Meet Rowan Willigan, an artist wholly influenced by her love of dance. Her abstract art is inspired by the importance of movement and the physicality of art making.
We talked about the practicality of art, dance, movement and social justice.
What is your definition of art? To me, art is a physical manifestation of a creator’s truest self and a reflection of how they see the world around them. Art is deeply personal, but holds the potential to bring people together in profound ways and express ideas about our shared humanity. To me, art comes from reaching inside one’s self and and drawing things out. Art should make the artist feel both vulnerable and powerful at the same time and most deeply connected to their inner self.
To you, is art a more physical or conceptual practice?
To me art is more of a physical experience. I feel daily physical urges to draw and paint, and the deep satisfaction I get from creating is accredited to the action itself. My work doesn’t often stem from the conceptual realm, but comes more from a place of urgency to put a tool to a surface to feel it make marks. Sometimes I’ll cover a page in scribbles to fulfil the hunger I get to feel a pen on paper. I think my fixation on sensation and physicality draws from the fact that I’ve been a dancer my whole life, so I’m used to action and movement being a natural means to a creative end.
You often work on a large scale, what are the benefits of this?
Working large is incredibly exciting. When I work small, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the stress of getting every detail just right. Because there’s less physical space to fill, each mark carries more weight. When I work large, I relinquish that control and can let loose and go with what feels right. It’s amazing to zoom in and work on a large piece, and not have an accurate idea of what the whole thing looks like until you step back. I love that. I’ll go up close and work for a while, and then step back and experience the piece so differently. It’s two pieces in one.
Your works often employ abstraction techniques, what do you aim to convey?
I enjoy creating abstract work because I love the element of chance. I love to set out to create a piece with no plan for what the end product will look like. By working this way, I hope to convey a signature aesthetic style that reads as wildly organic and whimsical, but also carefully composed. Because I don’t work figuratively, my hope is that when someone looks at something I’ve made, they see movement, balance, and get drawn in by details of the forms and winding marks.
You are also passionate about dance… what are the similarities of these two artistic mediums?
I don’t think there are too many specific similarities between art and dance at face value, but since I grew up doing both very seriously, the common thread between the two for me has just been my choice to actively pursue both. They do coincidentally play well together. I find that I approach both modes of creation with a very similar mindset and goal, to create something with a specific aesthetic that is focussed on movement and precise details. Although I prefer to work organically and abstractly, I’m a freak about details, and both my visual artwork and my dance choreography centre around my thirst to create perfect and surprising details that delight and satisfy the viewer.
Can you convey the same theme through art and dance, or is one medium suited better to express certain things?
I think that an individual’s personal style of expression can come through across genres. I think that my style of choreography and my style of visual art are very similar. Perhaps my choreography is better suited to express emotions. Given that I don’t work in a figurative manner in my visual art practice, it’s with dance that my body tells a story, and body movement/language inherently conveys emotion. My visual art better conveys a consistent sense of balance and flow, because I often feel like I have more control over my visual art, and can slowly create something that is JUST as I want it to be. With dance, one has to work within the parameters and constraints of the body, which at least for me seems more limiting at times than drawing or painting.
What are your thoughts about colour? How meaningful is colour to your work?
I have an interesting relationship with color when I work. I love color, and I love to bring it into my pieces. However, I think that using color opens the work up to a whole other world of interpretation, meaning, and level of consideration. When I’m freely creating work and playing around (not doing commissioned work) I’m very liberal with my color use. When I’m working on a project for someone else, I’m much more careful with color, and find myself thinking more about where and when to use it, and what that could mean for the outcome. The more I play with color, the more I have come to understand it, but I am at times still wary of it.
Does your environment affect your practice?
My environment heavily affects my practice. I’ve always been someone who’s emotions can be easily dictated by an environment I’m in. I’ve always know that about myself, that space directly will affect how I’m feeling. This can be good and bad. I have yet to work in a space where I feel like it’s the ‘perfect’ workspace for me, and would put me in my most desirable headspace to create my best work. I hope that in my future, I’ll be able to build my dream space. Until then, I work wherever I can and try to not think too much about my surroundings while I’m doing so.
How do you feel when creating?
I feel amazing. I feel like I can pour myself into it and just go for hours. I love how it feels to make something out of nothing. When I work, I feel new parts of myself unfold, as I become more acquainted with who I am as an artist. It’s really cool. I generally have a strong sense of self and know who I am as a person, but when I create, I get to know new sides of who I am and hang out with the playful child inside me.
Who are some of your favourite artists?
I have a handful of favorites who I’ve loved for a long time. Andy Goldsworthy has been at the top of my favorites list since high school. I think he is brilliant. I also LOVE Cy Twombly. His work is incredibly satisfying for me to look at. I see most of his works as perfect creations honestly. Every composition of his satisfies me. I also admire Rogan Brown for his incredible attention to detail, and Frank Stella for his impressively diverse body of work, all of which still oozes with his style and achieves cohesion.
What has your experienced been so far as a female artist?
I don’t know if I’ve thought much about my gender as it relates to being an artist, which is kind of funny, because in life, I think ALOT about what it means to be a woman in today’s society. There are so many deep and disturbing issues in the world today surrounding gender and equality that I’m incredibly sensitive to, and I think a lot about those issues and how passionate I feel about equality for all humans. As a female artist, perhaps I subconsciously feel like I have more to prove than a man would. I think that society doesn’t expect women to be as successful as men, which is outrageous. I would like to prove that wrong, and continually push myself to be the best that I can be and represent female strength and ability to do anything.
What are some other issues you are passionate about?
I have truly never felt more passionate about more issues than I have this past year during the presidential campaign season, and especially now, under our new president. I have never felt more scared and attacked as a woman and as a citizen of the United States, and I feel like there’s no one issue I could choose that’s less important than any other to be passionate about. The issues that consume my mind the most are those related to gender equality and equal rights. I feel like now more than ever, we all need to demonstrate kindness, acceptance, respect and understanding to one another, and create community based upon those principles.
What was the last song you listened to?
The last song I listened to was Paris by the Chainsmokers. I’m obsessed with it this week.
Run us through your perfect (productive day).
My perfect productive day would start with waking up in the morning around 10 after a deep night’s sleep and making coffee and a big breakfast. I’d then go to the Rhinebeck library (where I work during the day) and have a few hours of desk work hanging out with all the new books that recently came out. I’d then come home, make lunch, head up to the attic where I work on my art and create up there for 4 or 5 hours while listening to music and podcasts and taking snack breaks. After that I’d head to dance class, then have dinner and head to sleep. That day would cover all the bases for me.
Is there anything you wish you could learn?
I wish I could learn as much about art history as I possibly could. I have always had a hard time retaining historical information, even if I’m highly interested in it. My brain is like a sieve and things just keep falling out. I took tons of art history classes in college that I LOVED, but not all of the information stuck. I wish that my brain could have a better long term grip on that kind of knowledge.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
In ten years, I hope to be living in a house that I designed myself either in the woods or on some farmland. I hope to be working on tons or artistic projects and commissions at once, and exhibiting my work in museums and galleries. I also want to write a book. I don’t yet know about what, but perhaps in the next 10 years I’ll gain some clarity on that front.
What are your goals for 2017?
My main goals for 2017 are to take advantage of exciting and new opportunities, to CREATE opportunities for myself to be artistic, and to continue pushing myself and my creative boundaries. I also want to read more books this year. I have set a goal for myself of at least 10 books in 12 months. So far I’ve read 2, so I might even surpass my own goal!
Where to find Rowan:
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