In the Studio with Painter Kim Frohsin

San Francisco artist Kim Frohsin talks to Alexandra Tursi about her latest explorations, clears the air about her association with the Bay Area Figurative School, talks about publishing her first book of art, and details the personal relationships that come from working closely with models.

Kim Frohsin

View ten images from Kim Frohsin.

What are you currently working on?
Well, the theme is still based on my figures, the women I draw from, as was my last body of work in 2006, Two Minutes and Counting; however, unlike that series, I’m working a bit larger, still on paper, but the lines from the drawings are pretty much obliterated. My principal tools are quick-release tape, razor blades, plastic wide-palette knives and heavy-bodied acrylic paint to mask out and create paintings that are very graphic; with flat-color collage shapes I create overlaying the drawing underneath. It’s about design, accident, color formation and combinations and opacity. All this is rather different in focus and application from my last series. So far, I call this work-in-progress, Silhouettes and Wigs.

After this current work, I’ll want to work on a non-figurative theme I bet, which could range from focusing on some canine theme to playing with sections of Viennese Art Nouveau designs to nocturnal glimpses into San Francisco’s Chinatown alleyways.

What is one thing you need to have in your studio before you work?
My canine companion, Mason. Also, I need NPR or a good audio book, some hot coffee and water at hand – pretty basic stuff. Oh yes, and a mixture of good light sources.

What is the creative process like for you?
To date it’s one in which one series or interest will somehow, in a deeply intuitive and subliminal way, leads naturally into the next work. To me, it seems like an innate flow and natural transition typifies my modus operandi over the last twenty-two years. There have certainly been times when my art is directly influenced by life circumstances or my reaction to those circumstances. Life on a very personally intimate scale or on a large scale – for example, the death of my dog, or my reaction to 9/11. The art can serve sometimes as documentation, therapy or an emotional necessity for self-expression; the art simply emerges, life translated into imagery.

Taking into account that personal relationship you have with your art, how do you think art has the ability to change people?
Art can instigate both emotional and psychological reactions, influence people at different times in their lives or become a reference point, marking both the individual’s life as well as a civilization’s, a country’s or culture’s history. Think of masks in African culture or Andy Warhol’s soup cans in American Pop culture and the shift of attitudes in America in the 1960’s. I think back in my childhood to certain paintings or art forms I associate with certain deceased relatives, those who first exposed me to an Impressionist’s work, to an opera, a ballet performance or to a play. These artistically charged experiences changed me, shaped me. I know this for certain.

A great portion of your figure work requires the use of models. Could you tell me about the relationship, if any, you have with your models?
My models are indispensable to my figurative work. Drawing regularly from life is, and has been, at the core of all my figurative work.

Collaboration is a key word regarding work with live models, or muses, as I like to say. I have worked in group settings and, since 1994, one-on-one with models. Private sessions are a must now as I come up with themes to explore over months of time, and then hire certain women whom I know get what I’m after. They perform, think, compose and take direction and there is this flow, this unspoken energy and rapport necessary to create a spark that passes between artist and model. When I have a certain muses come into my creative world, we can work together off and on for over a decade. At times, life dictates differently, and I only have a few or single sessions with someone, when they’re moving away for example, and this can be like magic, so unique, precious, sometimes evoking in me a creative energy that’s really satisfying and gratifying.

On another level, models are individuals to me, and we talk and share on a personal level, yet shift gears for the quiet time to focus and work. I know when a model is on, in tune with herself and with wanting to be on the stand, and when I’m also on – then some really good art results.

The figure work is rooted in the representational – but do you feel that your work transcends the limitations of that label?
All my work is based in the representational, in reality, real things, objects, people you can identify, but I definitely need and seek to push beyond the real to abstract things and subjects to varying degrees. It is what motivates me to keep working! I am past a stage of being interested in pure Representationalism; when I was younger, the Photorealist and Precisionist Movements were inspirational and motivational for me.

Over the past few years, yes, I’ve done a monoprint of peaches in a bowl, but I also have made work utilizing stamps, stencils, and symbols, letters and color. My Wordworks series from 2000-2002 has been the most conceptual of all my work to date, and was really the result of my intense focus, back then, on Emily Dickinson’s idioms, her voice, and other personal forces in my own life.

For sure, my figurative work is based in the reality of working from a live human, yet it’s never recording just a body or a face. I transcend that I know. I even ask my models to push themselves, in terms of poses and ideas, into what is more abstract and unconventional before we start a session. Also, whatever is more on the emotive, sensual and dramatic side is more engaging for me to work with. So in short, Representationalism, is and has been, an anchor and point de repère, something used, but is not a limiting or defining term or ends for me. I’d like to feel as if I am constantly pushing the envelope – my own envelopes.

