Interview with Jill McVarish, painter and curator of The Secret Gallery.
Chris Minnick: Hi, and welcome to The Secret gallery podcast. I’m Chris and I’m here with Philip Barasch. And today we’re going to be interviewing Jill McVarish. Jill is a painter and also the curator of the Secret Gallery. So take it away Philip!
Philip Barasch: Alright, I’m glad you said painter and curator, ’cause we’re gonna hit on both of those topics, and I wanna let you know how excited I am to be chatting with you, Jill, we’ve chatted on and off over the last year or so, but to sit down and have an actual extended conversation is something that I’m very, very excited about, so thank you very much for for doing this…
Jill McVarish: Oh, thanks for talking to me. It’s just gonna be fun.
Philip Barasch: It is. Okay, so here’s what I wanna start with. I wanna start with Astoria, and Astoria is basically, it’s the end of the world, and if the world were flat, this is where we’d be able to see ships sail off the edge, and here you are so… So how did you come to be in Astoria? What put you here?
Jill McVarish: Well, I moved here in 2006, because I was in Phoenix, and this was the year that they were giving home loans to just anybody, and I had a friend who moved out here and she’s like, Oh my gosh, you’re gonna love it. And so I just came out here and it’s not just like the end of the world, it’s like the old west, it’s crazy. There’s so many things about this town that are just preserved in time, and it is like you say, just right at the edge of the world, and it’s such a nice reprieve from the Bay Area or Phoenix or anywhere that… time is sort of slowed down here.
It’s a pretty amazing place.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, and I also would like to add that there’s an enormous amount of energy here, you and I’ll just point out, Chris, the proprietors of the Secret Gallery are part of a really significant kind of cultural energy that’s happening here, and I became aware of it when we first started coming out to Astoria a number of years ago, and it’s just… There’s no question about it, there’s a lot of things in place here that make it not only a unique place to be, but there’s just…
I don’t know there’s something about being at the edge, the literal edge, the figurative edge that just produces all kinds of really interesting stuff, and I would have to say that I… To my mind that I really clearly see your paintings figuring into this idea of being as you characterize the old west, because pretty much anything can happen out here, there’s something to be said about being in a very kind of just detached End Of The World place. So tell me how you feel about that in terms of you actually being a painter, do you feel disconnected from large kind of urban areas at all, or do you feel that you’re getting to breathe…
Jill McVarish: No, I don’t feel any lack of connection to big urban areas at all, when you say that Chris and I are sort of channeling something or… I mean, this was already here before I got here, or Chris got here, or anything. This is just kind of a magical place. And this is kind of a magical time here, because this place is sort of a time capsule, and there’s been a migration of artists toward more rural areas like this coming north a lot, getting priced out of California, moving up to Portland, getting priced out of Portland and so this has just become this amazing vortex of artistic people that I just happened into or Chris just happened into, and we were just kind of lucky to be here and be able to be a part of it. And again, I think it was just complete luck, like I said, I’d never been here before I moved here, and it was just a random bit of chance, but…
Philip Barasch: Wow, you hadn’t been out here before?
Jill McVarish: I moved up here, sight unseen… And my crazy friend that I moved up here to live or to stay with until I got my house had never even been out here or seen the house she lived in before she bought it on Craigslist, so this was just really like… It was just a thing of like, we couldn’t afford to buy a house in California. We couldn’t look afford to buy a house in Phoenix, we couldn’t afford to buy a house in Portland. So you keep going North, and it gets more and more remote, and it was just… I mean, really, the luck of Craigslist that she got here and I got here, and it’s really been pretty random and it… Wow, it’s…
I really lucked out finding this place because… Yeah, there’s a ton of history in this town.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, that’s a remarkable leap of faith, number one, but I would also argue that there’s synchronicity in there, it’s no accident that a leap of faith turned into what it has turned into a… This is an amazing place to be. So here you are, and you come from a large family, you came from the Sacramento Valley area, and I just can’t help… We’ll get into this, feel how much that family shapes what you do with your art work…
Jill McVarish: Oh, Absolutely. Yeah.
I am the ninth of 11 kids, and my father was an artist and he had a really diverse set of interests and he was just passionate about everything as we were growing up, so he was fascinated by Celtic music, and my little brother’s a fiddle player, and he was a painter, and I just couldn’t get enough of his painting and so… We all sort of were somewhat inspired by our dad and then ultimately inspired by each other too, and one of the few perks of being the ninth kid, but… Yeah.
Philip Barasch: Well, I would say that of all the artists whose work I’ve been looking at over the last few years, and just so you know, you first came on my radar when you had a show at Gallery 903 in Portland, Oregon, and of course that gallery has a beautiful footprint, it’s a beautiful, big space and a friend… Well, Joseph Blanchette, a dear friend of mine, we went in, there were these curiously marvelously odd paintings by Jill McVarish, I think the show was bed time stories or something like that. And so that’s when you first came on to my actual radar as a painter, and the first thing I responded to, and I still respond to really profoundly in your work, Jill, is that I get a sense of who you were as a little girl and what I mean by that is that your work has a very… playful, girlish, kind of a genetic component to it, and so when I was reading about the fact you came from a large family, it started making sense to me that somehow you have been able to maintain and honor who you were as a child through your artwork, and I see it so much because your artwork is whimsical, it’s fun… It’s playful, it has an enormous fantastical component, so just I was very pleased to see that you came from a large art family because it just… It made sense.
Jill McVarish: My grandmother was a librarian and I grew up on all those old illustrations, the Mother Goose, and some of the more recent, the Maurice Sendek and Frog and Toad are Friends, and I think that was like… Even when I was little, I was really fascinated by illustration and all that stuff, ’cause my mom would read us stories and you could look at the pictures and you could just go right into those pictures and we didn’t have pets as kids and it was like, I don’t know, all those animals were these fantastical kind of characters in an alternate world. And that was just… just to really simplify it, that’s probably just where my initial aesthetic came from, and then you kind of spend your life trying to figure out, yeah, what you’re gonna do and stuff, but that’s always there, it’s just kinda sitting at the surface.
