The CARTWHEEL Interview with Isabel Samaras

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Look, I know you, dear CARTWHEEL reader, I know you. You’re wicked smart, probably very attractive, you have an unquenchable thirst for art, and you most certainly already know who Isabel Samaras is. Still, new art fanatics are born every day and for them a little background may be in order. So kids, Isabel Samaras is among the upper echelon of seminal pop surrealists. Her satirical takes on 60’s/70’s television characters in classical art motifs have been seen in countless books on the topic. She has shown alongside the likes of Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Shag, and Robert Williams in galleries across the globe. She grew up on the east coast and attended Parsons in NYC, but her most revered art teacher was in high school (waddup, Mr. Anderson!). She announced herself on the lowbrow art scene, and pretty loudly, with a series of bitingly funny paintings on vintage lunchboxes and TV trays. Currently she paints large (and small) scale oils on panel from her secret lair near Berkeley, where she resides with her husband, illustrator Marcos Sorensen, and their son. The gravitas of her work seems to have grown exponentially with her skills, without ever losing its sense of humor. Every new batch of Samaras paintings are more captivating than the last, and let’s face it, that’s a rare feat. Her latest exhibit, “Making a Better Yesterday Today” will feature  jaw-dropping new work alongside some of her greatest hits. The show opens November 3rd at Varnish Fine Art in San Francisco.

I’ve been corresponding with Isabel for a couple of years now. As a self-taught artist I often reach out and bug artists that I admire, emailing them various technical questions and the like. It doesn’t always work out. A lot of artists are just jerks. Every so often though, you’ll come across a few who are charming and incredibly helpful. Isabel is among the latter. I first interviewed her last December for my blog, but it’s a damn fine honor to have a more in-depth chat with her here for CARTWHEEL. She’s simply a pleasure to talk to.

Here’s how it went:

What’s a typical day in the life of Isabel Samaras like? Do you have a strict routine or do you wait for inspiration?

I was just joking the other day that I have a five minute commute but sometimes it takes me three hours. I wish I had a strict routine, I’m really envious of artists who treat their work like a 9-to-5 job, clock in and out at regular hours. I’d love to say:  I clamber out of bed like a monkey on Red Bull, grab an apple and swing into the studio to hit the easel before the first light of dawn crests over the horizon!  But that is a total lie.  Every part of it except for the apple (I’m growing six kinds in the back yard, taking “an apple a day” to new heights).  Truth is I’m a total night owl — the day often gets snarled up with the business end of things, paperwork and day-to-day stuff, so I tend to stay up very very late painting because those are the Golden Hours when the phone isn’t ringing, nobody is asking me for anything, it’s fabulously quiet, and time seems to go kind of honey liquid and stretch out without any boundaries.  (This means I am pretty much non-functional in the mornings and look like something that shambled out of The Walking Dead.)

I do the apple a day thing too (fujis). What kinds are you growing?

I planted Fuji, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and something else I forget, but before you picture acres of rolling farmland I should confess that some of those are actually grafted onto one trunk!  Coolest thing ever, like a magic apple tree.  And this year they are so absurdly, ludicrously juicy and sweet they put store apples to shame.  (For which I take no credit whatsoever — it’s California, baby!  But when I get really stressed out or the fumes in the studio are too heady, a little garden time is always the cure.)

What new ideas or themes are you exploring in the Varnish show? What do you have in store for us?

Everyone keeps calling it a “return” because I’m working with 60s/70s pop culture again, but it felt very organic — basically all these ideas kind of tumbled out of my skull where I guess they’d been hiding, waiting for the right time.  One in particular I’ve had kicking around in my head for nearly ten years but I never felt up to the task, and was like this little voice suddenly whispered: “Okay, now, try it now.” I have so much affection for all this, there’s so much joy in it for me. Plus it’s fun to tackle things I simply wasn’t capable of before, I didn’t have the skill set when I was painting the TV trays, or that scale just wasn’t right.  Pretty vague, I know, but let’s see… there’s naked ladies with supernatural powers, and Apes from a certain planet, and castaways who thought they were going on a three hour tour, and a caped crusader finding bliss with a feline nemesis…

You’ve been working on this Varnish show for at least a year. Are you creating an entirely separate group of paintings for the La Luz De Jesus show in 2013?

