Monday, April 18, 2011

Artist Conversations - Rebecca Dresser and Martha Marshall

Artists Rebecca Dresser and Martha Marshall have invited us to "listen in" on a conversation they had about their lives, their art and more for our Artist Conversations. Click on each image or corresponding artwork title for purchasing information.

Harbor Triptych by Martha Marshall

Martha: When I read your bio, I smiled at the things we have in common. Three dogs, walks in the woods, love of nature, gardening, photography, painting, etc. I can just imagine what it must be like to live in your beautiful area in North Carolina. Being so close to nature has to permeate everything you do as an artist.

We moved to rural Alabama from suburban Florida two years ago. Alabama is my original home, so it was wonderful to get back near the Tennessee River and the rolling hills. And the seasons, which I missed so much! The first things I noticed when we moved in were that we could hear so many birds, as if we were in the woods, and we can see the stars at night! When you're near the city you miss hearing the birds and never get to see the stars. It's been many years since I'd lived here, so I had forgotten how magical it is.

Rebecca: Yes, I thought the same thing about our bios... all the commonalities. I'm sure your home in rural Alabama is beautiful too, and what a great change from suburbia... no matter what state. When people come out here and stay through the evening hours, they are shocked at the stars! (I wrote a song last fall that speaks to some of these things, including the stars...) People just don't realize what they're missing by living in the city. I did that for so many years, coming here (before we started renovating) on weekends when our kids were small, and now it's really hard for me to leave these woods and go into the city. Too many cars, too many people, too much noise. But I do it one day a week, and sometimes on other occasions, for music gigs or art shows. Each time I'm very anxious to get back home. I'm very much an introvert.

 High Hope Hollow by Rebecca Dresser


What is your favorite subject to paint? Even though most of your work is realistic and all of mine is abstract, I think both are responses to our surroundings. I'm watching for subtle color changes to result from changing climates and environments from tropical to sub-tropical.

Rebecca: Oh, me too! The colors of the seasons truly inspire me. My husband calls me a seasonal painter. It's because I become caught up in the colors around me in the mountains, the fields, the woods, the gardens, and that tends to dictate what tubes of paint I'll pull out for a new painting. I've been painting 
lots of birds, they tend to dominate my shop, and various views of nature, so I guess the easiest way to answer your question is by saying what is my least favorite subject to paint... and that's people. But I did enjoy working on my abstract Women in Seasons line paintings, inspired by friends of mine. These are in my shop too.

 How Now Yellow Cow by Rebecca Dresser

Martha: I personally love your cows the most. Do you have easy access to cows as models? And if so, are they cooperative? (I have one friend who has Black Angus. They are pretty relaxed and tame, and I love to go out there and photograph them.)

Rebecca: Oh, I’ve had a love affair with cows ever since I was a small child. I have a B&W photo of me in underpants only in the middle of a cow field. I was about two, and my parents had left me with some close friends while they took a trip to Michigan to deliver an old fire truck to someone there (strange? yes, but they had a great time traveling with friends in a sort of caravan!). And so my love affair with cows and other farm animals began. Perhaps that had an influence on my later vegetarian diet too. LOL. We have some friends nearby who have a couple of cows. When they got their first one, they told me that she wouldn't let me get near her to pet her nose. I proved them wrong in no  time.... went straight out there, stood patiently and talked to her quietly, and she let me stroke her. She licked me too; I’d forgotten what a strange feeling that is!! There are also some other nearby cows that I take photos of on occasion for painting purposes.

Our farm friends also have goats and pigs on occasion. Last year I was hoping to get to their place and get some pig photos, but alas, I went a day too late. They'd sent them off for butchering a few days early. They know this hurts my feelings, since I don't eat meat, so they don't always tell me about it. I've grown a bit stronger since we've been living here and don't cry as much about these kinds of things.

Martha: I have such a hard time with that whole inconsistency on my part. I think I will have to permanently give up meat at some point. I've done it and gradually slipped back into eating like most other people, especially now that we're back living in the Deep South. But eating meat does bad things to me guilt wise.

Rebecca: Yes, and it isn't good for us physically either.  At least at the rate at which most Americans consume it.  For me, there's nothing better than a fresh salad right out of my own garden!

Martha: Yum, me too! OK, another question I’ve wanted to ask you -- do you have any tips for photographing birds other than thousands of dollars worth of lenses? I am absolutely not a good bird photographer, but they are just everywhere and I'd like to at least be able to take halfway decent pictures of them.

 Waxwing Memories by Rebecca Dresser

Rebecca: Photographing birds..... I don't have an elaborate camera, just a small and simple digital Nikon. But my sister and son both have really great cameras, so sometimes I paint from photos they have taken. Sometimes I am lucky enough to get a good photo of my own of such small, moving targets. It's a matter of patience... of sitting for a long time, watching and waiting for a close enough landing. It's a good practice to simply learn how to be, how to relax and listen to your own breathing, how to enjoy all the 
life around us and find a connection with it. But it's time consuming, so sometimes I paint from bird books. And sometimes I just paint general bird shapes... no particular species in mind.... and sometimes little whimsical scenes with birds.