Philip Barasch: So when I was looking at your paintings, since you brought up illustrators, the ones that came to mind immediately to me, are people like Arthur Rackham and Edmond Dulac and Kay Nielsen, the golden age of illustration, so that came up immediately to me, but I was also thinking in terms of… There seems to be a strong bent in your imagery towards the pre-Raphaelites, I see Rossetti and William Hunt and John Millais, and a lot of Ford Madox Brown and probably some Edward Burne-Jones. So I can’t help but think that there’s also that kind of influence that… there’s allegorical stuff in your work, but it goes beyond allegorical because you get into these really interesting kind of states of whimsy, and so I would like you to just talk about the whimsical nature of what you do.
Jill McVarish: Well, I think that whimsical nature took a really long time to come back to because once I decided, and it was a lot later, I was probably in my teens when I decided “well, I wanna be a painter,” and then I started studying 20th century painting and really looking at painting, and the more you look at modernism and all the recent movements and stuff, then there was always this compulsion toward, Okay, well, completely separate from imagery or what opinions about what makes a beautiful painting… And then it took me a really long time to come back to this kind of imagery, because I think for maybe a dozen or 20 years in between there… It was figuring out painting, and when I tried going to school in Europe, it… One thing that really struck out to me was just the power of beautiful old compositions and that it’s a completely separate thing, and so once I kind of found my subject, I’m certainly most interested when I’m working really and just composing a painting that honors that kind of history of painting. So I like all these fun subjects, and then at the same time, wanted to make it about paint.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, yeah, and I’m glad you brought that up because first of all, let’s just acknowledge the fact that you’re a very gifted painter, you know how to manipulate paint, and so when you were in Europe, you would have seen a lot of great master works because another thing that I think is very influential in what you do is the importance of the portrait, a lot of your work is portraiture, albeit, you are taking, let’s just say, latitude with portraits, but at the very heart of what you’re doing in terms of what formal composition and your manipulation of paint, portraiture, I think figures very heavily into how you approach what you do, so you saw a lot of great master words you would have had to of…
Jill McVarish: I did, and most of it was figurative and I found that I was really… There’s something about the human face and the expressive nature, the human body, that just is, to me, more compelling and also one of the hardest things to paint, and so I spend a good deal of time doing sort of imagined figures, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve actually had to, for work, do real portraiture, which is a completely different thing, like I am so in awe of people who render people well because it’s one thing to play with light and shadow and imagine things, and that’s sometimes the fun and some of the more imaginative… like that bed time stories, you can work from your imagination, but I have to… hats off to people who really understand figure and anatomy so well that they can… do a real portrait of a person.
Philip Barasch: Like you’re talking John Singer Sargent type portrait is probably what you’re talking about.
Jill McVarish: It’s amazing. Yeah, I didn’t see the real person in person, but I’m pretty sure that he nailed it. Yeah.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, so in terms of… I first saw your bedtime stories, and then when I saw a work that came after that, it had moved more into what I would call not just whimsy, but you started getting into a lot of animals that are very heavily anthropomorphized, they’re distinct characters. And so when I was talking earlier about how I was responding to your work and kind of seeing the little girl in you, one of the things that I felt is that you had all of these characters that you could then dress up and have them go off and play in your paintings as other characters, so there was these levels of of…
I don’t wanna really say meaning to me, these levels of function like a little rabbit with a blow torch or little dog sitting in front of tea pots or whatever it was, that they… These were essentially aspects of your personality that were distinct characters that you then dressed up to become other characters that you set them on these stages and they got to play around. So the work that I started seeing after the 903 show, and particularly the work I’ve been seeing here in Astoria, to me, really speaks to your ability to reach in and find all these little kids and just dress them up and let ’em play is that… Am I close on that?
Jill McVarish: You’re dead on on that. And it has a lot to do with finally finding what I enjoy doing because for about a dozen years, I finally found a job doing painting for an art distributing company, and I didn’t have any choice whatsoever about what to paint, they would just tell me, “We want a pretty lady and this kind of style and yellow and it needs to be this big.” Or whatever.
And I think the years after I got out of school, I was… I was pretty overwhelmed about, what do you paint, what’s relevant, what makes a good painting, all these questions. And then I got the opportunity to spend a whole bunch of years not having a choice at all about what to paint, and so when I finally stopped doing that work, it was like I didn’t care anymore, it was really like I could pull out all my toys and just dress them up, and I wasn’t concerned in any way about any more just the content just wrote itself, it was play time finally, and it was part of that not being able to play with subject matter and really seeing it as a more… An occupation or a technical pursuit, and then I guess having not had fun with it for so long, as soon as I got to do it, I just couldn’t stop. I have more ideas than I do time to paint them. Because what if you could have fun painting, and if you could… wouldn’t it be funny if you put this there or something…
Philip Barasch: Yeah. Well, you are having fun. Another thing I find really interesting about your work is that because there’s this component of a child inside of it, that your work comes right up to being macabre, but it stops. And so for me, it stops because you’re telling the little kids, whether it’s a little bear or whether it’s a rabbit or whatever… you’re telling them, you can go out and have fun and you can play, but you have to be nice.
You can’t be mean spirited. You can’t be nasty. So when I say that, it comes up to being macabre… What I mean by that is, when I think of… I think of the great cartoonists, it’s like Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson, even Edward Gorey… Is that you let your kids play, but they all have to play well together… they have to have fun and be respectful and be courteous, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s embedded in there that I think doesn’t allow you to get into a really dark, nasty place because it’s not… It just… It wouldn’t work.
And so, I don’t know, I… Am I close on that one?
