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"Telling the subject’s story in a signal shot": an interview with Claudia Griesbach-Martuc

We've been so thrilled to feature the art of Claudia Griesbach-Martucci this past month. "Portrait of Veda" immediately grabbed our attention, and the literary quality of Claudia's paintings, as well as their richness in detail, rewards the viewer the longer they look. She talked to us about how the literary influences behind "Portrait of Veda" and how she approaches her work:

1. One of the most captivating things about your art is the push-pull of realism and the fantastic. Can you talk a bit about how you choose your subjects and landscapes and how you push realistic settings into something more?

I had learned oil painting from my mother, who specializes in landscapes and Dutch Still life paintings. The house I grew up in is adorned with hyper realistic paintings of floating fruit against moody skies over rural landscapes. I use to study the Hudson River School Artists, loving those primordial atmospheres they created, however I was more inclined to using animals and people as my subjects as opposed to fruits and flowers. My parents owned a large copy of James Audubon’s “The Birds of America”, and I learned a lot about drawing animals from studying his illustrations, and I think that still comes through in my work today. Audubon had theatrically posed the birds he had shot and killed in elegant backgrounds that are more like stage sets than realistic renderings of the birds’ environments. When designing a painting I imagine to be telling the subject’s story in a signal shot, similar to Audubon recreating the life of the dead birds. In my recent series “Wanderers”, the paintings capture a moment paused in the subject’s journey.

The subjects and landscapes I chose to paint are a direct influence from the things I enjoyed in my childhood. The house I grew up in sits on one of the highest points in New Jersey, which shares the same hill as a castle-like lighthouse from the 1800’s. I didn’t have a lawn where I could kick a

soccer ball around, but my playground became the old lighthouse and the elaborate gardens my mother designed on all four sides of our home. Being an only child, my playmates were the bugs, spiders, butterflies, and occasionally the frogs and turtles that would come and go from our pond as if it were a bed and breakfast for critters. My mom had given me a book by Thoreau, “Walden” about the solitude life of living by a pond through the seasons. We also had a cottage in upstate New York on lake Honeyeye. The cottage looked as if it were plucked from a Grimm fairytale. When my first grade classmates were given the responsibility of pet, many got gerbils, but my dad suggested a rat as they were smarter and would make a better rodent friend. Rats always seem to make their way into my paintings. I like the idea of using animals and nature to explore the depth of our own human nature.

2. You mention on your website that you are interested in the tragically beautiful. How does this play out in "A Portrait of Veda" and in other pieces? What does tragically beautiful mean to you as an artist?

The “Portrait of Veda” is ironic because I based it after “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde where the quote originated. I wanted to idolize Veda, because as one of our many family pets, she is idolized. The painting captures a moment of Veda’s pleasure, but her pedestal is more

like a shrine to a memory of her. Tragically beautiful to me is recognizing the arch that life takes, and when that arch is even more abbreviated and dramatic due to one’s own self destruction. Tragically beautiful is like a Bruegel snow scene where the chaos has some thin layer of quiet.

3. Can you talk about your Femme Fatale series? How did this series come to be?

“Femme Fatal” was my MFA thesis at the School of Visual Arts under their program “Illustration as a Visual Essay.” I’ve always been obsessed with the stories by Edith Wharton and Thomas Hardy. I read Tess of the d’Ubervilles when I was about ten, and had nominated it my favorite novel. Every time I revisit these novels I hope that the heroines make a better choice, go down a different path, but it is like they willingly choose the path of self-destruction. A second title I had used for the series was “Kamikaze Women”; a term invented by Woody Allen in the movie

Husbands and Wives.

4. Building off of that, how do art and literature intersect for you? How did you become interested in narrative portraits?

Both my parents are illustrators and for jobs would receive a paragraph from a book they’ve never read, needing to create an image for the cover that could embody the story’s entire theme or mood. Illustrating to me was like a game of clue. If you are painting the heroine, her clothes, and even nail color should give some hint to her state of mind. I first became interested in narrative portraits in my third year of SVA undergrad for a “Fairytale” project. Instead of illustrating scenes from the fairytale, I used myself as model for the heroine (It was Charles Perault’s Donkey Skin), in which I retold the story through the portrait’s wardrobe and landscape.

Upon entering graduate school I had wanted to become a children’s book writer, and before that I had wanted to be a film director. However funnily enough, I was told that my children’s books

were too sexy; and instead of pursuing the film industry, I saw that in creating “narrative” paintings I was directing my own stories, my favorite stories being where the characters are romantically doomed. All my paintings tell a story, but that story can change depending on my mood or what the viewer sees. I think it is important for the viewers to have fun with their own imagination, because our different experiences in life create different lenses when looking at art. I had someone once write me a long email describing what they saw in paintings, and it was something I never seen or thought of before, but made me think, “huh…oh yeah.”


All art appears courtesy of Claudia Griesbach-Martucci. From top to bottom: "Moondress" (part of her undergraduate thesis -- illustration for Charles Perrault's "Donkey Skin"); OWL300 (close up from her painting "Nocturnal Reaping"); "Lily"; "To the Place I Dream Of"; and Claudia's studio space.

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