In Conversation with:
Interview by Durga Chew-Bose.
Priscilla Weidlein is an artist whose eye is trained on the sort of visual tangents that keep her audience open to wonder. Like the eccentric splendor of a bedroom occupied by dogs wearing sweaters. Or the leafy warmth of a home where plants and art rule. Her work is often tenanted with characters who keep the outside in—it’s common for windows to play a prominent role in her illustrations, as if gently reminding us to draw the curtains open, experience a breeze, and enjoy a whole spectrum of green and the kindness of a blue sky. The perceivable hope of a whole day ahead, with no urgency to seize it, but bask in it—that’s the mood of a Weidlein interior.
Her work is abundant, itemized, patterned. For every cushion tassel, an heirloom-like piece of pottery. For every textile detail—so finely drawn—something more intimate, like a friend who kicks off her shoes the moment she comes over, or the way a bathroom is arranged just so, organized for the person who might say, “Think pink!” For Weidlein, the true spirit of a home, a small business, a family, a cat’s cheeky smile, are all captured in such a startling way that one begins to understand that much of her work is a study in paying attention, as if listening for tone or the everyday qualities (and magic) of spending time.
Let's talk...hyper-detail. Have you always been moved by creating character and mood with fine points and zooming-in?
I’ve always been compelled to zoom in, to find pleasure in detail. This compulsion carries into every aspect of my life, so I’m grateful that it has value in my work. A lovely thing about drawing and painting intricately is that it takes a great deal of time, enough to enter a meditative space and linger there. This is what really moves me.
What is your earliest memory of wallpaper?
My childhood bedroom had a cheery wallpaper of butterflies going about the business of pollinating flowers. They were made up of coral, cobalt, and yellow, set against a flat cream backdrop. I remember that from a distance, the cream imbued serenity, but if you were curious enough to get up close, you could reach a sort of rapture.
What is your earliest memory of velvet?
When I was five, my aunt gave me a thick green velvet dress with a lace collar. I thought, well this is finery. Its pleasing inkiness, strokable as a rabbit’s ear. I wore it that evening to a special dinner out and, feeling regal, was emboldened to order fried calamari for the first time. I still credit velvet for making this important introduction.
What is your earliest memory of needing to say it with paint, not words?
Though little of my current work incorporates words, I actually love them just as much as I do images; I find writing has an adjacent appeal to painting. I like finding opportunities to use them together. My earliest memory of doing this was when I was four or five. I was given a small hardcover book with a green adhesive spine, and discovered to my great pleasure that it was empty. I filled it up with an illustrated story called “Cats and Dogs,” about, well, you guessed it.
What does blue-patterned tile make you think of?
Blue-patterned tile makes me think of a pizza oven. Specifically an adobe stucco style dome, tiled around the mouth, with an impressive steel vent pipe rising from the top. The vision is active: there is a pizza being thrown in, a blur of gloppy red and white, and these pert blue tiles arc behind it.
How do you create a focused space?
I find that focus naturally springs from order. So, it’s important to me that everything in the studio has its own special resting place that it is returned to each evening. This could sound oppressive, but it brings me great satisfaction. When I start a new day, I am greeted by a studio that needs nothing from me except the business of making.
In what ways has your practice changed over the last six months?
I've discovered that if I use a mechanical pencil with very, very delicate lead, and a tiny little eraser, I can maximize the level of detail in any composition. I’ve been experimenting with how much detail I can fit onto a 4”x6” piece of paper, and on the other end of the spectrum, a 15”x20.” From there, the question becomes, how intricately can I paint? This has resulted in the implementation of the world’s tiniest paintbrush.
Whose art do you return to when you're feeling uninspired or wayward in your day-to-day?
I turn to music first; nearly always to vocals of solemn women singing like ghosts. I’m kept in good company by Julie Byrne, Aldous Harding and Sybille Baier. Visually, lately I’ve been fascinated by pictures of Amish quilts that I find on the internet. I’m amazed by how they manage to imbue a sense of joy with such few elements, like an Ellsworth Kelly painting, or a poem that moves you with only a handful of characters.
Is there a project you've been commissioned for that forced you to rethink the meaning of your work? Your purpose?
Over the summer I fell into the unexpected role of creative director for a seaside oyster bar. My husband is an oyster farmer and we decided to open our own little restaurant. It all happened in a flash, wherein I found myself designing the space, the menu, signage, recipe developing and acting as florist. In the process, I realized that curating a three dimensional experience was a natural extension of the two dimensional scenes I put to paper. I'd love the chance to do more creative consulting for hospitality.
Do you need natural light to paint?
I rely on natural light to see what I’m doing. Watercolor and gouache fluctuate in depth between their wet and dry states, and under natural light I get the most honest read on how colors are developing. If, say, an indigo sky isn’t inky enough for my liking, I’d be wise to go in and remedy it while the paint is still wet. I can do this with incandescent light, in a pinch, but it’s not nearly as pleasurable an experience.
Who are you reading?
E.B. White’s “One Man’s Meat.” It’s a delightful collection of essays written between 1938 to 1943, chronicling White's life after leaving New York to go live on a small saltwater farm in Maine.
What novel would be your dream novel to design the cover?
“Bluets” by Maggie Nelson. I would catalogue each blue item she writes about; a visual list in neat little rows. There would be all sorts of gradients of blue: a half-circle of turquoise ocean, some navy blue bottle caps, a front tooth of lapis lazuli.
What is the view outside your studio window?
My studio is on the second story of our house, with bay windows facing the street. Through them I see tall oak and linden trees and a large octagonal house that people file in and out of with their dogs and their Amazon packages. To the north, where I sit now, there is a window overlooking our garden. An hour ago, a rare sighting: a hawk flew across and came to perch in a sweet gum tree.
When painting a portrait, what matters most?
The most important thing is to make a connection with the subject. Often my clients live in another state, so the challenge is to develop familiarity, and a degree of intimacy, through our email correspondence. This unfolds naturally as I receive the photographs and stories that make up their lives. Then, through the physical process of painting, the connection deepens; it’s a particular way of coming to know someone. All this to say, if there’s a connection, the portrait will be successful.
What will you have for lunch today?
I made some nice bone broth yesterday, and this morning I’ve been simmering it with rice for a batch of congee. I’ll probably have that with scallions and chili oil, and a soft boiled egg. I also have soggy old arugula salad left over from dinner last night, which, I’m sad to say, will have to be eaten too.
Tell me about your dog.
Tautog is a four year old chocolate lab. He’s a L.L.Bean catalogue type of handsome. He’s named after a funny-toothed black fish native to Rhode Island, and on his luckiest days he gets to go fishing for them. He’s at once an adventurer and a dog of leisure, the latter quality he may have inherited from me.