Jill McVarish: No, you’ve completely accurate on that one and…
I think there’s a lot of fascination with the darker, the more macabre and I just don’t identify with it at all. Part of what I love it about Rackham’s illustrations is the… Or like we were talking about Peter and the Wolf recently, it’s that invitation to go into something different and at the same time, not have to have it leak blood out of its eyes and have big teeth and stuff like that. What if it was like an identifiable adventure where you could look at it and it wouldn’t… wouldn’t be threatening.
I don’t know, that’s just the way I think I like to see things happen. I don’t wanna look at the painting and be like, “Oh, I’m so scared” or “Eww how shiny blood” I don’t know.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, it’s really dark and heavy… Yeah, Because even the stuff and scale comes into play too, but even the things like your paintings The Three Graces or the Sock Monkey in France, and I guess Baptism maybe to a lesser degree, but anyway, the… So you have these prostitutes sitting around, and the very nature of prostitution is that it would imply that it’s dark and heavy, but then here’s this little sock monkey, and then I look at the prostitutes and then it’s not like the sense that they are the women of the night, the, the car girls and they’re in the bordello, there’s something underneath all of that that as if it’s all just a stage like you’ve all… Just put it out on a stage and their costumes.
Jill McVarish: I like to play with those combinations of things like the… the Baptism one was a murder scene, but I wanted it to be the prettiest nicest kind of a murder scene you could envision, so if you take one concept and then make it so pretty and nice that it’s compelling that and it’s like, “Wow, I’m really liking looking at that murder scene.” I really enjoy combining those two things, a lot of the postcard with the collectors, this adorable little possum and he’s going out for… He’s got a picnic basket and it’s like all the critters he’s killed that day for dinner, but it’s adorable and I really like to play between those two… Yeah, It’s a murder, it’s awful cute, I don’t know, that kind of combining of things to make it into something that kinda bounces you two ways…
Philip Barasch: Well, I would also add that your costumes, your sets, all of these things, you have all of these trappings that also come into play and they’re really fun to look at, they’re very ornate or not ornate, there’s… You have lots of really cool kind of Victorian furniture and you have lots of cool… these really… All of these costumes that have all of these textures and all of these colors, so I don’t know, it’s just… It’s like dress up, and it’s just so much fun because I just feel at the end of it, at the end of the gig, so to speak, that everyone goes away and they all had a really good time.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, nobody got hurt. Yeah, and yeah, and then that’s where just my interest in color and paint, trying to meet fun with narrative.
Philip Barasch: Okay, so painting… So you went to the San Francisco Art Institute, and then you went off to Europe.
And so tell me in terms of your technique, and you obviously had been painting prior to that, where would you say falls… the most important phase of how you developed technically?
Jill McVarish: Probably, really the most important phase was when I was a kid and I learned drawing and color theory and painting from my dad, the most inspiring was… I would say my experience in Amsterdam and going to the Rijksmuseum and seeing the Dutch Masters and looking at Rembrants in person that was like… There’s just no way to describe that except just… I don’t know, mystical, it set my interest on fire in terms of what’s possible and what I like and what I wanna do, but there were… There have been a lot of things like I think the most amazing paint instruction that I got was at College of Marin in Marin County. There were some really amazing teachers there. Chester Arnold, Trunebicle I think was his name, and there was probably where I got some of the best paint instruction.
I think that was significant too, and then at the Art Institute too, just the energy and the imagination of fellow students that I was around, so there have been several different things that kind of influenced me at different periods.
Philip Barasch: Okay, cause… Yeah, cause painting, just painting. So, I’m gonna tell you… I went to your show at RiverSea here in Astoria a number of months back, and that show to me was a little bit confounding. I went back to it multiple times. And having seen your work for the last few years, that particular body of work is… You broad-sided me and tell you why. First of all, the images themselves are all ovals and the frames were really essential to the piece, I mean, there are some paintings with a frame, you just have to have a frame and a collector… Or someone else is probably gonna swap it out anyway, but that particular body of work, I felt that the framing, the oval frames was so integrated with the image that they were inseparable, so it already was removed from anything else I had seen by you before, and it would also would imply a Victorian sense of things. It implied a broach or an amulate or some kind of Victorian trapping, and the works themselves, in terms of their actual kind of construct, their composition were very highly portraiture.
Even though they were animals. It was, I think one of them was Animal Husbandry and Mary and the Unicorn, “The Bears” was another one, but what really broad-sided me, Jill, was that I felt your ideas about painting in that body of work were eclipsing your ideas about the imagery, and so I had to go back multiple times to understand… To look at the work and see what was going on there. I would also say that your ideas about painting, in terms of how I’ve seen your stuff in that particular body of work, that there was kind of a restlessness to that, I… So can you talk about just that particular body of work?
Jill McVarish: Yeah, I… I’m not terrifically happy with that body of work, but what happened with that one was that over the last year or so, I’d become just increasingly fascinated with the… The format of the Madonna painting and how you can play back and forth with the Madonna and Child… And I’ve been doing it all year, I’d been doing Pinocchio and Mary, and I’d done just several… A possum family, and I kept coming back to that Madonna image.
So when Dave and I decided to do this natural history museum, I imagine this whole wing in this Natural History museum that would be all these sort of odd combinations of Madonna and Child, but are more in the freakish, this doesn’t usually occur in nature thing, but I think what happened, and I don’t think you’re wrong about the restlessness, was that that oval format is pretty tricky and I’m not really used to it, so I found myself wanting to make much bigger paintings within the kind of small and constrained oval format.
So what came out were these kind of strange Madonna paintings in these Victorian sort of colors and shapes that were trying to be bigger paintings probably.
