21st Century Iconography with Contemporary Painter Julia Lambright
In Conversation | Julia Lambright
Foster/White Gallery: Will you share how history and storytelling play a role in your painting?
Julia Lambright: Telling a story is an essential part of my art – it’s dealing with voice. Through storytelling I can find commonalities with other people, and their stories, so it does not make it a reflection of one story alone. Visual art, with all the multiplicity of its voices, does not need to be translated because art is open to interpretation and it informs viewers about our experiences. With the idea of memory in mind, I like to pose a question and keep the narrative open-minded. My story can start simply: a little girl, somewhere in Russia, and lost in time – the result is created in several patiently executed drawings. In my art today, I am navigating these hopes using instincts, dreams, and intuition. It is still fleeting… Humanity, at one point was illiterate, and it seeks to record time through visual language, and I aim to record mine.
F/WG: Do you draw from a recurring cast of characters in your work? What does repetition of certain forms within a painting infer?
JL: This is a great question, and this is a place where I search for my instincts! When it comes to art, there is always a debate or tension that is created between a subjective mind and the objective facts it means to depict. In this regard, my process is intuitive and because I have no photographic record of the past, I rely on my own understanding. This is a unique form of sensation. My recollection of the past is not linear, it often feels fused; sometimes it is bold and vivid with my characters coming into focus; other times, my vision challenges the intersection of memories and dreams, it often feels contradictory and fragmented. I guess, this is where the repetition of certain elements comes from. Repetition in my paintings is a declarative act to state my existence. Recorded memories of the past have no physical evidence as I end up having only one small portrait of myself as a child today.
F/WG: What attracts you to working in egg tempera? The connection with Eastern Orthodox iconography seems evident, but beyond that, what does the medium give you that other forms of paint do not?
JL: I am old fashioned in character, I like things that are handmade. It took me a while to find my medium after working with acrylic, oil paint, watercolor and gouache. Only with these experiences I understood the uniqueness and character of this forgotten medium. I am embracing egg tempera because of its qualities, its history, and optical results. Regardless of it being slow and linear, I enjoy preparing my panels according to the old recipes, making gesso and paints from scratch.
True egg tempera is an artistry that got lost in the 21st Century with not too many artists willing to challenge it today. This is partially due to the convenience of pre-made paint and grounds, and perhaps other advantages like color intensity or drying time. Egg tempera is certainly a medium for stubborn artists and I am one of them!
F/WG: Do you feel that your work is a comment on the canon of icon painting, or an addition to the tradition? Where does it align and where does it depart?
JL: I see icons as being a teacher and my contemporary work as my ‘children.’ In terms of preparation, my panels and materials used from the ground up, follow all canonical traditions. However, when it comes to choosing the subject, symbols, colors, and the painting process, it takes a different path.
Icon painting is a strict discipline and starts with many complex steps before applying dark hues, progressively building up layers toward light. Even though every idea for my new paintings is cultivated for a while in my head, it does not follow the schema nor commonly used steps like in traditional icon painting. My process involves experiments with the synthesis of watercolor washes and a sanding machine, and a linear drawing approach and glazing. There are many elements of surprise.
F/WG: You have said that studying in New Mexico reinvigorated your spirituality. How has that influenced your painting?
JL: As a Russian who found myself living in the West, I understood that it was essential to find the spiritual connection that I was searching for. Being so far away from Russia and in new cultural settings, I felt a growing need to explore the sacred art of Russian icons. My desire was to learn traditional icon painting so I could create my own ‘sanctuary’ privately, in my new home.
Studying at the University of New Mexico, especially in grad school, was a time of learning about myself. I went back to Russia, to learn and to adopt old recipes, formulas, and techniques from the iconographic schools in Moscow. This experience was an exciting one that affected my understanding of how I see art and the meaning I attribute to it. Today when I look back, it would be hard to see my artistic practices and style without taking this trajectory.
Julia Lambright, Harvest Moon, egg tempera, 36 x 24 inches
A work in progress in Lambright's studio
F/WG: You have shared about your childhood and how some of your early challenges have driven or impacted your work - the idea of not having early photographs to aid in memory for example. What has been the greatest joy in your creative life?
JL: Past experiences can be traumatic, regardless of age. I remember one of my professors during a group critique told me: “Julia, you must talk, you need to share your story.” I never talked about my past with anyone. I was not ready then, until I had this series of work exhibited. Being by myself in the gallery was a sort of rebirth; a first time when I truly recognized art as a living communication – a testimony. A deeply personal story in abstracted, blurry, and deformed notion was embedded. It compensated for the visual search that I was missing, it felt liberating.
My greatest joy? There are many. One of my biggest creative joys is being able to bring my ideas to realization. I feel very fortunate to live my childhood dream of being an artist. Of course, it comes with struggle, but is really gets me going, particularly in these uncertain times. It makes me eager to create something of my own, it not only inspires, but makes me feel challenged and rewarded.
F/WG: Has being a parent influenced your work and in what ways?
JL: Having a daughter, from early on posed a number of questions about my past. As a genetic particle of me, she became a reflection of mine, a reminder, and a passage for self-observation. Using my daughter as a model in my art allowed me to “face to face” analyze a transition from past to present with its subliminal thoughts and unspoken childhood desires. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these means became inspirational as a prime element in the reconstruction of my past in my work. She will always be my muse.
Julia Lambright, She Must Fly, egg tempera, 32 x 36.5 inches
F/WG: What has been a comfort to you during this season of unknowns and quarantines?
JL: I went through many rough periods in my life, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Ironically, living in isolation with unknown factors is familiar to me but this time it feels truly surreal, it evokes fear.
My comfort is my family. Because of my family I have a ‘fertile ground’ today to move forward to my creative discoveries. Before the quarantine I was teaching full time and coordinating several art-related activities. This combination became a sort of mechanism that created my own lock-down. I hope you understand what I am expressing here.
I am now truly fortunate to be able to reduce my teaching commitment and to dedicate most of my time to the studio. I want to create a place to be creative! Of all the necessities, this quarantine made me even more connected to my family and to become conscious about ideas that I left for ‘another time’. On a day-to-day basis, I feel it is most important to be less concerned with long-term questions about the past, rather than to foster and reflect on ideas of today.