Just to start. Tell us please about your first interaction with art. Do you remember, what artwork it was and what did you feel when you saw it? And was there any pivotal moment where you decided that you wanted to become an artist?
My first interaction with art was a trip to the MoMA when I was a junior in high school. My art program was poorly funded, and I honestly had no idea even about my primary medium oil paint, not to mention a whole art world! I remember the first-ever piece that shook me was Yayoi Kusama's piece Accumulation No.1 (1962). I felt completely disturbed and fascinated at the same time. I had no idea what I was looking at or why someone would create something like that, and then I felt hurt. I think the nature of the phallic forms protruding from the armchair just made me think of all the different things that it could mean. Those waves of emotions overwhelmed me. I have been staring at that piece for a long time.
As an undergrad, I worked in a grocery store back in Jersey where I commuted every morning into the city. I finally was so happy to quit after I got a job in Operations at SVA (ed.: School of Visual Arts, New York City), where I installed artwork, set up classrooms, helped the maintenance crew, and fixed up the studio and classroom walls. During the summer, I was able to sneak into the smaller overlooked studios at the school and work on random projects. Throughout those years I was collecting whatever I could find to work with, I was a complete hoarder of scraps and junk. I found myself just trying and trying to make things out of objects or materials that didn't have a home. I would also make random paintings from thrown-away canvases the other students didn't want. During that period, I knew that something in me wanted to do more. I also felt like I didn’t care about anything else other than what I was doing, I just wanted to feel present in the honest actions of just creating. That's probably the closest moment I realized, maybe this drive can be something special that I can share with others.
© Veronica Fernandez' studio. Image: Veronica Fernandez
You have received your BFA from The School of Visual Arts in NYC, US. What were the crucial stakes within your studies?
I understood that the school I went to provided all sorts of access to experimentation, and I wanted to try almost every medium while I was there. I think when I got to art school, I foolishly thought that the goal was to create constantly some sort of a groundbreaking piece or come up with master ideas. I realized I found a lot of frustration in trying to see, what I was passionate about, and felt pressure on my shoulders at first to create. But at the end of the day, I recognized how grateful and privileged it felt to have access to space, professors, and ideas I'd never heard of – something that a lot of people I grew up with had no idea about. An actual art world we all had no idea existed. I felt I needed to just take all of it in, be curious, open my mind and make the bad projects, and let myself be embarrassed or doubtful. I know how hard I worked, and how hard my family worked to even give me the opportunity to attend an institution like that. Knowing where I come from and understanding I have a role in the world outside of the art world naturally helped me embrace the endless opportunities the school was offering. I no longer had a pressure on my shoulders to create something with expectations, I realized my practice started to come naturally at SVA when I stayed true to my values and incorporated them into the world, they were introducing me to.
I have noticed that you often depict domestic spaces and homes. Besides, you personally stress out that your art discusses relationships between people and their environments. Where do you take these topics from, and what references do you have?
I find the relationship between people and the spaces, their bodies have lived through, interesting; the surroundings of a person can play a huge role in shaping who they become and how they see the world. When I first started my current body of work, I thought about the various places I’ve been and events I have experienced – the good and the not-so-good. Growing up my family moved around a lot, apartment-to-apartment, and I remember a lot of the time it was because we were under the pressure of eviction. The domestic space was something that I always saw as a fleeting, luminal space. It was not only unstable or never set in stone, but also every destination, we experienced, felt like a lesson that would transform us, and develop how we would grow.
My siblings and I were raised by a single father; I think having a front seat to witnessing an important figure in my life struggle and finding any means to provide for us on his own sparked a yearning in me to depict figures that are endlessly trying to find their role in the world within the layers of their environments. Just like our memories, a photograph can have various ways in which it can be perceived. I use a lot of old photographs or recent ones on my phone of family or friend; these photographs and the memories within them are dissected and used to recreate new narratives.
A decisive aspect in your work is color: so bright and lively! Your paintings are playful and positive, yet strong. What stands behind this choice of color? Is this actually what you want to communicate with art – strength and positivity?
I think color choice is always something that I love using as a powerful tool to communicate with viewers. Most of the time I’ll be thinking about the nature of an event and how I can translate the different ways I perceive it into color. There are times where I use color symbolically, I often see red, a color that obviously for so long has had various meanings, as a tool for my “transformative” figures. When I paint a figure as red, they become very turbulent and unpredictable. I think regardless of whether the painting is darker natured or light hearted, the first step is to pull the audience into the piece. There definitely is an element of strength, I want to introduce others to my work as another human being that is a storyteller; what I’ve always admired in other artists is not only seeing what it takes to find your own visual language, but also the strength it takes to share that with others.
© Veronica Fernandez' studio. Image: Veronica Fernandez
Your work has been exhibited internationally, in Europe and the USA. Do you feel differences in the reception of your art in Rome and in New York, e.g.?
