Noel Kassewitz: Interviews at the Bar

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

She’ll say later that she didn’t realize it was the third tallboy she’d ordered in the course of our conversation but it’s just as she pulls the tab and snaps it open that Noel tells me, laughing, that she thinks “being an artist is an acceptable form of hoarding,” which prompts me to laugh and bring up a pen from my pocket and jot the quote down on a cocktail napkin, which gets her laughing too and some more words are exchanged on the subject before she goes off to the bathroom. While she’s gone I go ahead and write underneath that first quote of hers another one, something about like “fuck you I will not immortalize you,” paraphrasing something she said earlier in the evening when we were talking about her work, the paintings in particular, and about her process, her aesthetic, any guiding principles or ethics she may have about the whole thing, and she mentioned, on that subject, that she really doesn’t like paintings that are too abstruse and personal for the viewer to get anything out of it, where it’s like two dildos rendered in oil with the name of the artist’s landlord scrawled in blood across the canvas, but tells me that, while such work is often crafted by the hands of talented, smart, creative people, the trouble is that such works are usually forged out of emotion; just all emotion; which is sort of — because it’s not that she has anything against showing one’s emotions in art. Emotion is fine and good. Just that a work should also be comprised of thoughts, is what she’s saying, not just feelings. That an artist needs ideas. And so one of the ways that she keeps herself from falling into this trap of having her work (which dabbles in themes like animal rights and quantum physics) saturated with — and made impenetrable by — too much emotional weight is she just keeps her personal life completely out of it.

Tries to.

Over the past couple years, for example, there’ve been two serious relationships and two breakups that each took their toll, as well as other triumphs and losses that together have probably changed her to some degree, certainly given her a lot to think about, but about which she’s neither painted a drop nor drawn a line. Sometimes she writes about it but the writing is private.

And so the germ of this second quote, the thing about immortalizing someone, comes from her acknowledging that of course certain elements of her personal life will creep into the work whether she likes it or not, and that she probably won’t even realize when it’s happening until somebody points it out to her, but that she nonetheless, despite its inevitable appearance, does her best to keep her personal life out of her work because of (1) the aforementioned issue of making the work too abstruse and personal for the viewer but also (2) because, as concerns an issue of heartbreak or insult or anything of the like, there’s an element of — and she suggests this laughingly — I’m not gonna aggrandize or give merit to your bullshit by consecrating its influence in my work.

Which, as we’ll come to show, is maybe timeless.

This is sort of a joke at first but it expands, upon her return from the bathroom, into something more serious: which is that, yeah, when something’s upsetting you and you choose to use those feelings as both the subject and fuel for a big art piece, or for a series, then you are sort of affirming its credibility as something that warrants your attention. Or something that has power over you. Which isn’t healthy, she suggests. Even making art of something that most people would agree is a legitimate hangup or concern. Like take for example the two recent deaths in her family: an aunt (52) and grandmother (85). The grief is the grief, and the grief is severe, but it isn’t art; though it’s easy to fall for thinking that it is. She’s adamant about this. When asked if her response to grief, her way of dealing, is to seek distraction or to ruminate and reflect she says that it’s 50/50 because while she appreciates the need for reflection, its value, she knows at the same time that if she does too much thinking — as she’s maybe wont to do — that she’ll get depressed and then suddenly her view of everything is darkened, distorted, and that this, too, is probably no real benefit to the work.

Noel note

#

She presses her lips into a small tight line that curves against her will into a bashful third-beer smile and she confesses to spitting into her paintings. Somewhere in the process. Wherever. Nothing globular or gross but just like a little th’p.

Why.

So that there’ll be traces of her DNA in every painting. Collectors will be able to run a test against forgeries.

