Isabelle Higgins doesn’t want the viewer to look for closure in her work. She wants the viewer to struggle: to find something new at each glance, she said. The 22-year old figurative painter, @isamarie
higgins, focuses her expression on her personal narratives that “reflect racial unease, humor, and vulnerability,” she said. Since graduating from MassArt this May she’s been working at the Center for Art and Community Partnerships where she leads teen creative workshops.
Q. How do you use vulnerability in your expression?
A. My work is about my internal dialogue and dichotomy of my coming of age and racial unease. It’s all self-portraiture. I think of vulnerability as a way to get comfortable with the deeper aspects of life — of the unease within the world and myself. I also think humor is really important in my work to make it more palpable for itself and the viewer.
Q. How has your work changed as you’ve actually come of age?
A. I used to do much more cartoony work. Now I do more realistic renditions, still with some cartoony stylized aspects. But before I break the rules of figuration I want to get as good as I can at actually representing the figure.
Q. How do you reflect racial unease?
A. I explore the world through my lens as an adopted woman of color raised by white parents. Reflecting memories and dreamscapes through narrative painting, my work gives voyeuristic glimpses into my life and identities. And through my personal stories I question performative dynamics of relationships between my friends, lovers, family, and myself. The gestures of the characters in relation to each other and to objects tell stories of racial ideation and social unease. And the settings the figures occupy are autobiographical and humanizing, which gives agency to the bodies.
Q. What was your most difficult piece to conceptualize?
A. Last summer during my residency at Yale Norfolk, I worked on a large-scale oil painting. It was right after my father passed away and I was trying to figure out how to put him in the work in the right way, for myself. That was the hardest, just trying to conceptualize how I would want him to be presented. That was the first time I had memorialized someone in my work.
Q. How is your expression therapeutic?
A. It’s really helpful for me to get all my ideas about a certain situation out on the canvas. When a piece is complete I can find new insights to the mood or feeling of the situation I’m trying to depict.
Q. What is your creative process?
A. I do a lot of writing. Sometimes I’ll pull images from my poetry into my other work. I usually start off with a sketch, watercolor, or collage. Then I’ll go into a larger painting. I think of my paintings as if they’re talking to each other.
Q. What do you hope people receive from your work? Do you want them to think about themselves?
A. There are parts of my work that I do want to reflect the viewer. But I’m also interested in seeing if the viewer is comfortable or uncomfortable in the spaces I create — whether I end up making room for them. But I don’t really struggle with their expectations or needs. There’s no set conclusion. I want them to have more questions than answers.
Q. Who are some artists you’ve been looking at?
A. I like the way Robert Colescott makes an uncomfortable space, and how he makes it very saturated. His grotesque figures are something I’m working with in my own work. I like the way Henry Taylor layers paint. And the way Emma Amos treats the figures in her work is spectacular.
Q. What else?
A. My smaller portraits feel like keys to my larger work. Maybe an emotion that I showed in a portrait will reflect a whole mood in a larger painting. My work is really about my own identity. I think everything that people get from it, politically, it’s inherently there. But I’m not trying to tell anyone else’s story. I’m trying to focus on my own life.Interview was edited and condensed. Martha Merrow can be reached at martha.merrow@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martha_merrow.