Interview with Rachel Rosenfeld

Fingertips (Or close enough as makes no difference), 2019, oil and marble dust on Belgian linen, 38.1 X 30.5 cm

Can you talk a bit about your background and where you’re from?


Of course! I am originally from a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas called Overland Park. I was first introduced to art through my mother, who spent a lot of my childhood working as an assistant to the curator of African Art at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Because of her, I spent a lot of snow days and sick days running around the galleries getting excited about (and occasionally scared of) the objects. When I was 18 I moved to Virginia, where I studied art at Hollins University for women, then to St. Louis where I got a scholarship from Washington University to get my MFA. I was trained in observational/perceptual landscape painting and I use those principals to fuel my current studio practice. I currently live in downtown Chicago with my fiancé. My studio is in the back of our apartment (thank goodness) with a beautiful view of a solid brick wall. When I am not painting, I teach 4th, 5th, and 7th grade at my synagogue’s religious school, and help run a Jewish day camp during the summers.

Can you tell us about your practice?

My practice is focused around three things, making paintings, collecting materials, and doing research. I collect found snapshot photographs from the internet and antique malls, I find them to be fascinating little glimpses into strangers lives. I use them to make my paintings, pulling them together on the canvas. I try very hard not to damage them, since I know that they are a part of somebody’s history.Using a scanner, I enlarge the images and cut them into various shapes, laying them into one another to create complete compositions. I paint the compositions. I see myself as a “perceptual painter”, meaning I try to paint things in the way that I see them (rather than trying to figure out what was in front of the camera). The research component allows me to learn more about my own work. I am currently doing a lot of research on excavation and archaeology because I see my studio process as a process of unearthing artifacts from the past and exploring them with paint. My studio is always a mess full of books and color copies and paint tubes.

In lieu of testimony: No. 4, 2019, oil and marble dust on panel, 60.9 X 60.9 cm

How would you explain your processes whilst making? How do you go from idea to finished piece?


I feel like painting is a tactile means of familiarizing yourself with the mysterious scene preserved by the photograph. I start by drawing a “base” scene in big shapes using a grid. Then, I begin filling in those shapes, becoming increasingly specific. Eventually, I begin adding the “scraps”, which cover up sections of the initial scene while introducing new ones. Sometimes I paint over scraps that throw off the composition, other times I have to tinker with the way that they’re painted. This can take years. I have shown a finished piece only to later decide that it needs more work. It isn’t completely finished until someone takes it home and I am no longer allowed to mess with it!


Would you say you had a traditional or untraditional route into the arts?


I definitely took a traditional route into the arts. My parents love art of all types and encouraged me to explore it. My mother was always a gifted musician, and I think that some small part of her regrets that she did not pursue her immense talent professionally. I took Drawing 1 my freshman year of college, and my professor told me that I was a painter. That was the point of no return. Since then, I have been totally dedicated to a career as an artist.

Ado Among the Ruins, 2019, oil and marble dust on Belgian linen, 76.2 cm. X 101.6 cm

Social media, especially Instagram, has been said to have democratised the art-world. From your experience, do you see truth in this?

In some ways I do. I have found that Instagram gives us routes to connect to opportunities that we otherwise would not have found. Since graduating in 2016, I have increasingly found shows to apply to on Instagram. Since the COVID-19 pandemic locked the art world out of our beloved galleries, Instagram and Facebook have become spaces to create virtual communities that were missing in the real world. For example, I really missed having both formal studio visits and buddies to work alongside since making the move to Chicago. The pandemic has inspired the formation of crit groups and work sessions streamed live. I am so excited to take part in these things, they fill a social/intellectual need and can help people become better artists during/in spite of a really lonely time.


The art world has felt inaccessible by many working-class individuals, not only in terms of trying to succeed within it, but also in regards to feeling welcome in galleries and museums. Was art a part of your environment when growing up, or was it something that you engaged with later in life? 


Art was a part of my environment, and while my family certainly was not wealthy enough to buy expensive work, they set a good example by supporting artists when they could. They spent a lot of weekends finding low cost or free ways to engage with the art world. I loved trips to our local art fairs (such as the Plaza Art Fair and the art fairs held in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center). They loved going to a local gallery, and would buy work when they could. This showed me that art mattered, and that it should be sought out. A lot of times, the art world forgets that there is a lot of good work to be found outside of the blue-chip galleries and museums. For my parents, the landscape drawings that they saved up to buy from our local gallery were absolute treasures.

Conflation (The mirage endures), 2019, oil and marble dust on Belgian linen, 60.9 X 45.7 cm.

What do you appreciate about the artworld? 


I appreciate that the art world is much more richly varied than we often give it credit for. At least in Chicago, there is so much opportunity for art to be seen and made on a limited budget. I also love the quality is not tied to wealth. A lot of my favourite spaces to see interesting work are free and welcoming to anyone who walks through the doors. Certainly they require the privilege of free time, but I have never been charged money to walk into an opening at an artist-run gallery. Interesting things are always happening if you know where to look.

Conversely, what frustrates you about it? 


I am most frustrated by the organisations who try to make money off of artists while pretending to advance our careers.Galleries or art fairs who ask artists to pay for opportunities, such as application fees and fees to use wall space. There are seemingly endless barriers hindering artistic success, and we absolutely cannot be expected to purchase viewers. In addition to organisations who expect artists to supply both their inventory and their profits, I am frustrated by the continued dominance of white men in the art industry. While it is heartening to see some platforms seeking out people of color, women, trans people, and lgbtq people, such makers are rarely featured by prominent institutions. Those voices are vital to our society, and the galleries, residencies, universities, and publications that drive advancement among art professionals are uniquely empowered to amplify them.

What would you say has been your top experience in your art career? 

Such a challenging question! I am constantly amazed by the places that my career has taken me. Every exhibition feels like a “top”, but recently I have been getting very excited to interact with fellow artists. Any chance to re-evaluate my work and welcome people into my studio feels like a huge achievement.


What is your dream project? 


My dreams are constantly evolving, but I really would love the chance to make a series of paintings using snapshots from specific communities, where the paintings could live in those communities. The whole idea of shared histories that can be explored anew is very intriguing.

AboutFace (Tell me what you see when you look in the mirror), 2019, oil and marble dust on Belgian linen, 31.75 X 33 cm.

What do you feel is integral to the work of an artist? 


Curiosity. You don’t make any progress if you are unwilling to learn new things or change little parts of what you are doing. I am always asking new questions about my work, even when those lead me to make really bad art. The goal of art, in my mind, is to empower us and our audiences to investigate some aspect of the world around them.

What’s the best piece of artistic advice you’ve been given?


I have been lucky enough to have a lot of really fantastic, supportive teachers. Two things stand out, one is a quote by Chuck Close that turned up in a powerpoint in one of my college classes: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work”. Basically that not every moment in the studio is driven by magic. Sometimes, art is work. The other really hit home during graduate school. An adjunct advisor (who has since become a huge sensation in LA) told me that he waited tables for ten years before getting his first real art job. And he told me that while that was frustrating, his lack of professional advancement didn’t keep him from persevering in the studio. The work drove him, and eventually he got the jobs and shows and press that he wanted. He really emphasised that it is totally valid to work retail, or be a bartender, or drive for Uber while you build your art career. If you are making work, and advancing in the studio, you have an art career.

You can see more of Rachel's work here.


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