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Anne Blenker's Layers of Inspiration

We interviewed New Orleans-based artist Anne Blenker on her Pacific upbringing, the allure of the swamp, her unique creative process, and the environmental topics she dives into while making.

Photo: Michael Tucker

We interviewed New Orleans-based artist Anne Blenker on her Pacific upbringing, the allure of the swamp, her unique creative process, and the environmental topics she dives into while making.

What was it like growing up on the Pacific, and how has that informed your life here?

I spent a good portion of my early childhood growing up on a ranch in Northern California where I was left to my own devices to explore the natural landscape. I collected rocks and had close encounters with wild animals. I think those experiences and spending so much time outside alone instilled a reverence for nature in me. The landscape there is very dramatic; the cold rocky ocean, rolling hills, redwood forests and all just a few hours from snowy mountains . Observing varying natural perspectives has made me aware of my surrounding environment and in turn incorporated itself into my work.

I moved to Louisiana in my teens, which was a shock for me. It took me awhile to get a handle on the dark beauty of the swamp, but now I really love it. I enjoy the wide almost panoramic horizon you get outside of the city. The way that water surrounds you here - cypress trees and big oaks alongside tropical foliage. My favorite though is the tropical rainstorms. It is such a renewing feeling when it rains.

“It took me awhile to get a handle on the dark beauty of the swamp, but now I really love it. I enjoy the wide almost panoramic horizon you get outside of the city. The way that water surrounds you here - cypress trees and big oaks alongside tropical foliage.”

When did you know that you wanted to move to New Orleans? What was the draw?

I had gotten out of Pratt Institute and was back in Lafayette, LA, where I was making show posters and t-shirts for friends bands and struggling to reconnect with art. I didn’t love my job waiting tables, so one day I quit and the next week I was living in New Orleans. Ever since high school, I had been coming to New Orleans to see shows and art at the museums. It was always an alluring place.

How have you grown since being here? And how has that influenced your work?

I will always feel connected to this city because it is where I really found the inspiration to paint again. There is a great spirit in New Orleans and creative revelry ingrained in the culture. People live creative lives despite their circumstances and make interesting things for the sake of it. That philosophy has really inspired my own work ethic.

My latest series is influenced by the subtropical ecology of New Orleans and the surrounding landscape. I wanted to use different elements of the landscape and collage them together in a unique way. I have lived in other places, but New Orleans is truly unique. It is dark but colorful, mysterious yet buoyant. The vivid colors of houses are wild, and I love the way foliage finds its way in unexpected places.

“I have lived in other places, but New Orleans is truly unique. It is dark but colorful, mysterious yet buoyant.”

What’s your process like?

My process starts digitally. Photoshop really changed my life when I learned how to use it. I have been using it like a sketchbook for years working out ideas for paintings. For a couple years I worked on a series in which I layered different perspectives of aerial imagery in abstract, weaving patterns. Now I am incorporating more plants and landscape perspective elements in addition to those aerial views, including the Mississippi river. I use found imagery and my own photos that I rework and digitally collage. I also use a Wacom pen to draw into the computer. I think the layer system in Photoshop really lends itself well to my painting process because both operate in layers. Once I have arrived at a finished composition in Photoshop, I transpose the imagery to canvas through projection and drawing. When I am working I generally share a lot of my process on Instagram, because watching the changes and transformation of each piece is as exciting as the finished product.

What work(s) are you most proud of and why?

I am proud of anything that pushes me to challenge myself. In 2015, I made 6’ x 12’ triptych entitled Reprise. I had never painted anything that large before. It was a rewarding challenge because I discovered when you are painting on that scale it can create a larger impact . I am also proud of my Water series, where I took different aerial views of glacial melt in Greenland and layered them together to evoke an image of water. This series reflected on how the environmental shifts in the Arctic impact places everywhere with rising sea levels. And for my newest series ‘River of Palms,’ I painted 14 new pieces for a show at Brand Gallery in about 4 months. Making that much work in a short amount of time pushed me creatively and made me lean into a new process. I am most excited about the work whenever I push myself out of a comfort zone.

What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

I want my work to explore and engage with global and local environmental issues. Locally, the biggest problem is coastal erosion and rising sea levels. New Orleans is going to grapple with serious consequences of these issues - and it already has, in truth, during Katrina. The underlying risk is increasing. It is not a question of if. It’s a question of when will be the next time we reckon with it. I would like to continue to ask how we are going to live with the water we have been trying to control for almost 100 years and explore our fraught relationship with the oil industry, with which our identity as a region is inextricably linked. These issues aren’t just unique to Louisiana either - everywhere with a coastline will be dealing with this in the years to come.

I am also interested in creating awareness about the many ways our global environment is changing in this Anthropocene age. I just got back from a trip in Washington where I spent a week at Olympic National Park. The air quality was dangerous from man made wildfires and affected what looked like half the country and Canada at the time. It was surreal to be in the middle of a million acre nature preserve and hardly being able to breath because of fires hundreds of miles away. I feel that so many of our environmental issues are connected, but there is a cognitive dissonance in how they are actually affecting our lives. I’m still figuring out how to bridge the gap of exploring these issues in my work and how to effectively communicate them. It feels imperative to bring these issues to the forefront and be a voice in the conversation.

What has your work taught you through the years? Or how has it helped you?

Painting is like meditation. During the hours I spend quietly expressing myself, the rest of the world falls away. I am grateful that I have such a renewing process ingrained in my life, especially in a time when we are constantly being bombarded by news and entertainment through our phones. I am very systematic in my painting process. If I weren’t, I think I would get lost in the deep space of creativity. When I want to make work, it really helps to have a system to make the process flow. Implementing this in my art practice has helped me in other areas of my life. I am always thinking of ways to change up my process when it gets too comfortable, but it helps to have a structure in place within which I can be creative.

“New Orleans is going to grapple with serious consequences of these issues - and it already has, in truth, during Katrina. The underlying risk is increasing. It is not a question of if. It’s a question of when will be the next time we reckon with it.”

What’s on the horizon?

I just finished my first mural. It is a private commission for a little spot in the Marigny down the street from where I live and it is called “Changing Horizon”. The 200 sq. ft. mural depicts a sunrise on a cypress strewn coastline obscured by different plants of the Marigny. Atop the piece, is perspective grid meeting your eye at the horizon and an aerial view of the Mississippi jutting it’s way south to dump into the Gulf. I love how it turned out. It was a great challenge to do such a large piece and I hope to keep doing more work on that scale in the future. I also want to explore more work that takes viewers from the city to the coastline and bring awareness to its inevitable approach.

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