Oh yeah, that’s the Far Off Distant Future at this point — I have a show in Rome between now and then, too!  (No rest for the wicked.)

Recently, I saw your work had been “appropriated” by some street artists. Is that more infuriating than flattering for you?

I guess it’s a little of both.  I mean obviously it’s great that someone liked an image I created enough to spend time stenciling it up onto a wall somewhere, but I don’t think I’m so well known that everyone who sees it is going to get that it’s my work — it wasn’t intended as an homage, know what I mean?  And when that image gets a ton of publicity I kinda feel like a dork going “Um, yeah, that’s actually my art…” This image we’re talking about — Batman kissing Robin — it’s not like I own that idea, other artists have done it too and I love that because the world cannot have enough images of Batman kissing Robin in it.  But maybe draw your own?

Secrets of the Batcave, Part 2


I wanted to get your take on artists resale rights. In May, a judge struck down the California law allowing artists a 5% resale royalty. What are your thoughts on that?

In twenty years of selling art in California, only one gallery ever paid me the 5%.  (Thank you, La Luz de Jesus, you rock.)  Maybe it just didn’t come up much. It would be nice to think that collectors never re-sold my work because they loved it too much to ever part with it, but most artists I know have never even heard of this law — it was like a myth people would whisper about (“Hey did you hear? Once this artist actually got a tiny bit of their resale price!”).  I doubt many of us will notice the difference; it might be more of an issue for higher end artists who’s work is sold at auction houses n’ wotnot.  Most people would probably say “Well if your work increased in value and sells for a higher price when it’s resold then that’s good for you, the artist, whether you get a taste of that money or not.”  But it was nice getting a taste of that resale money. Who doesn’t like finding a surprise check in the mail?

I want to get in a couple of technical questions. Do you make your oils from scratch?

Hells no!  I did make my own acrylic paints back in the day (which I used on the lunch boxes and TV trays). I’ve always been obsessed with the color red and there was a great little shop in the East Village in NY that sold pure pigments — they had the same ground pigment that was used to paint Ferrari’s, literally “Ferrari Red”. That made me exceedingly happy. But I’m pretty pleased with what I can buy in a tube now, and I’m crazy finicky about color.  (This quest for red perfection led to some interesting issues when I did my book “On Tender Hooks” with Chronicle — they took on the task of trying to reproduce my reds, which turned out to be quite a challenge and ended up necessitating an entirely new, additional color of ink being used as an overlay in the printing process to get the reds right!  It’s so great that they cared enough to go that extra mile.)

Do you use a damar varnish?

Not anymore — Mark Ryden told me it would lead to alcoholism!  (He said it yellows and cracks.)  I talked to some people who do art conservation at both MOMA and SFMOMA as well as other artists, and everyone said the same exact thing:  Soluvar.  And so far so good.  (My fingers are actually semi-glued together with it right now, which is making all this typing quite a challenge.  Thank you, spell check.)

The problem solving sock glove!

The sock glove is brilliant! How did that come about?

It sorta solved two problems for me — I have a really bad habit of resting my hand on my painting as I’m going along and “potato printing” wet little palm prints all over.  (Cursing and hollering usually follows.)  Somehow having my little sock mitts on makes me more aware of my hands and where I put them, plus I like to paint standing up and holding a rag is sort of a pain (only got the two hands, and you *really* don’t want a rag draping and swishing around over your wet painting).  I can wipe my brushes on my sock-clad hands as I go, keep the bristles pointed, clean off bits of the wrong paint, etc.  My friends give me their old socks, and also their styrofoam meat trays — I’m a vegetarian, but I love using them for paint palettes because they’re really lightweight. Sometimes I cut them up to make little “custom palettes” when I only need a couple colors for highlights and stuff, so I don’t have to hold a big unwieldy thing just to have a tiny dab of paint easily accessible.  (At this point you should sort of be picturing my painting set-up like the art equivalent of those “one man bands” where they have twelve musical instruments strapped to them.)

Hair, hands, eyes? What’s the most challenging thing to paint?

