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Alumni Studio Visit: Rachel Rickert (MFA 2015)

Rachel Rickert painting in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada.

NYSS: Describe a typical day in studio; walk us through your process. What are you most excited about in your current work? What are some of the questions you ask yourself as you are working? What keeps you motivated/what are you most passionate about?

Rachel Rickert: My paintings are responses to moments I observe in my daily life, shifting recently from the home sphere to the natural environment. This year my entire process has changed as I gave up my permanent Brooklyn residence & studio and hit the road. I’ve exchanged my studio routine for a new adventure of painting plein air as I travel throughout the American west and parts of Europe.

In each new place I am, I head out with a backpack of supplies – my tripod easel, paint saver palette, brushes, small container of medium and solvent, rags, and a variety of 1/8” panels. I usually set out without a specific plan beyond my general location. I wander until something captures me and I get the feeling I want to paint it. I normally find a main character – a certain rock wall, tree, or hill – that has a sense of humanity or personality. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to try to paint, but often it is a mystery to me, and always the end product is a surprise. Each painting is done in one session, ranging anywhere from one to five hours. I work quickly to capture the light and weather as it changes around me, a process that makes overthinking an impossibility.

I am currently enlivened by this sense of unknown within my own work. I let the painting happen without expectations. The adventure of the trek to my painting locations is part of the thrill, whether I am physically hiking long distances, or driving down remote roads without cell service. From my first mark to last, I am completely engaged and surprised.

Before this year, my paintings were explorations of the anxiety, vulnerability, and intimacy experienced in my domestic realm. My subject has changed to my natural surroundings and the sentiment of intimacy is still present.

Rachel Rickert, Joshua Tree and Intersection Rock, 2022, oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches. Painted in Joshua Tree, California.

NYSS: What do you keep in the studio for inspiration, material or otherwise? Reference material, artist books, sketchbooks, journals, found objects, foods etc… Do you listen to anything while you work? 

RR: When working in the studio I would always be listening to music, typically the same 12-hour playlist. I like the familiar music, knowing how it makes me feel, and not being distracted by unexpected voices and rhythms. I think a lot of this was an effort to drown out the noise around me, and be completely in my own world while painting. Now, while I am painting outside, I do not listen to anything. The process is often frantic or strenuous, and I feel I am in survival mode, quickly painting before it all changes. I need to be alert for any unexpected encounters – human or otherwise. There is a vulnerability to painting plein air that I am adjusting to. I am exposed, or conversely often completely alone, and that energy becomes a part of the work.

Photo by Rachel Rickert, plein air painting in Chamonix, France.

NYSS: What are the best aspects of studying at the New York Studio School which continue influence your current studio practice? 

RR: The New York Studio School is where I developed a strong foundation in perceptual painting. Working from life allowed me to find my voice as an artist, discovering my personal sense of color, composition, and image, while also developing a thorough understanding of space and form. After 10 years in New York, painting solely in a studio and making identity based figurative paintings, I needed to shake up my work, which has led me to the landscape. While I was not familiar with plein air, my Studio School education gave me the perceptual base I needed in order to embark on this adventure. I know that I always have this incredible tool — perception — to push my work forward.

NYSS: Who were your favorite teachers at the New York Studio School? Are there aspects of conversations with them that still continue to influence your work? Can you show us specific examples?

RR: Graham Nickson was and continues to be a huge influence to me. When I showed Graham this new body of landscapes, he told me “you are making paintings, not art.” This work is coming from a place of pure seeing and painting, not overthinking, not the art world. His Marathons and teachings challenged everything I thought I knew, opened my mind, and gave me the experience to trust myself and be brave. This open mindedness has allowed me to continually experiment and push my work in new directions.

Rachel Rickert painting in Corciano, Italy.

NYSS: Are there any upcoming shows or projects on the horizon you would like to share? And where can people see your work digitally?

RR: I am currently presenting this new body of work in a solo exhibition Close Range at Alice Gauvin Gallery in Portland, ME. The exhibition includes 48 paintings I’ve made over the last 8 months, including works painted in California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Upstate New York, France, and Italy.

You can view my work on my Instagram (@rayrickk) or website (rachelrickert.com).

NYSS: Do you have any parting advice/words of wisdom for current students at NYSS or artists in school in general?

RR: I believe we are supremely lucky to be artists, and I urge young artists not to lose sight of that. We all know it is a hard road, but what we do not celebrate enough is how incredibly fulfilling it is to know what you are, to wake up every day and know your purpose. So many people feel lost, and as artists we often feel lost within our work, but we have this thing that drives us, a sense of need, and we get to leave our mark on the world. Even if only for a small audience, this is a profound sensation. Hold on to that.

Rachel Rickert (MFA 2015)


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