Philip Barasch: Okay, ’cause… Because it’s not… For me, it wasn’t just that they were kind of odd, it, to me, more than any other paintings I’d seen of yours, that that body of work, that the imagery was really kind of like moving up through the… the actual layers of the paint itself, and so there was very much the sense to me as if you’d been like chipping away at something and you were… The outer edges of it were rough and the inner edges… as you got further and further in became more refined, and so the outer edges is what I really studied in those paintings is where the ideas were really about paint, and then as you moved into the composition into the center of the oval, it became about the ideas of image, but I was more interested in your application of paint because it just felt to me like you weren’t concerned about having to make something representational, what you were concerned with was your relationship with paint within the oval, and you’re right, the ovals were weird too.
I don’t think that you could remove those frames, I think that that those things have to be kept as singular artifacts.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, and what you point out about them sort of starting from the middle was sort of what I was fascinated with for this whole year with the Madonna paintings, it was the gaze between the mother and the child and… And then what if the mother had this really loving gaze and then the child was some horrific plastic baby Ronald McDonald, maybe you could still do that same thing where you could capture that loving gaze. And so most of what was going on in any of those pieces was trying to just capture that really intimate moment between those two close characters, and then it just kind of spread out from there, that was where the attention was supposed to be, which is kind of often why I think that kind of image is depicted in an oval, but it’s not a way that I’m used to working either…
I mean, in an oval you really have to hone down your… A single point of focus, because you can’t really spread it around like you can in a rectangle.
Philip Barasch: Is that something you would do again? Would you think of a shape other than a square or rectangle? Although most you work is predominantly rectangular, that’s…
Jill McVarish: Yeah, the more I work in circles and squares, the more like rectangles. Not so much with the ovals and the circles… Even squares are difficult. I kinda get the golden rectangle, more and more all the time.
Philip Barsch: The Golden Rectangle, yes.
Jill McVarish: They call it golden for a reason.
Philip Barasch: We love golden rectangles.
Yeah, okay, so the body of work you’re working on now, let’s…
I’m dying to know how that’s going, so let’s… It let everyone know, I’m assuming this is still the case, that you’re doing animals and they are going to be playing instruments as if they were in an orchestra. Is that still tracking?
It’s still tracking, but it’s still evolving as well, it’s starting to feel like I’m working less and less on themes recently and sort of taking pieces one piece to another. So maybe… it initially started with the idea of Peter and the Wolf, and I was going to follow the story exactly about this is the oboe and then just, this is the wolf and this is Grandpa and stuff like that. But then realized there was a lot more possibility in assigning a room that would be a whole symphony, and you would consider which instrument this animal would play, and it started, of course, with the cowbell and a cow… And the more I do it, it seems to be more. I’m starting to do horses dancing and it may become a little bit broader. I’m not sure yet, I’m still seeing where it goes, I feel like I’m getting more away from the idea of themes and just letting one piece kind of dictate what the next piece will be.
Philip Barasch: interesting.
Jill McVarish: It’s kind of different. I haven’t worked that way.
Philip Barasch: Well something I would like to point out too is in terms of… This would seem to me to be a very natural kind of extension of what you’ve been doing because you have all these kids or these animals and they’re in these costumes, they’re on these stages or on these sets, they’re doing these things, but I think… As I’ve been talking to you about the body of work you’re currently doing, that more than anything now, you… With this body anyway, are becoming like a director or a conductor, that you have all of these elements that are highly individual and they are all singular, but then collectively they combine to make some cumulative thing and I… So it just seems to me this is a very natural development for you in terms of at least what I’ve seen, and I got really excited when we started talking about this a couple of months ago, because there’s just so many opportunities for you to do what you do, but more really as… Really as a conductor.
Really, and I don’t know if that’s your intent…
Jill McVarish: Well, it’s interesting you say that because since I started working on my own, I’ve been really focused on shows because I love taking a theme and then sort of composing a whole show together, I’m thinking about how each piece would interact with the other to make a room full of pieces that all sort of spoke together on a theme, and it’s not too different from what I’m doing now, but another thing that occurs to me is it’s also what I’ve discovered that I really love about curating and introducing, even if it’s not my own work, like seeing how pieces interact in a room, and I think that’s something that’s kind of also satisfied, that same kind of fun that I have in putting my own shows together is like, this is sort of the fun in it for me, instead of going from one piece goes over here, and one piece goes over there, thinking of it as theater or a whole walk-in sort of experience where there’s more than one piece bouncing against each other.
Philip Barasch: What I was thinking of… If you’re an audience member and you’re sitting in some theater and you’re seeing the dancers or performers up on the stage, in this case, your paintings, and more specifically, when your show comes up, the paintings of all of these animals with their various instruments, and you have the opportunity to understand that they’re all having a conversation together, but then you can look at each one and understand how it is as a part of a sum that they all come together cumulatively to make another effect. And so I just, I don’t know, I just… That’s something else, and in terms of having looked at your work that I feel real strongly about, that there’s a cumulative effect of these pieces…
Jill McVarish: Well, one of my all-time heroes is Caravaggio because Caravaggio wasn’t just a painter, he was a cinematographer… He understood things about just composing scenes and having… his paintings would have an effect on the room he was in, and that he would direct the light, he would direct the scale, he would do everything to… It wasn’t just about getting up at a painting and kind of seeing the paint and seeing… seeing that the image, whether it’s narrative or whatever, he was actually making theater in a room, and that was like…
I mean, the guy is amazing in that way, and, like, if you can do it on a small scale with a show or… try… Anyway, it’s an interesting way to look at how paintings interact outside of themselves or with their surroundings.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, when you were saying that, so when you finish one of the pieces in this next body of work, you’re gonna see how that piece then is responding to or having a conversation with the pieces that came prior to that. So let me ask you this… Do you have a specific number of pieces that you’re working on for this? Is it gonna continue? Will you add to it, or do you know how many characters are involved in this next body?
