Renee Samuels Home Oils Collage Drawings
Self-portrait by the lamp, oil on Masonite
On WIOX Radio in the autumn of 2022 I sat down with William Duke at WIOX Radio in Roxbury to talk about art--my process and inspirations and recent series--as well as life, nature and the beauty of the Hudson Valley/Catskills region... and Provincetown!
William Duke: Turn your radio on. You are listening to Spiritual Solutions on WIOX Community Radio live and local high in the Catskill Mountains at 91.3 FM and MTC Cable Channel 20 and everywhere on the worldwide web at WIOXradio.org. We are also on the campus of SUNY Delhi at 107 .5 FM in Delhi every other week. I'm your host, William Duke. And every other week Spiritual Solutions comes to you on this live and local station to discuss the many different ways people in these mountains use to live a happier, more serene, salubrious, enjoyable life. And they do it in many, many ways, and often it is through art.
And I'm very, very happy today to have Renee Samuels from Woodstock, who has lived the life of an artist for the last 35 years in Woodstock. Her art currently can be seen at the Athens Cultural Center, the Art Society of Kingston and the Andes Academy of Art. She has solo shows coming up at Pause Gallery in Troy in December and at Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center in Poughkeepsie January through February. So, welcome, it's good to have you here, Renee. Thank you for being on the show.
Renee Samuels: Thank you, Bill. It's very nice to be here.
WD: So I wanted to start by asking you, did you have a religious or spiritual background as a child, and what informed any spiritual thing that you might or may not have?
RS: Well, it's an interesting question. I don't think of my spirituality now as particularly linked to the fact that I grew up in a conservative Jewish household where we did keep kosher, and I did go to Hebrew school, and I did have a Bat Mitzvah. But I have a feeling that it was important because I was taught before I had any chance to be critical about it or <laugh> aware of the idea of being critical, I was taught certain things, not the stories of the Bible so much as the idea that there is a God. And now I don't know that I think about God per se, because I think it's more important to be aware of an overall order to the universe. And that's my God. And it's connected with nature. And as you and I were talking about before, I'm not sure religion is a good thing other than as a community for socializing and having a larger village family, so to speak. Religions do tend to separate people from one another.
WD: Yeah. That is too bad. You would hope that it would be more of a unifying force. And it usually is, I guess, with the community that you're in.
RS: Well, that's just it. It makes you feel your community is the right one. And then the people who don't believe in the same thing– I’m not saying anything that hasn't been said–but I don't like the fact that if my God and your God are different gods, that makes you hate me.
RS: Or to take the worst example, makes you want to kill me.
WD: Yeah. We're all God's children. So, let's talk about art. When did you realize you were an artist? When did you come into that awareness?
RS: Well, I've always been an artist. It's another kind of banality to say, you know, I've always been an artist, and I always drew. But the thing that was significant was it’s the one thing my mother didn't criticize. And that may have been a very important fact, because she was a highly critical person. For instance, I remember distinctly playing piano one day, and when I played beautifully for 20 minutes and then on the 21st minute hit the wrong note, she said “No!” from the kitchen.
WD: Oh God.
RS: So that shouldn't necessarily affect your whole life. But I do know that when I made art, she would say, “Oh, that's beautiful, Renee,” and that really makes you feel like something. And I think it is important to support your children in the creative things they do, because it's very easy to crush a sensitive soul, you know? ‘You’re not the artist in the family.’ Well that's the last time you ever pick up a pencil or a paintbrush.
RS: Not to lay it all on my mother. <laugh>
WD: Is your sister an artist?
RS: No, she doesn't see the world that way. She's much more mainstream than I am, which is kind of salutary, you know?
RS: And she's actually created in my mind the series of collages I'm doing now. She looks at abstract art, like a minimalist abstract work, and says, ‘Oh, a three-year-old could do that.’ And that's a mindset a lot of people have. And I'm trying to show that abstraction can be something people can learn, and that it is valid… not that you need my word for it. <laugh>
WD: Yeah. So when did you start doing abstract? Or did you do more representational work before or… you mentioned doodling.
