Cassie Marie Edwards is an artist and educator working out of Wisconsin. She received her Master of Fine Arts from Northern Illinois University in 2010, and her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh 2007, both in Painting and Drawing. Edwards has been a lecturer at UW-Oshkosh since 2016, where she has taught a variety of courses in Foundations and the 2D studio area. Her Figurine Portraits give personality and liveliness to inanimate objects, and her Faux Landscape series makes us consider our surrounding environment. The realistic quality of her work gives the sense that the objects are just in reach – waiting to be taken off a shelf at home or at the local antique shop.
Edwards was featured in the most recent November and December Exhibition at James May Gallery, alongside Max Manning and Michael Ryan. At the opening reception she gave an artist talk, and this interview is a continuation of that conversation.
Nicole Woodard: When did you decide to pursue art as a career and do you remember the moment that you decided to be an artist?
Cassie Marie Edwards: I wanted to do art ever since I was a kid. It was the thing I did to make friends, so I guess it was part of my identity. My grandpa was an artist; he would paint on the weekends when he was off from work. I started emulating him because I was often watched by my grandparents. It just stuck, and I never really thought about doing something other than art. I started out going to school for art education because I wanted to teach high school. In my first year of undergrad my professor Ron Weaver looked at one of my drawings and asked, “What’s your major?” and I said, “Art Ed” and he replied, “There’s no way you can do art ed. You need to be a studio major.” I kind of took a step back after that point and thought, “Oh yeah, I could do that!” and at that point decided that I wanted to pursue teaching at the college level.
NW: Tell me about your figurine paintings and how they came about? What is their significance?
CME: I started making them when I got done with grad school. I had been making a bunch of work that was all over the place in undergrad and grad school, and most of it had to do with either people’s houses or their belongings or their spaces. I was really interested in how people relate to the things they own, even on large scale like a house. In grad school I had been doing interior photographs and drawings of a doll house I was remodeling and documenting and creating a bunch of tiny furniture. I liked the idea of having the ability to move things around and being able to make my own composition of these static objects became more intriguing than simply documenting the object on its own.
When we moved to South Dakota, I kept seeing figurines that I had collected as a kid. We moved around a lot and thrifting was a big part of my existence - coming from a frugal family, so I started collecting them again without any aim. Then one day I thought that they could fill the space of the doll house that I had been working on. I did a few paintings of the figurines, and then I did more and more and more.. they kind of multiplied. I was interested in the objects themselves - their past lives, who owned them, were they gifts from a grandmother to a granddaughter, or were they little tchotchkes that people get to commemorate something in their lives. I also enjoy manipulating their personalities by how I pose them within the composition, set up and use color, or even how I light them.
NW: Why did you decide to focus on your own nostalgia of collecting these objects, moving from what you were painting in undergrad and grad school?
CME: The house project was one that had a definite end. I totally remodeled the dollhouse from the inside out and documented along the way. Right after grad school we moved to South Dakota and it was the first time we’d bought a house. My husband and I had lived in apartments, but we never had an actual home. When I was a kid, and we were moving quite a bit, we were usually hopping from a rental to a rental. This was the first actual home we’d owned together … the work shifted because my life shifted.
NW: How many figures do you have in your collection?
CME: I think it’s probably around 200+. A lot of them are about an inch or two inches tall. Some of them are surprisingly small like the glass dogs I had in the show.
NW: You previously mentioned that a lot of them were Japanese figurines from the 50’s. Is there any significant from that period?
CME: I think I’m really drawn to those because of their aesthetics. A lot of them have these huge eyes and they’re strange, because a lot of the figures that are made now are saccharin sweet and I’m not interested in those aesthetically. I feel like there’s this cultural back and forth that happens between east and west when I look at the ones I choose to paint. The way the eyes are painted on and the way the forms are exaggerated in a lot of places. It’s really fun to me that our brains could make that leap like, “Yeah that’s a dog,” even though it doesn’t look like a dog at all. That part of it is fun to explore visually.
NW: When you approach each painting, do you have a specific routine that you set up for each of your figurines?
CME: I tend to work on 3 or 4 at once, just because of drying times. If I worked on one at a time it would take me forever to get it finished. I’ll work on them simultaneously and start a painting one day and start another the next day. I set up a still life, determine what colors I’m going to have in the background, and set up my lighting. I work from life so I have clamp lights all over my studio and post-it’s on them that say, “don’t move,” because it’s lighting something in a very specific way. I take a backup photo every time I start a painting because occasionally a lamp will get knocked out of alignment, but I really like working from life because I can observe more of the subtle variations within the compositions.
When I start a painting, I do my underpaintings in acrylic. I have a non-toxic studio set up because I don’t want to have any hazardous vapors in my studio. The last one or two layers are the only ones that are oil in my paintings. Otherwise, for the underpainting layers I use Holbein Mat Acrylics to lay in the colors and values. Usually there are 4 layers in my painting, so it’s like I’m making the same painting but adding more detail and smoothness with each thin layer.
