Name: Judith Vivell
Currently Living: New York, NY
When did you start your career in art? How long have you known you wanted to be an artist?
My father was an attorney, but he was also a Sunday painter, and my mother had studied art in Paris in the 1930’s, she later became a dress designer. My childhood home was full of art books and my father’s copies of the paintings of the impressionists and post-impressionists. When I was in the second grade I brought home a painting of a clown I had done in poster paint on news print. When my father saw it, he said that I would be an artist when I grew up. He immediately had the clown framed. From that moment on he thought of me as an artist, even if no one else did.
Tell us about your path to becoming an artist?
In my junior year my father talked me into taking a semester and a summer off to live in Florence. I took him up on it and spent most days wandering 1961 Florence and visiting the Uffizi every day. I began by making drawings of the masterpieces I saw everywhere. In Florence I lived at a Pension. The woman who ran the pension always wanted to see my drawings when I would come home at night. When she asked if she could buy one, I told her that she could have it as a gift, but she insisted on buying it. “I want to be your first collector,” she said.
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
It was another seven years before I had my next sale. And it was more of a trade than a sale. I gave a painting of a large nude to a guy who wanted to sell the rights to his loft in Chinatown in New York City. Shortly after that I received my MFA from Hunter College and had my first solo show in New York at a place called Flats Fixed in Soho. I also started selling my prints through Hank Baum Gallery in San Francisco and through Pace Editions in New York. I was in my late twenties when all that happened.
Describe your aesthetic in three words: Post-modernist realism
Describe your artistic process and preparation?
For the last twenty years I have made photography a crucial part of my process. My paintings begin as photos which I take in locations around the world (or as in the case of still lifes, that I have set up in my studio). I photoshop the photo as a way of producing the composition that I want. From there I draw the composition onto the canvas, put in the underpainting and proceed to paint the layers of the finished work. Often, I let the painting dry between the underpainting and the subsequent layers. Sometimes the best paintings are the most difficult to get “off the ground”. There is sometimes a great temptation to scrap a painting at the beginning. If I hang in there, and mostly I do, there is a moment when I become committed to the painting and begin to believe in it. After that, I am in the zone and it is pure fun. Before that it is a slog, but character building.
Judith at work in her studio
Favorite piece you’ve painted to date and why?
I don’t have a favorite painting. I tend to personally like very large paintings, but small ones have become a challenge and I am trying to become better at making smaller paintings that have the monumental quality that I like in the big ones. Sometimes I realize that there is something virtuoso or masterful about a painting I have done, but that is not what makes a painting great. I have paintings of certain subjects which I, myself, love, but which I know will never sell. I am thinking of two enormous paintings of vultures.
Who inspires you personally and/or professionally?
At this moment, I am loving Indian Mogul art, Lucien Freud, Audubon, John Singer Sargent. I never go to the Met without visiting the post-impressionist rooms. The Rembrandt room there is one of my favorite places on the planet. I love Louise Nevelson and Alice Neal. Walton Ford is a favorite. Louise Bourgeoise had a recent show at the modern which was wonderful. But Hieronymus Bosch is my favorite artist of all time. There is an altarpiece at the Met which is so perfect and so beautiful that I can’t believe it still exists and that I can see it whenever I want.
What challenges do you think exist in the world of fine art? How do you approach/overcome them?
It is a huge challenge to do what you believe is good and still be able to make a living as an artist. I try to make paintings that are as beautiful and perfect as I can and hope that others will see that too. I meditate each day before I go into my studio so that I will have the power and the energy and the skill to do what I know is good. I take very good care of my body so that I will be in top form to do my job.
Biggest accomplishment to date (personally or professionally)?
My biggest accomplishment to date is to still be alive and to be strong enough to work long hours every day.
Favorite location to paint/what is your studio like?
I paint exclusively in my studio. My studio is a 12 x 32 ft space in my loft with 12 ft ceilings. I don’t use an easel; I paint on the wall. The canvas is lit by track lighting. I stand while I paint. I have a mirror on the back wall of my studio so that I can look at the painting backwards in the mirror and check the composition that way. I have a metro system trolley where I keep my palette (which is a piece of glass) and my paints. Like Louise Nevelson, I clean up everything every night when I finish painting. I wear Taiwanese jackets with pockets when I paint. I order them on line from a place in Taiwan.
Judith’s Studio Office
A random fact about you:
My daughter says that I am the happiest person she knows. Maybe that should have been my biggest accomplishment.
Favorite place to vacation? And/or dream trip?
So far, my favorite place has been Sri Lanka. I love the town of Galle just because it is a perfectly in-tact 17th Century Dutch town. Most of the old buildings have been beautifully and sensitively restored. I love the wildlife sanctuaries in Sri Lanka. I like to find birds wherever I go and work at taking pictures of them.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and Alfred Molina. I am listening to The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
What would you be doing if you were not an artist?
If I were not an artist, I would be a cabaret singer. I would, of course, have to learn to sing, but I already know all the words to all the songs I would sing, so that’s half the battle.
One thing you couldn’t live without?
You always think that you couldn’t live without something or someone, but then that person dies, or that thing is lost and you do go on. I do have a perfume I love, it’s called Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi. It is made in Florence and reminds me of my magical time there when I was young. But even that, I could live without.
What do you want your audience to know about your work?
I want my audience to know that the work is informed by the innovations of the twentieth century. It is not academic. It is not a throwback to something from the 19th century. Yes, it is representational, but that is just the broth into which the real ingredients are thrown. The finished product is a soup made up of everything which has come before it–abstract, non-objective, color-field, pop, conceptual, minimal–all of it.
What makes your work unique?
Recently a friend of mine walked into a house of a friend of hers who happened to own a piece of mine. It was an early piece and more abstract and loose than the work I am doing now. My friend looked at the piece and screamed, “Oh, you have a Judith Vivell!” When she told me the story, I asked her how she knew it was mine and she said, “Who else could it be?” I said, “Yes, but I want to know how it was different from other bird paintings.” She said, “I don’t know what to tell you, Jude. I’d know your work anywhere.”
Name one goal for your career you’d like to achieve in the next 5 years:
I thank the Universe for the life I now have, for the abundance that my work has generated and for the energy and power to continue to make art. I want to improve and become better every day. I want to make the most beautiful and close to perfect paintings possible for as long as possible. I want to continue to wake up every morning and know exactly what I have to do.
To see Judith’s work stop by the gallery now!
Branch Diptych, 72×48
Great Egret, 40×40
Great Blue Heron, 40×30