding to the place around me.
I've always worked on several projects at one time -- collage, painting, drawing, watercolor when I travel -- but it's always about that playful, exploratory spirit. Intuition is always a very important aspect to whatever I'm working on.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Since you do work in different mediums, do you ever find that the process of focusing on one type of medium affects your other work?
Oh absolutely, especially with the collages. If I'm having one of those hectic days and things keep getting in the way of working, I can still often find room to work on a collage because I can easily stop and start with them. They end up being these collisions of all these unexpected surprises,. There's something about figuring out that space and understanding how all the different elements fit together, it kind of gets a flow happening. So they help me in terms of being open to the unexpected, which as we've talked about is a huge part of my painting.
When I spend time making my ink drawings, I end up being much freer with my painting. There's something about that intensity of seeing, and how ink can't be erased. It's that extreme attention to really absorbing and looking so intently that really starts opening up your mind. I'm not always in the habit of doing this, but often when I'm at a residency I'll try to draw every moning, so then when I switch to painting it's much more fluid and free. So everything does kind of fuel everything else.
You were saying earlier that you don't really have an idea of what the final product is going to be when you start out with a piece, so what is it that you find inspires you to just go? Do you have a concept in your head that you want to work out, or the aesthetic part of it that draws you in, or a problem you want to solve?
Well, first I pull out my biggest brushes and I take some time to just mix the colors that are influenced by the day or the place. Then I think I look for, almost consistently, the flow of the place. My first brush strokes are usually big sweeps of color, and they go in the direction of the way I might move through the space. I try not to settle on anything. I keep turning the painting around so it doesn't become anything too quickly, so it's like a real search. It's more of a sense of place in the beginning, and I don't know where it'll go.
Although I typically think from general to specific, sometimes there's one little detail that grabs hold of me, like there might be some birds on the ledge, or somebody walks by in the street below with this giant red umbrella, or a balloon floats by. It's a great, engaging view. I like it when it's not static, when there's some kind of punctuation of something that's happening. Maybe there's somebody on a rooftop with a hula hoop. Or someone's shooting a music video and there'd be something crazy, like the guitar will have flames coming out of it or something. I'll see all these things! There are so many fun things like that that I wasn't expecting, something I didn't see yesterday. So that'll get me excited and motivated to work.
Yeah I can imagine with the type of people that gravitate to Bushwick, you'd be inspired just by walking around with all the things people are doing, or what they're wearing, especially since you're so inspired by your surroundings.
Yeah it really has affected my work a lot. Take even just going on the subway. When I lived in Manhattan -- I was on 22nd between 6th and 7th for a really long stretch, then they tore down our building -- but when I was there I walked everywhere, and everything was just kind of flowing by in a rush. Then I moved out here and I'm always on the train, and when you're sitting you're really experiencing everything around you. You feel like you're a part of something, like you're part of this whole other world. I realized it's good to have that experience with people more.
The city itself is kind of a collage, it's this collision of all different kinds of people and different situations. You never quite know what you'll see, it's always a surprise. Every day you question something, you have an experience you never quite thought you'd have. It shakes you up a lot and gets you thinking.
Since that big transition you had in your travels, around 2000, has your work been evolving since then? Have you noticed any other big turns more recently?
Oh yeah. I went from working from pure invention, to working in the landscape with a little bit of intuition, to now working fully from observation. I'm responding to what I'm looking at, and I think you can tell by looking at the paintings that I'm responding to shape and form and the light and the experience of space. I'm looking off in every direction simultaneously, so the pieces are getting a bit more abstract, but they're still all based on looking. I find that my visual vocabulary is much broader if I respond to something as a jumping off point rather than relying on what's in my head. What's in my head is limited.
I've also started to paint, most recently, that kind of space in between. When I moved into this studio, I never really had to travel to find a landscape. The outside comes in. But then, I'm also very aware of the windows, that there's a space inside and then there's outside. So I started to paint that space in between, that edge. I have also started manipulating that view a little bit by hanging wire constructions and objects in my windows. A few years ago, I did window installations at the New York Public Library where I built these three-dimensional collages. Those installations really influenced what I'm working on now. It's funny how everything is part of this flow.
Since I'm really responding to that middle ground of inside/outside, I set up this nest on one of my tables with all kinds of little nature-based objects sitting alongside manmade objects. I like looking at different organic materials, or all of these crazy colors and how they collide with such playful humor. I'm looking at these as much as I'm looking out the window. But, the view and looking out is still very important to me. It's always changing. There's something about being up high, looking down, the city kind of swooping down, and experiencing that near/far element. I'm looking out and across and down and over in every direction. It expands my sense of space.
Also, the pieces are getting more physical and more tactile. I'm starting to use more paint. Maybe that's informed by looking at those objects. But, that's something I get from collage too. There's something very physical about collage. It brings all these different materials and textures coming together, and that informs the painting too.
Explore Josette Urso's pieces here.