You’re often associated with the Bay Area Figurative School. What is your relationship with that group of artists?
This topic needs some clarification. In large part, just by virtue of my living here in San Francisco, over time, my figurative work has become affiliated or linked directly to the BAFS Movement. This fact has become both a blessing and curse, as I don’t want my figures to be seen as derivative or just another version of something that mimics work done before.

I feel flattered, and aided in a way, by having such a reference source in BAFS to further educate and locate this part of my work in time and place by writers and critics, in articles, for the general public. I have never stamped myself as a part of this narrow, regional movement to define myself. It is more of a pigeonholing device or misnomer for me at mid-career. I only hope a viewer can see beyond this reference to see my line, color sense and style and signature as my own.

A lot of media coverage focuses on your figures – what else have you explored?
Over the years, I have created entire bodies of work based on a red-and-white-striped box, shoes and pairs of shoes as portraits, as still life, the former prison isle of Alcatraz, landscapes, urbanscapes, old warehouses and abandoned structures, grids with motifs ranging from toy rabbits, airplanes, toy cars, bovine shapes and botanical abstractions to collage work using my own photography and found objects.

l’ve always defined myself as a “versatile fine artist.” I need and guard my creative freedom to change subject matter, to experiment, research, play and vary what I create. Otherwise, I’d feel stifled, and this is terrible for a visual artist like me. I also dislike certain work to be expected from me, like repeating something I did in the past. I no longer take on commissions either, as I have found this expectation, and pressure, is not enjoyable, though it can be financially helpful.

My art is essentially autobiographical, so whatever the subject matter that occurs usually is somehow very much in tune with whatever is happening in my life at that period in time.

An article reviewing Two Minutes and Counting mentions that you “seek a visual parallel to the narrative works of favorite authors.” As this is a literary web site, I was hoping you could tell me a bit more about that idea.
In my imagery, there is hardly ever any direct attempt at translating a work of literature, yet the effects on emotion, thought, nostalgia or provocation from writing can appear subliminally in some of my art. Last year, I devoured short stories by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote and others, and I could not but feel a linkage to MY small works on paper, like short stories in visual form, that I was working on in the studio.

I read late at night, before sleeping. By osmosis the feeling carried over into my images and the ideas for my titles have been linked to the literature I’ve read. This naming is almost like marking time or documenting to myself what I have read, what touched me, or also the sense of overlap I may have felt from fiction that I sense informs my art.

Like literature, my exposure to certain other powerful art forms, attending live dance or musical performance and plays for example, usually has some subconscious impact on my art, though not literal and direct. This is all very subtle; it also works when I am affected by photography and film. All true artists, unless they live in a vacuum, are sponge-like in this way. We all appropriate and are all interdependent in the arts. I am, at least.

I see on your resume here that you are an MFA advisor at The Academy of Art University. What’s that like?
I never have agreed to teach a class on a routine basis, nor in a formal classroom over the years. I prefer rather the one-on-one approach that comes from mentoring and critiquing a student or peer. In the last few years, I was asked to be an independent study mentor for three MFA students here. I learned from them, of course, in the process, and was forced to articulate “Art,” something I usually just sense in inaudible ways without words. I think it is a good exercise to mentor; it is a way of sharing oneself, giving back, and passing on what we have been given from our own teachers.

In addition to your out-of-the-studio activities, you published your first book! Tell me about it.
Two Minutes and Counting is comprised of a brief essay by the gifted Mr. Peter Campion. The essay accompanies 120 images I chose from a total of over 400 I made in 2006. The book was my baby, my idea, my wish and conceived as a gift to myself at mid-career and for my 45th birthday last year. After about four months of intensive work and countless hours at my publisher’s press, we had a book made. It came out, on sale to the public, the very same night, February 1, 2007, as the gallery’s opening reception for my show.

What is the significance of the title?
“Two minutes” indicates the time of a gesture drawing, which is what underlies every one of the small, intimate works on paper. The “and counting” signifies the time to further develop each drawing – sometimes a lot, sometimes minimally.

So, it’s obvious you’re quite busy, but, if you had the time, what else would you do?
My mom and family have always remarked: “Kim, if you weren’t an artist, you could have been an actress!” So I’d take acting classes, to be in a play or a film. Ha! I am a drama queen at heart, and love imitating, playing with dialects, even if just for an audience of myself! I think I’d also like to get in better shape, get into modern dance of some kind. I love movement; I have to move. Another artistic medium would be fun to further explore: I’d buy a bunch of professional photo equipment and shoot very unusual portraits of people and places, and learn to be at a level to work for National Geographic.

I have no children, but if I did and could, I like to be blessed with the task of having identical twins. Twins of all kinds fascinate me.

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View ten images from Kim Frohsin.

Visit Kim online at http://www.kimfrohsin.com.

You can also check out her book, TWO MINUTES AND COUNTING, now available at http://www.epressbooks.com.

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