Artist Spotlight: Mishael Coggeshall-Burr

Abigail Ogilvy Gallery loves promoting dialogue with our artists to get to a better understanding of the story behind the work. We had the chance to hear from Mishael Coggeshall-Burr about how his studio practice draws on inspiration found in his travels, photography, and even in the routine of tending to his gardens:

Mishael Coggeshall-Burr and his youngest son, Nazar, in front of his latest work,  Gare du Nord.  Photo courtesy of the artist, 2019.

Mishael Coggeshall-Burr and his youngest son, Nazar, in front of his latest work, Gare du Nord. Photo courtesy of the artist, 2019.

Abigail Ogilvy Gallery: What made you want to be a painter over another medium?

Mishael Coggeshall-Burr: It is the best way I have found to express how I see the world, to let my experience of the world flow through me into something new. The act of drawing while simultaneously creating color and form, the control and the freedom of creating from basic ingredients. Oil paint is the best medium I have found to translate the rich tones, colors and contrasts of life from photographs into something so real and yet so strikingly new.  I like to work wet-in-wet, mixing color on the canvas; oils generally have a long working or open time, and they continue to look wet when dry which makes the painting more alive and fresh, and easier to work on over an extended period.  Oils also have a unique smell/flavor/creaminess rooted in antiquity, a romance and history that I am drawn to.

AOG: Which came first for you: film photography or painting?

MCB: They gradually grew alongside each other.  As a student, painting was taught to me in the studio by observation, but I felt drawn to the outdoors: what was happening outside the studio, real life.  Photography was a way to step into the role of artist-in-the-wild, snatching up glimpses of reality that would then launch longer studio experimentation. I started to take blurry, cinematic photographs to capture moments in time in a way that mirrored a memory.  I noticed how light effects in a blurred photo had shapes that reminded me of brushstrokes, so combining photography and painting into one process felt like a natural step.

AOG: We are suddenly in this age where the photo has such a strong presence in painting. How important is it, for you, to take your own reference photos?

MCB: Essential.  I have to have been there, have my own memories of that experience, that is crucial.  My creative process is rooted in that sense of adventure you get exploring on foot with a camera, poking into back streets and alleys, country roads and thickets.  Each photo becomes a memory, defined by both its physical existence as an image and the emotion it stirs when you see it. Each photo is a coiled spring of ideas, a present to be opened in the studio.  I might shoot a hundred frames of one moment and just one might carry the essence of that moment within it--the light, movement, even sounds and smells.

AOG: What is the significance of using the blur to break down these familiar spaces?

Mishael Coggeshall-Burr, Pompidou Graffiti, Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 in., 2019; On view in PICNIC at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery June-August 2019

MCB: For me, a blurred image concentrates the act of seeing into a kind of “key”, a thumbnail for that experience of seeing that can be saved, carried, put away and rediscovered.  The process of painting from that “key” is a reawakening or reanimation of the experience of being there. “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,” (Diane Arbus).  A blurred image, (and the subsequent painting) might be viewed as a greater secret still; but it is this same loss of detail that makes the image more relatable, induces a sense of déjà vu, so the experience ends up being more like sharing a secret, which I think is fantastic.  Blur, like dreams, lends itself to interpretation.  Sometimes people say things like “I feel like I’ve been there before” even though they have never physically been in that location.

AOG: After you've taken the photos, how do you pick which ones will become paintings?

MCB: Out of a few hundred images I might print two or three photographs with the right balance: inky blacks to near whites, a sea of chromatic grays with flecks of tantalizing color, a dynamic composition.  I like to work from the physical object of a 4x6 photograph, almost like a talisman with some mystical quality beyond the chemistry and paper. Like a visual memory, it should be an optical play on reality, indistinct, flawed, and compressed--but beautiful, like a human thought.  I love the process of painting from an imperfect image—a translucent layer-cake of memory preserved inside that smooth glossy paper—into something made with my own hands, something with distinct marks that show process but retains the original spirit of the photograph. Working from the defocused photograph is intriguing, challenging.  I don’t always know exactly what the objects are that I am painting. Separated by time from the experience the photograph records, I may know it is a scene outdoors, or some sky peeking through trees, but I may not be sure if it’s a leaf, or a person, or even a building. Forms separated in three dimensions have been brought together in two, their forms carved and blended by the lens.  Painting in this way takes a degree of faith: it can be a very abstract process until the very end of the work.

AOG: Your work seems heavily influenced by your travels. Does the location of your subject influence the way each painting is made?

