Gail Potocki is an award-winning Symbolist painter who combines the techniques of the Old Masters with 21st Century themes. With subjects ranging from the extinction of species to circus freaks, Potocki creating dramatic, evocative works in elaborate frames she makes herself, the draw the viewer into worlds of danger of beauty. Her new series “Fragmented Alice” opens Saturday, August 17 at 7pm at Century Guild and runs through September 21 with special closing event. She corresponded with CARTWHEEL about her new series, works in progress and her process
The new series centers around Alice in Wonderland, how (or is this) the continuation of your themes of environmental destruction seen in earlier works?
The Century Guild Gallery director, Thomas Negovan, proposed that I create a body of work around the “Alice” theme. At first I was hesitant because I didn’t want to just illustrate the story again since it has been done so many times beautifully in the past and also because many of the characters didn’t seem as relevant today as they did in Lewis Carroll’s time.
Instead I decided to reinterpret to a degree what the original story may have been about. I pretended in my mind that the words and image were town apart and lying on the ground only to be discovered by me later in history and pieced together. I thought about how I would do this filling in the blanks with elements from my own life experiences as well as infusing it with realities of the contemporary world. I also saw some of the characters that Alice meets in the story as being aspects of Alice herself or fragments of her cosmic reality. Where Lewis Carroll sees Wonderland as a surreal landscape infused with bits of England that was his home, I decided to use Detroit (my hometown) as a backdrop. Although I grew up there when it was a very living and vibrant city, most traces of my childhood have vanished. The house that I grew up in has burned down, my school has been torn down, my family is gone and most of the other landmarks from my youth have disappeared. This creates an equally surreal Wonderland experience for me whenever I go there. It is like my childhood was just a dream since I no longer have any tangible traces of it there to validate it.
The environmental works are very important to me and I will continue to do them. Once in a while however, I need to take a break from the subject because it makes me so depressed.
How did you begin painting? Frame making?
I was an extremely late-bloomer when it came to becoming a painter since I didn’t make my first painting until I was close to 40 years old. Before that I had a normal 9-5 job and would take an evening drawing class from time to time. I was lucky enough to find a small atelier school in Chicago that taught traditional methods of drawing and painting and thatchanged my life! Before that, I had ideas about paintings and drawings in my head but was never able to even remotely execute them because I had very little skill.
The frame making part originated from the fact that I was broke and couldn’t afford to have the large painting that I completed at school framed. One of my instructors offered to help me make one and also showed me how to do gold leafing. I was so pleased with the results and how it offered the opportunity to extend elements from the painting out onto the frame that I continued to make the majority of my frames since. Over the years they have become more elaborate, and I have a good friend who is much more patient when it comes to carpentry who helps me.
How do you begin your works? Do you do color studies and sketches beforehand?
No, I don’t really do too many of the preliminary steps that artists tend to do before creating a painting. I never sketch or doodle. I usually think up an idea and, if I am not going to execute it immediately, I write down a description of it in words on a piece of paper. For larger and more complicated paintings I do a loose line drawing of it on charcoal paper to be sure that I have a feeling for the design and the way the space will be used. There is nothing worse that getting half way through a painting and running out of room on the canvas because of bad planning!
Is there a book in works?
There is always “a book in the works” but it has just been difficult finding the time to make that tangible. We are planning a book “Opened Apples” of my more recent paintings which we will be making time to work on this winter as well as one for the Freaks series.
Will Alice become a trading card series like Freaks?
I don’t think there are any plans for that at this time.
Early on I was influenced quite a bit by the 19th century Symbolist painters such as Fernand Khnopff and Jean Delville as well as Polish painters from that time period and the Old Masters.
Now, it seems to depend on what area of my work I am trying to focus on. If I am trying to expand my color vocabulary I might be looking more closely at nature or textiles or photography. I am also influenced by reading about science, particularly environmental science, biology and quantum physics. I wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid and lovel earning about theories of the universe as well as what things are made of.
I don’t think that I have any particular influences now. Sometimes just listening to a certain type of music will create a mood for me that triggers a creative idea. I like ambivalence and art that stirs the emotions but doesn’t necessarily dictate how the viewer/listener is supposed to feel. I think balancing on the edge of conflicting emotions is an interesting place to dwell and I strive to create images that allow the viewer to hover in that space.
The following is a selection Potocki’s earlier works. Robert Williams said of Potocki:
A really fantastic artist… It’s refreshing to see a modern painter that has a classic, romantic touch and the skills to add a fresh facet of expression to the new period of Realism.