san francisco peace and hope

Jeannie Motherwell, Tide No. 2, Cover artist; SFPH book

"Dancing with a creative partner gently leading me into moves I have not yet experienced."
Jeannie Motherwell

Kit Kennedy: 
The world as well as your personal life haven’t been idle since the last time we spoke, Jeannie.  Last year you retired from your position for Boston University’s graduate program in Arts Administration.  You’ve been committed to spending each day in the studio whenever possible. How does more available time play-out with your art? With your life? 

Jeannie Motherwell:
In many ways it is similar. I used to work at BU from 9 -5 and then go to my studio for about 4-5 hours. Now, in the morning I do my admin work and marketing from home and then head to my studio around 2pm. It allows me to get home a bit earlier, but the work load is still as rigorous; and being productive requires a good amount of discipline.

KK: When you attended your dad’s exhibitions (famous abstract expressionist artist, Robert Motherwell) he would ask you, “Which is your favorite painting and why?” Let me turn the tables and ask you, “Which of your recent paintings is your favorite and why?”

JM: Ha-ha. Very good question! This reminds me that whenever dad had a painting that he was not ready to part with, he would hike up the price so it wouldn’t sell. Ironically it turned out to be a good business strategy, because people would pay his high prices anyway!

I have several favorite paintings, but one which stands out is entitled, A Sacred Trade. It is a large abstract painting with mainly blacks, whites and blues. When I began the picture, I wasn’t sure of its orientation. As I began to turn it around on the floor while it was still wet, a triangular shape began to emerge. You have to understand my work process is very wet on wet, so things often begin to appear that weren’t initially there. When the triangular shape appeared, I thought “aha!’ it’s the ghost of the Patricia Marie! Patricia Marie was a fishing boat which sank off the Provincetown coast during a winter I spent there. I was twenty-something and trying to figure out my path as an aspiring artist. The tragedy affected the entire community and I began furiously painting a stack of pictures that were about that event. I was so moved by the tragedy that I made an entire homage to it 30 years later. At my opening, not only did artists, tourists and Provincetown residents attend, but fisherman and their wives also came to lend support and to honor those who perished. It was so moving to see the community come together like that. So A Sacred Trade has a special significance to me because the Patricia Marie series was my first body of work and the beginning of my ‘voice’ as a young painter fresh out of college. The boat shape in A Sacred Trade emerged as a reminder to never forget the loss of life and how it affected an entire community.

A Sacred Trade, Acrylic on canvas on board

KK: You’ve said among your influences are ocean/skies, changing weather, Hubble-type images, and your own physicality during the painting process. Let’s talk about pouring, pushing & layering. Your creative process, creating Pyrifera, is captured in the video on your website (  Tell us more. 

JM: For the past 10 years or so, I have been experimenting with various surfaces in paintings. I have worked on silks wrapped on stretchers, linens, etc., but more recently Claybord, as well as canvases primed with gesso mixed with absorbent ground. The surfaces allow the paint to bleed more than it would otherwise. The paintings are large in scale, so I begin on the floor while it is really wet. When it is dry enough to not drip, I lean the painting against the wall and rework the picture. This yields tremendous surprises that happen when I come back to the painting the next day. I’m very focused on the complex spaces that occur, the light, and the overall surface and fluidity in each painting. The Claybord has a very slick surface, so they happen quickly. It can take some time to complete them, but the initial process is fast and not easily controlled. That said, there is a lot of editing that goes on during this process and after the drying has begun.

KK: By the way, the video soundtrack by Azura Atlantis is haunting. I know you often blast rock music in your studio. In the video, you wear ear buds, what were you listening to?

JM:  Azura’s “Atlantis Child” was added by Fallon Leigh O’Brien, who made the video. She has a cable TV show in Somerville, MA on SCATV where she found this “stock” music at the TV station. I told her not to change it because it seemed to reflect the very essence of my painting and its process. I often like to loosen up to contemporary worship music or something from Adele Radio on Pandora; like laying out the drawing that leads to the painting. Then I wind it up with my rock music. I thought it was important to include my process on my website since, in essence, these are a form of process paintings.

KK: In addition to Pyrifera, in “En Suite in Black” (a series of 6, 2016) the color black continues to be your go-to color.  Comments?

JM: When I was at Bard college studying painting, I would sometimes drive home to visit my dad at his studio in Greenwich, CT. Again, he would ask which ones were my favorite paintings. Often I was drawn to the pictures with black as a primary color. We would discuss them, and he would say to me, “you really get black, don’t you?” By that, I think he meant that black had more meaning to me than just as a way to convey a sad emotion, or drama, or however someone else might connote black. Like a child’s doodle being their natural signature, black is like my comfort zone. I can always make something of it. It speaks to me, the way I might gravitate toward a favorite shape or favorite size canvas. By the way, my granddaughter, now five recently said, “I want to be an artist like you, Grandma.  I made you a painting at school. It doesn’t have black in it, but it has pretty rainbow colors.”  She and I often discuss our favorite colors and she is very curious that I would consider black a favorite color.

KK: Congratulations with your publication of Mariana, 2015, in Chapter 3 of the current issue of SFPH.  Please tell our readers about this painting – inspiration, process.