MCB: It does during the photography stage.  Arriving in a city--for example, Hong Kong--I look for interesting angles to capture the buildings, the light falling or bouncing between them, the city folk going about their day; but this is also a south Asian city built on a rock island, so I look for the intermingling of nature in the nooks and crannies, a mini rainforest in a forgotten alley, a lichen covered buddha unobtrusively placed, bamboo scaffolding, architecture or forms that signal “this is where you are” without giving too much else away.  With nature scenes I look for a more diffused feeling: touches of bright color you have to hunt for amongst browns and greens, occasional man-made objects standing out with their orderliness and symmetries, the interesting visual mingling of the wild and the manmade. I majored in physics as well as painting, and my science side loves the camera work, but also the philosophical implications of the blur, the ephemerality of matter, the function of memory. Back in the studio, I approach the photos all the same as my inner critic emerges to examine the treasures I’ve collected.  This temporary detachment lets me begin by seeing the images purely as promising visual starting points. Then as I switch back into a fully creative mode and work the paint, it slowly grows on the canvas and in my mind into something different and bigger.

AOG: Do you have a favorite place you have traveled to?

MCB: I grew up in a stilt house built by back-to-the-land parents in a New Hampshire forest; we had no running water, no electricity.  The differences with my peers I felt growing up are mirrored when I am traveling--of not belonging, but seeing clearly.  Perhaps travel is natural for some artists, those that see the world in that new way that others do only when they step beyond their borders.  For me, the most worthwhile travel involves a sense of being off the grid, offline, both vulnerable to--and guided by--serendipity. Walking down the miles of snowy no man’s land road between border outposts of Tibet and Nepal; exploring hollow cement ruins in a Caribbean island jungle; walking the length of Broadway or across Paris in a day.  Travel brings out an awareness of details in the mundane, the contrasts and signature elements of a place, a perspective that helps to frame the scenes I am out to capture.  

AOG: On average, how much time do you spend on one painting? Do you work on more than one at a time?

MCB: I work on one piece at a time, usually spending anywhere from 10 to 30 hours depending on its size.  Once I have started painting a piece it has an energy, a momentum that I do not want to disturb. There is a wonderful quote by Alfred Sisley, “Every picture shows a spot with which the artist himself has fallen in love.”  I prefer this, to focus completely, to let the painting take over.

AOG: What do you do when you're not painting?  

MCB: My wife and I are raising four young children, renovating an old farmhouse, and tending the gardens, all of which makes life quite full.  I also support a college physics department, troubleshooting experiments and building demonstrations: work that I find complements and supports my time in the studio.

View Mishael Coggeshall-Burr’s work at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery on view through August 18th, 2019.

Blog credit: Sigourney Schultz, June 2019

Mishael Coggeshall-Burr in his studio. Photo courtesy of the artist, 2019.

Forever Temporary by Cassandra C. Jones

Cassandra C. Jones created a wall-specific installation on view at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery from May 3 – June 16, 2019. The title of the entire work is “Forever Temporary,” which includes a wallpaper installation and nine digital prints. While the bright colors bring you in, the work has a much deeper significance. Read more about the work from Jones’ point of view below.

Cassandra C. Jones in front of her installation, Forever Temporary. Photo by: David Guerra

From the artist:

In 2017, a massive wildfire swept through the small desert town of Ojai, CA. It consumed over 500 homes on the very first night and raged for over a month.  And while our home remained safe, the air around it became toxic and uninhabitable for many weeks.

All the modern day conveniences, and synthetics of our time, in all those houses, melted. They turned to acidic embers, bad gases, and nano-plastics, and then they rose up into the air, swirling in great plumes.  When they reached as high as they could go up in the atmosphere they gently floated down, onto our landscape, as the softest and smallest of relics.

I still struggle to describe the way the mountains that surround our home looked covered in a blanket of ash, knowing it harbored a legacy, of all the pretty things our townspeople bought and considered either temporary or treasures in their lives.  And even though the fire reduced their effects to the tiniest of fragments, many will still be here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

detail of Golden Torch, Archival inkjet on cotton rag pearl, 30 x 18 in. Photo by Chris Anderson / CDA Media

When the rains finally came, the tiny shoots of new plants coming up through the charred black earth looked like green lace covering the valley.  And the locals say that all the vegetation this year, in 2019, is more beautiful because the ash has finally seeped in and fertilized the soil.  A super bloom of color; flowers and succulents, cactus and perennials blanket the terrain. It's just like the smog that makes the sunsets more beautiful; it is so vibrant yet still spoiled.

