Landscape painting is the focus of Lindy Bishop’s practice. Lindy lives in Elk Rapids, the town in which she was raised, in the midst of a region where the landscape is described with superlative adjectives. Lindy’s interest in land transcends recording its glorious, natural features. She views landscape painting as a vehicle for talking about the “basic human values we hold dear”; and a visual language that is widely understood, and unifying. This interview took place in May 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.
Describe the medium in which you work.
I work in a lot of different mediums. I would say my primary medium is oil paint, but I have switched up to acrylic, and acrylic gouache. Sometimes I use two or three of those things at once.
Are there circumstances in which you’d rather use acrylic than oil?
Yes. I was in Costa Rica last fall for an artist residency, and I had to figure out how to be productive, paint a lot, and be able to bring it back with me. Acrylic is the perfect medium for that because it dries so quickly, and within a day you can pretty much roll [up the painting), and not worry about [the paint] moving or smearing. Other situation where I need to be portable: on a boat, for example. I did a lot of sailing on the Atlantic, and brought along acrylic gouache and some acrylics, which made it easy to work from the back of the boat. I do find acrylic is great for an underpainting. I’ll use that sometimes because of its fluidity, and the coverage over a large area.
What draws you to painting?
The first real painting I did was in high school. Jerry Gates was my teacher [at Elk Rapids High School]. In my sophomore or junior year he introduced me to acrylic paints. The first painting I did was of an osprey — a photo I found in Encyclopedia Britannica. It won an honorable mention in the high school competition through Cranbrook Art Museum, and I got to go to Cranbrook, and see all the other students’ work. I think it got me hooked: #1, it was something I could do; and #2, it was fascinating to me to be able to look at something and recreate it. From then on, I’d crank out a painting or two a year even if I was doing other things.
Did you receive any formal training in visual art?
Beyond high school, no. I was in the high school art classes through sophomore year. The TBA Tech Center was new, and I was persuaded to move into their graphic art program. That took up my afternoons from junior-through-senior years. Rather than traditional [fine] artist studies, it became more graphic art studies. In college [Michigan State University, 1979-1983, graduated with a BA in Advertising], I did have one art class.
In the absence of formal training, how did you learn the craft and technique of painting?
A lot of it was self-discovery, just having the materials and doing it. The other part was, when I got to the point where I had more free time — my kids were starting to all be in school — there was one particular artist I liked at the art fair in Lake Forest, Illinois where we lived at the time — Lars-Birger Sponberg. He had a real sensibility of simplifying shapes, sizes, colors. He was fascinated with finding special aspects of ordinary subjects, mostly landscapes. As I saw him year after year, and bought a couple of his paintings, I found out he taught painting at the local community center where I lived. So, I started taking classes from Lars. Oh, and when I was living in Chicago, I took one painting class at Tree Studios, in the Gold Coast.
Describe your studio/work space.
I have worked in the past in all kinds of places: basements, spare rooms, empty retail warehouses. Currently, I’ve returned to a space in Elk Rapids [at 108 Dexter Street] where I started Seeds Gallery when I moved back here, from Chicago [2009-2012]. I came back here, to this space, about two-and-a-half years ago. My mother, who was living here, was ill, and I wanted to be closer to her. I needed a space to work, and this was empty again. It’s about 600 square feet. It’s a store front in Elk Rapids. I’ve not run it on retail hours. I don’t run it like a gallery. It has great exposure — both the light that comes in the windows, and the visibility for people who go by. I pretty much use it as a work space. There is a sign in the window. It has my web address, LindyBishop.com. Occasionally people will wave in the window, and I’ll say, “C’mon in!”
How does your studio facilitate your work?
The light that it provides in here. It’s a very feel-good, happy place, but having a space specifically to paint — it has made a difference in [her] seriousness, being able to treat it as a job, the commitment, and the discipline. I asked the landlord [in September] if he could [divide] the 600 square feet in half [for] a living space. I have a studio apartment here now, so I live and work here. It’s great. I can wake up and paint. I can decide to paint in the middle of the night. Sometimes I step into the studio, and look at things.
What do you do when you need to get away from your work?
