San Francisco based artist Christina Empedocles navigates the balance between creativity and practicality
Making it as an artist isn’t easy. Patience, dedication, talent, and perseverance are just a few of the qualities necessary for those looking to live off their creativity, and not go broke or starve in the process. Fortunately, Christina Empedocles has managed to navigate those challenges, finding her own niche in the ever-evolving San Francisco art scene, thanks to a talent for striking photographic realism. The body of work she’s amassed shows her evolution as an artist over time, channeling childhood memories and fleeting moments, turning the temporary and the transient into something more permanent. Now, having added a daughter to her growing list of creations, Christina’s evolution as an artist is ongoing. We had a chance to chat with Christina recently, where she shared some valuable insight on her creative influences, balancing art and family, and what it’s like to make ends meet doing what you love.
How has your daughter influenced your art for the better?
Well for one, my time in the studio is now so precious. I have more time in between my working hours to think about what I’m going to do, and therefore the pieces I’ve done have been more successful. There aren’t as many that I want to throw away, because I was doing them more quickly [before]. And now my hours in the studio are like gold, no, they’re like platinum. I treat them with the highest respect. So when I’m at work, I’m at work, and I never waste that time.
That makes sense. It sounds like your choices have to be a little bit more deliberate with the limited time you spend in the studio.
Yes, yes. It has to be time well spent. Plus, I have so much more motivation for this all to work out. Not that I had been planning on failure, but now it feels really important. I’ve invested so much into my practice, I can’t let it go now.
What do you mean by that?
It’s now more important to me that I take this seriously. Because when it was just me, it wasn’t such a big deal if I failed. But now it’s not just me, so I’m putting everything into it. And now, spending time
in the studio is a much bigger investment. Every hour of the day that I’m working, I have to have childcare. So I’m paying to be there.
Right, that makes sense.
Yeah, you know, all those hours I spent before my daughter came were free! And now they aren’t. So unless I want to work all night while she sleeps… I can’t be screwing around in here anymore.
Yeah, so I take my studio time very seriously. And that’s good! The other thing is that I take her on walks a lot, which gives me time to think about what I’m doing while we’re out roaming the neighborhood. And that downtime is really helpful. It lets my ideas evolve.
So you live in San Francisco?
Yes, I live in Bernal Heights which is in the south end of the City. It’s a funky, little neighborhood with really narrow streets. There are actually a lot of artists who live here, which is great. I love this
What attracted you San Francisco from the Midwest?
It’s funny: when I was a kid growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it seemed like everybody I knew, all the older kids, moved to San Francisco. I remember thinking, “When it’s my turn there’s going to be no room left. (Laughs) I just had it in my mind that I really wanted to come here.
When I graduated from college (I went to Oberlin), I had a friend who said, “Hey I’m going out to San Francisco, do you want to come with me?” And I just came, thinking I would spend a year or two. It’s been 17 years and I am still here…I’ll probably never leave.
I’m interested to know what your definition of realism is as it relates to your own work.
Well that’s a really interesting question because realism is at the center of what I’m trying to do. Essentially, I want make a record of something that is either temporary, or unreal, or a memory with as much detail as possible.
For instance I might go bird watching on the internet, print a picture, cut it out, and crumple it up a bit. And the act of drawing this ‘bird’, which is really a distressed, low resolution, internet photo, is a way for me to get agonizingly specific about something I can’t get close to. I’m not out in nature bird watching, and I don’t have a real specimen in front of me, like a naturalist would. In fact, by using intense realism, I am actually demonstrating the distance between myself and nature. An exercise like this points out how my relationship with nature has evolved into a relationship with images* of nature. Maybe you consider yourself an animal lover, but perhaps you really just like looking at cute cats memes online…
My everyday life is light-years away from nature, and doing these drawings is my way of demonstrating that distance. I look at nature with nostalgia, and drawing is my way of preserving the fond memories of being in nature as a kid. I can pay tribute to a lot of things this way. Another one of my favorite things to do is to obsess over the junk from my old, high-school bedroom. My parents still live in the same house that I grew up in, and all my stuff is still there—unmoved—as if in a museum.
I have this closet which is an archive of my whole teenage life. When I’ve gone home, occasionally I’ll open the archive and there will be some ridiculous, embarrassing object, or something that was so important at the time which is now fading. These temporary things are signifiers of such crucial, tender, heart-breaking moments, and I find them so captivating. I did a series of drawings of a stack of concert tickets…
Right, I saw that.
