Interview with Valerie Brennan, cover artist for the Colm Toibin Issue

Valerie Brennan is the artist whose painting appears on the cover of our Spring 2011 issue, guest edited by Colm Toibin.  I (the web/marketing editor here at Ploughshares) asked her a few questions about this particular painting, current inspirations, and her work in general.

Ploughshares: First off, is there an answer to the question “What is this a painting of?” Or is it more of an abstraction? Did you have any particular inspiration for the painting? Is there a story behind it?

Brennan: The painting on the cover is called the Spain suite I and it is one of five in the series. The painting is actually an abstraction of a table corner and a floor mat; it is abstract of course, as is all my work, but the images all evolve from the real world, from everyday objects. I would call myself a process painter, and I like to play and push the paint around to explore its possibilities. All of my recent work including The Spain suites is based on drawings from my home here in Spain.  I moved here over one year ago, and my paintings are a response to that change. My work is always connected to what is going on in my life; it is a synthesis of many things that surround me.

Ploughshares: I personally really like the use of the bright colors in the painting; do you have a particular thought process when choosing colors for your work?

Brennan: Color is something entirely instinctive for me. When you paint you work within certain parameters –  scale, medium, etc. – and with experience, the better you get at setting things up to allow the instinctive to happen. To use a well known expression: “the paintings paint themselves,” and that holds true for me at least.  It is all a kind of controlled chaos. I have always been drawn to strong color and don’t shy away from using it. Color can be a powerful emotional experience; it is what draws you to the painting. I love the work of Howard Hodgkins and Tal R for example, both of whom use undiluted, exotic color.

Ploughshares: You’re from Ireland – have you read Colm Toibin? If so, do you have any thoughts on his work?  Does literature ever inspire your art?

Brennan: So far I have read only Brooklyn, and I liked the book for the same reasons most people do, his precise language and clear unadorned prose. I did have an affinity for Eilis, as I too was an Irish immigrant in New York, so I did share some of those feelings although I have to say I am more a master of my own destiny. Colm Toibin manages somehow to express more in what is left unsaid.

Usually literature does not inspire me directly. I respond more to visual stimuli, although I listen to music when I paint and that always finds a way in. I did make some work in university that was based around T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrok” in particular. I think at that time I was searching. I always felt that I knew how to paint –  just not what to paint, so working from somebody else’s creation was a way around that.

Ploughshares: Can you describe the work you do in general?  Does your artistic work go beyond just painting? Do you work in any other “genres?”

Brennan: I just paint and draw.  As I said, my work is very much connected to my life, so I begin with sketches that are very reductive – simple imagery. They can be anything from a fabric pattern to a doorway. Abstraction is a natural language for me, but the paintings all start from something solid. After I draw I work on maybe ten to twelve small pieces on paper and from these I decide what to use as a starting point for my paintings. I like to work on multi panels. I see them as individuals but with the same theme/source. The paintings usually dictate the format they take (for example, if it takes the form of a triptych or a series). I love to work on wood as it is more sturdy and resilient as a support, and it does not get as saturated as quickly. My paintings are usually on a smaller scale. I like the intimacy of that because I think it stays true to the source of my work and the titles reflect that too.

The Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares will be released on April 15th, 2o11. Colm Toibin will read from his own work on April 7th.  For more information, click here.

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