RS: Well, I think of doodling as, well, I never looked at it as abstraction, but it's just this sense of somebody who has a piece of paper and a pencil, and you're in a meeting, and while you're in the meeting, you're doing something with your pencil, making random shapes, which isn't about abstraction. It’s the difference between a person who does that and a person who doesn't do that. I was in a meeting one time, and the person running it said, ‘You're busy focusing on that. You’re not paying attention.’ And I said, ‘No, I'm listening much better because I'm not looking at your face.’ I'm focusing much better if I'm not looking at you, and I'm just watching my pencil move. I don't need to think to doodle, you know? I'm hearing you; I'm using my listening sense.
WD: Right. You go to life drawing, to figure drawing, and you enjoy that. Maybe you could talk about your experience doing that?
RS: Well, using charcoal or graphite or conte to draw the model is one of my most treasured kind of moments because of the sensitivity of the materials and also the fact that it's a living human being that you're drawing that, even when it's sitting still, it's breathing, it's alive. And that's a really precious thing to me. And I'm very affected by the type of model. I don't like a model who seems like they're trying to entertain you. I like models where you can feel a serenity and a calmness, and they take casual, natural poses.
WD: We've had both kinds at the Andes Academy of Art. We just had our last session last week, and it opens back up in February. We have more dramatic models and then models that are more serene and stately and just sit.
RS: Well , there's a lot of energy flowing around. I've been to model sessions where they had the TV on, or they had a radio on, or they played music I didn't like. I'm very sensitive to the sounds that are happening while I'm drawing. So sometimes I just have to walk out, and that's okay. You know, I'm not the person whose session it is; I've just come as a guest. But the ones I feel comfortable in, it's fairly quiet, and everybody's focused. And the model seems mature, for lack of a better word, somebody who takes what they're doing seriously. They have a sense of humor, but not trying to entertain. They’re calm. And the work I do when I'm drawing and using those super-sensitive materials has been really pleasing to me. I’ve got some things I like a lot, and I was happy to see on Instagram, some of the things I've posted under the #drawingfromthemodel hashtag come up at the very top. And the thing that's most cool is the one at the top is something I personally found beautiful.
WD: The figure drawing, does that to some degree inform your other work? Do you abstract from that? Where do you come up with your ideas for painting or collage?
RS: Well, that's the kind of one-thing-leads-to-another part of who I am. For instance, I've been working on this series of collages since 2014. But in March of 2015 I did about 160 collages that all had a close relationship to one another. Each one led to the next in terms of shape and the layout of the composition, the colors, like that. And part of it also has to do with my idea of wanting to use the materials that I have at hand. I had these really beautiful papers that I was cutting up into small shapes and using in a sort of minimalist way. And also somehow or other this diptych thing evolved where I have horizontal collages, and there are two sides to them. The series I've been doing the past bunch of years, the four-by-six-inch ones, which are relatively tiny, happened because I got a box of thousands of blank postcards that size that had a business logo that wasn't being used anymore. So it’s like let me use these and do what comes out of them. The other idea with one thing leads to another happens when I’m looking at the artwork, and that's the visual thing, the instinctive thing. And I think that's where the spiritual comes in. Spirituality to me is a connection when I feel ‘ I love this’ or the rightness of something, the inner voice, something that comes from the subconscious. I put down three tiny pieces of paper in different colors, in different shapes and move them around and suddenly I feel, ‘that's it.’ It’s the geometry, the balance, dynamic equilibrium.
WD: Right. It's being present too, probably.
RS: Right. Very. It’s like what you said about the idea of focus and awareness. Often I have a movie on in the background, and I can look at a piece of art and remember what movie I was hearing as I worked, from the wholeness of the moment somehow.
WD: What’s your website? Obviously you're on Instagram and a bunch of the social platforms, but do you have a website where you actually can see the art or buy the art?
