Alaina Sullivan

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I grew up in Shaker Heights, OH, outside Cleveland, and have spent most of my adult life in New York City – currently making home in Brooklyn, until the winds shift.
What’s your favorite part of living in Brooklyn?
Being able to walk or bike everywhere, and stumble upon something different each day. It’s wonderfully diverse and densely creative.
What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
Much of it is intangible for me. I think a lot about what it means to share an experience through the art. The process of making is yours alone to feel, but when someone connects to a feeling you poured onto a page, that is the fabric of humanity. Words can sometimes be clumsy. Colors and shape can be tremendously meaningful. But the meaning is not the color or shape. It is the condition of humanity that it reveals. Do we know ourselves better? Do we share a feeling?
How important is spontaneity in your art?
In the last year or two I began working more with watercolor on paper. Previously, I’d made most of my paintings with oil on canvas. What I love about watercolor (and what sets it apart from other ways of working with paint) is the spontaneity that it requests. It’s not about spontaneity with your artistic intent – rather, it’s physical. With watercolor, you can’t erase, you can’t rub out, you can’t cover over with layers of paint. You face a blank page and you don’t know exactly what is going to unfold when you start. It’s terrifying. You let the paint drive, hand confident, trusting the process. The way the water flows, and dries, and manipulates color is a bit out of your control. You live with your mistakes. Or you move on. For me, the process is a steady outpouring, so I rarely fall victim to overthinking. It is in this area that the mind is free. It’s quite meditative, really. Loosening a grip on reason and living with a bit of mystery is central to my practice.
Words can sometimes be clumsy. Colors and shape can be tremendously meaningful. — Alaina Sullivan
Have any events in your life influenced your practice in the past few years?
I returned to my painting practice with vigor two winters ago during my recovery from a very serious head injury that divorced me from most habits of a modern, digital life. I couldn’t do my work as a graphic designer (screens were an enemy for a long time), but as I gained strength in the months afterward, I found a silver lining: I returned to making art. I needed a visual outlet that was simple, non-toxic, quiet, and easy to set up in my apartment. Working on paper checked those boxes, and watercolor became my medium.

Working simply on paper with watercolor became my way of reconnecting with my senses and my body as it rewired. It is a practice that asks you to be light and nimble – it’s like stretching, a gentle limbering up, bringing warmth to the blood. In a way, watercolor became an expression of my healing: a way to nurture my brain without taxing it, a way to embrace the unknown. A reminder to soften, follow intuition, be patient, and have trust in the process. At my table, I found space to engage with myself in a quiet, deliberate way. My work since that time tells an intimate story of transformation and growth.

How does your choice of color inform the final piece?
Conversation between colors is a driving element of my work. I step onto a page with color. Form follows, and much of that part I leave to chance, trusting my hand. But I make conscious decisions about color. Color is the mood, the emotion. It can interrupt and resolve a piece in equal measure.
What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
My recent work is certainly informed by the natural world. The palette and the compositional choices I make lean toward landscape, but it is not representational work. I work from instinct, rather than subject. What does it feel like? When we contact nature we are intimate – out of head, into body. The process of making the work is like stepping onto a path that is at once familiar and mysterious – I may feel a little disoriented by unexpected details, but never lost. A trail of making that demands full awareness, but is also out-of-body. It has a way of knitting a refreshed confidence and exhilaration as I make my way out.

I find myself also drawn to what it means to activate empty space, and the pace and breath it puts into a composition.

I was reading about Japanese artist Hasegawa Tohaku’s screen painting “Pine Trees” and how the work’s very roughness and omission of details, combined with its use of empty space, activates the imagination of its viewers and awakens our senses. He has an economy of brushstroke and simplicity of subject that is exquisitely subtle. This creates an ever-changing nature that moves far beyond descriptive detail. It’s part of what I think I’m trying to reach for with my own work.

With respect to the ‘exquisitely subtle’, would you ever work in ink (black & white)?
Ah yes, I love this question. I recently began to revisit making simple studies in my sketchbook with blue India ink, as an exercise in trimming a composition down to its essence with a singular hue and focusing on the delivery of the lines. I love the deep blue ink and the quality it gives to a piece as it navigates the white space. I have worked a lot with Sumì ink in hand-lettering work that I’ve done, and have always been drawn to Japanese brushwork and calligraphy. Perhaps this will feed itself into more of my work in the future.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
Outside – near the water, or in the woods.
In Brooklyn?
Much of the inspiration for my art-making is drawn from outside of the city. I lean into wild places with the widest views of land and sky. But I do spend a lot of time in Brooklyn, and find sips of daily inspiration in the lush pockets of the parks near my house: Fort Greene Park or Prospect Park. Spots where I can tuck myself away from the city chatter, sit quietly reflecting on the season or how the light is dancing. Even outside of our urban groves, I often find inspiration in unexpected moments throughout the day: a song I hear, a poem I read, a stormy sky, the color of a door, a crack in the sidewalk – sensory cues that scratch an itch to create.
I step onto a page with color. — Alaina Sullivan
How has your work as a designer influenced your practice?
I have found that being an artist and a designer is quite an interesting juxtaposition and complex position in the visual space. On the surface, they complement each other as ways of looking and processing. But the point of entry is quite distinct. As a designer, you start with an idea, or an action. Your job is to solve problems, to answer questions: it’s not personal, your work is functional. (And if it’s not functional, it’s not good design.) Attention to detail is elevated. There are rules. But with art-making, all of that melts away. You don’t start with an idea to solve, you start with a blank canvas. There are no rules at all. It’s emotional, vulnerable, tangible, sensory. You’re working from intuition and instinct. Here, you are pouring a feeling out of yourself to create something no one else ever could.

Navigating between the two practices gives clarity to the value of each in the rhythm of my body of work. I like to visually problem-solve with design. I also like the intimate visual release of making art. They are very different creative processes for me, but each informs the other. If I’m stuck as a designer, I pick up my brushes to work more fluidly from a place that’s detached from the rules. And certainly my work with paint and composition on canvas have informed how I approach graphic design. I never went to formal design school, so fine art has been my modus operandi from the beginning. My creative core is fueled by curiosity and wonder, which threads itself through both ways of working. I love an element of something unexpected.

What’s next for you?
I just spent the last few weeks camping and hiking in the mountains of southern Montana. I am invigorated by that land and big sky, and I’m eager to see what creatively pours out of the experiences I had there.

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