Judy Southerland



The why:

Remembering we are part of nature keeps us strong. We learn from nature, our processes mimic those used and refined by nature.  Our mother.  Sometimes we forget our experiences, but through material making, I see that I remember and am grateful for that.



My Society of Images:


I tend to work in sets. These groupings may become a series over time, or they may stand alone. All together, they form my society of images.


Word and Image: 


Born in Pontotoc, MS in 1944,  I was mostly raised in Trussville, AL a little town at the end of the Appalachian chain, northeast of  Birmingham, population 1600. In deep south culture experience was translated through words, from the pulpit, at school, and at home. Words were the building blocks and the enforcers of our organizing systems. Somewhere along the line I realized words had suffered a loss, after years of listening, they had little weight and meaning. You could abuse them without consequence and you couldn’t trust them. What was said in church didn’t translate into everyday life and parents mostly tried, but rules and traditional stories seemed corrupted. Clashes between black and white, tradition and new, rules and freedom, all called into question those stories and games used in preparing us kids to go out, survive, and with some luck, thrive. 


Abstraction and Usefulness:


As an adolescent I made secret drawings and making them seemed a way back into the word. On TV, astronomer Carl Sagan said "There are three great disciplines worth a lifetime of study; science, art and religion. Art? The people I grew up with didn't speak of art and it was not a subject in school until twelfth grade in high school. That teacher, Frauke Brackin, opened doors to a larger world. At Auburn University, still knowing little about art, I chose to study Graphic Art under the school of architecture but after two years finished my studies in Art Education. Next came three years of middle/high school teaching which I loved. I married a soldier who was posted to Germany, and for the first time, I saw a world outside AL, MS and GA. We lived off base on the German economy, even though the resentment toward Americans was high in Europe in 1969. I looked at paintings wherever I could. Some years later and back in the states, I studied drawing and printmaking at the University of Maryland as a CE student with a new professor, Martin Puryear. I was admitted to the MFA program at American University in Washington DC and graduated in 1978. After my studies, I felt a need to make highly detailed representational paintings and drawings from observation. This was my practice for some years until a new quest emerged. I wanted to know the language of abstraction. Southern culture put a lot of value in usefulness. Representational painting could be narrative or celebrate status. It could bring nature's beauty inside, or echo old family photographs, our only visual “art”, which opened up the old times. Modernist abstraction used concepts and a vocabulary I was unfamiliar with. Employing various strategies, I tried to wind my way forward and failed. Taking some important cues from Philip Guston, who had been a visiting artist at American University, and having substituted Japanese art history for European art history, I began using traditional Japanese apprentice training techniques I had read about. Under a Japanese master, apprentices were told to sit and pull a single mark on paper until the move was mastered. This could take up to a year. A similar discipline, meditation and then pulling marks with brush and ink, became my practice, during which I also eventually switched hands. In time, armed with my new found belief in bodily sensation and material response, I began to build a new visual vocabulary.


Stuff beckons:


Traditional art materials are carefully crafted and very beautiful. I love good paint and fabric, pigment loaded colors and the right tool. But an artist’s job is to get to the heart of the matter, and whole hearts include the unworthy. To achieve this may require not only conventional materials but the left behind and never considered. Technique includes an acknowledgement of skills brought to the table before art education. I could sew, cook, draw, work wood a bit and build things. I swam competitively and played softball for years. I knew what killing was (fishing, and my mother’s chickens) and in time, learned the value of patience and the tender touch. 

Now after a practice of nearly forty years I have the moves I need, and choose my expressive approach according to the needs of the project. My long rummage through the trunk of visual history, along with extended play with materials, has offered up a steady way to counter sly corruption in our stories and games.


Point of view: 


“Pick a worthy subject and its opposite, include supporting details.” This stuck with me when I read "Principles in Chinese Painting" in the late 1970's. I can see more if I am neither for nor against any method or material. The use of abstraction or representation depends on the nature of the questions I am addressing through material means. A sense of touch begins with my eyes and translates through my hands. Intuitive strategies include jumping the gap between my kind of character abstraction and geometric formalism, and a highly descriptive, narrative, visual vernacular rooted in photography and precise representation.  Moving between these two often feels like looking at the stars, then down at my feet. That back and forth has not changed-- it has in fact been a quest, a journey of commitment looking for my heart’s desire.




After developing a working abstract vocabulary, I could not begin a painting until I had a title, whatever word or phrase was rattling in my head became the goal. Beginning was an act of faith as it always is. The subject represented by a title would soon get lost and buried by the long material processes where only one step then the next matters. In the end, and always to my surprise, a fuller meaning dwelt in the work than that represented by the word title. This was my practice for many years until I chose to do a series of paintings rooted in a parallel, years long practice of using my camera to shoot short visual narratives acted out by friends who were game for such a collaboration. I had been inspired early on by seeing a retrospective of Duane Michel’s work. I considered my photos as sketches. The series, “Rules and Measures” spans 2010-2014. It uses my deconstructed photos as screen print stencils to realize highly representational, almost sculptural images. In 2015, I returned to abstraction and for the first time, the inspirational trigger was no longer a word title, but the material voice generating ideas through touch. Now, in fact, now, the title is slow to emerge and must be adjusted as I realize the roots of meaning over time. Inevitably, some long buried experience pops, having laid somewhere words. All of a sudden I can hear the right words and they mean it.















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