RS: My website's reneesamuels.com. My Instagram is @reneesamuelsstudio, and what I put on Instagram pops onto Facebook, as well. The stuff on my website is more of a long-term archive. The Instagram stuff is like, this is what I'm doing now, recent photos, my ocean photos all summer long and my work if I’ve got something I want to show people. If you want to buy anything you just message me.
WD: On some of the collages, there’s a photo on the left and then an abstract piece on the right.
RS: This whole series is me trying to educate people who are afraid of abstract art. It started with my sister who said, you know, this is like something a three-year-old would do. But the three-year-old wouldn't have thought of it, you know, that's the whole point. That's my artist’s statement: I boiled it down to the idea that I'm trying to make art with the same joy and spontaneity as I did when I was a child but within a fixed realm of organization and ideas that I've since evolved for myself.
WD: Somebody said, I think to Jackson Pollock, you know, anybody could do this. And he said, “Yeah, but you didn't, <laugh> right? I did.”
RS: <laugh> Yeah. So let's say there's a photo on the left of some flowers, something I found beautiful that came out of a magazine, let’s say. And on the right side I’ve drawn, maybe, just the outline of the flower, the light edges against the dark foliage, for instance. So my idea is you can understand that abstraction can be as simple as taking a tree trunk that's a tall, relatively straight vertical, and then you draw a vertical line on the other side of the piece of art, and that's abstracted from the tree.
RS: Because abstraction to some people is just a joke, or they certainly have no idea what it is, or they don't want to know what it is. And it can be something very, very simple, in terms of teaching it at a basic level.
WD: You know, but it makes somebody more aware.
RS: Well, yeah. Right, it’s about how you interpret the world around you. So maybe if you’ve come to understand that basic concept from my collages, you may see things in a new way. Also, to hop onto another element, people say winter is all gray. Well, I sure don't see it that way. You know, I still see color except it's not bright color; it's subtle color, and really many more beautiful colors. So that's part of what it means to be an artist.
WD: Or even with Instagram, you know, with the phone now you can play with scale and find abstraction.
RS: Like you were saying about Chuck Close and the pixels.
WD: Now we have tools where it's incredible to be able to make abstract art.
RS: Well, I'm letting other people do that. I get it, and I see it, and I've certainly looked at it. And I find it fascinating that people will blow up a square-inch of a portrait and then make a painting from that square inch of color. But the trouble with that for me is I'm not interested in doing work where I know what the end product is. You know, I'm creating as I go along, I'm more like, like I said, I put down the three pieces of paper, I move them around. Okay. So glue those down. Right. What's next? And what you do next isn't something you know until you have the first three things down there.
WD: When do you know you're finished?
RS: Well, I finish 'em pretty quick, especially as these are so tiny. I call them minimalist; I don't know if that's legitimate. I don't love labels because they represent something in people's minds. But I keep them pretty simple. You know, often the quick sketch is more alive than the worked-up canvas. It has more of a spirit to it; it's fresh.
WD: In the figure drawing, I like the five-minute poses or two-minute poses. In 20 minutes, you know, you’ve got 10 minutes to draw it and then another 10 minutes to destroy it, <laugh> to mess it up.
RS: Well, they're quite different things, aren't they? In a one-minute pose, I'm gonna grab some fat conte crayon and kind of get the mass laid down and then maybe put a few lines in with a graphite stick and that's it. All it does is indicate the movement or the pose, so to speak.
RS: The gesture, and then a little bit of the shape of an arm or a thigh or whatever. And that's quite fun. And those are some of the favorite things I've done.
RS: So then that's the whole point about making sure I can dig the model, because if I'm going to be doing something for 10 minutes even, I need to be happy to be doing it. I wanna be serene and like loving that curl of hair or the bend of the neck. That's when you get the beautiful work, when you're really seeing it in a way that nothing's interfering. You're not thinking about anything else.
WD: Yeah. You're listening to Spiritual Solutions on WIOX Community Radio, live and local in the Catskill Mountains. We're talking to the artist Renee Samuels about art and her practice of art as a spiritual practice and how it connects her with something larger, something greater than herself.