I think when I use familiar symbols in culture like for instance, a Yankees cap, it becomes more obvious where I am from, but I don’t think the actual reception of my work is any different. I’ve had discussions in the studio with people from different parts of the world, and it’s been really beautiful how the work can touch them in many ways, but still comes down to their own thoughts on the human experience. Whether it be them reflecting on themselves and their own memories, family, or just the relationships they’ve encountered in general, we were able to find something to exchange with one another.
You name Noah Davis, Christina Quarles, Francis Bacon, or Cecily Brown as inspirations. Are you inspired on a visual or on a conceptual level?
Both for sure! Although all the artists are very different and stand out in their own ways, both their visual and conceptual elements are fascinating to me. In particular, the way Christina Quarles work forces you to become tangled in her visual language, is so complex, as so is the ideas surrounding identity and relationships between people in her work. I think all the artists give an opportunity to discuss the nature of human beings and find ways to psychologically pull you into the works. Even Noah Davis, whose figures in his work are more visually recognizable, have an essence to them that seem other worldly, or expressing the deeper concerns of humanity.
How does your usual workday start like? Do you prefer working in the art studio? Do you practice walking through the city and making quick sketches?
In the studio, I usually have music on with my coffee sitting nearby. I’ve gotten very used to creating sketches for a lot of my pieces – to layout the overall composition or forms I am going to fit into the space. I find that I do a lot of my sketches in more comfortable intimate settings, like in bed or on the floor at home. I’ll take it into the studio and set everything up! I’ll start layering on some paint and colors to see which interests me and start filling in the canvases. I love hopping from painting to painting around the studio, it makes it more interesting and gives me time to reflect on the progress I just made.
© Veronica Fernandez' studio. Image: Maria Vogel
Browsing through your website and Instagram, your works seem to show a big family. Who are the people on your portraits? Are they familiar to you or do you also paint strangers?
Family is the most important aspect of my life, so I incorporate a lot of family members or people close to me in my work. I reflect on the family I’m close to, the loved ones that passed before my existence, and the ones I never met or have barely spoken to.
Could you please tell us more about your latest exhibition I Do My Own Stunts in Los Angeles? What topics did you address there and why?
I Do My Own Stunts was an exhibition in LA with Spazio Amanita Gallery, curated by Jack Siebert and Caio Twombly. It consisted of twenty women artists. I showed two paintings there, The Disciplined II and Take Me With The Flame (I Want To Feel Love). In The Disciplined II I depicted a memory I recalled, where my brother had been punished by my grandmother, and she had scolded him to scrub the tub down with a toothbrush. I remember how tedious, time consuming and frustrated that looked, to bend over on his knees for a while. I think about the punishment itself, how it forced you to focus for hours while you reflect upon your actions.
In Take Me With The Flame (I Want To Feel Love) I depicted a woman embracing the essence of a lover, over a bonfire. In this piece I used an old photograph of my grandmother at the beach with one of her ex-partners. Over the bonfire is the vibrant face of a child, looking over the flames, that start to become one with the mother. In this piece the mother figure stands her ground in the middle of the painting as she takes on the role to create a life for another on her own. As she stands strong, she is simultaneously being consumed by the flames below her as her child witnesses. The mother is in a chaotic back and forth state of sacrifice and preservation.
As stated before, I reflect a lot about my father raising me on his own and my grandmother being a single-mother during his upbringing. The “broken household” is an underlying theme in most of my work that connects a lot of the actions and emotions of the figures I depict. In both paintings, the figures are in transformative states; they are learning, vulnerable, and who they become after is uncertain.
Not only you are an artist, but also a co-founder of Ignite The Hearts Foundation, that helps serve the poor, the homeless, and many individuals and families in need. Does this experience find reflection in your art?
Ignite The Hearts introduced me to so many individuals that were in situations my family was once in, or worse. I remember meeting a young girl from the shelter my family once lived at in Jersey, and she was around the same age as me, when I had gone through that time in my life as well. It was disheartening to hear that there were so many terrible things happening at once to her, and until this day I try to have faith that things got better for her. In my work I reflect a lot on how people adapt to their surroundings or how they push through… especially children. There is an aspect to my work that wants the viewers to have a level of understanding for whoever is depicted. Sometimes I depict figures that are set in their ways or others that need to be handled with care. Ignite The Hearts taught me, where that care came from and how just simply putting others first once in a while could bring genuine human connection and make someone feel seen. I want the figures in my work to be seen.
© Veronica Fernandez. Image: Maria Vogel
Could you please tell us about your upcoming projects and plans? What are you currently working on? What is the most extraordinary project, you would like to bring into life one day in the future?
At the moment I am preparing for my solo at Sow & Tailor, Los Angeles, where for the first time, I’ll be introducing some sculpture pieces with my paintings! I’m also preparing for a group show at Asia Art Center in Taiwan, and a group show at K11 Museum, a museum in Hong Kong. In the future, I would love to work with another institution to help give children more access to the artworld in their local communities.
Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova