Tanya Hayes Lee: Art Speaks Beyond Emotion
Unbeknownst to abstract impressionist painter, Tanya Hayes Lee, I was hoping for an additional birthday present with an enlightening collaboration while conducting my first ever interview, a day before my birthday. And, what was my other withheld possible hope for this virtual interview? A relaxed and cordial collaboration, that distinctly nurtured something within each of us; even if it couldn’t be acutely defined by an emotion. That very thought, would prove to be an identical musing, Tanya would later punctuate with acuity as her reality, when she creates within her nestled visual craft.
Tanya Hayes Lee resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the last few months, rain has been a monopolizing precipitation rolling the dice there; however, it has decidedly been experiencing a recent upset. What’s not an upset, is the gratuitous sense of community she absorbs there, particularly from the presence of her grandchildren. And, in keeping with our fast-paced technological sphere, an attached abbreviated spoiler alert: the sunny algorithm I was hoping to gain from this virtual interview, indeed birthed itself. It was layered in an icing of warmth, transparency, and philosophical nuggets colored by her responses. Again…many thanks, Tanya.
Interviewer: If you weren’t an abstract impressionist painter, what would most likely be your profession, and why?
Tanya: [With a light grin surfacing, and then enunciating with ease] Well, that’s an interesting question, because at my age, I have had so many professions at this point. I wrote textbooks in elementary English language arts. I’ve done graphic design, and was a journalist for about 20 years. I’ve also lived in Arizona, and wrote about Native American issues almost exclusively. And nowadays, I still do some copy editing and ghostwriting to supplement my income. So, I guess my answer to your question is, most of what I do outside of being an artist has to do with education and writing. And, if you’re a good journalist, you’re an educator. So, my answer is an educator.
Interviewer: What are two adjectives to describe a vibe of your visual work, and why those particular adjectives?
Tanya: Calm and peaceful. Inevitably, that’s what people say. It’s soothing and atmospheric. I am a person that tends to get anxious a lot. I have some problems with anxiety and depression. And, I think I paint worlds that make me feel better, and other people respond to it.
Interviewer: Would it be accurate to state that art is healing for you?
Tanya: Absolutely! When I feel good, I feel really good, and I’m painting well. It’s a way to feel better. It’s not the only reason I do it, but it’s a side benefit.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you chose art, or art chose you, or possibly even a combination?
Tanya: I’m absolutely certain, it’s a combination. I’m the kid in kindergarten who ONLY wanted to have crayons and papers. The entire school system could have just been crayons and papers, and I would have been extremely happy. [I expel a hearty giggle.] Ummm–[She pauses for a moment, as if conjuring a memory, and then reveals] I can’t not be an artist.
Interviewer: Wow! That’s a strong statement.
Tanya: Yes. [She nods and grins.]
Interviewer: Your artistry has clearly impacted your life from childhood? How does it still impact your life, Tanya?
Tanya: My art is my life. [Her arms bend at the elbows and rise skyward with her palms revealed.
Tanya: My art is my life. [The words reverberate with calm conviction once more, as she lifts her arms in an encore.] I am very fortunate. I have a good and supportive life: a daughter, family, and grandchildren I adore. [Her eyes widen subtly beneath her eyeglasses.]
Interviewer: Thank you! Thank you.
Interviewer: Nature seems to be nuclear in your art. Can you elaborate on its presence?
Tanya: I grew up in a small town just north of Boston. It was back-in-the-day when you could send children outside to play and expect them to turn up when they’re hungry. So, we spent a huge amount of time in the woods by ourselves making up games, stories, and fantasies. And so from my earliest memories the forest particularly has been a place of solace and safety. I think it comes out in my work. Also, I love the beach and water.
Interviewer: So, you weren’t afraid in the forest as a child? Was it an organic place for you?
Tanya: Yes, it was organic. There was no fear. There were swamps too. We embraced it all.
Interviewer: What are one or two colors you use in creating your visual work? Do you think it’s a conscious decision to use those colors?
Tanya: I have 2 colors, Windsor & Newton’s French ultramarine blue and Grumbacher’s transparent red oxide. [She then grins as the interviewer mirrors her expression all the while anticipating Tanya’s response.] And, the colors are absolutely a conscious decision. [A fervent chuckle emits from the interviewer.] I am interested in painting, and the physicality of paint, and what it does on different surfaces. To make it a reality, first, you need to always buy very good paint. I paint in oil. Also, use the same manufacturer. You could literally purchase 6 ultramarine blues by 6 different manufacturers with similar names, and the pigments don’t mix the same. My palette doesn’t include a lot of colors. It’s limited. People tell me, I shouldn’t say, “it’s limited.” For me, it’s not 100 different colors to press out the tube. It’s more like 6 colors, including white.
Interviewer: How important is white in that palette?
Tanya: It’s very important, for my colors tend to be muted.
Interviewer: So, are you basically set with your palette?