They were from the late 80’s and early 90’s, and they formed record of all these events that were so important to me. At the time it seemed positively defining. And these tickets were the truth; documentation that I had actually been to that Echo and the Bunnymen concert. (Laughs) But they’re fading, and they won’t last. A lot of them you can barely even read at this point. So drawing the stack has been a way of preserving these important historic documents before they turn to dust. And in a way they stand in as a self portrait.
I see most of your works are black and white, or even grey from using the wax pencil. What attracted you to pencil as opposed to doing your pieces in color?
It’s sort of funny. I’m not really sure why I made that change, but once I did I just really loved it. I think part of it is that I want to have as much precision and control of the material as possible. And I found that paring them down to just a few items as possible has helped with that.
When I did my MFA, I an oil painter and I made paintings in color – which I really loved, and someday maybe I’ll go back to it. But about four years ago I was putting together work for a show in Washington D.C. and I was asked by the curator to do a drawing of something I had originally made with xeroxes. I hadn’t actually done a drawing in a really long time, but I loved it. I loved the control I had with the pencil. I could be so much more precise than I had been with a brush. And black and white feels so nostalgic, in fact drawing feels
nostalgic. The combination just clicked everything into place for me, so I kept to it, and I’m not finished yet. Someday I imagine I could go back to color, and back to painting, but I’m as excited about doing these black and white drawings as I’ve ever been, so it will probably be a while.
You mentioned in one of your previous interviews that keeping your work real is one of the primary challenges that you face as an artist. How do you go about keeping your work real?
Mostly by doing different series. For instance, two years ago I started a series of drawings of comic strips that I love, but instead of becoming that-gal-who-draws-Brenda-Starr, I switched it up after a while and started drawing movie posters, and old receipts, and love letters. I still have piles of Brenda Starr reference material that I could go back to, but there are so many other things to do. I guess for each new show I try to introduce a different topic. Looking at my work over the years I like to think that it goes together, even though it’s a lot of different stuff that I’m looking at. And maybe there’s some overlap, but I like to take on new things to get me excited about doing the work. Because it’s a lot of labor, especially with the larger drawings. One thing that’s not easier with drawing over painting is the fact that with painting you can cover a large area with a brush effortlessly. But the point of a pencil is the same size no matter what you do. So covering a large area takes many, many, many marks, and many hours of labor, giving you a lot of time to think about your subject matter.
How do you go about making your art a lifetime pursuit as opposed to just a transient endeavor?
That’s such a good question. I think that’s one of the hardest things to figure out. It’s really complicated on so many levels. You have to be entirely self-motivated. There won’t always be somebody there championing your cause. You have to do it yourself. There’s nothing that makes me feel like more of a failure than looking at my
own work and thinking that it sucks, and that happens all the time. So you really have to get through some hard patches on your own.
But even more than that, I’d say the most challenging thing is getting over financial hurdles, which means being able to figure out how to be an artist while carving out a decent life. Because if you’re always going to be starving, or needy, or broke, you’re gonna quit – it’s too punishing. You have to figure out a way to make it work financially, so one day you you won’t feel like it’s not worth it anymore.
During grad school I started teaching myself about personal finance, and after I finished I completed one year of a two-year program towards becoming a financial planner. It was basically enough for me to figure out what to do with my own finances: how to invest, how to save, and everything I needed to know to have a decent financial strategy. That one year of finance classes was probably the most important thing I’ve done towards my art career. I now know how to treat this like a business, which makes me feel more confident that I keep it going a long time. If I hadn’t taken that task on so deliberately I probably would’ve had to quit when my daughter was born.
I used to be a designer. I spent about 10 years working as an art director for magazines before I got my MFA. With that background I was able to have a decent side job doing freelance work while I went back to school, and though I don’t do it as much now, it still helps me fill in the gaps.
The other thing is to have a really long-term vision of success and failure. I’ve learned not to get too put off if things don’t go perfectly. When I do a bad drawing, I look at it as a really important part of the process. The failures are what steer me in the right direction. If I imagine that I’ll still be at this in 30 years, then there will be lots of time to make the great work. I am always trying to refine my technique, to get better, so it’s exciting to think about what kind of artist I might be in a decade and beyond. A bad drawing today is just good practice for later.