Generally, 12 is what I shoot for with a show, the way these pieces are going because they’re almost like so far, the ones I’m doing are all in the same scene and they’re coming out pretty big, so it might be a woman playing a cello on the beach… and then the painting next to it is the same beach where the horses are dancing at the music or something, so they’re coming out kind of big, so I think it’s gonna be a large scale show, but I’m shooting for 12… I think 12 is a good number of pieces to have, but it’s somewhat dictated by how big the pieces are.
Philip Barasch: and so… Are they vertically oriented or the horizontal on or is it mixed up?
Jill McVarish: So for all the pieces of 48-inch is high, and that’s kind of the… And I’m trying to keep them pretty close, as close as I can within that to life sized. So yeah, maybe the one consistent will be that each piece is 48 inches tall… First one I did was only 24 inches wide, so it was quite narrow and tall, and now I’m doing 48 inch squares, but I think everything will sort of be close to that same size range even… That very same height.
Philip Barasch: Okay, and then you were saying they’re on a beach so, is the background going to be uniform through all of them?
Jill McVarish: No, no, not at all. With this one, I don’t even know what the fourth painting’s gonna be like, I’m just letting one painting lead into the other and probably straying further and further away from the initial idea of the Peter and the Wolf and then… And then it was gonna be specifically a symphony, but now it’s just more animals interacting with music, probably…
I’m not sure it’s… it’s the loosest kind of concept I’ve had so far for a show… Yes.
Philip Barasch: Okay, well, here’s where I’m gonna go with the question, might as well just bring the question to its conclusion, If the background was not uniform in terms of when you’re ready for an exhibition, it will be a chronological hanging of the show, or is it gonna be mix and matches, it can a matter in terms of chronology, where one piece is placed, or do you determine that…
Jill McVarish: No, definitely just do all the pieces and then figure it out…
Philip Barasch: And then figure it out. Wow.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, yeah, certainly it’s…
I mean, they all sort of will tell you in the end, for me, how they’re gonna interact.
I really have no idea how that’s gonna look.
It’s part the surprise.
Philip Barasch: Okay, so even though you are the director, you don’t know how your cast is gonna be assembled for the exhibition?
Jill McVarish: No [laughter] exactly.
Philip Barasch: Wow, it really interesting. So you could have some of them running amuck, then it’s like…
Jill McVarish: Yeah, I know, who knows.
Philip Barasch: That is so interesting. So when is the show… What are we looking at in terms of when you will have this show…
Jill McVarish: The show is going to be January/February. With everything going on right now, we’ve kind of changed our schedule around a bit, but January/February, Secret Gallery.
Philip Barasch: So you got a lot of time. Oh, that is great.
Jill McVarish: I know, I know.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, boy, that’s a really nice… And that’s a nice timeline right there.
Yeah. Good. Okay, well I’m very excited about that.
Okay, so you brought it up earlier. So let’s talk about this too, in terms of a curatorial voice, another thing I would say that when I was… Came out here about two years ago, or when you had the gallery on the front… And we’ll talk about the Secret Gallery in a minute, but when I was on the front end.
The thing that was really absolutely dynamic about that space was your curatorial voice, and so I wanna talk to you about how you assemble your stable because you have very distinctive things you’re looking for and how effective you are at that…
Jill McVarish: Well, I didn’t start with any kind of curatorial voice. I just really fell in love with that room, I had absolutely no plans to open a gallery at all, like I’ve worked… I worked at the RiverSea for quite a few years and really enjoyed it, and it was really interesting to meet Jeanine and see how well she does it, it was sort of mind-blowing to realize everything… ’cause as an artist, you look at the other side of it and you’re like, Oh, why… Why is the gallery doing that? Or, how do they do that? Or why don’t they do that? But like… To see it from the inside and how a gallery works is just amazing and… But when I saw the space, I really only planned to open it as a studio, I just realized that I didn’t have the work or the means to do it on my own, so I started inviting friends to show, and that kinda turned into a once a month thing. And if I started out with a curatorial voice, it was probably just that I got really lucky and the friends that I’ve known over the years and liked their work, and I mean how cool to be able to show your friends and… The longer I do it, I’m just lucky to meet amazing people and it’s…
I don’t know, I don’t consider myself like an art connoisseur… I’m like one of those “I know what I like”.
Philip Barasch: Know what you like, yeah.
Yeah, why would you say that the work you… The space is amazing. The work that you show is amazing, it’s like I say, it’s singular, it’s unique, it’s… You were saying earlier that you and Chris, you came into something that was already happening. And certainly, I wouldn’t wanna not acknowledge that, but there’s a lot of things that have been happening in Astoria for a long time, because that’s what it takes to get to where it is, but what I was making reference to is that you and Chris are now major contributors to what has been kind of percolating and going on and The Secret Gallery is… It’s a major player in terms of the energy that’s being kind of generated here…
Jill McVarish: Oh yeah, we offer something completely different to Astoria because we’re not really drawing… There is something you’ll find in a lot of galleries everywhere, but especially on the coast and any sort of area, is it generally what you’re gonna find in, especially in a town where it’s heavy with tourism, is regional art and we’re one of the first galleries that are not showing regional art, I’m showing people that are friends of friends or people often not from here, so we are more drawing on work from outside the community and bringing in new and different things then what you have seen here traditionally, and it’s a little bit different, there’s not… We have a pretty specific… It’s more narrative painting, it’s more realism, probably even more figurative narrative, and it’s… So it’s pretty specific and there hasn’t been a gallery like this or a gallery that’s not really focused on regional art, so… Yeah, we’re lucky in that this place has an amazing art community to draw from, and just a lot of attention and enthusiasm around art that supports art.
And so, yeah, we just found the right place at the right time.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, and the physical space.