#

This, incidentally, is what we talk about in our first interview. This one’s at an Ale House in Miami. We meet here at 9 pm for what’s supposed to be a quick drink but ends up lasting nearly four hours. We talk first about work and about our respective romances, past and present, and then about a contribution she was going to make to the blog and then suddenly our plans change and we’ve embarked on what becomes the first of several informal interviews. Sipping and sipping all night. She’s wearing a black dress and blackrimmed glasses that she refers to as her “nightdrive glasses”. Hair brushed and posture perfect with hands folded mannerly in her lap as she goes on to talk about the prospective longevity of her work, the idea of immortality in art — a topic that sounds, as I’m recounting it, more pretentious than it does when she talks about it.

Noel close up

Photo by Zara Castany

There’s a divide in Noel whereby she somehow seems to take her work way more seriously than she takes herself. She’s jovial, self-deprecating, laughs at and commends herself where either seems fit; and but when she speaks of her relationship to any particular art piece that she’s working on it sounds like she’s recounting the marital problems of hardheaded soulmates. Like suddenly the only thing more stubborn than Noel the Artist is the actual art that comes from her hand. There are frustrations and doubts and disappointments abounding, but never a moment’s thought to leave.

#

She invites me, the following week, to the house of her aforementioned grandmother, the heavydrinking octogenarian of recent departure, which is empty, the house is, void of its furniture and stripped of its carpet, its decor; its everything; though the light fixtures remain intact, functional, and buzz as they burn in rooms that echo every footstep, syllable, cough. She and some relatives have been clearing the place out for days, cleaning it, purging it slowly of its wall-seeped perfume (Marlboro was the brand, she thinks).

Noel has stocked the bathrooms with toilet paper.

Noel oils 2

Photo by Zara Castany

What she’s doing here now, alone in the garage, is she’s working on a dense wooden workbench built by her grandfather fifty years earlier and used in the house ever since, stationed under the garage’s corner window. She had to replace some of the boards because of termites. She thinks she got them all but still might use a bug bomb. Hasn’t decided.

Anyway.

She’s done with the bench’s woodwork and she’s painting it white now. The garage door is open, leading into the driveway, and she steps out to greet me as I pull up. She’s spattered with paint but it’s camouflaged on a white longsleeve shirt. Her hair isn’t up in a bun, exactly, but folded into a tower. Curiously skyward.

#

This is the first time I’ve seen Noel in her working clothes. Specked with paint, faded by wash, figure-concealing. She’s sweaty and her hair is piled in a skybound bundle and although she smiles when she greets me, is effusively grateful for the coffee I’ve brought (“Black,” she requests over the phone while I’m in line at the coffee shop, “like my sooouuul”), and even though she invited me over and speaks twice as cordially as ever — playing host — she’s preoccupied. There’s no forward lean in the conversation. My being here is, I suspect, a digression from the task at hand. She’s the same as ever. Friendly, candid. A bit less bubbly, maybe; distracted. Focused.

Noel hand 2

Photo by Zara Castany

#

She’s on the floor as we talk, painting the legs of her grandfather’s workbench.

But if we can just come back to this “immortality” thing for a moment: it seems in part to be this interest in longevity and the notion of legacy that motivates Noel to labor now over her grandfather’s bench, this familial artifact, a sort of artpiece — however utilitarian its intent — crafted by a man with whom she’s barred from conversation save for what they might communicate, artisans alike, through a shared project.

One creates, the other sustains. Call and response. Conversation in the void.

And yet of the four long planks that comprise the bench’s table, Noel has had to replace the outer two. (Termites.) She speaks with a modest sort of aw-shucks smile about her hope that the bench might run through the family for generations to come. I ask her whether it’ll still be a family artifact if each successive generation has to replace another few pieces of wood so that, after a few decades, none of the original parts remain and her grandfather’s personal project has evolved into the collagework of a dozen different craftsmen.

She thinks about this in the way that she thinks about any serious question somebody asks. Patient, invested, thoughtful. She stops what she’s doing, puts her wrists on her knees (mindful of the paint on her hands), looks at the floor. Thinks. Smiles again. “I think it will.” She resumes her work.

