“Abstract painting used to feel strange and nebulous…”
I’ve got a little interview headed your way this week from a real painterly painter, an artist perfect for this newsletter because of her inquisitive, searching approach to abstraction.
Lilly Saywitz paints with freedom and ambition, creating canvases that are thoughtful and considered but still brimming with energy. I became familiar with her work through the Boston art scene, and I’ve seen it shift and evolve in several interesting directions.
This week it’s a pleasure to explore her work more in depth, and to get a chance to ask a couple questions about her studio process.
Lilly’s paintings from 2017 to 2018 are a collection of intimate works powered by text, pattern, and line. Those pieces have since started to give way to large, moody, atmospheric works that have their own uncommon color palettes.
Lilly has always demonstrated a strong interest in using mark-making to provide a foundation for the painting, and that is carried through to these more recent works. [All of the ones you’re seeing here come from Fall 2020.]
The brushstrokes on these recent canvases feel frenetic, making for fuzzy paintings that don’t want to sit still. Sometimes the canvases are held down with a large shape or two (or more), usually amorphous blobs that are floating and lurking, gravity defying despite their size and weight.
To me, Lilly’s work incorporates the best aspects of Amy Sillman’s approach to painting. Amy Sillman often speaks about the importance of problem solving in the studio, figuring things out on the canvas, and trying to discover a language with which to express what is often inexpressible.
Abstract painting is a strange way to communicate feelings, emotions, and ideas, but there are many things in this world that can’t be explained with words or charts or PowerPoints.
I sent a few questions over to Lilly to ask about the shifts in her work. I also wanted to know what are her plans for this year, what’s changed since last year (besides everything) and what are the usual ways she tries to get her work going in the studio.
Keep scrolling to check out her answers and more of her images.
Tim: Do you have any regular art making rituals? Things you do every day, every week, every month…
Lilly: I try and walk 2-3 miles every day and go for a hike once a week (weather permitting). I often do my best thinking on a walk and always enter the studio feeling really open and energized afterwards.
I try and clean my studio every week but... that doesn't always happen.
Once a month or so I like to pull all my paintings/drawings/prints from the year so far and give them all a hard and honest look, trying to find patterns, narratives, relationships, jokes, or internal logic structures.
I am also dedicated to an afternoon cup of coffee :)
Tim: Given everything that's happened in the past year, which I know is a lot to think about -- what's changed for you the most drastically in terms of your art making?
Lilly: Abstract painting, including my own, used to feel strange and nebulous to me, like very lush and slippery, and that was very attractive. However, it feels so much more concrete to me now, it has weight and dimension.
So much of our current life is grounded in the health and wellbeing of our bodies and notions of autonomy, agency, and power. Abstract painting can contain all of those struggles, in fact I think it is incredibly equipped to deal with them.
I cannot truly conceptualize the pain and trauma of the past year but I can use my body to make sense of these huge feelings through painting.
I love shape and colors ability to be bodily and embodied. My shapes can wobble and bump up against the edges of the frame and tell me something about the constraints that I bump up against in my life.
I am more in conversation with painting then I ever have before because it’s like me and the image are in this struggle together. Maybe that’s a little too romantic...
Tim: Did you make any New Year's Resolutions for your art making this year?
Lilly: In 2 weeks I will finish my first 2021 goal, installing my graduate thesis show at the University of Tennessee, which is exciting and scary.
However, my overall goal for the studio this year is to learn new skills and gain new forms of knowledge. I am a naturally curious person and I believe that sharing knowledge creates a positive web of relationships and promotes an adaptive and generous community.
I am very lucky to have people in my life with unique talents and perspectives and I feel very fortunate that they have shared parts of their processes and skill sets with me.
I think this year has taught me how to be more adaptive and while certain things are on hold in the wider world, I want to concentrate on developing, cultivating, and learning so that I might go out and share what I have learned with others and get deeper into my own practice.
In particular, I want to get better at screen-printing, cyanotype, book binding, and being patient.
Tim: What are some of the artists you look to the most for inspiration and direction?
Lilly: I really look up to Mary Heilmann [pictured below], she is fiercely herself. Unrelenting and totally invested in her internal compass and the work is so good and deceptive. I think we are both attracted to high key colors and the punchy attitudes that shapes can have. The All Night Movie is one of my most prized possessions because her voice is so straightforward in the writing of that book.
Lilly: I also love Eva Hesse [pictured below] for some of the same reasons. I am totally seduced by and drawn to artists who have a rebellious independent streak, people who commit their whole body and soul to the externalization of their internal worlds. In particular, I really love her drawings, these kind of scratchy but also tender efforts to make language out of shape and line.
Lilly: Being from the Chicago area, I would be remiss to not count the Hairy Who as an influence on my work. I love the absolute delight and glee in that work and the power of friendship.
It makes me feel lucky to have pals to create zines with, people to cook for, loved ones who will scream Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and Hips Don't Lie at karaoke on hot summer nights (what I would give to go to karaoke night at a bar right now).
I just think friendship is so important and while I love women artists who seem to work single mindedly to create their visions, I also really believe in the power of relationships and community and how friends can spur you on to make weirder and better art.
Tim: And finally, is there a work of art that you can't stop thinking about?
Lilly: This is a tough question, there are so many works of art that I think about and bring with me into the studio every day. But when I really isolate the things I return to over and over again it tends to not be painting, it’s usually books or movies that really stay with me. I love The Last Days of Disco and have watched it many many times, the ending scene just stays with me, it’s perfect.
But also, I cannot stop looking at this painting by Sangram Majumdar [pictured above], it’s titled becoming 1 and he’s such a good painter it makes me want to scream! I am totally obsessed with everything he does but something about the pattern and sneaky yellow in that painting just makes me want to pick up my brush and attack.
If you enjoyed this newsletter, you can click this button below to show your appreciation by donating to my tip jar. Thank you for reading!
So painters, I hope you enjoyed seeing Lilly’s work, and I want to thank Lilly so much for her thoughtful answers. We are all wishing you the best of luck on your thesis. You got this!
And for tunes this week, I’m recommending you listen to the work of Brazilian jazz maestro Antonio Adolfo:
Aonde Voce Vai
That’s all for this week folks. See you next time, and happy painting