Christina Empedocles

Drawer, San Francisco // June 2011
Every time I make a little progress in some direction I want to take it further. I want to make things more obsessive, more realistic, more finely crafted...I want the labor to show.

On the day of our visit Christina met up with us at a bakery near her Bernal Heights home, arriving with a warm smile and a very cute pregnant belly. We each got a treat, and then all together we walked the block or so to her house. On our way there we talked about her pregnancy and how exciting it was that she would soon be welcoming her first child into the world. Christina’s studio is in a front room of the house with three big windows that look out onto the street, so it gets quite a lot of light. Her space is occupied by the essentials: an expansive drawing desk against one wall, a computer desk against another wall, and a large and incredibly well organized shelving unit against the third wall. Her studio instantly conveyed a clean and practical sensibility, everything was in a state of order— photos for a project were neatly stacked, pieces of beach glass she has been collecting were in tidy little containers, rows and rows of books were lined up so that each title was clearly visible, and nothing was out on her drawing desk but the piece she was working on. Christina is an animated and impassioned conversationalist who answered each question with a great deal of honesty and thoughtfulness. She seems driven by an unrelenting and almost obsessive curiosity and has a penchant for finding significance and meaning in all the impermanent and minute details of daily life— a fact that is obvious not only in her art, but also in how wholeheartedly she engages in both the worlds of living beings and inanimate objects.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I tell them I’m an artist, though it took me a while to get there. I felt weird at first saying that, or full of it, but now that I quit my last steady design job in order to do my work full time, my only other option would be to say that I was unemployed.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Not at the moment. I was doing a lot of freelance magazine design and illustration until about a year and a half ago, and since then I’ve just been drawing. The one thing I have kept from that career is that I do one illustration a month. It takes about two days, and gives me a little something to count on.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I do drawings with wax pencil on paper, using as much realism as I can possibly manage. The goal is always a perfect rendering, though I have never even come close to achieving it. Still I try every time, and I am hopefully getting better with each piece. My work mainly revolves around recreating something that has a finite life span or something that could easily be lost or doesn’t really exist. Through a practice of realism I am trying to monumentalize or archive an event, or memory, or create a relationship to something or someone I’ve never encountered. My recent work can be seen in two separate but related bodies. One strives to record a personal history signified by the ephemera of everyday, and the other takes a nostalgic, but removed look at nature. Together, they are at best, a fragmented record: evidence of dates, locations, events and pseudo science, forming a portrait of an individual absorbing the world through popular culture. The inherently temporary nature of the subject matter represents fleeting moments, while the work itself manifests as highly detailed and labored observations, demonstrating the lasting impression those moments have made.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am an audio book addict. I can barely sit still without having a story told to me. Recently I’ve listened to Dracula by Bram Stoker, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen, The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine… There are too many to list. On my bedside table I have Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. I love fiction, finance, history and science. It all fuels my practice. The audio books are one of the great perks of the solitary work I do at my drawing table. It’s sort of an unrelated hobby, but at the same time I see what I am doing with my drawing as a way of recording my own story.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
There are several and they can be broken into a few different categories, three of which are: keeping it real, finance, and knowing what the heck to do next.
I need to keep progressing with my work, going from one idea to the next, and I don’t often go backwards. Though I have no problem with revisiting my old subject matter, I usually want to try something new to move things along conceptually, as well as in craft. This of course means I always need to have the next idea, which often takes spending time away from the drawing table to come up with. I have found that my time out in the world away from art is some of the most useful for my practice. It gives me the experiences I need to make my work. Problems arise when I schedule too many deadlines too close together so that I don’t have any breathing room to think new thoughts and come up with new ideas.

In my opinion, finance is maybe the most difficult component of being an artist. We can all practice our craft until someday we’ve become masters at it, but if you don’t have the time, which often means the money, to get that practice, you’ll go no where. To do what I am doing now I needed to save for about 10 years to have enough money in the bank that I could quit doing my freelance design, and work full time as an artist. Looking at my art practice as a business, and educating myself in personal and business finance has made all the difference.

