In honor of Mother’s Day, I am so excited to introduce to you the talented Denise Gasser. Denise is a stay-at-home mother of two adorable boys – ages 2 and 4 and also a mixed media artist with a BFA in Art Education from Utah State University. She grew up in the small cowboy town of Lehi, Utah; then spent a few years in Berkeley, California while her husband was in school (which is where we met). She now ironically lives only blocks away from one of my former places of residence in my hometown of Vancouver, BC, Canada – which I like to refer to as the “Berkeley of Canada”. She has an affinity for painting trees. She loves using acrylic on wood panels, lots of gold leaf and using vine charcoal in combination with the paint to creative a distinct line quality. I purposely chose to feature Denise around Mother’s Day because of a very unique and moving art series she is working on called “Art After”, which is a commentary on the interruptions that mothers – and well, all parents face whether it be professionally, creatively, personally, etc. Denise will tell you more about this amazing project later on – it’s fantastic! On a more personal level, Denise is one of those people that everybody loves. She has a way of forging genuine connections and relationships with anyone regardless of their age or interests. She is caring, hilarious and witty with a playful side of sarcasm and is all-round a wonderful person.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Mostly, yes. Though there was a phase when I was really young and I wanted to be a mall worker when I grew up!..ha ha!…due to the simple fact that the mall workers were the most stylish and glamorous ladies I had ever encountered. But art was always my favorite subject and I was 100% positive that I would go to college and major in art. It’s weird though, when I actually got to college I was seriously doubting this plan; it just seemed so impractical. I also wondered if I actually had the artistic talent necessary to make it in this field. I was taking a lot of generals and feeling very confused and directionless. By the end of my third semester I hadn’t taken any art classes and had pretty much settled on doing dental hygiene. But deep down I must have known that would be way too practical.
When did you know without a doubt that art was the pathway you wanted to take? Did you ever want to be anything else?
I guess that’s the thing, I really didn’t WANT to be anything else. I was just so confused and nothing really seemed quite right. Finally, at the end of my second year I enrolled in a 2-D design course, which basically taught the elements and principles of design through drawing, painting, and collage. I absolutely fell in love with art again! It really felt like I was rediscovering myself…as cheesy as that sounds. It became very clear that art was the obvious path for me when I stayed up all night working on my final art project, even though I also had a final exam in Oceanography the next morning. I literally had a straight A with 100% in my art class, and probably a flat B in Oceanography. Yet somehow I convinced myself that I should spend the entire night collaging, and that a quick study session before my final the next morning would be totally legit. My priorities became pretty obvious at that point! Though I did end up majoring in art education, so I was still somewhat practical.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Oh man, I get inspired by such random things… patterns on coral or fossils in science museums, weird shadows, vintage dresses, children’s illustrations, bright blossoms in my neighborhood, tile patterns on buildings downtown…it’s all over the place. I’ve really had to force myself to channel my energy into specific series of work, but I hope that these moments of enchantment weave their way into everything I make. Trees have been a consistent inspiration for several years now, and make up my largest body of work. They are beautiful, abundant, and allow for a lot of creative interpretation. Since having children, I spend a LOT of time looking at and talking about animals. I’ve made several small animal paintings that are really bright and light-hearted. Though I really have a tendency toward organic imagery, I love the contrast of pairing it with more rigid geometric shapes and patterns. Sometimes it’s fun to really let the geometry take over. I actually did an entire series of purely geometric forms, which was a really good way for me to push my work in a new direction.
Tell me about your “Art After” series:
Art After is a series of mini paintings inspired by my experience as an artist/mother. Some people call this series heartbreaking, some people find it hilarious…honestly, I think it’s a pretty good mix of both. For this project I am working on 5×7 inch panels, and I can only work on each painting until I get interrupted, or until I finish it. If I get interrupted I have to stop working on the painting and I can’t go back and finish it…EVER! I’m hoping to have at least 200 paintings like this, each in different levels of completion. The subject matter is pulled from scattered fragments of daily life with my children, so it really varies a LOT. On the back of each piece I document the start time, the end time, and what the interruption was that forced me to stop. Usually the stopping point is the moment I cannot continue working through the interruptions. Like if one of my kids is hanging on me or trying to ‘help’ me paint, I try to work through it until it gets to the point that I really have to stop. I typically work on this project when the kids are awake, so it’s a nice way to integrate my two worlds of art and motherhood. This idea of integration is sort of how this project came about.
Pieces from Art After
1) Hazy Blue with Charcoal Lines – Time: 14 minutes (8:29 am – 8:43 am). Interruption: Crying baby pulling at my legs.
2) Triangles- Time: 25 minutes (10:01 am – 10:26 am). Interruption: Baby had been holding my phone, I got a phone call and he LOST his MIND when I had to pull it from his fingers.
