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DUMBO Artist-in-Residency: Alison Causer (MFA 2021)

When I was asked to participate in the NYSS DUMBO Artist-in-Residency Program, I was very excited. I had just passed through the pandemic portal with little cash flow and knew I had to find a studio space asap. The NYSS DUMBO Studios had originally been a space for sculpture students and instructors to explore ideas and develop projects outside of the main campus on 8th Street, however, the School had expanded the program to include all recent alumni of the MFA and Certificate Programs. I quickly began my application.

I knew that the facility included a gallery project space, a prime opportunity for recent grads to gain visibility and start building a community. A proverbial blank canvas, a free studio for eleven months, and a gallery space without programming parameters had me stoked. I wrote my application specifically to continue exploring painting ideas in my studio and organize exhibitions in the gallery. Coming out of my MFA during a global pandemic, I craved interactions with other artists and was excited to be in a building that housed other creatives and arts organizations. I moved into the space and quickly got to work. 

Kinetic Lullaby, the exhibition I co-curated at NYSS Projects @ DUMBO.

Let me slow down, I had no idea what to paint. I felt exhausted from the past two years of uncertainty amidst the pandemic and confused about my thesis work. I knew I had to keep painting even if I felt lost and confused. I did not want to slip deeper into the analysis paralysis pit of post-graduate despair. You know the one. 

A few weeks before I moved into the DUMBO Studios, I had the wildest dream I could not shake. I tried to ignore it, but it was still floating in my mental ether three days later. I decided to draw because I needed to start a new project before I could process the last two years. I dreamt of having a rat covered in peanut butter in my mouth for what felt like an eternity. In a very real sense, I could feel its tiny feet pushing against the inside of my cheeks. My face was protruding to its fullest capacity while the tiny thing tried to find a way out. My jaw was clenched shut, and I could feel the fear and anxiety of it scrambling on my tongue. I definitely did not want the fury thing in my mouth, nor did the mini mammal wish to be in my mouth. The sensations all felt so real. I just wanted it out of my mouth, but my jaw remained clenched for some reason.

Alison Causer, Rat in the Mouth w/ Peanut Butter Yellow, 2022, oil on canvas, 12×9 inches.

I have no idea where the peanut butter came from, but there we were, both struggling to release ourselves from this unpleasant situation. The thought finally entered my mind that I could just open my mouth and let it out. I was not required to house this fellow in my mouth. I was in control and could release the four-legged critter from its teeth-lined cage. I opened my mouth, and that’s when I woke up. It was such an intense and visceral dream. The drawing was strange, and the whole situation excited me. I decided to pair the self-portrait with a transcription; in some way, I was going back to some fundamental element. I decided on a Delacroix transcription of the lion and hare. 

Eugène Delacroix, Lion Devouring a Rabbit, c.1855, in the Louvre.

After completing that drawing, I mined all my recent journals for any dream entries. All the recurring dreams of my teens and 20s started pouring into my memory; a recurring pregnancy dream, the ever-present teeth falling out a dream falling out of trees (I climbed a lot of trees as a kid), and the pleasant dream where I am being chased by a man through an unrecognizable neighborhood. It’s wild to paint the stuff you dream of. It feels super exposing and highly vulnerable. In some way, it helped me release some fear around imagery. I started thinking about storytelling and how to create paintings that show the candid moment of the climax of the dream. But once that is complete, where do you go from there? I thought about Daddy Matisse and how he would paint the same image over and or a slight variation of the same subject. So I started doing that. Then I thought about supporting images and how I could relate them to the main narrative. For instance, with the teeth falling out dream, I made a painting looking down at a pile of teeth titled Aftermath.

Dream Drawings.

This is still an ongoing body of work, so more is to come. I was also thinking about how I want to lay down paint. Inside the image, I was thinking a lot about the geometry of the image and how I could break the space into shapes and textures. Asking myself what I want from a painting during the making process as well as after I view it when it is closed. I want to have more joy in the making process.

Around this time, artist Janice Nowinski came for a studio visit. We had a lovely visit discussing the dream paintings. Her feedback and support were definitely needed. She advised me to stop looking at David Park, as I had a few works pinned to my studio wall. Sharing the love for his work but agreeing that, in a sense, it’s a style trap when you are developing your own. We laughed about how it is hard not to look at him while in the studio because he is just so good. 

At a certain point, my living situation changed, and I stopped remembering my dreams, so I put a pin in that idea. I like to work on more than one body of work at a time focusing on many things simultaneously, inside and outside the studio. Sometimes, as painters, we think, oh, I have to be in the studio 24/7, but for me, I have to live a life to paint from. Yes, I spend a lot of time in the studio, but you have to make a life. I read these very high masculine, not always male, biographies of artists working every day all day for a lot of use that is simply not possible for most of us. We work and have families and entire lives. I read that Goya had eight children, one of which made it to adulthood, and with him, you see it in his work later in life. Or Gentileschi, who had five children and divorced, found a lover, and relocated several times to make new patron connections. Be aware of these highly mythologized biographies, and don’t beat yourself up for not being in the studio 24/7. Yes, work hard and be focused but live your life alongside your studio practice. I digress. 

From there, I decided to keep painting directly from my life and experience: objects and people. I painted some flowers that were given to me. Then I started asking friends to come to sit for me. Portraiture is a subject I like to come back to often. I decided I would paint portraits until I could remember my dreams again.

Alison Causer, Victor, 2022, oil on canvas, 20×16 inches.

The NYSS DUMBO Residency was a great place to land after completing my MFA in 2021. The large studio spaces were an excellent environment to experiment and try new approaches to painting. Curating an exhibition in the gallery space allowed me to gain more visibility and grow my community after grad school. I am grateful for the time and space to explore and expand my edges. 

If you are interested in seeing more dream paintings, please check them out on my website alisoncauser.com or my Instagram @alisonmcauser. For upcoming projects, I am working on co-organizing a group exhibition at JVS Projects in New York City in late April and I have an upcoming residency in Texas called Vega Mural Homestay hosted by artist Natasha Vega



Snapshots From NYSS

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