WD: You're living the life of an artist.
RS: Well, other than that, I might as well just be anybody. And I'm not just anybody. I'm a person who has a talent that I'm lucky to have, and I would like to be able to bring that to the world. Do you know who Cecil Beaton is? The photographer and designer? He designed My Fair Lady for the stage and the screen. Very, very important artist of the 20th century. I was watching an interview with him where they asked, “What did you want to do with your life when you were young?” And he said, “I wanted to be able to express myself and to show that I wasn't just an ordinary person.” He’s such an idol of mine in terms of the way he approached the world. Not his personality necessarily, but he did a lot of really beautiful work. But he was lucky, because he was able to keep doing it, and a lot of people bought his work and employed him. But when he was young he was this very attractive guy, and British society took him to its heart. All the people flocked to him when he was doing these photos very early, like putting people under a glass dome or reflecting them in a piano lid. And later he became one of the great photographers of British royalty. So during this one interview, the interviewer was saying the early photos didn’t focus on the sitter, and Beaton said, “I wasn't interested in the sitter.” And the guy's like, “Well what were you interested in?” He said it rudely. But Beaton was so cool; he didn't get upset. He just said, “I was interested in making pictures.” He was composing a picture, an artwork.
WD: We were talking about abstraction and about drawing from a model, and I want to talk about media. The use of phones now, it's certainly a big way that we as artists connect with a wider audience on Instagram, and we seem to be tethered to the phone. And I wanted to ask how that informs your work or does not inform it.
RS: Well, I'm aware of it as a barrier to being in the moment and experiencing something that I'm watching or listening to. Like you're out on the jetty, and you're in the middle of the ocean, and you look around and how beautiful it is and frequently you think about the picture you're gonna take. Like in my yard there's a bear, and instead of looking at the bear and watching that whole experience, I'm looking for my phone, and I'm taking a picture, and then I'm behind my camera. You're thinking oh, I'm gonna put this on Instagram later. I have an idea that when you work, the spiritual connection has to do with making art that is about what's coming out of you and how you're connecting with your materials. You're looking directly at the work you’re making, you’ve got your hands on it, so to speak. It's hard to explain the idea of doing it because it's visceral. It's something you are expressing of your own; it's coming right out of your soul. You come to my show and see the art in person, you see the brushstrokes, or you see the lines I’ve drawn, and you see the way the material interacts with the paper, for instance. I'm not a… I forget the word for somebody who doesn't like technology.
RS: Yeah, that's not where I'm at. I do like the tools, but I think it's important to remember that art is an expression of not just me alone but like 5 billion years of human existence that flows through you. Consciousness is not something that begins and ends in my being. It’s how I connect to the universe and to artists of all time. And I feel the hand-held natural materials that are so minutely sensitive express that best.
WD: The materials: You keep bringing that up as being important. So you don't get a sense of the materials when you're looking at an Instagram photo of the artwork.
RS: Right. And how many people go to, I mean, people go to museums when they visit a place. Like it's part of what they do as a tourist, you know. But as an artist, you check into a museum because you want to see the artwork up close. You know, I can go to Poughkeepsie to the Loeb Art Center and stand in front of a Matisse, and it's quite different from seeing the work online. I mean, if you look up any painting online, you're going to see 12 different color versions of it, for one thing, let alone not feel and see the paint strokes or commune with the artist, to some extent, knowing he stood in front of that canvas.
WD: Well, this show often talks about connecting, you know, obviously with the higher power or the divine but also other people and community. And I don't know if you have had that experience, when you're in figure drawing, certainly there's a group there. I don't know if that helps or hurts you or how you feel about that. Or do you have any other thoughts on community?
