Weekly Longread: A Conversation with Brooklyn-Based Artist, Alessandra Maria
Alessandra Maria Peters, aka Alessandra Maria, is a Brooklyn-based artist whose inspiring naturalistic works are made with coffee-stained paper, graphite and carbon pencil, gold leaf, and black ink. Working within this medium, Peters’ art has tended towards a poignant reinterpretation of feminine iconography, often contextualized and adorned with natural elements like flowers and butterflies. Inspired by her recent work, Garden Collage caught up with the artist to discuss her creative process, how she translates form into medium, and the shifting landscape of Fine Art as a vehicle for creative expression. Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, follows below.
GC: What role do nature-inspired references like flowers, butterflies, and plants play within your body of work?
AMP: I’m really inspired by Renaissance art and this notion of creating my own world; primarily using traditional iconography– and those natural elements are common [to the genre]. They’re a part of what was typically used in iconic works from the 16- and 1700’s. The work has several feminist themes within it– essentially I’m re-working icons from a different era, in a manner that feels like it’s still my own. I definitely try to keep the aesthetic a little bit modern so as to not feel directly lifted from the Renaissance era. I want it to feel contemporary in and of itself, but there definitely is an attempt to make it feel like an artifact— something that has age or which might be a sacred object. That’s deliberate; there’s something very interesting about that.
GC: What is your background? Did you always know you wanted to pursue art?
AMP: I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and I went to the Pratt Institute [in Brooklyn] where I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Art. Essentially, I always knew I wanted to do art, but I didn’t think I was going to be an artist because pretty much everyone advises not to be an artist. That was never feasible in my mind, so I initially majored in Graphic Design, but midway through my junior year I switched to Commercial Illustration because I knew that would enable me to draw. I was really fortunate to have some great teachers there.
Kenichi Hoshine was a teacher of mine who was really influential– and Rudy Gutierrez, Chang Park. There were quite a few teachers who really helped me to understand Fine Art and the aesthetic. I think working underneath them I was able to find myself, and by the time I was 21 I started getting requests to do gallery shows. All of a sudden I found myself doing this, and this is what I wanted to do.
GC: That’s amazing. Where are you based now?
AMP: I live in Brooklyn and I have a studio in Bushwick– it’s a great space.
GC: And who are your “clients”– is that the word you’d use? Who is your audience?
AMP: Funny enough, Instagram has actually been a really big thing for me. A lot of collectors who find me did so through my Instagram, @alessandradraws. I do private commissions, but I primarily work in galleries. Right now I have a show coming up in L.A., I work with a gallery in Chicago, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several galleries in New York, Seattle, San Fransisco, Tampa…so, I’ve been able to show all over the place, so I feel very lucky.
GC: Social media exerts a profound influence over the art world, no?
AMP: Yes. It’s amazing that the internet has allowed people to be creative and to get their work out there without having to be approved by “the establishment” first…
GC: Totally. What is your opinion on the state of the art world and where it’s going with respect to “natural” themes?
AMP: I think we’re really in a period of change. I heard a statistic that in 2014, 1% of art sales happened on the Internet, and in 2015, that figure had jumped to 7%. So, we’re starting to enter a period, at least in Fine Art, where anything goes. You want to be smart about what you make and intelligent about what you have to say, but I just think it’s amazing that there is so much work out there to be appreciated. I’m very curious to see what the landscape is going to look like in the next 25 years. With that sales statistic alone, it’s just a shocking thing to think about.
GC: We used to view the creative spheres as being somewhat removed from the political goings-on of our time, but now I think, because of the power of the Internet and the fact that someone like you can make important, creative work for a public audience, I think those norms are shifting.
AMP: I totally agree with you, and I think that’s one of the things I love the most about art when it is done really well– it has a capacity to have an instinctive gut punch. I’ll never forget those photos that Jenny Saville did, where it’s just her body. It was such a shocking way to depict the female body, but it was so necessary. In many ways, it was a political piece, so I think what you are saying is totally spot-on.
Art is the one thing I can contribute to the world– it’s the best thing I know how to do, and remembering that often helps me with the doubt that I think all creative people face. I think that’s a good way to stay grounded in your work.
GC: Tina Fey has a segment in her book, Bossy Pants, where she talks about the stress of writing for SNL, and she says something like, “My job is stressful, but it’s not stressful in the way that a coal miner’s job is stressful“. This idea– that being a creative person is a gift– is really powerful to remember.
AMP: I love that. I think every creative gets caught up and occasionally forgets the luxury of their work. For me, it might be that I spilled ink over something that I’m working on, but giving those frustrations legitimacy is important so that you don’t end up ignoring it. You have to be forgiving with yourself. All I know is that when I’m creating I try to use frustration as a tool, because at the end of the day you’re able to set it down and breath and be grateful.
GC: That’s a very sensible worldview. I love the direction that this is taking! Can we talk a little bit about the interesting materials you use?
AMP: Sure! I work on coffee-stained paper– there’s a special paper that I get from France, and from there I have a process where I soak it, stretch it, and stain it. I usually use coffee or espresso, sometimes both. Once it’s dried, I adhere it to birch wood– sometimes it’s a panel, sometimes it’s something thinner– it really depends on what’s available.
“I want it to feel contemporary in and of itself, but there definitely is an attempt to make it feel like an artifact— something that has age or which might be a sacred object. That’s deliberate; there’s something very interesting about that.”
Then, I work with charcoal– I used to work with graphite, but lately I’ve transitioned to charcoal and carbon pencil, because it’s darker and it’s much faster; I can move it more quickly and cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. With graphite you’re working inch by inch; with charcoal, it’s much faster and the results are more beautiful.
GC: I love that there are so many natural elements within your work, even down to the physical medium.
AMP: I love that aspect of it, too, because I think that makes it feel a little more intimate. It’s amazing to be able to make an image by pushing pigment around on paper. It’s just nuts.
GC: I bet it’s also better for your health, not spending so much time around turpentine…
AMP: I do have to use one toxic ingredient, because I have to use an adhesive to attach the gold leaf, but you’re totally right– this whole method that I came up with basically just stems from the fact that the texture and process of acrylic paint doesn’t resonate with me. I wanted to figure out how to make an image my own way.
GC: When you are depicting butterflies or flowers– anything that has a lot of detail– do you work off of specific images or do you just see it in your mind’s eye?
AMP: I used to work with butterflies a lot, and I’m actually not working with them anymore, but I used to look up dozens of images of butterflies to work off of– I actually had to make a model of a butterfly just so that I could translate it into the work. Now I can do it off-head, but before I had to make a model and study it. Every element of almost every piece is referenced to something that I’ll first have a concept for, then when I have to commit it to paper I have to find the references and compile things together in order to make a finished piece.
GC: What’s your current fascination? For example, if you were Picasso, are you in your Blue Period, or what?
AMP: Icons. For the vast majority of Western History, there were three roles for women: you were the virgin, the whore, or the mother– at least this is so within iconography in Fine Art. So everything has to do with sexuality, that sort of thing. I’m interested in exploring how that still has ramifications echoing today. Everything has a root in history, and in many ways that’s been passed down to our current culture. I’m really fascinated by that idea, and essentially I’m trying to re-work these icons, to have them be stripped of sexuality and totally powerful– to have that same presence that icons of men throughout the course of history have had.
AMP: There’s a guy named Dave Hickey who posits that we all still kind of live in a pagan society, in the sense that we still have icons in the form of celebrity culture, and we pare them down. So, I’m sort of trying to go back to the start. Everything is a process, but being able to do that in a concise and beautiful way is my ultimate goal.