on The Art of Improv
Our guest this week is visual artist Martina Nehrling. Martina received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an MFA from University of Chicago. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, and for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s Chicago Arts Program. Her work is exhibited and collected throughout America and abroad. She is represented by Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York, and Melanee Cooper, Chicago. Her painted works are vibrant and full of complex color patterns created with bold distinctive brushstrokes, that speak to the now of her making, color is her language and she speaks it beautifully.
What does working improvisationally mean to you? How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’
Often I am following a thread from one piece into the next, riffing on formal variations or exploring conceptual shifts. Having said that the works I create most improvisationally are pieces I begin with little or no preconceived notions as to composition, orientation, palette, etc. From the first mark it’s “game on,” and now I have a problem to solve which is to strike some balance of tension and unity.
For the most part I think the term improvisation is in my work synonymous with spontaneity. I know in acting the idea is to respond with “Yes, and…” and maybe this is an insignificant distinction but the semantic shift to the painting empirical in my head tends be more like, “What if this…? And what if that…?” And so on. It is giving oneself permission.
Have you always worked improvisationally? How often do you work with improvisation?
Improvisation has always been part of my art making, even as a kid I preferred a blank page over a coloring book. Nowadays I begin a piece on a slightly more informed impulse to observe, explore, document, examine, or question a feeling, a gesture, a quality, or disparity, both conceptually and formally. I rarely work off of a specific sketch. Discovery spurs my engagement. When I do create a sketch in advance of beginning a piece it looks like a minimalist map indicating where I think I should change the orientation of my mark or perhaps it diagrams the pattern of ‘positive and negative’ space, but usually the initial plan is abandoned or altered for plan B, C, D, etc.
Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally? If so, how do you begin? If not, how do you find yourself getting there? Please share a bit about your process. Do you have methods to getting started? Do you have tricks to getting unstuck? Do you have motivators to finishing up?
Spontaneity is an important element in my process overall but I do sometimes intentionally begin more improvisationally as a way to generate ideas or allow for a sort of backfiring when my creative energy has been too tightly focused elsewhere. I might start a piece with an impulsive gesture, sometimes purposely making a mark that is out of sync with recent work, questioning that which I don’t allow myself to do – for whatever reason. Thinking of these pieces as a rant, a poem, a prayer, or something akin to a musical jam session where spontaneity is premium encourages my sense of freedom.
Resolving a piece is like an itch I really need to scratch so procrastination is not usually a problem for me. If anything I sometimes have to counsel myself to pause and let the possible conclusions percolate in my mind. This isn’t to say I don’t ever get stuck. If I find myself at a point where I feel like I cannot see a piece objectively I try to be patient and turn the piece around, put it out of my mind for a time – hours, days, even months. I find that feeling stuck is often a matter of needing to accept the necessity of getting rid of something I like in order to make the piece work, or needing to take a risk that could very well ruin the piece but without which the piece will only be mediocre.
Where do you find inspiration? How do you use it?
To expand on my artist statement pasted below this paragraph, and in addition to a formal or conceptual element that might propel the next piece, I can say that language inspires me—the visual and narrative imagery communicated but also the sound and mouth feel of words. Many Post-it notes litter a wall in my studio on which are written words or phrases that I think of as image sparks. They are things I’ve come across while reading or listening to the radio, or things I’ve heard from a friend or neighbor. In my sketchbooks and on my computer there are pages of these notes as well as lists of words put together like stanzas of a poem. Judging by the titles of my paintings over many years it is also apparent that the specificity of light and various measures of time are a preoccupation of mine.
Artist Statement: Seduced by the formal complexity of color, I revel in its emotive slipperiness and enjoy mining its controversial decorativeness. The inextricability of these aspects unique to color continually spurs my engagement. Tuned to the vivid and continuous absurd disparities of daily life, I weave visual rhythms—resonant, discordant, muscular, mellifluous—in patterns akin to currents and eddies, note taking, list making, pixelation and mapping. I use multiple distinct brushstrokes for their staccato quality and graphic directness, and employ highly saturated chroma for its insistence, its unapologetic hysteria, its mirth and its madness. With this tensile language I explore what it means to be here, musing or ranting in lush celebration, high-pitched lament, or raucous rebellion.
What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally. Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?
The advice I would give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally is: begin. If you need a prompt consider responding to a piece of instrumental music—no lyrics, they are too literal. Or contrive some type of system or game, perhaps something that involves time limits, shifts in pace, scale, color, material, etc., or a roll of the dice. And then break your own rules! At another stage breaking the rules may mean confronting your comfort zone in big and small ways even if you have to tell yourself it’s just an exercise to see what it’ll yield. Perhaps this means you give your work permission to be rude and see what that looks like.
How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’
What if… it all is allowed?
What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?
I don’t usually listen to music in the studio unless I specifically want its influence, and these days I frequently need a break from the enraging news on NPR which I otherwise adore, so lately I download audio books from the library. Recently I’ve been bingeing on Henry James novels. Funny, to my delight the pace and elaborate indirectness of the social decorum of the period seems analogous, albeit exceedingly politely so, to the more atmospheric images I am currently trying to create in order to describe the edgelessness of apprehension in our present collective fog of anxiety. I also just started reading The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair, and I’m looking forward to hearing David Scott Kastan discuss his book, On Color, at the upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival.
Martina, thank you so much for sharing your work and your improv wisdom with us! To learn more about Martina check out her website and follow her on instagram. Take a special look at her Watershed Project which is her generous way of using her art to support organizations that are under attack in our unlaced political circumstance.
If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me! I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.