Contemporary artists > What is it like to be an artist couple? It is amazing. It can be trying. Painter Kenny Harris explains in this article.
BY KENNY HARRIS
What is it like to be an artist couple? It is pretty fantastic, all in all. It is hard to summarize because there are so many small commonalities we share. We truly understand what each other is going through in very specific ways. The creative process is a tough one to explain to anyone who is not a creative, and the unique struggles of the artist are, well, unique. We share the bonds of creativity and of the artist’s journey.
My wife Judy and I are both oil painters. We have a somewhat classical training but do very different work. We don’t paint the same things (except when we paint en plein air abroad). We are not competitive. We both show in galleries. We love to travel and paint. We put our art supply lists together like grocery lists. Errands include getting gas, picking up panels from the plywood store, and stopping by the framer on our way home from the gym. Art and life are intertwined together in the relationship. We don’t have to convince the other that a really good replica of a human skull is a necessary thing for the house — it is understood.
Judy and I are very different people — she comes from Hawai‘i, raised by her Chinese mom (she is hapa haole: half Chinese/half Caucasian). I’m from California, raised somewhat sheltered in Palo Alto, and have lived in San Francisco, Colorado, and Brooklyn, NY. We basically come from different cultures. I never understood that Hawai‘i is culturally so different from the mainland. We sometimes feel like we are speaking different languages, despite English coming out of our mouths. Coming from these perspectives helps us learn about our own cultures, and question our assumptions about everything. This keeps us growing as people and subsequently as artists.
We were not that young when we got together. We both had had many life experiences, lived in various places, and knew who we were as people and as artists. This helps ground us both, for the artistic life can be full of doubts. In the wrong relationship we might expose our inner creativity to someone who might not understand how delicate it is, and they end up damaging it. This may sound inconsequential, but the creative spark is very child-like. We are both mature enough to respect, and be sensitive to, the creative vulnerabilities of each other.
We share a mindset when it comes to most big-picture issues. (If we differed greatly, these would be deal-breakers, or at least would set up a very different relationship and lifestyle.) First off, we both prioritize making art over working another job. This is a biggie — it comes with sacrifice.
Art is a career with little certainty, and while making the decision to “just make paintings” as our job has led to incredible freedom, it has also led to financial nail-biting at times. This is probably the biggest drawback of two artists together. Both of us have irregular income streams, and it takes some creative financing and shuffling of resources to get by at times. Sticking through it together, we make it work!
We share a love of travel, and painting while traveling. It is something we both have made a priority in our lives. I spent many years doing just this — going abroad and gathering inspiration from far-flung locales. Now we go together, in search of new ideas, motifs, and simply grand experiences. As a couple it can be very rewarding to hide out on a remote hill in Italy and paint, cook, and drive around scouting landscape ideas. It is a shared experience we get to have whenever we want. Many artists seek this type of camaraderie in workshops. For us it is a routine day at the office.
I’ll expound on this. This is a pretty special pairing. Many artists and couples like to travel, but not all artists enjoy lugging their gear abroad and trying to set up temporary shop elsewhere. It is a particular artist that likes this mode of working en plein air, away from the studio or a set workshop environment. We take a monetary risk going abroad for long periods of time, hoping the resulting paintings will be the seeds for a body of work.
Judy wanted to make this a part of her life, and I had been doing it for years, so we just leapt together feet first. Part of our first painting trip was for six weeks in Turkey, a month of which was in a flat we rented in Istanbul. Neither of us had been to Turkey, but had always wanted to go. This takes a certain . . . I don’t know what . . . craziness? Trust? Art trumps fear? Yup. We had all that going on.
Influence is another interesting thing. In any normal relationship we influence each other with our habits and preferences. Day-to-day existence morphs over time into a single way the couple lives. I would not say we think the same way when it comes to painting, but we have influenced each other artistically. I introduced her to Diebenkorn and Auerbach; she got me into Lord Leighton and the Pre-Raphaelites. She never thought she would be into a painting by Guston; I never thought I’d plan a London trip around a Waterhouse show. Even our work morphed to some degree — my work growing tighter and more refined, and Judy busting out large palette knives and moving from linen to smooth panels. The subtle influences are so numerous they are hard to pinpoint. But I do think it is healthy to have this exchange of very personal ideas with someone so close. It is also a bit scary. Sharing your artistic inspirations with anyone can be a bit risky, but with the right person it is extremely rewarding.
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One of the greatest benefits of our relationship as artists is the feedback we give and get from each other. We are each other’s fresh eyes when working on a painting. Judy can point out things in my painting that aren’t quite working that I no longer see, and vice versa, me for her. This constant feedback from someone who knows our work (and habits) intimately is of enormous benefit. Trustworthy feedback is hard to come by for artists, especially once we leave an academic environment. Having a partner we can turn to when we are stuck on a pictorial problem is a godsend. However, sometimes this exchange of advice can go awry, usually occurring when I go into Judy’s studio and start giving her advice on her work when it hasn’t been asked for. This does not go well. Sometimes I’m too much in the teacher’s mode from teaching, and I forget not everyone wants to hear my thoughts on their work!
The act of giving feedback, stepping into the mind of another artist and exercising that part of critical thinking, is different from critiquing one’s own work. I get this regularly from teaching, but Judy doesn’t, and she values using her brain in this way. It is a healthy way of shifting perspective and using one’s critical faculties in a different way. We are lucky to be able to help each other in this very specific way.
I will say we are nerdy. Oh, we geek out. Example: a conversation on the minutiae of lead white vs. Flemish white, how much ropiness vs. tinting strength, Old Holland vs. Rublev. I covet her brush collection. She covets my . . . well, I don’t think she covets anything in my studio. She envies my speed and, at times, reckless execution. This leads to the issues of studio practice. She is a tidy painter; I am not. My studio is usually a mess. Hers is orderly. When we’ve had to share a studio, I think she suffers. The only thing that kept it working is that we like the same music and podcasts.
I imagine other figurative artist couples share similar stories. Shared interests and expertise keep the day to day interesting and rewarding. We rarely feel the artistic isolation that is inherent to the occupation of “painter.” I feel grateful when I consider how fortunate I am to have found a partner to truly share this journey with.
~ Kenny Harris (with Judy Nimtz’s approval)
Venice, California, May 31, 2018
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Kenny Harris has been a fixture in the Los Angeles art scene since arriving in Venice Beach in 2001. He has made a career out of describing his environment both at home and abroad. He has traveled around the world depicting subject matter both grand and mundane. Drawn to quiet subjects, his muted palette and spare spaces evoke a calming energy. Kenny teaches at Laguna College of Art + Design and was awarded the prestigious Elizabeth Greenshields Grant in 2016. He currently shows at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Seattle and George Billis Gallery in New York.
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Judy Nimtz focuses her work on the figure, often solitary and in motion. She loves to work with dancers to physically evoke emotions and states of mind. She combines her love of travel and art by painting around the world, in her native Hawai‘i, and her adopted home of Venice Beach. She is represented by Koplin Del Rio, Seattle, WA.
Website | Instagram
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