It’s another thing too, is that there are so many things built into the space itself that make it utterly unique, the fact that you have to seek it out, and when you get in there and see the actual… The footprint of the space and how you’ve configured it, there’s a lot of things that go into what I would call the nuts and bolts, the infrastructure of this space is as important as what’s being exhibited in that space. So there’s a combination of a lot of things that come together that helped to generate that energy, so tell me about when you first saw the space…
Jill McVarish: Well, that’s what I was gonna say is there is something magical about this building. This building has been really 20% occupied, nearly vacant for at least a dozen years that I’ve been here.
It was owned by this renowned art collector, Michael Foster, who was just getting on in years, but had really been working really hard to preserve the old Astoria feel of it, and even adding kind of Old Town storefronts in the inside area of it, but had really left the building untouched, and that was what I fell in love with about the initial space, it was just yellow pine floors and white walls, and it was just the cleanest sunniest room, series of rooms you’ve ever seen, and that was how I was just… I had no business taking it as a studio, but it was the most beautiful untouched space I ever seen, and it remains that way, but then getting to know this building and then coming back and seeing the room that we now have as The Secret Gallery was the craziest thing, it was… the first time I saw it, the fire department was here because they were doing a walk-through where they needed to know about all the unopened rooms and places downtown.
Philip Barasch: Potentially scary places, yes.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, so they were doing this walkthrough and I knew about this room and I was like, Oh my God, can I come in and just have a look, and they’re like, Oh sure, we’re gonna unlock it now, and there were no lights in here. The buildings over 100 years old and the room has never been built out, so it was just a raw room.
Philip Barasch: It’s an original… It’s an original room.
Jill McVarish: Concrete floors. Yeah, completely untouched. It was like looking at a time capsule and then no lights or anything, we just… We looked at it with flashlights and it was… Seriously, you had walked into… Yeah, it was like speluncing. But like you’d walk back 100 years or something. And so just little things like getting light in here, and then it’s always had the sort of back secret cave kinda feel about it, but in the room itself is… Is just incredibly compelling.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, and I would say one of the things is when you walk into that space, you can feel like the energy of the bones, ’cause that’s really… It is your inside a skeleton, but it’s not a dead skeleton, it’s a skeleton, it’s muscle and tissue is now starting to be built on top of it, so that’s one of the things that I definitely can feel in that space is like… I’m in breathing bones, and it’s just a… Such a fabulous feeling.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, this is a really cool building, and this is really an interesting block here on 10th Street in Astoria too, because it’s one of the oldest blocks, and it was one of the first projects many years ago when they tried to make it into an arts district and they really tried to keep this sort of old town feel, but then it’s always been sort of abandoned because it’s outside of the main part of town, so there’s this kind of a run down artsy abandoned river walk feel to this whole street and when I got here it was… It was completely deserted, except for the transit center across the street, and there’s just… Yeah, it’s like you’re just walking in and opening up a little bit of history without…
I don’t know, I just keep thinking of it like it’s got this old west feel… Even the facade of the Secret Gallery is like an Old West school house.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, like you were saying is, so I had a genetic predisposition in terms of… You had an art collector in the front space, so probably artists at sometime throughout the entire time it’s existed have been in and out of that space for whatever reason, and then you have a icon, There’s this Bohemian thing that’s also embedded in the room itself…
Jill McVarish: Boy, if ghosts existed, really, there was something magical about that room and there were Chagalls in there, there were Picassos in there and the exhibit never changed, it was the same exhibit, but there was so much just really incredible historical paintings just sitting there, year after year.
Philip Barasch: You say ghosts, but don’t you think that the energy of the paintings themselves, that that is a…
Jill McVarish I’m not talking about ectoplasm at all. No, just the vibe in that room.
Philip Barasch: Cause as a painter yourself, you’re injecting and investing your energy into the surface, and so that when that painting goes off to wherever it heads, that that energy… It’s a living thing, and it’s funny because Jill is… One of the things that’s so important for people to do is to go out and actually look at real art, to understand it as living things, and so.
Jill McVarish: It’s really hard to… It’s just really hard to define that energy and it… I know it sounds weird every time I describe it, that’s one of the reasons to the Rijksmuseum was so amazing to me, or certain pieces of art just will floor you and you don’t know why until you see them in person, and I worry that… I hope that that continues to be something that people appreciate.
Philip Barasch: And particularly now, because all the institutions, all the galleries, all the… Everything are closed that I think that that’s an important thing for people to really understand is that when you don’t have access to this stuff, how much it really matters… Once we come through the thing we’re in now, when we come out the other side of it, the art world should be in a very interesting place in terms of people now understanding why art matters, and I just can’t help but believe that.
Jill McVarish: I do too, and I think there’s just something physical, you can call it an energy or whatever, but certain artwork just emanate something that you just can’t see in a picture, and that’s kind of the magic of a room or a piece in person or something like that…
Philip Barasch: So how long were you in Europe?
Jill McVarish: I went there in two stints… total, about a year, I was only there for six months for school, and then I went back for actually less than six months, probably five months for summer, and it turns out it’s a little hard to get a job.
Yeah, tricky. Everybody wants a day job.
Philip Barasch: So I gotta ask you about a specific artist because it’s one that I haven’t heard or thought about in a while, but whose work I absolutely love is Odd Nerdrum. You must have seen a fair amount of his work…
Jill McVarish: Oh man, I remember being introduced to his work when I was at the Art Institute, in like ’94 or something.
Yeah, he was my all-time hero for several years there, I just wanted to be Odd Nerdrum when I grew up.
Wow. Or talk about a modern day Rembrandt, just what… I heard he paints with his fingers, it looks like a lot of knife work, but when I heard that about his fingers too, that guy can do things with texture. Unbelievable.
