Judy Southerland

Bio: Word and Image

Bio: Word and Image


I was born in 1944 in Pontotoc, MS and raised in Trussville, AL a little town northeast of  Birmingham, population 1600. In deep south culture experience was translated through words, from the pulpit, the new community center and at home. Words were the building blocks and the enforcers of all 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 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, Franke Brackin, opened up a world for me. Still knowing little of art except for what I made, I chose graphic art as a major at Auburn University but felt lost after two years and finished my studies in Art education. Next came three years of middle/high school teaching which I loved, especially working with the lost students and the trouble makers. I married a Vietnam vet Army officer, we were 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. I was able to travel and look at paintings and experience other cultures. In 1975, 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 then 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: 

A principle in Chinese classical painting made an impression on me: “Pick a worthy subject and its opposite and include supporting details.” Also 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 is as vital to me as are my eyes. 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.



Early on, after developing an abstract vocabulary, I could not begin a painting until I had a title, whatever word or phrase was rattling in my head. 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 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 by early on by seeing a retrospective of Duane Michel’s work but had considered my photos as sketches. “Rules and Measures” spans 2010-2014. In 2015, I returned to abstraction and for the first time, the inspirational trigger was not a word title, but the material voice generating ideas through touch. In fact, now, the title is slow to emerge and must be adjusted as I realize the source of meaning over time, through the visual conversation I can only call touch, which uses form, composition and color as carriers. Inevitably, some some long buried experience manifests itself, usually from childhood, usually significant and beyond words but I find that now I can hear the right words and they mean it.













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