For me, hands.  I love painting all kinds of hair and fur and fabric — that’s the most fun part of any painting. Half the reason I’m so drawn to Baroque art is because they’ll just stick a bunch of red drapery in there for no apparent reason.  (Like Caravaggio’s St. Jerome — wrinkled old naked man in a white sheet contemplating a skull, very somber and bleak … and then there’s miles and miles of incredibly luxurious cardinal red velvety fabric draped all over the place.  Just ’cause.)  I almost always paint the eyes before everything else so I have somebody to talk to while I’m working. (I wish I were kidding.) Once they’re looking at me it’s like there’s some “there” there. But hands — I love love love hands, they are a real test and they can be so beautiful and expressive. Paint them wrong and they look absolutely ridiculous, like uncooked calamari. I did a whole series of hand paintings once because I wanted to see how much personality I could capture, how much “story” I could tell, with just a hand.  (Someday I’m going to do “A Show Of Hands.”  That will be the beginning of my “titles that make you groan” series.)

Redivivus (The Secret)


What’s your biggest pet-peeve about the art world?

Honestly? It kinda bugs me how galleries almost always want a fresh, new painting.  If this were rock n’ roll everybody would wanna hear their most beloved song!  I often wish I could just send my current favorite piece. Plus I have this theory that each painting just needs to get in front of the right person, its “match”, so they can make a love connection and go live happily ever after together. And that can’t happen if it’s sitting in a rack in my studio; the paintings need to get out there and do some speed dating, because it really works like that — right place, right time, right person walks in and *bam!*, cue the happy music. (Sometimes it’s not the first place that painting showed.  Or even the second.) I’m super happy because for my show at Varnish we’re kind of riffing on the show title (“Making a Better Yesterday Today”) by including a room of “today” paintings, the new pieces, *and* a room of “yesterday”, a little curated selection of some of my favorite older pieces. That’s kind of my dream, lots of opportunities for people to have that “love at first sight” moment.

One of the many fun things about viewing your art is playing “name the historical reference”. Your “Birth of Ginger” being a classic example. This new piece with Samantha and Jeannie chilling, presumably post-coitus in the bottle…are you referencing another painting there?

Not a specific painting, no.  For that piece I really wanted to capture the flavor of what “erotic” was at that time — it was saucy and coy, like Playboy of the early 60s as opposed to today — so that it would be in keeping with the era of the TV shows it’s referencing.  (The magazine she’s holding has a Cutty Sark ad on it from an actual 60’s issue of Playboy, I’ve got boxes of’ em.)  But it’s also a holla back to Orientalism — this period in art history when Europeans were hearing all these tantalizing stories about the mythic, exotic Middle East and things like harems which just set their imaginations on flaming overburn.  Ingres, one of my all time favorite painters, did a bunch of “Can you believe it, all these gorgeous women just waiting at your beck and call?!?” paintings.  And in a way I think the show “I Dream of Jeannie” was just like that, a “Can you believe it? A gorgeous genie, ready to grant his every wish!”  Except of course in my version she’s not interested in *his* wish — she’s found another hot supernatural blond who could join her inside her bottle for some “while the cat’s away” playtime.

I know Ingres is a huge influence on you, and you keep some pretty heavyweight art company. Are there any new, emerging artists your particularly excited by?

You know my problem? I can’t ever remember anyone’s name.  It’s really pathetic and I’ll blame it on all the varnish and solvents.  I see stuff all the time that completely knocks my socks off, either because it’s so well done that the level of craft is mind boggling, or it’s just so damn clever and smart that I’m both admiring it and kinda jealous. It’s not just the varnish eating my brain:  in 1981 they issued about 49,000 art degrees, but by 2009 it was up to 125,000.  There are a *lot* of us now, and some of the art people are making is really fantastic, but I cannot remember the names to save my life.

Your son must be about 12 now. Does he seem interested in following his parent’s path?

I just asked him and he said “Not really, no. Seems like a neat thing to do but currently I’m interested in other things.”  (Everybody’s gotta rebel against their parents.)  He likes to do stenciled airbrush designs on t-shirts, but at the moment he’s obsessed with competition level yoyoing. I kinda miss when he was into magic because I was trying to get him to grift spare change from people at art openings to do tricks (and then make it disappear — gotta start that college fund).

If you could just go crazy and curate a dream exhibit from any works in history, which would you choose?

