I've known Vivienne Strauss for a number of years now, but we've never actually been in the same room at the same time. Or even the same city. We've never spoken on the phone or shaken hands with one another. But she's essentially become, over time, the best 21st century erudite pen pal I could ever have conjured -- I've mailed her used copies of books I've read and she promptly sent me a new copy of Melissa Bank's "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" because she was vaguely appalled I hadn't yet read it. We've discussed depression and creativity and self-publishing and Netflix shows like "Lilyhammer" (a must-see), the mutual loss of our mothers and the mutual love we have for animals. A few years ago, my husband and I commissioned Vivienne to create a painting of us, when we were two dogs lighter and one black cat heavier. We adore this piece (shown above) so damn much, it hangs over our front door, so we can see it every day upon leaving.
We're thrilled to feature the brilliant and sweet Vivienne Strauss in our SHAPERS series. (Thanks, Viv, for being game for it!)
You work in both oil + acrylic paint, watercolor, and create irreverent collages using vintage advertisements and curious images sliced from old books. How do these mediums differ in your personal experience of them?
Over the years, my collage work has really become more and more sparse, I find that I keep cutting images down to the bare essentials and some collages are reduced to only two or three separate images. I try to include some humor in all of my work, often dark humor but collage is where I feel a bit more free to push things further. I usually get an idea and the idea itself forms in the medium with which I use to try and express it. When working in watercolor and ink, I am in a completely different mode and can't seem to stop adding more and more detail. With oil painting, it is difficult to leave alone - when I think it is finished, I generally move it out of sight when I'm no longer tempted to fix things. Flaws are what make work interesting.
There is a decidedly literary bend to your artwork, a fragility and humor that reminds me of Lorrie Moore with a twist of Joan Didion’s hopelessness, using phrases like “it was as plain as a pig on a sofa,” borrowed from Flannery O’Connor, as a painting title. Do you find yourself thinking of stories, both real and imagined, while making your art? How would you say the storyteller/writer in you influences your art?
I keep re-visiting the work of Flannery O'Connor though I think this year I read more of it all at one time than ever before and really became aware of the patterns in her work. I love when I discover a "new to me" author like Moore, read some of her work for the first time just last year and think I've read everything she's written so far. Now I have to be patient and wait for her to write something new. I try to capture in imagery, the moods I find in my reading, usually not with complete success but that is okay, I will just try again with the next piece. Often my work is a spinoff story that comes to me from something I've read, heard or seen in a movie.
Speaking of literary - I recently visited a farm in Derry, New Hampshire where Robert Frost lived with his wife and family for ten years. The guide said something that really resonated with me - she said that while Frost was not a successful farmer, loved to chop wood, scythe the grass and write. That made so much sense to me - I get my best ideas when I'm on a long walk rather than when I'm sitting still trying to think of something fresh and new. Action begets action. You are making me want to read some Joan Didion - sounds right up my alley!
You and your husband, the artist Matte Stephens, adopted a middle-aged mutt named Oliver several years ago and also have several cats. Could you tell us a bit about your animals?
Many animals have passed through our lives, I'm only going to mention those we have now. Oliver a 13 year old mix - Boston terrier/beagle/dachshund who came to live with us when he was 10. His personality is the best - super smart, rarely barks and gets along well with just about everyone though he is afraid of the wild turkeys I feed during the winter. Krasner, who was a stray kitten someone dumped off amongst a group of feral cats I used to feed in Birmingham. She appears rather innocent in this photo but she is always into something and is also very intelligent with a long attention span. She will watch a full-length movie as long as it is about birds or bears. Our other cat, Irving appears much more serious in his photo than he is in reality, he is actually one of the goofiest and lovable cats we've ever had.
Peterborough, New Hampshire may not be renowned for its mid-century modern architecture, but you happen to live in an incredible, spacious,1953-original home surrounded by acres of natural beauty and filled with George Nelson saucer pendants, Eames DCM chairs, and molded plywood tables. What do you love most about your home? Describe your home using five adjectives.
My favorite part of our home is that we live less than a mile from the center of town but have an endless parade of wild animals and birds through our back yard which backs up to both protected woodlands and marsh. I'm drawn into my studio because it faces the backyard and woods from the creatures appear - bears, bobcats, fox, raccoons, etc. We are on a flyway as well and get a lot of migratory birds as well as our regulars. I rarely paint something that doesn't have at least one animal in it.
If you could have breakfast with one famous person, living or dead, who would it be? And what would you order?
This is a tough one. I am actually working on a graphic novel of all the famous people I've come into contact with, both directly and indirectly. Most encounters ended with me asking myself, "did I really say that?" Assuming that I wouldn't blurt out something I would regret later- After much consideration, I will go with someone recently deceased - Maggie Estep. Her death came as a great shock to me, mainly because she was such a voice of the 1990s for me. I'm not sure what Maggie would eat as her diet was much more restricted than mine is but I'll have a garlic bagel toasted with lox, cream cheese, capers, red onion and tomato with an Americano on the side. Maggie Estep was irreverent, funny, deep and so talented.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Most definitely a morning person. Not that I actually want to talk to anyone in the morning. I just love those hours before the rest of the world gets up and drag my coffee drinking out for as long as possible.
What's currently on your bedside table?
The Lunatic by Charles Simic
My Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami
Happily Ali After by Ali Wentworth
Wonderland by Joyce Carol Oates
In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff & Tony Angell
The Poetry of Robert Frost
The Collected Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith (re-reading)
You love old films and it’s clear this adoration influences your character depictions within your paintings. Who are three of your favorite directors and/or favorite films you’ve watched over and over again?
I will stick to French films only here purely to keep this simpler...
I have recently discovered the work of Pierre Etaix and he is just brilliant! I especially love his short films and I am sure that they will influence some of my future work (already working on just a portrait of Monsieur Etaix). His humor helps balance out all the darker genres I am drawn to.
Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Samourai, Le Doulos, Le Deuxieme Souffle
Louis Malle - Elevator to the Gallows, The Fire Within
Agnes Varda - Le Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7
I found myself lost for several hours here attempting to pare down to a few favorites and the list just goes on and on.
*Lily Spindle's SHAPERS profiles the people whom we consider to be remarkable movers and shakers, doers and dreamers, trailblazers and big thinkers, the people who are doing things a little bit differently and unconventionally, with immense heart, passion, and authenticity in what they do. Artists, designers, writers, philanthropists, iconoclasts, artisans, heroines, voyagers, and all kinds of extraordinary extraordinaires will be interviewed in our SHAPERS series.