Renee Robbins is a Chicago-based visual artist. She received her MFA in painting and printmaking from Michigan State University and a BFA from the University of Kentucky. She has exhibited widely, including exhibitions at Firecat Projects, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Ann Tower Gallery. Her work has also been presented in exhibitions at the Alden B Dow Museum of Science and Art, South Bend Art Museum, Alexandria Museum, and the Kresge Art Museum. The Chicago Gallery News featured her work as a ‘Young Chicago Artist’ to watch in the May 2013 issue. The forms in her paintings have been classified by a diatom taxonomist in an artist feature on the US Diatoms database at the University of Colorado.
My work draws from natural phenomena, micro to macro relationships, and new discoveries in science. Our life experience is layered with complex systems that reach through tiny cells, flowering botanicals, deep oceans, and distant galaxies. I blend, mix, and juxtapose hybrid flora/fauna inside a space that simultaneously evokes the deep sea and the cosmos. My process of painting brings together microscopic and telescopic viewpoints and moves between the real and imagined. Quantum particles have their own set of guiding principles, such as in atoms, where electrons and protons cannot touch each other. It’s impossible to observe this happening with the naked eye. In a similar way, black holes are guided by their own set of rules and principles. No one has actually seen a black hole or quantum particles but there’s evidence to suggest their existence. In this way, my paintings are a way to respond to the diversity in the natural world, both in and outside of our human experience.
How would you describe your art?
My most recent series, “Galactic Lagoons” brings together oceanic and celestial spaces as a tribute to the wonder and diversity in nature. Microscopic forms are meticulously layered on the same scale as planets from our solar system to bring attention to seemingly disparate details outside the range of our human experience. Bright botanical colors merge with shapes and patterns derived from biological specimens and coral reefs.
How long have you been an artist and how did you become an artist? I’ve always thought of myself as an artist and I don’t really think it was a choice. It was something that I had to do. I became very serious about making paintings in high school and have created work ever since. I’m deeply compelled to make things. I don’t recall one magical moment or any particular event that motivated me. There are many inspiring things around me in the world so that motivates me to create.
What is your favorite medium and why? My major works are acrylic on canvas or panel. My works on paper utilize gouache, watercolor and traditional drawing media like colored pencil and graphite. Additionally, I focus on traditional forms of printmaking like etching, screenprint, and woodcuts. I enjoy doing prints because it gets me thinking about making a image in a new way. The print process feeds my paintings and keeps challenging the creative process. I did work with collage and mixed media paintings earlier in my career, but made a choice to focus primarily on paint in 2009. I realized that didn’t need the mixed media to create pattern and texture and found that I could better articulate my ideas with the paint alone. I prefer Golden acrylic paint because it best suits my process. The quick drying time works well for building up thin layers of paint. If I want the paint to dry slower, I have different mediums that I can mix with the paint. Since I’m often layering meticulous detail, flexibility in material is ideal.
Pick one work of art from your portfolio and tell us the story behind it. Why does this piece have meaning to you? What steps did you take to create the piece?
I wanted the background of “Satellite of Love” to feel like turning a corner around an ocean ridge or a celestial body. I started this painting by dividing the background into two sections and building up layers. The background came first, and then I painted a flat simple black silhouette over the surface. I see the silhouette simultaneously as a shadow, ship, and a fish viewed from underneath. The silhouette has become an important part of my process. I like how the silhouette can create a mystery in perspective, as it could be imagined from the inside or from below. Blended together in the main figure is the planet Jupiter, fragments of a satellite, muscle tissue fragments, carnivals, mangrove tree, tracheid, machine diagram, and submarines. Observing a satellite on tv is a removed way to experience space phenomena. I like that the main form can be a hybrid of many things in an endless moving environment. I was listening to Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and that’s when I came up with the idea for the main forms in the painting. However, I don’t see the meaning of the song as the same as the meaning of painting. To me the work is about travel and getting from here to there.
Tell us about one medium, technique or style that you would like to try working with (that you have not tried before) and why you would like to try this. I’m making the work that I want to make. I don’t see myself changing mediums or developing a new style of working.
How do you make time for art? I make it a priority in my life. All of my decisions revolve around making paintings. I treat my studio time like a job. I work a certain number of hours each week on different tasks.
If you could imagine the “perfect art day” for yourself, what would it be like? I don’t strive for perfection, as I would be setting myself up for failure every time. I don’t think I could make a perfect work of art. Each piece builds upon the last piece. It’s more about challenging myself. Some days in the studio are better than others and they cannot all be the same. Finishing a painting is fantastic in but that does not happen everyday. I enjoy days where I prepare canvas because I can think about what I want to explore in my work next. Feeding the creative process is important so I spend time enjoying nature and viewing artwork in galleries and museums. That feeds me and is an important part of my life. Each day I try to build upon what I did the day before. It’s important to grow and change as an artist. My creative focus is more about developing a series of work for exhibition. After the exhibition, I begin a new series.
If you could spend 24 hours with one artist, living or historical, who would you want to spend the day with and why? What would the two of you do?
I would spend the day with Ernest Haeckel, a 19th German biologist, naturalist, and artist. He cataloged and drew over 5,000 species of radiolarian (single-celled aquatic animals) during his lifetime. His attention to detail and the amount of work he created during his lifetime is mind-boggling. I aspire to document or incorporate a similar number of specimens into my work during my lifetime. I’d like to hang out in his studio and talk about his work. Perhaps we could go grab some specimens to paint in the studio.
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring artists?
Make art for yourself. I am persistent in creating work in that I feel passionate about and growing my artist community. If you realize that you have a choice then you should do something else. There are many easier ways to have a career, being an artist is a way of life. Define success on your own terms. Don’t give anyone else the power to define that success for you. Create your own opportunities and become a part of your community. You are the most important aspect of your work and you have to make it happen for yourself. Setting weekly, monthly, and yearly goals is a great way to keep on track. Everyone has different goals so defining what those goals mean for you is important.