Wow. The stuff that I would love to see in person, the stuff that really blows me away, is all the crazy detailed super-tight work of the Dutch and Flemish masters, the Italian Renaissance, and then of course Ingres. But there’s a lot of terrific, very obscure stuff scattered all over Europe that you can only stumble on when you’re in museums or lucky enough to peep someone’s private collection — they’re not famous, they’re kinda like the “one hit wonders” of the old art world, so not only are there no books about them, you can’t even find them on the interwebs!  I’d like to gather them up in one place for all of us to oggle at, because there is no other way you would ever even know they exist and some of them are incredible.

I’ve been going back and reading some old interviews with you. In a few, you mention the recurring theme of “unrequited love”? Does that still carry a particular resonance with you, and why? Are there examples of that in the new work?

I think it’s part of my “what if/why not” mindset, which I blame on a number of childhood influences (everything from science fiction books to the absurdity of TV shows where nobody ever seemed to clue into the potential love staring them right in their faces). It really tugs on my heartstrings any time someone can’t share or express their love — I think that’s why gay rights are so important to me, because to keep people from being able to share their lives is a crime against humanity.  And to some degree I think that feeling is sort of universal, it’s why “Romeo and Juliet” is so powerful, because it hurts to see love denied. Honestly I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I most definitely do have this sort of Cupid-like desire to right wrongs, and one day I realized I could use my paint brush like a love-arrow. (I’d like to point out that I do *not* try to do this in real life — the few times I tried to set friends up on dates it was a complete disaster!)

You continue to show quite a lot in Rome. What’s your favorite place to go when you’re there (art related or not)?

Can I cheat?  My favorite place in Italy actually isn’t in Rome — it’s La Specola, a small natural history museum in Florence where they have an posivitely staggering collection of anatomical wax models from the 17th century. The best of these are life-sized beautiful women with real hair and pearl necklaces, reclining on silk cushions — with all their insides opened up and spilling out.  These were teaching models, copied from real corpses, but they are incredible works of art as well and I’ve always been drawn to this period in history when art and science were holding hands and skipping along together. They also have a lot of taxidermy animals including a hippo and a somewhat wonky lion. You could spend days in there, and I swear that big mangy cat is the source of every weird lion that appears in Italian old master paintings (being the only one they had to look at).  If I’m not allowed to cheat, the Capuchin crypt in Rome is spectacular.  Underneath the Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione church they’ve got the bones out thousands of monks all beautifully arranged in these intricate architectural patterns and designs, skull mosiacs and even “the Crypt of the Pelvises.”  It sounds skin-crawlingly grisly but it’s stunning and the idea wasn’t to gross you out — the monks who did it (I think they started in the 1600s) wanted you to be reminded of your short life,  “What we are, you will become” and all that. (Rome also has a “Museum of Purgatory”, which is really just a room in a church, but it’s full of artifacts that are supposed to show evidence of souls in purgatory trying to communicate with the living, like books that have hand prints burned into them.)Rome also has some supremely kick ass gelato and at the Colosseum you can have your picture taken being stabbed by gladiators!

Will you be attending Art Basel Miami this year?

Absolutely and I can’t wait, ART DISNEYLAND!  Completely exhausting but all us hermity types get to see each other, so it’s a bit like the high school reunion you actually *want* to go to.

I saved the best for last. If someone wanted to win your affections through chocolate, what kind would do it?

The pure uncut cocaine of the chocolate world: organic extra dark.  No wacky flavors or add-ins or toppings, just really, really good, really really dark chocolate.

Thanks Isabel!

By the way folks, I’d  be remiss if I failed to mention that Isabel has one of the best artist blogs going. Seriously, check it out.

“Making a Better Yesterday Today” will run from Nov. 3 through Dec. 22, 2012
opening reception Saturday, November 3rd, 6pm – 9pm
Varnish Fine Art
16 Jessie Street, #C120
San Francisco, CA 94105
Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm
 CARTWHEEL will be adding more photos of the new work after the show opens, so stay tuned.
 In the meantime, wanna see her studio?

Isabel during battle.


The easel, where the magic happens.


Options are important!


She’s got a thing for filberts.


Daily affirmation.


…because it can get lonely in the studio.


The baroque palette.


Don’t be scared.


Endless inspiration.


The hero wall!


The art studio must-have, a fully stocked bookshelf.


Castaway (Lovey)


The Arrival of Hope


Castaway (Howell)


Cloud Nine


Castaway (Mary Ann)


All photos courtesy of Isabel Samaras and Varnish Fine Art.

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