RS: Well, I'm not a hermit exactly, but I tend to spend a lot of time on my own. On the other hand, given the opportunity, I'm very friendly and comfortable with people. I always have plenty to say. I’ve changed entirely from who I used to be! I’m full of things to say, you know, to being boring sometimes. But I feel very separate to some extent from my community. For instance at drawing class, I come in and sit down and do my drawing, and we chat, but I don't tend to make friends that I then go hang out with. You know, like someone else might join a class at the Y and then end up going to have coffee with all those ladies afterward. That’s not who I tend to be. I think I have a certain reserve, as friendly as I am. I definitely have this point beyond which it's hard for me to go, you know? And part of it is just habit. I've talked to people who knew me when I was young, and one of them said, “Well, you'd be the one standing at the door at a party practically ready to run out <laugh>, you know, if need be.”
WD: Nature is also something that comes up a lot on this show, and you had mentioned nature as something important to you.
RS: Well, I feel closer to nature than people <laugh>. Nature is the mother of everything. And just even visually, which is a seemingly superficial way of experiencing nature, but even just with that, you've got every color, right? Like all the colors in nature are, to me, inspiring, the shapes, the colors, the changeability, the movement, you know, waves and plants moving in the wind. And I've taken videos, you know, even if I'm walking in town and there's a tree, and up above the leaves are just going ssshhhhhh. I'll just stand there and look up. And then there again, you know, I grab the phone and make a little video of it. But guess what? The video isn't the same! Or I was at the Saugerties lighthouse the other day, and the wind was blowing so hard that the waves were choppy, and the sun was really bright, and I was just sitting there, and it's hard for me to sit still, but I actually sat there and felt like I was on the prow of a ship with the sun beaming down. And the wind and the waves and the moments like that are just perfect, you know, and it's all I can do to make myself sit there; it's like hard to keep still. But I did take a video of it, and I sent it to someone who's as kind of beach-mad and ocean-mad as I am. And I was like, “It doesn't really show!” <laugh>. And she's like, “No, I get it. I get it!” <laugh>. That stuff is really powerful in my life. And I'd like to be all year-round at the beach.
WD: Well, even in these hills. I mean, this last fall, any painter has to be enormously jealous of… you know, there's no way you can match the beauty of what actually just happened here. You know? And actually what continues to happen, even with the gray muted tones now, the woods, it's so gorgeous.
RS: Yeah, and then you'll see one leaf hanging on, and then it becomes this beautiful yellow, bright-yellow miracle in the midst of all this more subdued color.
WD: Yeah. Yeah. It's hard, you know, if you're a painter because you get jealous, you can't really match the beauty, match nature. And if you're a sculptor, I mean, my god, you know, you look at a tree, how can you, you know? Those poor guys!
RS: Trees are some of my favorite things in the world, you know, just the beauty of trees. And having started biking this summer, and I started walking on trails in the woods this year, which I had never done in my life, and there's that consciousness of the beauty… which I want to recognize Scenic Hudson for all their gorgeous parks. I'm just loving it, just walking, and then again, it's like the kind of thing where in order to really connect, you can't be walking with your head down, looking at the ground and thinking about something before or something later, or, worst of all, looking at your phone. You know, you need to remember, look around, just listen and look, just look at the leaves on the bushes. And that's spiritual because it… there's no words to express what importance it has. It's just the idea of those shapes and colors and the movement of it. Which kind of leads me to talk about the only painting series I've given a name to that meant something spiritually: It's called Homage to Something, and it’s about how I don't claim to know what it is that I have faith in, but I’ve always felt the balance of the universe, like the perfect geometry and physics of it. I pay homage to my belief in the overall spirit that connects us all. Even gravity is at the basis of…
RS: Yeah, physics! But in this series it’s giving thanks to the beauty of color, it has to do with blending color. It's a series of abstract paintings that are within certain color families, like yellow-orange-red or orange-yellow-green. And those are the titles: “Homage to Something orange-yellow-green” or “Homage to Something blue-violet,” because they’re about the exploration of the beauty of color.
WD: Right. And the mixture of colors.
RS: Mixing color. And that was something, too, that had to do with nature. Like when I first learned about complementary color, and I would see the leaf that was half yellow-green and half red-violet, I was like, ‘There it is!’ That's a real thing.
