Vivienne Flesher: Studio Visit

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 7, 2021

Vivienne Flesher has a long and notable history as an illustrator. Her career spans U.S. stamps; national media such as the New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone Magazine; Martha Stewart and Starbucks, to name a few. Flesher has shown her paintings in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Venice, and Nashville and San Francisco. She is also a longtime subscriber to DART. Her work is included in a group show opening July 10th at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery. Last week, we had this virtual studio visit, from New York to San Francisco:

Peggy Roalf: At a certain point you said “Enough” and quit taking illustration assignments to devote your time to painting. What was the transition like, from drawing for others to painting for yourself? 

Vivienne Flesher: in fact I will still take an assignment if it gives me freedom, or pays a lot or is especially meaningful to me—but those assignments are far and few between. 

It’s been delightful painting for myself. But much tougher than illustration. You have no deadline and no one telling you what to do, what colors to use or that they liked something you did years ago and wish your piece for them could be just like that. Complete freedom can feel as stifling. But once you get the hang of it, it's a wonderful way to live!

PR: You’ve had a dedicated painting studio for some time now; did this Pandemic affect how you worked or saw your space in any way? 

VF: A few years ago my husband, Ward Schumaker, a wonderful artist, gave me his studio and he moved to the basement, which we fixed up as a studio for him; it had resembled a mid-evil dungeon [sic]. We both work in our house in San Francisco, which is huge—especially compared to the apartments I had as a young woman in New York City. When we weren’t allowed to leave our home, due to Covid, I ordered a mini-trampoline and put it in one of my studio rooms. We have always preferred living quietly and the lockdown allowed us to embrace a solitary life, guilt-free.

PR: The titles of the paintings in your solo show last year suggest there is a fictional narrative running through your art. One that struck me, “To Rule is a Trouble”, seems to possibly refer to an acute assessment of one of the problems in being a studio artist. Could you clear up my possible misunderstanding? 

VF: When I began to paint I always needed to tell myself not to be so neat or literal. It took a while to free up and if I spend any time away from painting it always takes a little while to get back into that happy space. Sometimes, well quite often, I try and plan a painting—which rarely works but the bad painting I create becomes a foundation for the next painting that will literally go on top and has a better chance of succeeding—along with color and shapes of the one below peeking through and making it better still. 

PR: Do you take themes to work on in a serial way, or do you let stray thoughts and random materials exert a forward push?

VF: I do both. I'm often inspired by something and it can be interesting to see what happens when I create numerous works on the same theme. I’m dying to try a few paintings dealing with fireworks and July 4th was a special treat for me this year because of this. 

PR: How does self-portraiture—both heads and figures—inform your work as a painter?

VF: I personally don’t do self-portraits but I do love seeing how other artists handle them. I love painting portraits of people who will sit for me. Colors are so different when you are painting from a sitter than when you are looking at photos. But I also find that difficult. I can’t talk and paint at the same time and I feel somewhat self conscious with the sitter. I need is to practice more.

PR: Drawing and the use of color seem to meet in equal measure in your new paintings. Do you have a built-in meter that lets one or the other be in charge at any given time? [Or: do you let the materials lead the way….]  

VF: The paintings in this show were an exercise in pure joy. I didn’t think too much about what I was going to do. Gouache, tempera and watercolors are very forgiving — the way I apply them. If i'm unhappy with a painting, I just paint over it. Sometimes I put the painted paper under the tap and the results  give me an interesting effect to work further with. They are small and I have been doing work for myself like this for years—decades even. Working in pastel for clients ruined that medium for me, so I needed to find a medium that I could keep for myself and that is painting—and photography.

PR: How much does drawing/painting from the model figure [pun intended] in your work?

VF: I attended figure drawing classes for about 10 years and loved it. I eventually grew bored with it and don’t do it any longer. But I enjoyed and was able to use the work from those classes for my illustration assignments—with changes and elements added in photoshop. I often used those very drawings to paint on top of, letting the pastel and charcoal figures/portraits show through. It was a great stepping stone.

PR: When you consider in what ways the female gaze [title of upcoming group show] differs from the male gaze, in art and in life, how much do you sense that women and men mask themselves in order to remain neutral about attractions when it seems necessary to be neutral about those sensations? 

VF: I suppose there is a huge difference but I think of this in a more intimate context. Of how individuals see things differently and don’t view it as male or female. I applaud artists revelations of any kind. If you don’t like it or agree you can look away. 

PR: How will you spend the summer? What is your next goal as a painter?

VF: Is it summer?! This is San Francisco and it has mostly been cold, windy and foggy. Some days I don’t know if its February or July. I think I’ll grab Ward and take us both up north where its warm for a few days. Then I have a bunch of new paintings I have been thinking about and gathering what I need to begin next week—after my show opens. I am so ready to jump in to this new work, I can hardly wait.

The Female Gaze, with works by Vivienne Flesher, Gay Block, Nina Katz and Heather Wilcoxon, opens at Jack Fischer Gallery on Saturday, July 10th, with a reception from 3-5 pm. 1275 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, CA.

Vivienne Flesher


Instagram @fleshervivienne


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