Noel ladder legs

Photo by Zara Castany

#

I have to go to the bathroom and she tells me I can go ahead into the house and that I’m free to look around while I’m at it, that she’ll be done out here shortly, and when, a few minutes later, she follows me inside, it’s very discreet. She sorta hangs back, slinking patiently along just a few paces behind me, coffee uncapped and held in both hands at her chest. Small sips. She leans against doorframes looking comfortable and a bit more present than she did in the garage, while she was working. Makes no bones about my snooping through rooms.

We go through the empty master bedroom. The empty master bathroom. A corner-flaked orange sticker, roughly the size of a movie ticket stub and torn from some unknown product, is pasted to the medicine cabinet and warns of a November 1967 expiration date. We start talking, a bit whimsically, about the lingering presence of the past. About standing in a room that feels as though it belongs to that past, or the past to it, and feeling a bit like a voyeur in doing so. Even just standing in the driveway.  How weight and time feel suspended and the silence in the rooms feels watchful and tense like the sound of walls in thought. How it’s both enchanting and terrifying — this notion of the past as some vast and ever-expanding place housing every great and awful thing before us and to which we too will someday belong; to which parts of us already do.

#

Noel, for the first time in her life, is in a fallow period. No big ideas. No big projects. There was the art academy she belonged to in high school wherein the work was unending, same as in college (perhaps more so), and whether she was inspired or not by those projects, satisfied or interested or not, there was always a task at hand, an outlet, a job over which to exhaust herself each day and to feel thereafter productive, sated, pleased by her dedication if not always its product. But now school is over and there are no assignments to be doled out, no strict deadlines to spark her mind into anxious action, and there’s only so much satiety to be reaped from a daily doodle or sketch. There are freelance jobs, if she needs them, but what she’s looking and hoping for is the next big idea that will bring to life a series of paintings, of anything, and what she’s enduring now, viscerally, is the silence between those ideas. A silence wherein, without the distraction of a project or even some slowly percolating idea, she has to confront the daily grind, all of its disgrace and misfortune and tedium, with an abrupt and near-abject attentiveness that probably feels like when you come up from under the water and instead of that milky murmur of above-level noise it’s now this clear cantankerous blast. And what a time this is to be mercilessly attentive. In the past 18 months she’s seen varieties of loss and begun acclimating herself to the new life situation of post-collegiate semi-adulthood wherein structure is all but gone, worry is constant, the future uncertain.

Noel artpieces 1

Photo by Zara Castany

If there’s a consolation to be had, one could argue, it’s that the drudgery to which the artist is exposed with such hypersensitivity between her big ideas is invariably the stuff from which those ideas are born. The clash of boredom and curiosity. Dread. When dread blossoms into fear and your schedule’s freedom allows for — condemns you to — hours and hours of awful aimless thought. Good stuff can come from that.

#

Noel is inconspicuous. Always a smile, chatting with ease about any odd thing, addressing her work only in passing and speaking of every project, however innovative or strenuous or ambitious it is, as though bringing it to life were no nobler a task than stocking shelves, or tending a bar, or waiting tables or studying for an exam. Which maybe it isn’t. Probably it isn’t. But she believes this. It’s not the sort of false modesty you might expect of somebody who’s accomplished as much as she has by this age. A number of gallery shows, four-figure sales. A resume to envy. A prodigiously talented and infernally bright artist with a relentless work ethic who indulges no posturing, no boisterous pride. Who creates her art for herself, loses herself in it the way that adamant runners, after two hours in motion, feel their stomach sink as they come to a stumbling stop and realize they don’t know where they are.

The devotion is such that you’d be compelled to believe that if she were maybe wholly without talent she would work at her craft nonetheless and would produce at each turn a piece at once poignant and peculiar, each thing earnest and bright, the bottling of a self and of so many hopes and concerns. An obsessive attentiveness to the project’s every facet and scathing self-assessment to belie whatever laxity she sports over a beer. Or three.

