I can’t remember how I first came across Colleen Herman’s work, only that I was mesmerized by it. I promptly took a screen shot of it and saved it as my phone background. It’s been there now for at least a year and a half — and I’m still not remotely tired of it.
It took about that full year and a half for me to get the guts to cold email Colleen and fan girl over her and her paintings. Luckily her paintings bursting with exuberance are just a precursor for her own exuberance.
Shana and I spent a morning with Colleen in her studio drooling over every last drop of color and light…
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
Typical days begin early – I bike from the East Village to Bushwick and make or grab coffee at some point. After almost 17 years living and working in Manhattan, a reverse commute to my newish studio enlivens. There’s power in physically getting yourself somewhere: it’s the best way to start or end the day. Once there I often move things around in the space – the canvases, the work tables, the couch – to create a new work area and shift light and perspective on works in progress.
Currently I use gouache and acrylic paints and Sennelier oil pastels. Painting requires more set up and clean up – brushes, mediums, palettes etc which yields a certain dialogue to the canvas and composition. Working with the oil sticks is closer to drawing – it’s direct and intimate….I know these colors like my own family members and have come to rely on them in the same way – LOL.
They’re temperature sensitive which means in summer they’re like working with technicolor butter, and in the colder months they are like 4H graphite pencils, hard and easily broken. I’m very hands-on trying to get the materials to do what I want them to do, and this game of control and surrender is mostly fun and frustrating and always illuminating. Eating happens at some point in the day, as does movement in the form of dance or yoga – but it’s sporadic, time completely collapses in studio. I’m so entirely engaged in whatever is going on because I am so goddamn grateful to be in a room that’s dedicated to making.
How would you describe your paintings in one sentence?
A tangle of pathos and exuberance. (ALL credit to queen Blair Hansen for these words !)
We joked that no one tells you “how to be an artist” or “how to be an adult” when you’re young, but what would you tell your twenty-five year old self if she asked you “how to be an artist?”
Oooooo. I’d tell 25 year old me to make stuff everyday as much as possible — make paintings and drawings, make friends, make salad, make mistakes. Don’t be idle – don’t get caught up in anxiety over outcomes that are out of our control. This distills into words I keep coming back to right now – we have to do in order to know what to do. Active participation is required if you want to be an artist. No one invites you- no one taps you on the shoulder to say – ok! you can “be an artist now”. It doesn’t matter how much school or training or internships or whatever – the common denominator for all artists is the making. And! It takes courage to make something and put it into the world. I found a perfect ven diagram from Marilyn Minter via Eileen Myles that shows ‘Absolute narcissism’ on one side of the circle and ‘Crippling self doubt’ on the other – and ART in the middle. When you take something so seriously you’d sacrifice your life for it, you have to find the humor too!
I love your paintings for a plethora of reasons but the top of the list would be the visceral joy I feel when I see them. Do you have a specific early memory of color affecting your mood?
The visit to the Crayola factory on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The smell of a fresh box of crayons with perfect tips and paper wrappers and names on the colors. They became friends – I saw them as friends of each other all snug in the box, and by taking care of them and loving them they were my friends too. The Sennelier sticks are a grown up version of this I guess? Colors represent hyper specific sentiments for me and when they lay on top of each other, mix and mash, or exclaim! on the canvas the emotional dialogue takes shape. My nieces and nephews are elbow deep in the crayola box and the same transpires for them on some level. This connection is universal — we all say “I LOVE that color” or the inverse. These patterns are deeply programmed but entirely personal.
Where do you draw your main sources of inspiration?
My main sources of inspiration come from a collection of mental polaroids taken on travels abroad or on the internet – the morning light in northern India, Dries Van Noten’s Fall 2009 collection, the landscape of the Hudson Valley. Music serves like the starting pistol at a swim meet always ::: Alice Coltrane, Bill Evans, Trio Mediæval. And the intentional intellectual exploratory movement of Lucinda Childs and Julia Crockett helps bring me to a place in my body that feels familiar and foreign, which is where I want to be when making.
Why New York? What does this city mean to you?
It’s my longest relationship so far and it’s still going. Relationships take work and the city is unforgiving! but so easy to love. It’s in constant motion and the trajectory is always changing. Any expectations of a place and your life in it explode the minute you get too attached – it begs vigilant self reflection and attention to community. New York potentiates opportunities and friendships and challenges like nowhere else in the world.