I like to get outside, and run. I have a routine I follow. My morning is: I grab a banana with coffee, and start working. Midday, have a little fig bar. Around 11 o’clock, I usually go for a walk or run, come back, and have a nice lunch, shower get back to work. That’s my ideal, productive work day.
What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?
Mostly the rural landscape. That could include waterscapes as well.
Is there something in particular about the landscape, or landscape painting, that particularly interests you?
I like the fact that it doesn’t have to be precise. If you were doing a portrait, you’d want to make sure it was true likeness. I do enjoy portraits that are abstract, and interpretive. But I would feel more inhibited to try to create a likeness. When I do a landscape I feel like I have more freedom. It’s about the shapes, the sizes, the colors. I love the land, too. I love the creative ability of land to produce things. I’ve researched Regionalism, that movement. There’s something about that: Renewing our interest in the basic human values we hold dear. Somehow it’s held in the landscape. One of my past jobs was executive director of the Utopia Foundation [2014-2016]. Through that I’ve gotten to know different cultures, countries, different areas in need. What I want to do going forward is do one artist residence, away, a year, in another county. I’m thinking about taking my art in the direction of globalism — more the rural landscapes in other countries.
Tell me what you mean when you use the term “globalism.”
Globalism might mean different things to different people. The Regionalism movement seemed to be about the basic roots of America through the land. If there was an art movement called Globalism, I think it would be about the unification and understanding of different peoples and cultures through the landscape. An important part of that is also a broader exchange of ideas between international artists.
Is that because we all understand land?
Yes. There are similar things between people living in rural areas. Their tenacity. Their ability to appreciate the land, the earth, what it grows, how it feeds people. Some of the basic values of hard work, and being scrappy and surviving — it’s tied to rural areas.
Your painting is about the spirit of the place, too.
That’s true. Sometimes, when I’m in my best, centered flow with the painting, I do feel like there’s a rhythm or energy that can be translated from my arm, to the bush, to the painting.
What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?
It’s about a shape, or a color, or the way the light hits something. Those three things. Sometimes they’re all in a composition. Sometimes just one things is really intriguing to me. I paint plein air sometimes, but because of our seasonal weather, it’s not always possible, so I do do a lot of studio work from photographs. Sometimes I do studio work from past plein air pieces.
When you talk about a shape, or a color, or the light, is it — for example — as basic as you’re running through your neighborhood, and you see a shape, and you have an a-ha moment? And it becomes the thing you want to explore on canvas?
Yes. I do spend a lot of time running in the woods, along beaches. Sometimes I just stop, take out my phone, and take a picture. I was running through the woods in Maple Bay [Natural Area] a couple weeks ago, and I’m running down this path, and there’s light hitting the path. But not only that, there’s these pieces of green moss through the center of the trail that were two-to-three foot strips that resembled the yellow lines down the highway, but they were green. I stopped, and took a photo because it was really cool, that unexpected resemblance.
What role do these photographs play in your work? Are you taking dictation from them? Are they reference materials?
It varies. It’s hard to get the total, literal reference from a photograph, so sometimes you take pieces of one and put it into another. I’ve learned there are pitfalls from painting from a photograph — that is: Everything appears equal when you look at a photograph. It flattens out things so that they’re all of equal value. And if you paint just what you see in a photograph, you end up with a boring painting. I fall victim to it. Lars-Birger Sponberg used to have us cut pieces from one photo, and tape them onto another photo to create a composition. What I’ve found, especially when I do commissions, people ask for whacky stuff: They want this in it, but they want that in it. Before you know it, you’re trying to put five photos together, but in our digital world, we can actually do that.
How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?
I don’t do a lot of pre-planning. Sometimes it’s more impulsive. If it’s plein air, it’s almost like going camping. You have to get all your stuff together, and loaded into the car. But if it’s working on a canvas in the studio, it’s planning ahead to have the right materials, and supplies. Every once in a while I have to think about that, look a few weeks down the road — especially now that we have supply chain issues. And, the cost of materials has gone up quite a bit. Sometimes, if I’m working from a photo, I’ll order an enlarged photo to look at versus a screen. But more often than not, I’m looking at my iPad screen. If I’m working from another painting, I have that painting nearby. Another thing is planning to have some good music to listen to.
