An interview from the Somerville Times

Thea Paneth: An artist who paints her life, and paints to live

On November 18, 2020, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Thea Paneth is one of the many talented artists I have interviewed for The Somerville Times. And like many she works hard to make the daily nut and continue to produce evocative painting and photographs. I caught up with her recently.

Doug Holder: Somerville has been described as the ‘”Paris of New England” because of all the creative stuff going on. You have been here a long time. How have you seen things evolve or devolve in our city?

Thea Paneth: I have known Somerville to be a creative mecca, hundreds of artists and musicians thrive here. Over my decades in the ‘ville, it has become a younger city. I’ve seen a lot of changes, certainly Davis Square has changed a lot. I still miss the Supreme Deli, where I used to see the mayor all the time back in the 1980’s. I love The Burren, great music was happening there all the time. Housing is ever more expensive, and I worry that when the GLX comes in, a lot of artists will be priced out or our studio buildings will be turned into housing. There is such a need for housing near public transportation, but the real estate goes up in value and that has consequences for artist communities.

DH: You have written that “I paint my life.” Do you paint to live?

TP: So it seems. I found long ago that if I went any length of time without doing artwork, I would feel very low. Whenever I worked on a painting, I immediately felt lighter and as if I could breathe better. Realizing that was big, and then I had to figure out how I was going to live in terms of it, by continuing to make art. Sometimes the realization is absolutely staggering. I’ve managed to eke out a living, raise a child, and keep doing my art. It’s day by day and all of a sudden, the years add up.

DH: You are known for evocative paintings of nature. But you are much more than that. For instance, you have a portrait series of folk/rock musicians that includes Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, and others. Did you ever have a subject pose for you, or do you work from photographs of the individuals?

TP: I spent a number of years drawing and painting from life, from models, so that hand-eye training forms the foundation for all the work I do. My mom drew and painted, one of her teachers would tell her class, “Go for the model,” and she’d talk about it. As I grew up, I interpreted “go for the model” to mean seek the essence of any subject whether I paint a person, a tree, a still life, a landscape. I ask myself why I want to paint it, and then my job becomes bringing the sensibility forward, whatever it is, into an evocative work, that is my own.

I work from many photographs of public figures, so any portrait painting is composed of a number of different photographs. I listen to music all the time, specifically WUMB 91.9 out at UMass Boston. The music is the best, the announcers are all wonderful, they all have so much knowledge about the music and interesting stories that they share on the air. Over the years, I began to incorporate my love for folk music and an admiration for iconographic musicians into a number of paintings. Some are portraits, some are visual representations of a line from the song which becomes the title of the work.

DH: When you do a portrait, I am sure you try to capture the subject’s essence. Could you talk a bit about your process?

TP: There is always something magical about creative work. There is the quiet space of the studio, the blank canvas in front of me, the relationship I have with my materials. I use palette knives a lot to move paint around on a canvas, small width sable brushes and paper towels, I try very hard to let my hands take over and not have my conscious or dictatorial mind oversee or analyze what I’m doing as I work. The time for evaluation comes later. I step back from the canvas and look at it carefully in a non-judgmental way, but trying to see what might pop out at me in a way I don’t like, or an area of the work that maybe is not as realized as another area. In this way, I find a work comes to life in as free as way as I am able to achieve, through me, but not controlled by me or my conscious mind thinking it out.

I do research into a subject, getting books out of the library, seeing films about the subject. For paintings that spring from music, I listen to the music a lot, and let the music bring feelings out of me, down the arm, onto the canvas.

Working on the painting Rock and Roll Women with Patti Smith, I saw that I painted her hand as if it was a claw. That bothered me for a while, but not enough to change it. Then she put out a new album and was interviewed on the radio so I tuned in. I think it was the program World Cafe. She was talking about how sometimes after playing a lot or doing a long set, her hand felt like a claw, so that was the magic. I did not have that knowledge, but when it happened on the canvas, I let it be. It turned out to be meaningful in an unexpected way some time later.

I have found over the years, that several things are true for me as a painter. One is no matter how many times I make a painting such as a winter tree, which are very simple-seeming paintings, each one demands its own identity on the space of a canvas and is just as hard to make as if it were the only one. There is no formula.

Another thing is that sometimes a painting won’t work, and I don’t know why. I’ve found that if I set the unresolved work aside and don’t try to make it work, that often I learn something from it down the road that is quite valuable and often leads to more resolved, different work down the road.

And, of course, sometimes there’s no hope at all and I paint it out and do something else. That is important to be able to do, to let go and start over.

There’s a great interview with John Lennon where he’s speaking about creative work and he says, “Start over.” Each blank canvas – or page – is starting over. There is tremendous freedom in that, it’s yours for the taking.

DH: You have been involved with Somerville Open Studios for a long while. Can you briefly describe your experience?

TP: SOS is a great organization. When my daughter was an infant, I heard about an Arts Council meeting to vote on whether to bring SOS into being and I made sure to get myself there to raise my hand in favor! We organize the citywide open studios event every year, we artists, not an event company. It’s a labor of love. Some visitors come every year. I’ve had folks in my studio tell me that SOS weekend is the best weekend of the year! I think so too. Artists are part of the life of the city, artists have been embraced by the community, we’ve embraced the community in return, it’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve headed up traditional media publicity a number of times, it’s one of those chores that has to be done and it turns out people are uncomfortable about taking it on. My philosophy is we work hard all year on our art, we work hard for months to make SOS happen, and we’ve got to get the word out! I’m hoping to put together a team next time to pass the skills along.

DH: If someone was to ask you, “Why should I look at your work?” What would your answer be?

TP: Be curious about everything. One does not have to like everything but be open to it. When people visit during SOS, I like to let them engage with my work so I keep to the background and just offer to answer any questions they may have, in as welcoming way as I’m able. I have no wish to push anything on anyone. Looking at art is a very personal thing; a viewer brings all kinds of associations and knowledge of their own that should be respected. And, of course, there are those visitors who talk about the window in my space, and that’s ok too.

DH: How are you handling the pandemic? How has it influenced your art. Does great pain, bring great art?

TP: The past eight months have been extremely difficult. We had to cancel SOS, we are unsure if we will be able to hold it in 2021. So many people have been ill and died, I’ve been especially upset about the medical people we’ve lost, all that training lost. All this against the backdrop of government incompetence and malfeasance at the highest levels. I’ve been hanging in and hanging on, doing the best I can, but I know we need real relief for folks across the country and I hope that we see it happen in the new year.

I’ve been able to get to the studio most days and have found myself experimenting, doing more abstract work than usual, which is very interesting to me. I’m lucky in that I’m working remotely at my day job and still have my health insurance.

Does great pain bring great art? Yes, but probably down the road a bit, not in the moment. I’ve done paintings that dealt with grief and sorrow for beloveds who died, but in my experience, a creative resolution came after I lived through the worst of the crisis.

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