I think about the fresh new wild cactus in the mountains, just coming out of the ground, slow-growing vegetation that will likely still be around when my children have grandchildren.  I imagine them absorbing and curling their watery flesh and spines around all those pernicious particles, like tree limbs sometimes wrap themselves around telephone wires.  All the sinister little-bits are part of them now.  For better or worse, those cactus will never know life without them. 

The beach ball is an object that I chose to represents the ordinary disposable possessions in our lives. It is pretty, shiny, and fun, much like new technologies, beauty products, food packaging, synthetic clothes, etc., And like all those things it is short-lived and replaceable. In whatever way our creations of this caliber are disposed of or destroyed, recycled or reused, the human-made ingredients that go into them are becoming part of our natural world, creating shifting waters, altered landscapes, and new gardens that are forever and temporary all at once. 

Photo by Chris Anderson / CDA Media

Behind the Scenes of a Studio Visit

As a gallery, we are constantly inspired by getting out of the gallery and seeing art. Every couple of months we have studio visits with our represented artists to see what projects they are working on. Many gallery visitors do not get the chance to visit an artist’s studio (although we always encourage it!), so here is a behind the scenes look into our time with our artist Ariel Basson Freiberg:

Ariel Basson Freiberg’s studio, Somerville, MA

Abigail Ogilvy Gallery: Thank you for hosting us, Ariel! To kick off our questions, let’s start with your schedule: What time of the day do you usually feel the most creative and do your best work? Do you stick to a regular schedule or paint whenever you have time?

Ariel Basson Freiberg: Typically, I’m in the studio four days a week. I find I work best when I have a large chunk of time. I’ll take several short breaks, but with an 8- to 16-hour day I can work with the whole surface of the canvas. I prefer to paint wet into wet so that I can make changes swiftly. It’s a balancing act scheduling time between my studio practice, my teaching schedule, and my responsibilities for the Post Baccalaureate program in studio art at Brandeis.

AOG:  Do you have any daily routines that help your productivity? And/or any pre- or post-work rituals?

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Wasnowwhen, oil on linen, 42 x 34 in., 2016

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Wasnowwhen, oil on linen, 42 x 34 in., 2016

ABF: Music is an important part of setting the tone for my studio activities. Lately, I’ve been gearing up with a mix of Felt, Grimes, Kate Bush, and the score for Sem Mim of Grupo Corpo. I also do some quick drawings to warm up before painting. I see mixing color as part of “the making” stage. I don’t really have any post-work rituals, except the obligatory brush clean up and most likely will take a photo or two of the latest works in progress.

AOG: What type/how many brushes do you use on average for each piece? Any other tools?

ABF: I use ten to thirty brushes, palette knives, scrapers, rags, and sometime brayers/rollers on the canvas and panels. I love bristle brushes for impasto painting and red stable and synthetic for smoother passages.

AOG: When you feel stuck, what do you do to become inspired again?

ABF: Inspiration is vast and complicated. The ritual of showing up in the studio is key for working through delays and hiccups. Sometimes a conversation with a partner, friend, or mentor will spark the fire. Sometimes, it’s going to see art by my favorites at one of the local museums. Other days, it’s reading poetry, like the collection Twerk by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs. I also mine dance performances for new ways of considering bodily gestures. I attend one or two dance classes a week, and I incubate the energy generated there for the studio.

AOG: Do you ever use models for your poses?

ABF: Sometimes I invite friends to model for me. I usually make drawings, which then may or may not be used in a future painting project. Most of the time I do not use models. My relationship with the canvas is very intimate, and I find it’s easier to work without having to worry about a model.

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Pegasus, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in., 2018

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Pegasus, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in., 2018

AOG: Your work is often considered bold and vibrant in terms of color palette. What colors inspire you to most? Do you perceive any specific colors in a certain way?

ABF: Vibrancy and color contrast are most inspiring for me. Fields of toxic green with a whiplash of pinks is forever seductive. Sometimes, I want the figures in my paintings to live deep in a mono-color world like in Standing Ovation. The moments of chromatic shifts occur in the accessories, and small adornments in and around the body pushed to an extreme posture. For me, color imbues a great deal of meaning. I draw many of my colors from amulets from my family heritage, fashion advertisements, the glam malls I grew up with in Houston, TX, and the landscape of my grandparent’s home in Ramat Gan, Israel.

AOG: You come from an Iraqi-Jewish heritage, have you visited Israel and if so, what did the visit(s) mean for you? How did they inspire you?