Yeah, his stuff is really amazing, and so one of things I noticed in your work is, I couldn’t help, I think I’m just gonna say influence in the best possible way, but… Or maybe just references or echoes of Nerdrum in particular, I just…
Jill McVarish: It’s just worship. I just… worship his technique a little bit. That’s all…
Phililp Barasch: Well, you’re worshipping really well… Yeah, and then in other word too, which you actually mentioned, I thought it was really funny, it was Ralph Steadman, that Ralph Steadman in the same kind of sentence with Odd Nerdrum that… That’s a really interesting juxtaposition. So Ralph Steadman because… he’s energy is what. He’s just, he’s radical energy. And so…
Jill McVarish: He is! And he’s another one who really will take the perverse and just take it all the way out, but still give you a composition that you can’t stop enjoying, or did you ever read his “I, Leonardo” book?
He did this whole… I got it. So funny, he did this whole illustrated Autobiography of Lenardo Davinci, but it’s all sort of hilarious, like Ralph Steadman’s take on it. Where he completely references old drawing in his work, a lot of it really does have this sort of sort of Davinci-like line quality, but that it’s just spitting and throwing things… It’s just fantastic.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, ’cause on the same note, the one that I read was his take on Sigmund Freud, which is…
I mean, it is so radical, or he’s actually taking texts of Freud’s and then doing his Ralph Steadman kind of… I will say schtick, but I mean that in a very respectful way, and it is absolutely radical.
Jill McVarish: And that’s another great thing, is where you… You can combine humor and the most light-hearted…
I just love that combination of just humor, sarcasm, all of it, and then combine it with something really heavy, and when you combine those two things or any couple of opposing things and bring them together, it just… It makes something like just… That’s my favorite thing, like… So, huge Ralph Steadman fan.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, I would say in your work that one of the things you’re effective at is a, like you say, combining humor with something that’s really kind of dark, like an image of yours that’s my favorite, and it’s actually on your business card. There’s the bunny with the carrot cake, which is a really funny image, but at the same time, it’s like there’s levels of stuff that are happening there, there’s another one with the bunny with the blow torch.
Right, and it’s just like when you think of the absurdity of it in the potential for violence, the potential for really horrible things to happen, but at the same time, it’s like… I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I think it’s the idea that it could happen in the absurdity of maybe it could happen, but we all really kinda know that it isn’t… Like tongue in cheek, so… Yeah, it’s one of the things I really appreciate about your work is that you take…
I mean, they’re pretty serious themes, in particular, your allegorical stuff, and you kind of like say, Well, let’s make it… fun. Let’s not take it too far. Too dark, too heavy. Let’s not be Goya, let’s get to a point and stop.
Jill McVarish: Right, let’s not eat any baby’s head off, or anything but but… So there is a… Exactly, that was how the bunny evolved was. The bunny is adorable, and everybody loves carrot cake, but what if is a Bad Bunny and he was stealing the carrot cake and then the bunny just got worse and worse from there, then he became a violent painter, pretty soon he had a blow torch. And it was just like, Oh gosh, what’s the bunny up to now, but it wasn’t… The bunny can do anything ’cause he’s adorable.
Philip Barasch: He’s running amuck, but at the same time, he… You as the director and he or she as the actor is you’re still in control of the bunny. You know when the bunny needs to stop. That’s the sense that I get…
Jill McVarish: Oh, I just feel like the bunny’s relatable. To what extent can I relate to the bunny? In every one of those cases, I totally can… Even with a blow torch is like, you see him, you see the glint in his eye… You can identify with it, and it’s like, how far can you take… How far can you identify with the character or kind of like… Yeah, we’ve all been a pyromaniac once maybe.
Philip Barasch: So you wanna talk a little bit about the commission you were doing of the family, I… Are you comfortable with that?
Jill McVarish: Oh, sure, and I… Look, there is no…
Chris Minnick: We always edit this out later, if that’s…
Jill McVarish: ; Yeah, it is a… Just a big job.
Philip Barasch: Well, Chris, wanna take over here then I just… If you don’t wanna talk about a Jill, but I’d certainly like to hear what you have to say.
Chris Minnick: I don’t know. It’s totally interesting. Jill gets some really interesting commissions and people will ask her to paint all kinds of things.
And occasionally, she says yes. And this is one in which they asked her to paint their family as characters from horror films, and we can totally leave this out of the edited podcast later on, but I think it was interesting ’cause it was kind of… It was challenging for you.
Jill McVarish: Well, this is the thing, this is where I’ve started to really have appreciation for portraiture, and these kinds of commissions aren’t like, Oh, I’ll paint a cute bunny and have it do this or that. It was… here you have this tall, dark and handsome family, and they all want to be painted as short little Chucky with the red hair, and Annabel, the creepy little squat doll with the big eyes, and this beautiful mother wanted to be painted as Freddy Kruger and the dad who’s the nicest guy ever wanted to be painted as Jason, so these kinds of things just become a complete exercise in, I don’t know, just drawing and aesthetic, and there’s no… It’s just an exercise in how do you do it sort of, a puzzle.
Philip Barasch: Have they collectively as a family decided on those images together, or did they independently…
Jill McVarish: Okay, this is kind of funny because the story was that they’d all chosen these things until it was done and then dad’s like… hehe none of ’em knew it, but the family loved it, I think they had run the idea of past months before, but it also came as kind of a surprise, and I was even more surprised that when I learned that they liked it, so. Yeah, yeah, the…
Philip Barasch: So what… What you would have learned is that you had to be very disciplined in terms of now having to do a very specific kind of imagery in order to meet a commission, so that.
Jill McVarish: There’s something with portraiture that I’ve discovered in the years I’ve done… portraiture, commission portraiture. It’s been an extremely challenging thing because not only do you have to represent the person accurately, you need to flatter them, and that’s where it’s really easy to paint a pretty lady or a cute animal or whatever, ’cause you’re not having to make that particular person in a good light or that particular animal, a good light, you can just pretty much make whatever.
So then in more recent portraiture work, I’ve really had to think about, Well, yeah, they looked that way, but they probably wanna look this way or something or other, and then the final piece was like, Oh my gosh, mom’s gorgeous… How do I make her Freddy Kruger?
