Wendy orville | Process Makes Perfect
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 27 march 2019
Wendy Orville came to me at Davidson Galleries fully cooked. Her monotypes caught the eye of the owner, Sam Davidson, while reviewing submissions for an exhibition he was invited to juror. With his interest peaked, he suggested that the two of us head over to her studio on Bainbridge Island, a short 35 minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle, for a visit and a chat. At this point, I had become pretty familiar with the process of bringing a new artist into the gallery. Getting an artist from studio to exhibition, usually involved seeing a large body of work which was culled over a few weeks time. Typically, during a studio visit it is quickly clear which pieces will be in the exhibition. With a particular view for a gallery audience, we would curate out works that were too chatty, too academic, or simply just unresolved. It was a familiar part of the process, being in the studio was like watching the artist’s brain with spotlights illuminating all the dark corners. Walking into Orville’s studio, however, we found a complete exhibition ready to go, neatly laid out in front of us. All that was missing was the frames. Which made me ask the question, “Who is this person!?”
Orville grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the middle of three sisters and the daughter of scientists. Her father was a Geology professor at Yale and her mother a Biology and Chemistry teacher at a local high school. There were always experiments and microscopes around the home, but science wasn’t the only presence. Her father was an avid drawer and a poet, and her mother a devotee of the arts, who, to this day, acts as a docent at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. This passion from both mother and father instilled in their daughters a deep curiosity and interest in the world, and self expression was always encouraged.
“It was not about if you were talented enough to be an artist, it was that you were encouraged to explore the world in as many ways as you could,” Orville says recalling her childhood.
The family spent her father’s sabbaticals traveling internationally, at times dropping the girls off in a new school in a new part of the world where they did not speak the language. These experiences gave Orville confidence in her ability to figure things out as she went and an understanding that the path forward can be discovered through context. Perhaps in part from this, Orville has a capability that is palpable from the moment you meet her and an unpretentious self awareness about her artistic practice. It is too cliche and simplistic to call Orville an optimist, because there is a naivety associated with that word which has no place in a description of this woman. However, even through trying times, I’ve never heard her complain or play the victim. She takes on the experiences of this world, the challenges and delights, simply as new information.
It wasn’t until her third year of undergrad at Yale that she decided to be an art major. She had been studying art history, but an internship at a gallery in New York City made her realize she was first and foremost a maker, not a gallerist. She went into painting and for ten years had a practice of colorful abstracted landscapes. Looking back, she realizes now that she was likely allergic to the paint. She suffered from severe headaches, but just associated that pain as part of the process of painting.
In her late twenties, Orville moved to Taos, New Mexico, and was invited to make prints at a workshop called Hand Graphics, and that is where she fell in love with the monotype process. “There was something that happened when I started making monotypes that just opened up a different part of me,” she says. From Taos she moved up to Washington State, met her husband Doug, and had her first child at 37 and her second at 40. It was during this time that she started making the tonal monotypes which comprise her current practice. “With small kids,” she recalls, “I had a lot of time to look.” When she was outside with them on playgrounds or walking to school, she was watching the sky and absorbing the landscape around her. This is when she started playing with inks in the studio and rolling out gradations. This practice came from the drive to capture what she experienced looking at the sky and the impossibility of trying to create the volume, movement, and motion of that abstract world. She didn’t want her monotypes to be photographic reproductions, but instead wanted them to capture the feeling of seeing that vastness. “It just logged in my being that I wanted to make an equivalent of that experience,” she says. At the time she wasn’t worried about showing the work or whether it was any good, she just wanted to see if she could make monotypes that felt true to her.