NW: What do you want your audience to take away when they are viewing your work?
CME: I don’t really expect anything. I put things that I find important into it, and sometimes the audience connects to them on a very visceral level. They’re like, “OH man, my grandmother had these!” and they get that same feeling I have. Other times people are totally not interested in them, but I’m not too concerned with convincing everyone to find meaning or connection with my work. I’ve always approached art with the intention of bringing light to something I find interesting, and if people don’t connect to it that’s totally ok with me.
NW: Your other series, the Faux Landscape, can you tell me a little about that?
CME: With the figures I was really interested in how our brain makes that leap to how we label and represent things, so I got interested in the idea of representation on a whole. I started these landscapes that are kind of based in environmentalism, because we’re getting further and further away from the land. We’re not connected to what we eat, and we don’t know where out food comes from. For example, as a kid, I didn’t know how pineapples grew until I went to Panama and saw a pineapple coming out of the ground. I think about the disconnect that we have from the land and how we treat it so poorly. I think that’s a big thing right now and I wanted to show that, so I started to represent things as disconnected as I could get them, like a cloud on a green sky or a lightning bolt made of paperclips. People can make that connection while it’s not the real thing. I’m intrigued by that idea, so I keep making them. I’m not sure where it’s going to go yet.
NW: Is there anything you’re currently experimenting with? Any future projects you’re thinking about?
CME: I have a lot of things… my sketchbooks are full of ideas. I’m not one of those people who contemplates, “What am I going to do next?” I don’t have enough time for all the work I want to do. I always have to edit down my ideas, which ends up being a good thing because it helps to refine a bit more. I’m continuing the landscapes series and am going to hit heavier in that this year and maybe combine them with some animals. I’ve shown the figurines and landscapes together a few times for specific shows but not from a set body of work that intentionally combines them, so that’s one thing I’m looking to do. I’m also looking to learn how to cast porcelain because I’d like to make some of my own figurines and objects to put in my paintings. I have been building the landscape objects on my own, but I’ve just begun to dabble again in sculpture. I’m interested in making the things that I paint and then painting the things that I make, and creating a strange feedback loop to see what happens.
NW: What is the dynamic like of being an instructor and a studio artist?
CME: I feel like I get as much out of teaching my students as they hopefully get from taking my classes. I’m always teaching new classes - it’s kind of the double edge sword of being an adjunct instructor. You get thrown into things that you’re not necessarily prepared for or have a lot of experience in, so you have to build up that experience to be able to teach it well. Often times you get thrown into unknown situations while teaching where you have to pick something up on the fly - which has really helped me in my own studio work. Teaching color theory has been awesome because I feel like it has pushed color in my own work. I teach a lot of foundations classes and repeating teaching these courses which cover the basic elements of design and art makes me think of them in the context to my own work. I’ve also taught art history and art appreciation lecture courses, which is were of my comfort zone, and they really helped me to put my work in historical context and to be able to talk about it more intelligently.
NW: Do you have any advice for fellow artists that are pursuing a field of having a studio practice and teaching?
CME: That’s a hard one because I think that the teaching world is so difficult right now with higher education and the state that it’s in. I don’t mean to sound negative, but I think focusing on your studio practice is the most important thing and not marrying yourself to the idea of being a tenure-track professor. Realistically saying, “Ok if I’m going to adjunct for 10 years,” which is what I’ve done, “and make this salary which is not exorbitantly high, what do I need to do financially to get myself in the shape to do that? How do I need to live? I’m not going to be able to live in a huge city, be able to pay my bills, and make art without having a part time job on the side. Or do I live in a small town and lose some of that connection of a larger city, but be able to make art half time and work half time?” Go into it without the expectation of landing a full-time teaching gig, and have backup plans that you’re comfortable with. If you can’t get a great teaching job, or the teaching job doesn’t pay well, you can always work at a bank, or a non-profit, or in a museum setting where you can make your own work and be 100% happy. Lastly – if you are going to graduate school, try to find a program that will give you a tuition waiver and stipend. Graduating without or with very little debt opens up your possibilities greatly after graduation.
NW: One more question: is there anything you’re looking forward to for 2018? What’s the next big thing?
CME: I have a break in my schedule and I put it in there intentionally. I’m excited about getting back into the studio and to have some time to hash out ideas without having a certain deadline in mind. When I have a chunk of time and no deadline, I’m probably more productive because then I can do what I want and I really enjoy my time in the studio. My husband and I are also expecting our first child – a boy – in July, so this year will be a year of exciting transitions and shifts all around. When my life changes my work always shifts, so it will be an adventure for sure to see how this new person will impact the work I make!
Visit Cassie Marie Edwards online to see an extended selection of her portfolio. http://www.cassiemarie.com/
Interview with Cassie Marie Edwards by Nicole Woodard