JM:  First, let me say that I am honored my painting was chosen for the current issue of SFPH! The initial inspiration simply came from my desire to make a blue painting. It is the most revered color, I was once told by my former art dealer. He said it is the color that sells the most. I found that interesting, and frankly kind of amazing, and because I have a natural resistance to going with the grain, it was a challenge for me to make a primarily blue painting. As you probably know, the Mariana trench is the deepest part of the world’s oceans and it is located in your back yard, the Pacific. The blue space in this picture felt very deep to me, so it seemed an appropriate title.

KK: Let’s talk about titles as your titles intrigue.  For example, Intellectuals’ Red (2015), Recurring at Every Stage (2015), Thought I Saw You (2016), Epignosis (2016), and Accounted Authentic (2015). Tell us about your process / thinking behind titling your work?

JM:  Yes, titling is an important aspect of my work.  I understand with abstract painting, there might be a natural tendency for a viewer to try to ‘see’ something recognizable, perhaps helping to ground them in some way. Many of my titles are random, some suggestive, but I try not to tell the viewer what the painting is about through my titles. Mariana, for instance, is about the deepest part of the pacific, but “Mariana” could also be the name of a woman or girl. In titling my work, I am attempting to help the viewer ponder the picture. In some ways, my intent is to draw them into them, but my pictures are intentionally about what one experiences rather than what it ‘is’. I am interested in the visceral experience, not the subject per se.

KK: You have said, “It [painting} is like a dance with a creative partner gently leading me into moves I have not yet experienced.”  Please elaborate. 

JM:  By that, I was referring to the process of my painting. There are so many things that happen in the paintings that I am making now; they are somewhat unpredictable. This is largely because I am working wet on wet and can’t control the chemical reaction.  Often when I return to my studio from the night before, sometimes things have either disappeared or something has appeared from out of nowhere. It is within these surprises that make my paintings challenging and so much fun to make. 

Last time we spoke, you had joined Joy Street Studios and were enjoying the sense of community.  Updates?

There is great support in a community whose sole purpose is making art. It is empowering to be surrounded by artists in one building. Although we work in different mediums, we connect through sharing concepts and techniques. I still participate in open studios twice a year as a way of experiencing some of that community. Hundreds of people walk through our doors during those two weekends, and it is such a pleasure to interact and connect with students, artists, collectors and the general public. Since the tragedy of the Patricia Marie in Provincetown, I have valued, on a very deep level, the importance of community.

KK: Considering the turmoil and tragedies occurring on a global basis, what continues to make you hopeful?  What advice do you have for our youth?   What’s the role of the artist? 

JM: I think what keeps me hopeful is believing that people are innately good. What happened in Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels and elsewhere is pure unadulterated evil, in my view. Every human being deserves equal rights and freedoms. None of us is better or more deserving than the other. We have a responsibility to leave the next generation something to aspire to; to make the world a better place for humanity-- a safer, and more environmentally sound place. As artists, we have the gift in our voices which can inspire these things through beauty and creativity; that which can expand our minds to think outside of the box and to dream the impossible. While it may at times seem daunting, it is also a very exciting time, and our possibilities are endless. One has to believe that. The alternative is to fall prey to fear.

KK: What’s on the horizon for you?  New projects?

JM: I have several exciting things coming up. As I mentioned earlier, I recently participated in a TV cable show (“Fallon’s Daily Feast”) hosted by Fallon Leigh O’Brien. It was sponsored through a grant I received from the Somerville arts council funded by the Massachusetts cultural council (MCC). The show focused on several artist couples of different backgrounds and mediums, discussing what it is like to live and work with another artist. The trials, tribulations, lessons learned, collaborations, etc. My husband and I were one of four participating couples. It will be posted on Somerville cable TV (SCATV) and on Facebook throughout the summer.

KK: What synchronicity, Jeannie.  You grew up in a two-artist family.  As we mentioned your dad was Robert Motherwell.  Your stepmother, Helen Frankenthaler was a celebrated international artist.  She maintained her art studio outside the home, was disciplined in making art and savvy about the business side.   

JM: Indeed, that is correct, Kit.  An article I was published in, Vasari21.COM, addresses this very issue. “When I was five, my father married Helen Frankenthaler. She had a studio outside of our home, and I recall thinking ‘how nice’ it was for her to leave our entire basement for Dad’s studio. Later I realized that she knew the business of her career was far better served outside the home, away from children, dogs, and the daily routine. Extremely organized and meticulous, she became a mentor to me long before I realized it.”  It was impetus for me moving from my home studio of many years to my current ‘work only’ studio in Somerville several years ago.

KK: More about future projects. 

JM:  Upcoming in October 2016, I will be exhibiting several of my new paintings at the AMP Gallery ( in Provincetown, MA, a relatively new, edgy, and multi-disciplinary (performance, visual arts, readings) gallery. I am very excited to be represented in  P’town again as it has been several years since I have had a gallery show there. I consider P’town my second home, having summered there since early childhood

I will also have a solo show in Boston’s SOWA gallery district at Rafius Fane Gallery (, tentatively scheduled for fall 2017. And I am in my fourth year of representation with Lynne Scalo design in CT.

KK: Thanks, Jeannie, for speaking with the SFPH community. 

JM: Thank you, Kit. Always a pleasure.

Archived interviews with Jeannie Motherwell:
One Thing and One Thing Only – To Paint
"'Never Give Up the Joy and Awe of Exploration,' An interview with painter Jeannie Motherwell

To see more of Jeannie Motherwell’s work: