Afton Love is an Oakland-based artist who works with graphite, beeswax and tracing paper to create large-scale portraits of rock-laden landscapes and intimate studies of the cracks and crevices in between. She’s also my sister, but I swear I’m not biased when I say that her work is awe-inspiring, larger than life — even as it depicts massive landscapes and boulders. Afton is currently self-employed as an artist and was recently accepted to the prestigious Helene Wurlitzer Artist Residency in Taos, New Mexico, for three months of painting bliss. To get herself there, she’s launched a crowd-funding campaign, which you can check out here. I asked her four questions about our home, her process and her inspirations.
You’re my sister, so obviously we had the same upbringing. We grew up on a beautiful piece of land in Northern California with a real homestead feel, which led us to have a really strong connection to home. That connection clearly stuck with us — in our respective work, it seems like we’ve both gravitated towards home and sense of place as central themes. Many of your pieces, in fact, are renditions of the very buttes that surround our home. Will you talk a little bit about this theme in your work? Why is home so important to you?
I am very much who I am because of the rural Northern California landscape you and I come from. I remember in another interview of yours you asked if ties to home ever felt like a burden. And I loved that question because I understood so well where you were coming from. We grew up with such a unique and special upbringing of rural freedom and natural beauty. Yet, because of that experience and the ties that bond us to it, it has been hard to separate ourselves from that place. Even though it is impossible, for some reason while growing up I felt a deep desire to be who I am and know who I am independent from how we were raised. I don’t know why that is. Our attachment to that land and that place is so strong that for me, I am in constant question of it, and in question of my not being there. It just calls to me. But I also have the drive to be outside of it looking in. So naturally images of those canyon walls and butte ranges have found their way into my paintings. In fact, the use of that specific landscape has opened my work up to much more than reflections on home.
We are at an interesting time in art history where the idea prevails that everything has been done. This idea has been quite liberating for painters because all is available to draw from and without the constraints that grew out of the critique of modernism, it is the artist’s highly subjective point of view that guides the cultural continuum. In this way I felt a great opening up in my process when I embraced my individual story and decided to draw from it. In the past I really wanted to be an artist like Agnes Martin, painting subtle abstract paintings and musing about the nature of reality. But I have found that if I focus on specific land that I know well and concentrate on getting every crack and crevice right, and place every rock where it is in reality, all the ideas surrounding spirit and transcendence are naturally built in. People walk up to my paintings and experience them like a place. They are often huge – 20ft long and 6 ft high – and are inviting you to enter. I try to make work that has an entry point. The hope is that a viewer can access the painting and imagine physically navigating it. In this way the experience is not unlike being outside, and when in nature a person automatically slows down, lets their mind expand, and enjoys hopefully for a moment or two the feeling of simply being.
You were in Santa Fe, NM, last summer for a residency and found the landscape equally inspiring. What is it about New Mexico that speaks to you?
Yes I loved NM. That land is so amazing. It’s crazy. Like coming from California you are driving through land that is all the same for miles and miles and then the second you get to the Arizona/New Mexico border your eyes pop out of your head because the landscape is suddenly so different. Monumental land formations and rocks of all kinds, amazing vibrant colors… even the sky seems like a bluer blue. I found the high desert geography to be incredibly inspiring. The variation in rock formations alone could sustain my practice for a lifetime. When it comes down to it I just like rocks. By painting rocks you are tapping into a kind of eternity. I like to consider what happened geologically when the lava cooled, how some rocks were formed instantly and how others were formed by eons of compression and erosion. I enjoy ruminating on how time has weathered the land for thousands of years, and I just paint what is in front of me now, in this unimportant moment in time. It brings my life into perspective and exposes geologic time as something so immense we can hardly fathom it. You know, we are who we are because of the specific bit of land we grew up on, but the truth is that all of us – everyone – is shaped by this beautiful and wondrous world that we inhabit. Our language, our theories, our bodies, our minds and our realities are shaped by the land on which we live. Perhaps part of our struggle to accept that we are of our homeland but not living there now is influenced by the perceived dichotomy of nature vs. culture. And the more I involve myself in this process the sillier that dichotomy seems. We are nature. Nature creates culture. Fundamentally there is no difference.
Tell me about your medium and process. How did you come to use beeswax and what does it add to your work in both a physical and metaphysical sense?
I like this question. I like this question because there are two elements that function in my work. One is the subject matter and the other is the material that I use. All of my recent work is made using tracing paper, graphite and beeswax. It was when I hit on these materials that I first used landscape imagery. I put a grid of like 20 sheets of tracing paper up in my studio and drew a horizon line through it with powdered graphite. After that I took it all down and dipped every sheet in beeswax. The graphite and the wax bonded so beautifully it was as if they had been searching for each other for their entire lives, and the subtle shades of wax illuminated the grid so perfectly, that I knew I was onto something. I have found the grid to be an important element of the imagery. It is important to me to see the landscape in all of its organic beauty, navigate the grid: the presence of humanity. The other important quality of these materials is transparency. While the land is solid and monumental, the actual painting appears subtle and delicate. It is this translucence and “barely there” quality of the paper that gets to the heart of my investigation of place.
I have found that it is through the synthesis of subject and materials that I can continue a historical conversation with other artists who were seeking a phenomenological approach to art making. Eva Hesse did it with resin and other man made materials, Wolfgang Laib did it with pollen, Agnes Martin did it with paint, and Joseph Beuys did it with felt and animal fat. I find that beeswax specifically has an otherworldly power to it. Dipping each sheet of paper in beeswax is a tender and classic attempt to preserve and protect. In this small gesture I am inviting the viewer to think of preservation and consider the history of wax and the fact that it is a result of pollination – the natural force that keeps creation sustained, season after season.
Lastly, a non art-related question: What is your favorite memory of home?
My memories of home are all sunny and in the morning. I think of our dad walking around the house singing at the top of his lungs, you and Michelle are playing or fighting and light is pouring in from the windows and skylight. The radio is on, a record is probably on too, and dad goes on singing something else. I also have this funny memory of a daydream: I remember looking up at one specific section of the canyon and imagining a ladder coming out of it and leading up into the clouds. I really thought that if I went up the ladder I could go sit in the clouds. I guess it is no coincidence that the canyon walls of our childhood are still a source of inspiration for me now!