In knowing what to do next, it’s hard to tell if I have made the right moves, but at least I have been able to stay busy, and found that I haven’t had a break in my work since starting grad school five years ago. What I have learned is that you’ll have no idea what’s going to lead to the next thing. Some of my best contacts were made through random group shows, or very small press exposures, while what I might have imagined as my ‘big breaks’ often lead to nothing. I took an apply-to-everything, or do-everything approach after graduating from CCA. It was exhausting, but after sifting through a lot of that, I can now determine better what is a good fit for me, so I am not running myself as ragged. About a year and a half ago I started working closely with a couple of galleries, and that has helped significantly to determine my path.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
For years I’ve had a studio outside of my house, but now that I am expecting my first baby, I realized that to keep up with my practice, I needed to be able to do it at home. So I now have a room to myself in my house, and so far it’s been great. I had fears that I would get cabin fever, but it hasn’t happened yet. I actually think I am getting more done because I don’t have to get out to get to work. I’m not sure what my practice will be like when my baby is here, and I am nervous about it, but my work has to continue. I want to be both an artist and mother, so there is no option but to just keep making art. I need a dedicated space. It couldn’t work any other way. I can easily make a big mess over the course of getting through a deadline, and I don’t want to waste any mental energy worrying about it. More importantly though I need my space to focus, and can’t be distracted by what else is happening around me. It takes me a long time to get my work done, so I need a place where I can work, leave it, and return.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Well I just finished work for a show that I am in at my gallery in New York, where I did more involved and detailed work than I ever have before. I am excited about everything I sent, but I am actually more excited about the next things I haven’t started yet. Every time I make a little progress in some direction I want to take it further. I want to make things more obsessive, more realistic, more finely crafted. It just takes hours and hours of practice, and if I can manage to give that to myself I know I’ll keep getting further along. What I always seem to want, is to make things that are really special, that can’t be tossed off in any other way. I want the labor to show. I think with what’s happened in our economy over the last several years I have really come to appreciate a hand made object that can’t be replicated. I see value in that, whereas mass-produced, or tossed-off things haven’t held their value for me. When I look at a piece of art and I can see that it is part of a serious endeavor, it shines in a different way for me. I hope to eventually make things that give me that feeling, and the prospect of getting there is really exciting.

What are you most proud of?
That I have been able to keep busy, and that I feel like I am progressing. There are so many ways to let an art practice go by the wayside, so I am happy everyday when I sit down at my drawing table and continue to work away at it.

What do you want your work to do?
Keep me interested enough to continue on to the next piece. What I have seen is that everyone comes to art with their own ideas and context, so whatever my intensions are, each piece means something different to the viewer. And I am fine with that. I want to hear the different perspectives — it helps open things up. So if I can keep working, then I hope there will be a myriad of reasons that people will come to look at what I’ve done.

What advice has influenced you?
I don’t know if I can point to any specific advice, because it’s a really hard thing for people to give. I look more towards what the artists I really respect are doing. After floundering around for a few years, I can now see distinct differences in people that are making it work for a lifetime, and people who happen to be working right now. The people who are in it for the long haul have found a way to take every opportunity seriously, and to build on those opportunities, while not waiting around to be ‘discovered’. I think it’s about adopting a certain attitude, something along the lines of ‘I’m going to give it everything I can’ while having the faith in yourself that it will eventually lead somewhere.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I just sent off work to Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts as part of a three-person show with Alika Cooper and Jennifer Celio, called California Girls.
Here’s all the info:
Christina Empedocles, Alika Cooper, Jennifer Celio
June 23rd – July 31st
Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts
526 West 26th Street, Suite 605
New York, NY 10001, 212.463.8500
To see more of Christina’s work:

David B. Smith Gallery
1543 A Wazee Street Denver, CO 80202
(t) 303.893.4234 (f) 877.893.4234

Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts
526 W. 26th Street, Suite 605, New york, NY 10001
(t) 212.463.8500 (f) 212.463.8501