What’s “good music”?
I always ask my kids [Jack, 24; Olivia, 23; and Duke, 21]. I go in moods. Lately I’ve been listening to classical music. Especially for my morning painting.
Do you work in a series?
A little bit more lately. I’ve been trying to build my inventory so that so I’ll be able to have more gallery representation. And, I’ve been putting off doing commissions, which a lot of times will derail where I’m going with a series. I think, with exhibitions, it’s good to have cohesiveness.
So what you’re exhibiting looks like a unified body of work?
Yes. [Painting in a series] helps create visual memory. When I work in a particular subject matter, I get to the point where I can do that without reference, and then it becomes really fun. [The work] becomes more out of your head and free. It develops your visual language.
What’s your favorite tool?
I have a rubber spatula that’s made for painting. It adds a different surface texture, especially to oil paint. And, it also spreads big areas quickly. I started working with rubber spatulas [marketed to visual artists], and then I started playing around with rubber/silicone spatulas I found in the baking aisle. And they work really well, too. They have some flexibility to them. I have some oil paintings, when you look at them in the light, there are some dynamic variations between the areas that were put down by the rubber spatula, which are really flat and smooth; and areas that are done with a brush. I especially like to use the rubber spatula to do the white in clouds. It makes them glow when light reflects off of those smooth strokes.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Not often. I got into the habit of writing. I do a daily journal, and there’ll be sketches in there. I haven’t gotten into the habit of using a sketch book because I feel like my time management has been so constrained, and that I’ve had to fit painting in between jobs. So, for me, I don’t want there to be a lot of delay between showing up to paint, and actually painting. I go right to it. I don’t do a lot of pre-sketching. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. That’s, for me, wanting to make the most of the time I have in front of the canvas.
When did you commit to working with serious intent?
After I returned from a trip to Uganda and Kenya in 2008. I started painting portraits of the kids I saw there. Their expressions were unique. Total surprise at seeing a white person for the first time, sometimes. Or, distain. Or, fear. Or, anger. I had a lot of photographs that I took in Africa. And a few landscapes. I had my first show in Lake Forest [Illinois], and the show was about escape. I pretty much sold everything in that show — I was with three other artists. It gave me the confidence to realize I could paint and people were interested in it. From then on, I made a serious commitment to working on it.
What role does social media play in your practice?
It has been good for me in terms of connecting with audiences, and with other artists. It gives me the opportunity to look at some of my inspiration sources: architecture, fashion, interior design. Especially Instagram. It’s the perfect social media platform for visual artists. It’s a marketing tool. It’s a connecting tool. It’s a source of inspiration. [Conversely,] it has to be maintained. I have to take breaks from it. I have to remind myself to be a little more careful about curating my own presence, and not get hooked on the immediate gratification of: Oh! I finished a painting! Oh! Get it on Instagram! I’m also trying to recognize when I do feel the angst [brought on by] social media — like: Oh my god, I’m not nearly as good as that person or this person. When I find myself in one of the phases, I take a break.
You talked earlier about wanting to eliminate the obstacles between you and your work in the studio. One of the things for which social media is notorious is its unique ability to suck time. Do you encounter that with your own social media-ing?
I’m pretty disciplined about stuff like that. But, procrastination is easy. I have to be self-motivated as an artist. When you’re working for yourself, by yourself, there are [procrastination] pitfalls, too, that can be easily justified. I’m pretty good about it, but it does happen once in a while.
What’s social media’s influence on the work you make?
It helps me consider color. When I look at interior design, or architecture, or fashion, and I realize there’s something I really like [about what she’s seeing]. A lot of time it comes down to the color choices.
What’s social media’s influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?
It’s huge. There’s an opportunity for direct contact with people. And people have gotten more comfortable with buying art [online] they see — versus what they touch, and see in person. During the pandemic, everybody we saw on screen, from news media to talk show hosts, everyone had a painting behind them. It opened the door for artists and art.
On your website you write: “My work is about celebrating the land, what it grows and how it feeds us.” With that as context, talk about what you believe is the visual artist’s role in the world?