WD: That's what attracts the bees. You see the goldenrod next to the purple aster on the side of the road. Well, it's their complementary colors, and they're trying to attract bees. Pollinators get attracted, you know. They can see it better.
RS: I didn’t know that! I found a fall-blooming lilac, which I've seen two or three of them around here, and I almost put my nose right into one that had a really big fuzzy bee on it. <laugh>. Luckily I saw it in time.
WD: The yellow coincides with the third chakra, which is the sticktuitiveness chakra underneath the solar plexus. They call that the fire in the belly chakra because it's yellow. Then its complement is the sixth chakra, which is purple, which is the third eye. The chakras all complement each other. You know, the root chakra at the base of the spine is red, and its color complement is green, which is the color of the heart chakra.
RS: I don't know a lot about that… or hardly anything for that matter. <laugh>
WD: It's interesting stuff. It's a crazy, wild world we live in. But it's great being an artist because you can interpret it and reflect it.
RS: You know, I spent a lot of time in Provincetown this summer, and there are 62 galleries, most of which are on one street, Commercial Street, and there's a lot of good work there. And I found that the combination of that and all the artists in the community and being right at the ocean, I want to pay tribute to the beauty of Provincetown and the beauty of that community of artists.
WD: How long were you there?
RS: Well, the longest I stayed was like four days at a time, but I went down, you know, 10 different times. I was there a lot. I’d leave at four in the morning and get there with no traffic. It was just something really important to me. Like this summer was about the beach there and walking out on the jetty and the bike. There's a lot of bike-riding there, and there's a sign that says, “One way, but not for bikes,” which is a sort of up-the-down-staircase thing, another one of my favorite motifs.
RS: That's a philosophy. I should be talking more about up here, I suppose. I've lived here long enough. The other part of how wonderful my summer was is because of biking the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.
WD: You've been here 35 years. Maybe it’s “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
RS: Well, there's an ocean in Provincetown. Everybody says Woodstock is so beautiful. And I say, “Yeah, but there's no ocean.” And I grew up near the ocean and going to the beach all the time, every summer. And there were years and years here, more than not, where in the summer I'd be here saying, “Why am I not at the beach?” And I'm kind of mad at myself that I say I should be X and why don't I just go do that? Like what's keeping me from doing the things I think I want to do? It might be as simple as money, you know, like it costs $3 million to buy a house in Provincetown, for instance.
WD: And the lobster rolls for $35. <laugh>.
RS: But you know, you get what you pay for. There's cheaper places to live, but they don't have what I want. Which isn't spiritual, but it's just part of life, isn't it?
WD: Well, you can be on the Hudson.
RS: And I do, and I love it… like at the Saugerties lighthouse.
WD: So you walk a beach there?
RS: There's a path. On Route 9W just north of the village there's a place where the road turns left, and you see a sign to the lighthouse, and you go park down there. It's on a spit of land.
WD: Have you painted there?
RS: Yes. I did a really nice little watercolor there that I think I subsequently sold or gave away, I forget. But you check the tide table before you go, because this path you walk down to get to the lighthouse is underwater when it's high tide. And the cool thing is that later that same day I was there recently I was in Rhinecliff, just across the river, and I looked over and I said, “Wow, that looks so different.” And I realized it was because the water was surrounding the lighthouse.
WD: And you draw boats and tugs and things when you're there?
RS: I drew the lighthouse itself, because it's this very beautiful, old, pink, faded brick, and the structure is quite wonderful. It's a 100+-year-old building, and there's this big porch with tables and benches and trees, it's pretty cool. And when you're out there, there's always more wind, because you're really in the middle of the river!
WD: To see Renee Samuels' work, you can go to Instagram @reneesamuelsstudio or to reneesamuels.com. It's been wonderful having you.
RS: Thank you, Bill. I enjoyed it a lot.
Renee Samuels Home Oils Collage Drawings
Images are for viewing purposes only and under the exclusive copyright of the artist.
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