The intersection of motherhood and artisthood was something I was particularly keen to talk with Orville about. Motherhood is often treated cruelly in the art world. It can be seen as the death of an artistic career and the end of the production of anything interesting. I have heard gallery directors and fellow artists alike say disparaging things about a woman’s choice to have children. Undeniably, the disruption of a career by motherhood happens in any field, but most women in the arts often are having babies in their thirties, a crucial time in an artist’s career. It is when they are making the transition from “emerging” to “established” and right when they may be gaining momentum with their gallery so the output of new work is crucial. Furthermore, most artists live close to the poverty line even when experiencing some measure of professional success. This makes balancing the work of artist and mother near impossible, and the expense of child care out of reach. Yet I always heard a different narrative from Orville when she talked about the experience of having children and how it affected her practice. She seemed to have taken on motherhood with the quiet confidence with which she takes on everything in life. She was not in a hurry, and she didn’t see it as time slipping away. Instead, it was just another experience, one which would inform her work like all the experiences that had come before.
Motherhood made her a more relaxed and intuitive artist, it allowed her to give up the need for control and invited her to replace it with the permission to make the work that she truly wanted to make. This evolution paired perfectly with monotypes as it meant making something she couldn’t entirely predict due to the nature of running the inks through the press.
“I was very present as a mom, incredibly tired, and didn’t have an internal life particularly and it wasn’t overtly creative, but it didn’t need to be. What it did was make me relaxed and unselfconscious, able to respond to instinct and stop looking over my shoulder… ...once I emerged from having kids.”
Moving away from colorful landscapes to work which was tonal and realistic led her to her own voice maybe for the first time in her career, and that felt really exciting. “I realised that people really aren’t waiting for me to make anything in particular, and I could just make what interested me.”
And that’s what she does. She is drawn to moodiness and drama in an image, so she constructs mercurial monotypes full of ambiance and suspense. She says there needs to be a tension between the sky and earth, but she doesn’t want it to be explicit. “I want the work that I make to feel alive and mysterious and not just a reproduction of nature. I want it to have secrets.” There is a sparsity in her landscapes, she takes out a lot through composition, and therefore what she leaves needs to have power and tension otherwise it’s a single note.
“Many of my pieces are not successful, I just make a lot. But I can’t be too controlling or it’s not successful. I have to be on the edge of something and there needs to be enough muscular energy to make it interesting. I play with that line, sometimes it can be too wild, but sometimes I hold on to the control too tightly and it's not interesting. You don’t need to be perfect, you need to fail a lot to do anything original.”
While she keeps everything she makes, she is also careful about what she lets out of the studio to show other people. Her work isn’t allowed out of her sight unless it feels fully resolved.
Orville’s next exhibition, Above and Below, is opening at Davidson Galleries on April 4th and I’m sorry to be missing it, missing her of course, but also her family and the pride and joy they clearly take in her accomplishments. I used to joke that I should put her husband Doug on the payroll for the amount of people he would bring through her exhibitions. Her newest body of work is inspired by the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a nature preserve about 45 minutes south of Seattle. Nisqually is one of the few places in the Pacific Northwest where one can find an open sky. The tall evergreens and over 300 days a year of overcast can give the region an unmatched claustrophobia. The wetlands at this nature reserve offer one of the few opportunities to see the sky meet the land. Orville makes full use of this in her new body of work to create the tensions she loves to see. If anyone is in the Seattle area this April, this will be an exhibition not to be missed.
The philosophy Orville takes to the creative process is one I would like to use as a roadmap for my own practice: making and failing is intrinsic to the creation of something interesting, it’s not good or bad, it simply is an unavoidable transitory state before you get to the good stuff. She doesn’t seem to feel a crushing rush to get to the other side. It’s going to take as long as it’s going to take, and she has faith that she will arrive when she needs to. This leads to a fearlessness about the way she creates that is an inspiration. For me, as for many of us, the biggest hurdle to the act of creating is the fear that it will be bad. Orville has gracefully side-stepped this by embracing process as just that: a process. By removing the self flagellation and moral judgements we put on ourselves we are free to take chances, to make more, fail more, and do so with a grace that permeate all parts of our lives.