Photo by Noel Kassewitz

Photo by Noel Kassewitz

There’s this yarn store in the warehouse area across from The Falls. It has some backroom space that a person can rent out, use as a studio, and this is where she takes me one night at about 12:30 after another last-minute meeting at the Ale House. It’s about four blocks away. We walk. A homeless man stands shirtless in front of T.J. Maxx and caresses his stomach while staring at the moon and crooning what sounds like a children’s song about the days of the week.

She has a key to the yarn store — which makes me feel like no less a vandal to be standing at its doorstep after midnight — and lets us in. Lights are off. Ghostly outlines of shelves and their contents. The lights come on. The store’s aglow and looks like it’s open for business but it’s not. We’re unsupervised. There’s a weird feeling of responsibility. The trust that the storeowners have given to Noel now weighs on me and even though its only real request is Don’t steal our shit I feel nervous, like something’s expected of me. But Noel is calm and cool and her attitude, as ever, is contagious. I loosen up. She leads us through the store, the back half of which remains unlit, to a door that opens into her new studio.

The first thing I notice is her grandfather’s workbench. Full white. Painted, restored.

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

Paintings large and small from the past few years lean vulnerable against various walls

(“Being an artist is an acceptable form of hoarding”)

and seeing these paintings like this in the back room of a yarn store as opposed to her storage room at home, where she can look over and protect them constantly, reminds me of a particular piece she made a few years ago called “An Erosive Discourse”. It’s a painting, a self-portrait of sorts, and the painting is placed into a wall-mounted drawer, enclosed in a wooden box, with a handle on its right-hand side. Viewers are to approach the box on the wall, grab the handle, and pull it open to reveal the painting. Thing is, there’s a sheet of sandpaper inside the drawer as well, touching the canvas. Each time the painting is pulled out for a look, the sandpaper rubs away a little more of it. The more it’s looked at, the more it’s exposed and appreciated, the closer it gets to extinction. The artist has engineered her piece’s creation and destruction side by side.

She talks, too, about immortality.

Little by little, the painting erodes; just as, little by little, the workbench disappears: to the bugs, the elements; the successors who trade its parts. The lovers leave. The elders die. The homes in which we’re raised are emptied and stripped and occupied thereafter by ghosts, spectral or other, whose inhabitancy affords its survivors no warmth. No meaning. And she goes ahead and she paints. Noel at 23. Noel out of college and working. Waiting for an idea. She builds her wall and she colors it blue and in the back half of a yarn store, entering through the alley, she takes off her shoes and she puts up her hair.

#

Noel Back Alley Studio

Photo by Zara Castany

A few weeks pass before I visit her studio again. The alleyway behind the yarn store in which she’s taken up residence isn’t terribly dark, the lighting’s actually pretty decent, but you’d almost wish it was darker because the lighting afforded by streetlights and buzzing fluorescent tubes creates a distinctive sort of clutch-your-purse atmosphere and even folks of stony-looking dispositions are walking quickly, few that there are. The vast and strangely silent parking lot that precedes the alleyway — the latter of which is itself about as broad as three men standing shoulder-to-shoulder — is creepy; the tunnel that precedes that parking lot is creepy. This is all so phenomenally unsettling that it feels almost dreamlike, fake, and the darkness beyond streetlight’s reach is so flat and opaque as to almost make you feel trapped in open space.

Her studio, fittingly called Back Alley Studio, is carpeted and lamplit and, tonight, made doubly ambient with a recorded thunderstorm playing on a portable stereo. She has wine. The work of two artists, Noel and a friend, are lying out and standing and hanging and propped up along the floor, on her grandfather’s table, against and upon the walls. Noel is barefoot, dressed for disaster in paintsmeared everything, hair down and spirits high and keeping herein the company of a tall, bearded, curly-haired 20-something, a student of civil engineering, before whom, in order to make eye contact, my head is inclined as though toward God, shoulders slouched accordingly, such is his height and the command that’s born of it. But he’s friendly. Smile broad and cartoonishly happy. He’s holding a glass of whiskey, sips it subtly and without ice or pucker, and quickly establishes himself as a man of no few charms.

