(Painting and Textiles) ASHLEY SOLIMAN
New York-based artist Ashley Soliman paints whimsical portraits of botanical life and consumer products. She also designs her own line of handbags, and she has plans to expand her textile work into other categories. In this interview, she discusses her creative inspirations, along with the secret lives of plants.
You currently have a series of botanical paintings titled “Field Work.” What was your inspiration for this subject? Have you always felt an affection for plants and garden life?
Oh gardening, I wish! I’m not good at growing or keeping plants alive. I’ve resorted to having a garden on paper instead. This ongoing series originated less from affection and more from body horror and repulsion. About two years ago, I passed by a gigantic dead sunflower in my neighborhood and its husk looked disturbingly alien. This alluringly grotesque sight became an obsession and lifted me out of my artistic dry spell when I realized that flowers lent themselves well to human physicality and emotions. I rarely like to depict people save for costume sketches and clowns, so this felt like a big breakthrough. The series title comes from “Field Work”, a track featuring Thomas Dolby off of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia”. The lyrics embody what I am pursuing in these paintings: using nature to explore the mysteries of life and humanity. Music is very important to me and I’m sure many others also find it invigorating in their life and/or artistic practice.
Many of the plants in these paintings seem a little poisonous or dangerous. It’s almost like they have an attitude. What attracts you to painting portraits of tough plant life? Do you sense that individual plants can have their own personalities?
The blooms and buds I paint are mostly based on varieties we see everywhere such as sunflowers, daisies, weeds, sometimes roses. I’m not interested in depicting them delicately or with saccharine sentiment and like how confrontational they can become when rendered as larger portraits. These flowers certainly have their own agenda. After all, they are sex organs! They endure all kinds of weather, eat sunlight, and seduce creatures to pollinate them without ever moving from wherever they sprouted up. How neat is that? Nature is overwhelmingly rich in visuals and ideas. I don’t need to invent much. I just try to coax out whatever peculiarities I find and hope that the viewer sees a few interesting things of their own.
I do believe plants have personalities. There are notions about animal and insect behavior but not so much about plants, which gives me a wide berth. Just because we can’t see their inner lives doesn’t mean they don’t exist. How do you know that tree on the end of your block doesn’t follow your daily commute? How do you know your house plants aren’t planning a revolt? There’s a Roald Dahl short story called “The Sound Machine” about a man who invents a listening device only to realize (surprise!) that plants have feelings and scream when they are cut.
There’s a sense of vibrancy and motion to the botanical life in your series. What are your techniques for achieving a fluid look to what’s otherwise mostly inert life?
My preferred medium is gouache (basically opaque watercolor) for its vivid spectrum. I start with thin washes then layer a variety of linework and mushy areas to build form and shallow space. Since it dries so fast, I have to be decisive about mark making, which keeps me moving quickly and prevents overthinking- the same reason I use ink. I commit to whatever stroke I am laying down and try not to fuss over it so it retains a sense of immediacy. My hands are naturally a little shaky and I’ve learned to employ this to my benefit. I also find the possibilities of color thrilling, like supercharged reds and chartreuse and all those in between hues that have no name. Recently I’ve taken a liking to brown, which I have loathed my whole life but am now sheepishly finding useful and even a little exciting.
Your series “Ready to Eat” features recreations of food packaging, many for less well-known brands. What elements of product design catch your attention the most? Is there a certain streak of quirkiness or whimsy in the packaging that inspires you?
The grocery store is very stimulating and I enjoy taking in all the typography, colors, and materials. Multiples interest me. I grew up watching my parents curate collections of their own: stickers for my mother, chocolate wrappers for my father. I actually have an album of sugar packets. I started when I was ten and I think I have nearly five hundred now?! Anyways, this pen and marker series is from when I was working as a pastry cook after college. I was collecting all kinds of packaging and I liked the brands at work that weren’t in stores. My pile kept growing and there was no room to save it all, so I decided to document them in my spare time before reluctantly throwing most of them out. The restaurant sized jug of Spoleto grapeseed oil is from my time working at Hearth in the East Village. I thought the gushy little grape on the label looked overjoyed...probably since olive oil usually steals the spotlight.
You are beginning a new series titled “Chimerica.” Your recent work “On the Banks of Paradise the Air is Sweet” depicts an Edenic landscape that’s almost off-kilter with natural abundance. What are your ideas for this new series?
“Chimerica” is the synthesis of various ruminations over the past decade: the luxury of secret space, American food history and eating habits, “See America First” by H.C. Westermann, the industrialization of agriculture, unsustainability, film noirs, and turn of the century postcards featuring buoyantly large produce (my favorite!) It all crystallized after reading “The Big Oyster” and “Consider The Eel”. The bountiful America described in these books is vastly unrecognizable by today’s standards and it’s not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. This nonexistent, almost mythological landscape fills me with sadness and yearning. There’s only flora and fauna in my Chimerica, which is how it has remained unspoilt. It's been my private oasis for some time now and it feels quite vulnerable, almost voyeuristic, to have other people see this interior vista I've come to cherish.
I’m constantly grappling with my own effect on the environment. I want to be good to the planet! It gives me such agita. Then there’s the barrage of infuriating indecencies in the news. Intolerance and hate crimes! People getting away with shit they shouldn’t get away with! Outdated, idiotic cronies in our government! The MTA! And on and on. There’s no easy answer to any of it. If I didn’t make art, I would be a disaster. Thinking about Chimerica calms me down so much it’s practically self-care at this point. Fantasy can have such curative properties. I don’t agree with nostalgia or escapism, but I find traditional and personal folklore helpful in confronting reality and the questions science cannot answer.
You also have a line of textiles under the moniker Terrible Boogie. So far you’ve focused on creating handbags. Do you have any plans to expand beyond handbags, such as designing a clothing line?
Terrible Boogie Textiles marries my love of printmaking, sewing, and the handmade. I began with handbags since there’s no sizing involved. The next step is to design more unisex bags and then home goods. For now it’s just me doing everything and soon enough, I will offer the options of custom and made to order, which will allow me to spend more time block printing fabric and offer a small range of garments. I buy old stock or local materials as much as possible and am currently researching which stores to approach with my merchandise. I also have a few collaborations up my sleeve. Who know what direction this business will take? Please contact me through my website (www.terribleboogie.com) or Instagram (@terribleboogie) for purchases or inquiries!
Costume making for stage and video productions is also one of your pursuits. What’s been one of the more conceptually challenging and rewarding costume projects for you?
For the past four years, I worked in costume textiles at Jeff Fender Studio and finally made the leap this June to focus on my artwork and Terrible Boogie. Everyone in the industry knows Jeff Fender. We did projects for Broadway, TV/film, opera, dance, and the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show. I learned how to make lots of expensive new things look decrepit and smelly. I once painted a clean chef coat and apron to look super greasy for a Broadway show. It felt like my cooking years had come full circle and I was pretty proud of that.
On the side I was designing mostly musicals. There’s never enough time or money but one of my strengths is making something out of nothing. I’ll always remember “Astronaut Love Show” because it was the first show I had to tackle quick changes (it was a cast of six playing multiple roles.) My favorite piece from the show was a pair of tighty whities I painted a huge bloodstain on. It caused audible whimpers of sympathy pain from grown men in the audience.
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Photo by Kyle J. O’Connor