Interview w/ Isabel Samaras • Artist

SM: What do you like the best about your paintings?

IS: That’s kind of a toughie — how do you answer that without sounding like a big fat-head? “I really love what a totally awesome painter I am! Man, I ROCK!” I guess what I like is the moments where it feels like the painting gets close to what I saw in my mind’s eye, what I was striving for. If there’s places where the heat comes through, or the love or the humor, or some spot where I really nailed a tough bit of work, a hand looks right, that kind of thing. And I like being finished — when I’m done and I can *tell* that I’m done, because I could noodle around in there forever. (It has long been suspected that this is the main reason I glaze and varnish my paintings — so that I will have to stop working on them.)

I also truly dig how other people react to them and interact with them. The painting part itself is largely solitary (except for friends dropping in and then being cajoled into modeling). So when you finally get to show the work and hear what people think, that’s pretty sweet.

SM: What do you consider to be the most important thing about your work?

IS: For other people or for me? I try to keep kicking out the crutches, the things that I thought were totally important to my work or my style. In the beginning, when I was doing the old tin lunch boxes and some of the early tin tv trays, I painted black lines around everything. It was partly an homage to comics but it was also a way of fudging edges — I didn’t have to be a master painter ’cause you snap a black line around things and they just POP, they look great, it makes everything look very crisp and spiffy. Once I realized I was doing it to avoid having to deal with the edges of things in my paintings I slowly phased it out. And in so doing I had to learn how to be a better painter. It took a much longer time to give up on the TV trays — I was really conflicted about it. Is this what makes my work special? Is this what people like most about my work? It was scary to jump off the trays onto wood panels but it was totally liberating too – I wasn’t confined to the same shapes and dimensions anymore, I could paint big stuff, little stuff, round stuff, square stuff. Same again with oil paints – I’d been using acrylic forever, really felt like I had a handle on it, but I was ready to stretch. It was daunting tho’, the thought of using oils and sucking at it for a while. But Mark Ryden and Eric White were both very positive and encouraging and it’s been so worth it, oil paint is just phenomenal.

Which is a very long winded way of saying I don’t know what’s most important about my work, that to me it’s important to keep growing and reaching beyond what I think I can do. To find the things that I’m hung up on and get rid of them, so as to force the work to a higher level.

That said, I’d like to think that there are emotions at play in my paintings – they’re not cold or analytical, you’re meant to feel something when you look at them. So if I’m being totally honest then it’s actually important to me that my paintings evoke some kind of feeling in people, even if it’s just a chuckle or a little vibrating resonance.

SM: Describe the last stranger you saw who fascinated you.

IS: I kind of have a thing for interesting noses, so I always find myself staring when I see a great one. I’m so taken with people’s faces — I think I have to start working more real people into the paintings. The last stranger who fascinated me was just some guy on the street who had a great nose and who I instantly pictured in a costume with proper dramatic lighting and I very much wanted to paint him.

SM: Preferred Jungle Animal?

IS:There’s a new question. Is this one of those “the animal you pick indicates something about your personality” things? Yoikes! I like felines and simians – big cats and apes/chimps. (‘Cause, you know, I like to chase mice and eat bananas.)

SM: Last song you danced to?

IS: Gang of Four “I Found That Essence Rare” (here in my studio, go ahead and picture that ), and the theme song to the old “Batman” TV show with my kid while we jumped up and down on his bed. Atomic turbines to speed!

SM: Why paint characters from television shows?

IS: Well a lot of “classical” painting is working with a cast of characters that were readily known to the viewers of their time. By using visual cues (costumes, props) or titles you would indicate that this is so-and-so from the Bible or mythology. But we’re not as familiar with those stories now. What seemed to be the common language, the story base that my generation was really steeped in, was television. So I can tell the stories I want and by using characters that are familiar to you, you can hopefully “get” it in a way that you might not if I was painting Cephalus and Procris.

It’s also this sense of needing to “re-write” history. I felt a lot of injustice in these situations when I was a child – I thought it sucked that Jeannie was basically a slave, that Catwoman never got to be with Batman, that they murdered little Caesar’s parents in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes.” All that stuff just killed me. So I wanted to both make commentaries on how people see each other and treat each other, but also provide some happy endings (or happy beginnings).

SM: What were you doing five years ago around this time?

IS: Five years ago… hmmm…. Lemme think… probably pretty much exactly the same thing. I was going to say “but without all these toys everywhere” but there were toys then too, it’s just that they used to be my toys and now they’re my kid’s toys.

SM: Introvert or Extrovert?

IS: Depends on the situation. I’m generally somewhat gregarious and outgoing but there’s certainly times I’m just not feeling it. Perhaps because I spend so much time alone working in my studio, any chance to get out and chat with people is sort of special and I tend to want to take advantage of it and yuk it up a bit.

SM: C. S. Lewis, William Blake, and T.S. Eliot are to be featured in a commissioned painting done by you. What will you paint them doing?

IS: I mostly work with fictional people because their characters are drawn very broadly, much larger than life – they’re very easy to play with. And I do what is probably a silly amount of research when I’m working on something (I like to read biographies and books about the makings of the TV shows, behind the scenes stuff), so without getting gut-deep into these guys it’s sort of hard to say (unless the person commissioning the piece had specific ideas they wanted to talk about). I like all their work so maybe something very academic with togas like “The School of Athens” or something more dark and dramatic like “The Summer at Emmaus”. I’d have to know a lot more about them as people – what their quirks were, what they were known for (who was the nut at parties with the lampshade on his head? Who was the womanizer or man-izer? Who was the wacky recluse? Etc. etc.).

SM: Tell us, please, an anecdote.

IS: How about the one where the President of the United States steals the election and nobody calls him on it? Whoo! That’s a good one…

Did you mean a personal one? Have I mentioned I have a short-term memory problem? Hmmm. Well I seem to keep experiencing The Lemonade Effect – you know, life gives you lemons and you’re supposed to make lemonade. Or put another way, there are no obstacles, only opportunities. Whenever I’m asked to do a painting “on theme” for a show I really bitch and moan about it because I just want to follow my own whims and I guess I have issues about being “confined” or “directed” (which is largely responsible for my being an artist – I am not fit for employment). I needed to do a piece for a Halloween show once and was cooking along with my ideas when the curator said “Wait, it’s even better – it’s a doll themed show!’ and I deflated completely. Dolls? I don’t know from dolls, I don’t paint dolls, I don’t know what the hell to even think about dolls (oh the irony since I have a huuuuuge collection of female action figures, especially Catwoman and Bride of Frankenstein stuff). I was just pounding my head into the wall for months. But then a really simple idea came together (head pounding is highly underrated) and the piece (“Wednesday the Destroyer”) ended up being a favorite. And that’s been true of most of the work that’s come out that way – having a theme imposed on the work made me to come up with things I wouldn’t normally have done, to step outside the parameters of my usual thinking a little bit. Which is cool!