I was like, all of the sudden I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know how to do it. So it’s just, there’s something about commission work, where you don’t get to choose what you’re doing that really will test your skills.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, Jill in party to A… Then you find out exactly how skilled you are, because now you’ve just basically boiled it down to, you have your skills at service to a very specific thing, and that’s really the nature of it.
Yeah, and I’ve discovered that my skills at service when it comes to things out hard, take a lot longer. A painting like that would have taken me a month… I think that one took me like three months, I just struggled, but… But then things like that are also more of a surprise when they’re done, I get… Yeah, I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
Philip Barasch: You wouldn’t have learned any other way, the thing is, when you’re challenged in a way that is either uncomfortable or something you would not normally have sought out, that the rewards are gonna be higher in terms of whatever it is you… You take away from that. Don’t you agree with that?
Jill McVarish: I absolutely agree with that, yeah. And that’s why I’m not sorry about working so many years where people told me what to paint because it was more of that, it was like this exercise of, well, maybe you don’t have all the ingredients you’d like… Then it’s like, how do you make it work? And the more you can challenge yourself, the more…
I don’t know, the faster you’re gonna be able to figure things out and I… That’s what it all is, right? It’s a puzzle.
Chris Minnick: Do you feel like there’s…
Philip Barasch: Go ahead, Chris.
Chris Minnick: I was gonna say, do you feel like there’s value in maybe not for someone at your level, but for people in general do… Works for hire where you… You had this long stint of not having a choice and just being able to not worry about your ideas, but instead just try to implement someone else’s ideas as best you can do. You think that’s a valuable thing.
Jill McVarish: I think that’s incredibly valuable. And I think that’s some of the best artists that I know didn’t start out just having the freedom to do whatever they wanted, a lot of them started out… I’m thinking of Peter Ferguson is one of my favorite artists at all. He’s a Canadian artist. Chris Leib is another one.
I can think of so many artists who had their start not being able to just be these famous painters, they started out putting their time in working for other people and having to do work under whatever constraints they were given, and I would… And then you look back at the way Master shops used to run back when there were apprenticeships and there were masters and apprentices and things like that, you… You wouldn’t even be allowed to do anything but fruit for five years, and that was only after you just drawn for two and then they let you have a paint brush like and wanting…
Let’s not forget that.
And then the…
Jill McVarish: Yeah, you were that guy before you got to use the paint and… No, I think that this is a really weird time because now we have social media where everybody starting out is already posting and establishing their first year work, and people are really constrained to this is who I am, this is what I do, and it’s all up online and it’s all permanent, but the paintings and it’s a craft that takes a minute to learn and kinda know where your voice is and things like that, and I don’t think that… I’m not saying in every situation, but I think a lot of the time that doesn’t come instantly think that it’s beyond valuable, and that’s why even there’s graduate programs and there’s all these things before they used to recommend that you would even show… You need to find your voice first before you can use it.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, yeah, and I agree with that, Jill, because another thing I just… Talking once again about what you guys are doing with the secret gallery is that you’re exhibiting working artists, individuals that have gotten to an area of style and content and technique that they arrived at from years and years and years and years of developing their voice and who they are and that who they are and where they are now is what is informing what they’re doing, and the thing that I find missing with, like you say, younger… I’ll say kids, I don’t mean that derogatory, but kids is that you can’t… Your work can’t be informed if you haven’t lived… It’s one of the things I think that’s so really, really important, is to be informed in ways that are beyond about just making art, just about getting out of school and having your degree or not getting out of school or whatever it is.
And I just think that one of the things about social media platforms and the instantaneous-ness of it, is that it dilutes the power of a… An evolution of an artist.
Jill McVarish: Yeah, I agree completely. I think that you can’t really have anything to say until you’ve seen and done some things, and I’m not one that likes art about art, I don’t like movies about movies. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.
Philip Barasch: Yeah, well, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Jill McVarish: Oh my gosh, you too, and thanks again to both of you for everything you do, and I really can’t wait to see your show, it’s gonna be so much fun.
Oh, thanks for… If I can’t like to say, Okay, okay, so when we do, whatever we’re doing next, it says… And just as an aside here, Chris, I love doing this this, so it’s so much fun, just a bunch of people sitting around chewing the art… It’s just so much fun. It’s like going to the bar, having a beer, you’re just talking about art.
Chris Minnick: Well we’re really enjoying it too, and next week we’re gonna be talking with Morrison Pierce. And Morrison and Jill have some works in our current show, “Is That Your Horse?“, and then they’ll also have works in our new show, which is opening on Saturday here at The Secret gallery called… “And The Horse You Rode in On.”
Jill McVarish: It’s a sequal to the first show.
Philip Barasch: How are you getting around, in terms of getting around the social distancing thing, I mean what do you…
Jill McVarish: We rearranged our schedule. So what we did was instead of introducing the show that we were going to have for the next two months, we’ve got all the same artists from this show and we’re gonna continue with our walk-throughs, it’s been a really popular show, so we’re gonna keep it up online, but it’ll be part two, so the same artist will be doing continuations of the theme and we’ve got a couple new ones too. New artists.
Chris Minnick: Yeah, so we’re also gonna be doing a “by appointment only” opening on Saturday and Sunday. On our website at www.thesecret.gallery you can go and make an appointment to come to our opening and we’ll give you wine and cheese and will sanitize your hands and show you the art.
Philip Barasch: Sounds good. So, I’m going to make an appointment tomorrow. Okay, so I’m gonna make an appointment and I’ll bring you a truffle. What do you think about that?
Chris Minnick: We love truffles at the Secret Gallery.
Philip Barasch: Okay, good. Well, once again, it’s been a pleasure and I will see you guys. What day the week is this, Monday? I’ll see you Saturday or Sunday then.
Chris Minnick: sounds good. Thanks Philip!