Noel laughing

Photo by Zara Castany

Before showing me what she wants to show me, Noel gives me a look like I’m about to be appalled and says, with a something went wrong-flavored groan, “OK. So…”

The painting in question has crimson backing and depicts, stacked, several different renderings of whales, each whale painted in the spirit of a different time period’s artwork. It’s amazing. The canvas has been sanded down in places to provide texture and murk-up the shading and each whale is terrifically evocative of the period it’s supposed to represent. Each one different. The details minute and scrutinously attended.

“I fucked this up so bad,” she says.

#

A few weeks after that and the painting she’s working on now is enormous. 4×6. As large and complicated and surreal as a bunch of the pieces she’s done prior to this one but, standing before it now as it takes its shape, the canvas almost seems larger for being incomplete. In it, a man lays supine in a grassy field amid so many animals and a pell-mell blossoming of lush-lipped mouths all over, obscuring things, consuming things. She talks about the process by which, in a quick stretch of time, she realized not only what she wanted to communicate with this particular painting, as well as the tricky issue of how to communicate it, but elucidates for me some of the ways in which her private life has worked its way into the series at hand without her realizing it; things that were pointed out to her by others. This painting in particular. Tells me about the personal significance of certain animals, their sentimental associations, and suggests no coincidence about the the positions in which she has rendered those animals, their colorings and tones.

And it’s a good painting. A work in progress, of course, made enormous and more powerful by merit of its incompleteness, by its potential, by the likelihood that all of the talent and labor and feeling and thought that went into shaping it as such might yet be obscured by subsequent edits, changes of mind and heart. The notion that it might be abandoned entirely and deemed garbage by a creator whose expectations forever meet, if not surpass, the considerable talent by which it renders its work.

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

If it isn’t saying too much, I’ll suggest that this is one of the points at which a viewer might get a vibe of something religious. It’s a feeling that comes from the confrontation of a great piece of art, or a really good piece of art, or even maybe just something forged of real strain and dedication. And it prompts this idea that maybe, in the creation of beautiful things whose truths come from our hands without our even knowing it, we are channeling something constant, universal, lovely, awful, fearful, revelatory and phenomenally solitary. That the artist, getting in touch with her unconscious and exploring her most personal and intimate passions, is — by that very route of self-exploration — encountering something infinitely more vast and relatable and universal than one could ever hope to reap by looking outward. That we the viewers can experience this with no less significance and, indeed, perhaps more significance when we confront it and search for those meanings, whether they exist there or not. And when we find those truths, whether they exist there or not.

This’ll start sounding over-the-top now, I know, attributing grand powers to the skillset of an artist in her mid-twenties who, though irrefutably talented (prodigiously so, I think most would agree), is almost not even out the door yet in terms of her craft’s evolution. She’s young and not a full two years out of college and so there’s no telling what the change of environment will do to influence her ideas, her aesthetic. But what comes through in this, her first series out of the college milieu, is that her ideas and hangups and concerns are all pretty much the same. She tells me, in going over this new piece, that she tried, at first, to keep animals out of it, or to at least not focus on animals too much, but that ultimately the temptation became too much and so she talks to me now about having to just surrender to herself on such things and say, This is what I care about, this is what I love, let me not fight it. So there are animals now. Animals whose presence in this particular painting elucidate its ideas and imbue it with pathos and make it ever more distinctly a work from her hand. So goes the process by which a developing artist comes to terms with herself, communicates with and confronts herself, all by accident, mostly against her will, but inevitably, and wonderfully, and endlessly.

Noel studying

Photo by Zara Castany

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