ABF: Most of my extended family currently live in Israel and Montreal. All of my family fled Iraq in the ‘50s and ‘70s. My family in Montreal kept close to their Iraqi identity, speaking their dialect all the time. My mom was only three years old, and my uncle eight days old, when they left Baghdad for Israel. As refugees from a Middle Eastern country, it was important for the youth to embody “Israeli” culture. Since the whole family had to revoke their Iraqi citizenships, they had to remake and modify themselves, from their names and language to their behavior to assimilate to their new home.
From a very young age, I would visit my family near Tel Aviv. It was the place I was always accepted and embraced. I loved the feel of the red clay soil on my feet and the dumplings my grandmother would make, along with the sweet milk and date cookies. 
The will to make art is a feeble attempt at forging an understanding and unity between the high-contrast, surreal states of two disparate cultures: Texas and Iraqi Israeli. It took years to see how complicated our Iraqi identity was. It was privately fully embodied by my family yet publicly severed and veiled as much as possible. Only as a late teen did I realize I spoke two different languages when I thought I was only speaking Hebrew.

We were so grateful for the time spent at Vernon Street Studios with Ariel Basson Freiberg, thanks for having us!

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Standing Ovation, oil on linen, 56 x 78 in., 2018

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Standing Ovation, oil on linen, 56 x 78 in., 2018

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Double Twist, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in., 2018

Ariel Basson Freiberg, Double Twist, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in., 2018

Artist Spotlight: Richard Keen

Our gallery Director Allyson Boli sat down with Richard Keen to learn more about his creative process. Not only is Richard both a talented painter and sculptor, but he also has three studio dogs! Read our interview below to learn more about him:

Allyson Boli: What was your initial spark to be an artist?  

Richard Keen: I can remember drawing and tracing a lot as a child. Throughout school, I also gravitated to art and music classes and fortunately went to a public high school that had a solid art program with four art faculty who were very supportive.  After high school, when it came time to decide between moving to LA to become a “Rock and Roll Star” versus going to college for art, something inside me must have known I would be a better visual artist – that plus a heavy parental urging to go to college.   

AB: What is your creative process like? Do you begin with an end result envisioned?

RK: My creative process generally starts with turning on music and looking around at what I did last. I often have at least 10-15 pieces happening at once and paints mixed up ready to go so that I can jump right in and get messy. Most of my work starts with putting down some light ground colors with acrylics to block out some simple shapes. Then, I start building up lines, shapes, colors and textures with my oils. Sometimes I have a sense of a basic direction that I want a painting to head in, or I try to capture elements of other paintings that I’ve completed, but I don’t typically have a vision for an end result. 

AB: So it sounds like you’re working on multiple pieces at once, how does that play into your overall process?

RK: Yes, I find that working on similar but different bodies of work at the same time keeps my work moving in interesting directions. I often find that one painting, or group of paintings, informs the other and helps me with color choices, textures and generally keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. 

AB: What inspired your sculptural and shaped paintings? 

RK: My current sculptural and shaped paintings come from within my “Form Singularity” paintings and through finding shapes that resonate with me. I’ve been exploring three-dimensional work as far back as I can remember, but I think that I would have to say that making shaped paintings could be directly attributed to my appreciation for Elizabeth Murray’s work. I can also say that walking through a boatyard in the off season, and seeing how boat hulls get sanded and repainted also stimulated my urge to make shaped work. I think I saw a rudder laying on the ground half sanded by the yard crew… that was a moment of inspiration for me too.

AB: What made you move toward the more minimal style of the Form Singularity series?  

RK: I’ve leaned towards simplifying, reducing, and minimizing the amount of information that I put onto the canvas all along my path as an artist. As far back as high school, I remember working with simplified shapes and amplified colors. My “Form Singularity” Series is, in a sense, my natural state of being, while my other series act as bridges for viewers to cross over into the way I see the world.   

AB: Are there any artists that inform your work?  

RK: Oh yes… I love so many fantastic artists. I mentioned Elizabeth Murray earlier, who I was lucky enough to meet a couple times. I’m a fan of Richard Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler and so many of the late greats. A few contemporary artists that I admire greatly are Julie Mehretu, Cadence Giersbach, Chris Ofili, Gary Hume and David Tremlett.  

AB: What are you currently working on? 

RK: I’m currently working on new “Form Singularity” paintings, new “Island Geometry and Sea Geometry” paintings, and several new sculptures while balancing out the demands of a couple upcoming three-person shows here in Maine. I’m also working on a Public Art Project through Maine’s Percent for Art Program. The multi-panel mural is an 8’ x 8’ abstraction made up of 6 geometric panels linked closely to my “Island Geometry” and will be installed in June of 2020.

View Richard Keen’s work in our exhibition Almost Exactly on view through June 16, 2019.

Artist Richard Keen in front of his work at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery: Form Singularity No. 165, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 72 x 64 in., 2019