3) Green and Gray spotty tree – Time: 34 minutes (7:11 am – 7:45 am). Interruption: 3-yr-old is trying to pour himself sprite for breakfast…after feeding himself and baby cold pizza on the floor. And baby is headed for open dishwasher. (And actually ended up crawling inside before I grabbed him).
Which leads me to my next question. How did you come up with the idea for your “Art After” series?
After my second son was born I really started to feel like being an artist with kids just wasn’t working. I had a big show coming up later that year, and I didn’t have nearly enough work completed. I was absolutely exhausted, nursing and caring for a newborn 24/7, Liam was three, extremely high energy, and not fully potty trained, and I had a 30-foot-wall to fill with my paintings. It literally felt impossible. The only time I had to paint was after the kids were asleep, but by that time there was just nothing left of me, especially when I knew the baby would be up in just a few hours. I was feeling a lot of ambivalence…loving motherhood and understanding it’s depth and value in my life, but also feeling the weight of it and how it was holding me back from my artistic aspirations. I knew other artist/mothers who were dealing with these same issues and we had planned to do a show together, each with different interpretations of how motherhood affects our creative process. As I was brainstorming my own part of this project I was thinking about the limitations of being an artist/mother, and how I could exploit them in my work. This interruption idea seemed like a perfect solution because it really is a way to just straight up embrace the challenges that typically hinder my work. I feel like accepting and embracing has been vitally important for me, because it leaves less room for frustration and excuses. I think it’s a really important thing to talk about because so many women stop making art after they have children. Plus, motherhood in general is not something many people want to hear about, like you are expected to keep the two things separate if you want people to take you seriously as an artist. It’s been empowering in a lot of ways to open the discussion. So I’m still creating pieces for this series a little at a time, and it is really wonderful to see them all together. It’s a reminder of what I can still accomplish, and how my life as a mother is rich and full, and beautiful in its complexity.
More pieces from Art After
What is the shortest amount of time you have spent on your “Art After” pieces?
The blue scribbly one above, on the left, was 2 minutes, from 11:00 am – 11:02 am. Interruption: “Baby found marker, removed lid, and crawled into another room.” (That would be Grey! Ha ha).
The chair one above was 6 minutes, from 6:50 pm – 6:56 pm. Interruption: “Baby wants OUT of highchair. He’s shaking the tray trying to break free“.
What is the longest amount of time you have spent on your “Art After” pieces?
Two hours. There are a few pieces that lasted over two hours, and were completed after the kids were in bed. I like to do that sometimes for comparison sake.
This one above of the deer went from 10:29 pm – 12:45 am (2 hours, 16 minutes), and on the back I just wrote, “It’s done! Time for bed.” But there are also a handful of pieces that I was able to finish while both kids were awake.
The apricot painting shown above was done from 9:10 am – 9:50 am (40 minutes). On the back I wrote, ‘Feels done! Plus, kids just locked themselves in a room and want to come out.’
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as artist and mother?
Time is a huge factor. I feel like I am in constant motion from about 8am until 9pm. The other big challenge is the emotional and physical drainage that happens in those 13 hours. You invest so much love and attention and energy into your children. You worry about them, you try to teach them things, you try not to scream at them, you feel guilty for letting them watch TV, you try to counteract their attempts to manipulate you, you play with them, try to feed them, carry them around, pretend to be interested in all kinds of weird stuff…it just takes everything you have. If I spent 13 hours a day at a computer, I think I could step away from that and escape into my art with a bit more intensity. But after 13 hours of wrangling children, I’m all used up. There are lots of nights when I just flop on the couch and watch TV, or go to bed early. But many nights I just force myself to get to work. Those late night painting hours are wonderful. I have never regretted spending time in the studio. Never. It’s definitely not easy, and I often question if this balancing act is worth it. But I really wouldn’t be myself without it, so I just find a way to make it work. I think changing my own expectations has been crucial. What most artists can accomplish in a month, might take me six months, but I just have to accept that and recognize that my career will take a slower path. I’m learning to be okay with that.
How do you incorporate art into motherhood? Do you like to paint or sketch with your boys? Do your boys like to do art projects?
We definitely do a lot of art around here…mostly simple things with markers or watercolor. I like to have a sketchbook for each of them so they can pull it out anytime and their art stays in one place. Sometimes I’ll buy a big canvas and put out a bunch of paint and just let them go for it…they love that, but I have to say it’s a bit stressful to watch them flinging the brushes around. I just recently covered an entire wall in white paper so they can experience the uninhibited joy of working on a larger scale [as shown below]. I think the most important way I integrate art into their lives is just to point out beauty in the day-to-day stuff. I try to get them to notice the clouds, or interesting rocks, or even just talking about how nice certain illustrations are in their books. I think noticing is a huge part of being an artist.