As an overriding goal, I believe my own art is to give hope. But I think my role is deeper, and that’s to cross-pollinate with other cultures, other age groups, other arts, and with our community and economy. I feel like my role as an artist is to bridge a lot of elements in our world, but primarily through a portal of hope.
How do your paintings symbolize hope?
I don’t think that art need to be happy to be good. But I do feel like that comes across in my paintings as a sense of happiness, or joy, or spirit. Sometimes my subject matter, being more agricultural, or water, it celebrates some of the ordinary things we pass by or take for granted.
What parts of the world find their way into your work?
The way I experience the outdoors, and nature. The parts of the world that find their way into my work [come from her] travel, to experience different environments, and paint wherever I am.
How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?
It provides a wealth of subject matter. It’s just beautiful. The fact we have four season creates a newness. It’s this renewed sense of: Oh! We’re looking at snow on the branches! Now we’re looking at red and orange leaves. It’s playful. And being able to get outside and experience it all adds to that.
Did you know anyone, when you were growing up, who had a serious creative practice?
My mom did. She was a watercolor artist [the late Joani Braun]. She had 6 kids, and she always had a paintbrush or sketchbook in hand. Most of her work, when I was growing up, was portraits — of us kids, neighbors, different people who would come by. As a young kid I learned how to sit for portrait, and she would praise us for how nice and still and quiet we were. The idea that somebody could do that was right in front of my face.
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?
It’s a tossup between my mom, and Lars-Birger Sponberg. Lars painted until he was 100.
What was it about your mom’s and Lars’s practices that made such an impression on you?
That somebody could have a life as an artist. And what a life as an artist looked like. What it took. What they did on a daily basis.
Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?
For two years I have been meeting once a week with two other artists. We meet on Zoom — this started during the pandemic. One is Rachael Van Dyke [of Boone, North Carolina, and sometimes of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lindy admired Rachael’s work, and exhibited it in her gallery]. The other one is a friend of Rachel’s, Jodi Ferrier. She lives in Washington, D.C. They both have different styles. They both bring something different to the party. They both have really good art critique abilities. Rachel was a teacher. Jodi studied art and graphic design — they both have good, strong art backgrounds. They can look at something, and understand how to describe what could make a difference. Once a week, for an hour, we have a Zoom call. We don’t always have a topic. Sometimes it’s just a catch-up. But we share everything, from practices to materials, where to order this or that, how to handle unique situations with customers, general questions that come up. We all started reading the book Ninth Street Women. That’s what kicked us off. We decided to read the book, and started discussing some of the artists from that era.
What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?
I used to love to put together exhibits when I had my gallery. I find myself more of an entrepreneur sometimes. I consider myself an artist, but first and foremost I consider myself an entrepreneur. I like the idea — also, with an advertising background — of bringing different pieces together, and having them make sense in an exhibit. It’s also great to be part of them. It provides momentum, and goal setting for me. It’s motivating to have a show to get stuff done for. The other part is it’s validating that someone has invited you to be part of a show, and people are coming to see it. It helps to have a true response from the public. It’s hard to know what’s going on in a person’s head, so sometimes it’s the conversations you have. Sometimes it’s the number of pieces that sold that give you feedback. I don’t always think that sales translate into how good work is. Sometimes really good work never sells. It’s nice to be in association with other [exhibiting] artists. It helps to see your work among other work. Relationships are what make or break success in any of the arts. I feel that showing up to art events is an important part of [developing] relationships in the business. Relationships with other people in the arts connects you, and what provides you with the support, and the launching pad for a lot of success.
How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?
Some of it comes from my inspiration sources. But a lot of times I’ll give myself an artist’s day out — I think that’s a recommendation from Julia Cameron. For me that means participating in, experiencing other arts, going to a museum. But sometimes that means going to the antique shows, the hardware stores, the places where my brain will put things together. I’m somebody who processes ideas in motion. A big part of my bigger-picture strategy comes when I’m running or doing sports, and especially in nature.
What drives your impulse to make?
It’s beauty and light. Just seeing it. It makes me want to make something. It has to do with the fact that all life is creation. We are creative beings, and creating is part of what life is. That’s how I connect to my higher self, my sense of spirituality — that ability to create. When you watch it unfold before your eyes, that makes me want to create, too.
Read more about Lindy Bishop here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.