Martha: I think what you just said is good advice for anyone, especially an artist. Learning to sit and just connect is meditative in itself. And I have noticed that when I do, the birds are less fearful, even curious.

Rebecca:  Isn't it interesting that when we sit still and observe, the natural world around us accepts us just a little more and opens itself up to us?

Martha: It truly is. It's so completely calming. I love the different bird songs. Do you recognize a lot of their songs? If so, do you ever try to imitate them to see what their reaction is, or maybe to get them to come closer? My Dad used to do that sometimes when I was a little girl. He could get a quail to come closer by whistling "Bob White".

Morning Song by Rebecca Dresser

Rebecca: There are some definite bird songs I know… the Carolina wren, the woodthrush (my favorite), the finches. And yes, I sometimes call to the cardinals because that's an easy enough sound to imitate. I think they are listening because sometimes they continue to call with me for several minutes at a time. I think they are wise enough not to come closer, though. My cat is often near me when I'm outside! One unlucky cardinal was caught by her. I have the skull on the windowsill of my office, along with some teeth from an oppossum. In my garden there are deer skulls and some bones that the dogs have found and brought home. We don't hunt, of course, but we sometimes find these things in the woods when we walk. And sometimes people will bring them to me. Weathered bones fascinate me; I think they're beautiful... a sign that a soul has been here and that spirit lives on.

Martha: I love keeping natural things around too - both plant and animal. My grandchildren know this, so once my grandson even mailed me a snakeskin. He knew I would love it! He's grown now, and I still have that snakeskin.

Rebecca: My middle child is a "collector" of things, and he brought me an entire deer skeleton two summers ago. We had to let it sit out in the sun to bleach out the smells!  I like snakeskins too and have two complete ones on a shelf in our little hallway.  One came from a friend's yard (she would have DIED if she'd seen it, so I took it home with me and saved her from trauma). I love their patterns.  And they also signify that life is a changing and growing process.

Martha: Do you paint your landscapes on location, or do you mostly use reference photos?

 Moore's Wall in Fall by Rebecca Dresser

Rebecca: Mostly I paint from reference photos, but I love plein air painting too. Now that the weather is getting warmer, I plan to do some of that soon. Some of my landscapes are just collective images from memory or imagination.

Rebecca: So Martha, I have a few questions for you. Why abstract? What took you in that direction? I love abstract art and I admire your use of color. I've tried my hand at it, but find that I am almost always drawn to put some realistic frame of reference in. I'm not sure why that is; perhaps I'm too uptight!! LOL. But I think to do abstract, you have to have a certain amount of trust in yourself and feel a certain amount of freedom with your brush.

 Safari by Martha Marshall

Martha: I painted and drew realistically for a long time. But when I was a teenager, I started to see pictures of abstract works by the modern artists of the mid-twentieth century and began to wonder what
 it was all about. My mother was an artist and a teacher, and she had a lot of art books around that I loved to look through. We certainly weren't exposed to abstract art in my little town. But just looking at those I became more and more fascinated with the mystery of it all, and still am. I still love realism, especially if it has something new to say, or has a new twist on a familiar subject. But abstract art really keeps me engaged.

As for having trust in yourself, I think you're right, no matter what your subject matter is. You have to just create and create, enough to have a track record of knowing the next thing you do is going to be even better than the last, wouldn't you agree?

Rebecca: Definitely! It's a sign of growth and working through process. When I returned to college during my early 30s (kids came before I could finish at a younger age), I started out as an art major and studied the surrealists, my favorite art movement. Miro is one of my favorite artists. As is Klee, though he isn't a surrealist.  But now thinking about that, perhaps that is why, even when I start off working abstractly, some element of realism finds its way in.  So how do you come up with titles for your work?

 Echoes 30 by Martha Marshall

Martha: It's a struggle sometimes! I don't start out with a title in mind, but try to respond to the piece after it's finished. I'm a big believer that titles help people to connect with the work. So I try to insert a little humor or irony into them sometimes. I keep a running list of things that could trigger a possible title for a painting or a collage -- things I find on the web or in a magazine or a book. I have a pretty long list. Sometimes I just look at the list to see what best fits the piece, which is fun.

Rebecca: What a wonderfully cool way to do this. I keep a running list of phrases or simply words I like for my songs, but never thought to do the same for my art. It's a great idea though, and your titles are great! I was excited to find out that you also have the brushwithimagination shop. Which art form do you prefer, and how do you balance your time between the two? Is it hard to keep up with the two separate shops? For me, sometimes I get overwhelmed because I have to keep a balance between the visual art and 
the musical art. I've found that I work based on the pressure of upcoming events, but sometimes I have to let the painting go when I become involved in a song that has to get out or learning a new piece of music. And vice versa.

Martha: I really enjoyed hearing you sing. I went to your myspace page and listened yesterday! My experience with moving between activities is just about the same. I may know that I have to get ready to ship several paintings to a gallery in x number of weeks, and that's a sure way to make me want to do collage instead! LOL! I don’t really have a preference for one medium over another, but I do get bored easily and find that switching back and forth helps me stay fresh.