Do you find your artistry rubbing off on your two little boys?
I think so, at least a little bit. Once, when Liam was three we were driving in a sad underground parking garage and he said something like, ‘Oooh, it’s so beautiful in here! I love the yellow lights, how they make everything look so golden, like it’s glowing.’ Ha ha! I loved it. He really likes to draw and comes up with some really creative stuff, but doesn’t have a very long attention span yet. Grey, surprisingly, has an incredible attention span for art. Starting around 18 months he could sit in his high chair and color on the same paper for at least a half hour. Once we were all in the backyard playing, and Grey literally covered the entire sidewalk with amazing chalk art for the better part of an hour without stopping. I’ve got high hopes! Ha ha. Though Dan, my husband, and I always joke that our kids will probably reject art, and spend all their time playing football and listening to rap music.
What are some of your greatest achievements in your art career thus far?
My first time showing work in Vancouver was a group exhibition for emerging artists at the Seymour Art Gallery. I was so surprised that I even got into the show, so I was especially shocked when I got first place, a cash reward, and the Carole Badgley Emerging Artist Award. That was very motivating for me. I also got juried in to be a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists. It’s very cool to be part of a larger organization committed to making connections and creating opportunities for artists. The other achievement that I’m really happy about is my partnership with Plaidfox. They run an incredible website selling furniture and home décor. The owner saw my work in the home of someone who had purchased a couple of paintings and he asked her for my contact info. It was flattering for sure, and it’s been really exciting for me to get involved in the design industry a bit.
Do you have any showcases or projects in the near future or ones that you are currently working on?
I’m working on a new series of trees based on the urban park here in Vancouver called Stanley Park. I’m using really soft organic layers with incredibly bold, bright geometric accents to capture the amazing intersection of wilderness and vibrant urban activity that co-exist so beautifully there. I’m also in the process of starting a company with a good friend, and very talented designer, Alison Foreman. It’s called Paper Scissor :: Party Artistry. We are designing really beautiful decorations for parties and special events, all of which can be emailed in a file to the customer, who will print it, cut it out, and put it together. It’s sort of like a cheater’s way to DIY. We are hoping to offer something truly unique, and high end. I am doing all original illustrations and art-work. Ali takes my illustrations and incorporates her own original designs, patterns, and fonts, and lays everything out. It’s still in the very early stages, but the results so far have been really fantastic. We’re hoping to officially open up shop later this summer.
Want to know more about Denise Gasser?
Want to know where you can buy her work?
Denise has her own Etsy shop, The Curious Line, which can be found here. Finally, and most excitingly, Denise’s brand new series of animal art has just been released on Plaid Fox with more additions to come! Their entire site is fantastic! Prints are being sold through them exclusively.
Thank you Denise for allowing us to see a glimpse of your life as a mother and artist; how you have balanced it all and how you have merged those two worlds to create such a unique, amazing and beautiful series, Art After.
* I was totally Inspired by Denise’s Art After series as I had an experience one evening while working on my post where my one child (who was in bed and should have been sleeping) kept coming out of her room and interrupting me while I was supposed to be working. So, I thought it would be interesting to record all the instances that night that my kids had caused me to stop what I was doing to attend to their needs. Of course, I couldn’t leave my post never to be finished again once I was interrupted because this would be a very short and boring post because I would have accomplished almost nothing in that first 15 minutes before I got interrupted. It turns out my 2 year old must have got the “Do Not Disturb” memo because I didn’t need to go into his room once, so these interruptions came solely from my 5 year old within a 2 hour span (#2 and #5 are my favorite). Without further ado, here they are:
1) Comes out of room to tell me she found her younger brother’s sippy cup and hands it to me.
2) Tells me “I need to go potty, it’s an emergency” (even though she just went 15 minutes ago. Then spent the next 15 minutes in the bathroom trying to distract me from sending her back to her room by asking all those hard hitting questions like “why do dogs go to the bathroom on grass?”)
3) Comes out of room with Green Lantern figurine to ask “Why does Green Lantern wear a mask?”
4) Comes out of room to get a drink of water (even though she had a drink of water right before bedtime).
5) Comes out of room with a chair and says “I don’t want this chair in my room because it’s smelly” (??? For the record, the chair does not smell. I have no words).
6) Asks me to fix a tangled yo-yo.
7) Comes out of room carrying a brown pillow, sets it down in front of me and simply states: “There’s a brown pillow in my room,” leaves it beside me and and goes back into her room.
So here’s to Mother’s Day! Let’s hear it for all the amazing, nurturing, resilient, loving, hard-working, strong mothers out there juggling motherhood, work and/or their passions in life. It’s no easy feat…but you got this!
Photo credits: Julianne Kozak