 As for the Etsy shops, I'm beginning to wish I didn't have two separate shops, but I can't see both bodies of work looking right together for some reason. So I've hesitated to merge them. But if Etsy ever comes out with that “merging shops” feature, I might be tempted to do it.

 Reborn by Martha Marshall

Rebecca: When I first joined Etsy, I listed only jewelry and made some sales, but eventually took all of that out of my shop, except for the scrimshaw.  I'm not doing jewelry any more, unless someone I know needs a repair or has a specific request.  Still have a large inventory though. Now it's become a personal inventory for the most part... ha ha!  Anyhow, I'd thought about opening a separate shop for my paintings and then just decided to slowly add them and phase out the jewelry.  I don't know that I could keep up with two shops.

 Do you have a regular daily or weekly schedule for creating, or do you create whenever the mood strikes?

Martha: I pretty much create when the mood strikes, unless I have a deadline. And the older I get, the fewer deadlines I will allow myself. I do very few shows any more. Right now there’s an annual juried show that I'll have three large pieces in. You'd think I could at least stop what I'm doing and put screw eyes and wires on the backs of them, but I'll probably wait till the last minute.

Rebecca: This is the same way I work. Those deadlines seem to push us sometimes, and like you, I am trying to not have so many.  Sometimes I feel way too stretched and find myself choosing to sit and read a book or watch birds instead of creating.  And how many times have I found myself putting in screw eyes and wires right before I load work into the car for a show? I have a solo show in Banner Elk, a resort town further up in the mountains, at the end of June. The coordinator there asked me to make a flyer for it for promotion, and I'll create a powerpoint slide show  that will run throughout the opening reception.  Fortunately there’s plenty of time, and I’ll get busy on it before too long.

 Have you ever done a Myers Briggs personality profile? If so, I'd be curious to know what "type" you are.

Martha: I did one years ago, and don't remember the set of four I ended up with. But looking at it again on Wikipedia, I'm pretty sure I'm ENFP. The interviewer told me at the time a good career for me would be the ministry. I find that pretty funny now after all these years.

 Fathom by Martha Marshall

Rebecca: I did one when I started a job as a communications director at a small church many years ago. The rector used these to help us all find the best way to communicate, and it was quite helpful, though I wasn't too thrilled with answering all those questions. I'm an INFJ, or at least I was back then, with touches of ISFJ mixed in.  Of course the older I get, I realize there are hormonal influences taking part in my lifestyle these days too! But yes... the ministry would have been a good career for an ENFP.
And yet you became an artist! Good for you.

 So you mentioned earlier than you may find some phrases for art titles from a magazine or book. Are you an avid reader? If so, what good books have your read lately? I just finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry for an April book club reading (a monthly commitment that I find myself sometimes neglecting). It was an incredibly moving story of an old woman sharing her life history and lessons. Could have been sappy, but with Wendell Berry as the author, it wasn't. It was, instead, a beautiful, thought-filled story of a farming woman and the lessons she's learned about community, the environment, relationships, war, and love. I highly recommend it. Sometimes when I read a truly beautiful book, one that is poetically written, I have imaginings or visions or simply emotions that might become paintings or more likely become a song. No one else may be able to connect the two by viewing a painting or hearing a song, but nevertheless, the inspiration was there. And sometimes I just absorb the book and breathe it in so that it simply becomes a part of my being.

Martha:  I am sad to say I've gotten in the habit of reading more for information than for pleasure. I will sit and read a whole Mother Earth News or an art book from cover to cover, and spend way too much time on the computer, so my purely pleasurable book reading time suffers. There's nothing better than sinking down into a wonderful book, the kind that you don't want to end. Thanks for that book recommendation. I've admired Wendell Berry's philosophy about living in community and caring for the environment, so I know I would like it. And summer's on the way -- the perfect time for some books!

Be sure and visit their shops to see more of their work - thank you Rebecca and Martha!

Rebecca Dresser -
Martha Marshall -,


  1. Fantastic interview! Very insightful questions and replies from both Martha and Rebecca. It is nice to learn more about each of you and your work :).

    I also really like the paintings from each artist placed between the questions - really great formatting idea.

  2. This is a great idea to add to any artists blog. Friendships are often found among art communities and so much support and praise comes from other artists. This reminds me of a few conversations I have had with artists whom I have met thru facebook, Etsy and blogs. Wonderful!

  3. Thank you, Jessica, for coming up with this great idea. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Rebecca. I feel I've made a great new friend!


  4. GORGEOUS WORK, brilliant artists ;o)


  5. I have to recommend this experience. It was wonderful to make connections in such a way with another artist, and it's very inspiring as well. Thanks, Martha, for this conversation, and thanks, Jessica, for the idea and for the work in putting it together on the blog. Great job!

  6. Interesting read, some great questions. I'm going to mention this post on my blog. Great job!

  7. I like the "Morning Song by Rebecca Dresser" one! nice paintings! all of them!...Daniel