Tanya: Yes, but it doesn’t mean I can’t experiment. I also paint wet-on-wet, for it was sooo tiring [hands wander for a moment in front of her] waiting for the oil paints to dry. I even experimented with acrylics, and it was different. [Tanya pauses and seemingly searches her thoughts.] The colors weren’t as subtle as water colors, so wet-on-wet was an alternative. Which means, I was basically painting over it, before it completely dried. I am also now using gamboge yellow, which I got from watching YouTube of a contemporary painter whose work I really like a lot. His name is David Dunlop. Old Holland’s gamboge lake extra is an amazing yellow, and I just started incorporating it into my paintings. Not so much as a yellow, but as a mixed green.
Interviewer: [Smiling aloud as she speaks.] So, even as amazing as oil paints are, they have their drawbacks too?
Tanya: Yes, [She reciprocates a grin.] And, another interesting thing about oil paints is that they are all from the earth or ochre. Many oil paints still used today come from the earth. As a landscape painter, I’m painting the landscape with materials that come from the landscape. I find that interesting.
Interviewer: That’s deep! You can’t get any closer to the core of earth than using the earth itself.
Tanya: Yes. I know. [A smile crests.]
Interviewer: What are the titles of one or two pieces of your visual work that represent the essence of who you are right now, and why?
Tanya: Well, that’s a tough question for me. I hate titles. I wouldn’t put titles on anything, if I didn’t have to, but it’s a part of the business. Buyers need titles. They need you to give some clue as to what the work will be about. But the titles for me–I literally make them up. So, I have one called Incoming and one called Clearing. I must have a dozen paintings called Early Morning, or On The Marsh, or Near The Beach. I guess what I’m trying to say is the titles are not significant to me. I’m interested in the painting, and not the words I put to it.
Interviewer: Would it be accurate to state that you would prefer and desire to physically show someone the painting versus focusing on the title?
Tanya: Yes, that’s right. Absolutely. Or even show them a demonstration. I have one demonstration video done, and I hope to do more. It shows how the work is made, and it has more truth about it, than any word or words I could say. [Her eyes narrow and close for a brief moment.] A long time ago. I had a friend that was a dancer. He was an adult, and I was a kid. And, he once said: If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it. So, I wouldn’t have to paint it, if I could say it.
Interviewer: Wow! Got it.
Interviewer: What is your advice for someone who inhales and exhales for the day to be a visual artist exclusively, but is freely greeted with statements such as “the starving artist,” reverberating in his or her head?
Tanya: My advice is to get a day job. [I chuckle, and she grins.] Don’t let it hinder you. I don’t know anyone–well, that’s not true– almost anyone, that supports themselves entirely in their art. Many are teachers. Take and use another skillset to help pay things like the rent. Make money to supplement the income for bills. But, do the art. Don’t wait till you have something else. There’s always something else there: distractions. Family obligations. And, this is especially true of women, who have a lot of calls on their lives. Make the time to do your passion.
Interviewer: So, this plight is common?
Tanya: Yes, it is very common. I definitely sympathize.
Interviewer: Your Instagram account states Tanya Hayes Lee is an abstract impressionist painter. Let’s time travel to the time of Monet, Degas, Manet, and other varied impressionist painters. They are now your new peers, Tanya. On this day, there is an unusually mild sun in the open field, with an intermittent breeze playing peekaboo. What are you painting? What are you discussing with them? And, what are your emotions?
Tanya: It’s such an interesting question with perfect timing, for I was planning a trip to Paris in September. I was going to visit Giverny and Aix-en-Provence. It is where the impressionists painted. So, your question comes at a perfect time. It will probably be postponed now because of Covid. I would have loved to paint beside Monet. And Cezanne–Cezanne’s landscapes are amazing! [She touches her head’s center with both hands simultaneously, as her elbows point outward now in opposite directions. I’m laughing and shaking my head in wondrous compliance with her joyful moment.] I would ask them: How did you get that glow? How did you decide on that perspective? I would love to pick their brains. [She’s smiling again.] I’d also inquire how to make the paintings better. Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh–they all had some terrible paintings too.
Interviewer: I have this saying, that I sometimes use: Even Van Gogh, is not always Van Gogh.
Tanya: Yes, absolutely! We’re just so used to seeing really good paintings by them in the well-endowed museums and in the art textbooks. But, if you visit a less endowed museum, some of their art pieces are really bad. Not all paintings are going to be good, and it was definitely true of them. It would be interesting though, and useful, to see their paintings before they were famous, and even after they became famous, at some of the less endowed and smaller museums. Monet didn’t paint a good painting, until he was fifty–in my opinion. And, even when a painting meets all of your qualifications, that questioning of how to make it better can still be there. There’s this book about art and fear, and that might in fact be the title, or I may misremember the title–It states: The only reason to paint this painting today is to be able to paint a better painting tomorrow.
Interviewer: Yesss, evolving. And, I can just imagine the emotions attached. What would be the emotions for you, as you’re painting with them?
Tanya: I– I don’t see it as an emotion. It would be past an emotion. It’s in a zone. Laser focus. I mean you could say, “it’s the light” or something like that, but it’s not an emotion for me. I know this is going to probably sound ridiculous–
Interviewer: Noooo, you’re fine; please do continue.
Tanya: It’s as if I’m being in touch with the universe, in a way that I normally would not be in my daily life. It’s transcendent.
Interviewer: Hmmm. Hmmm. [I nod again in enlightened thankfulness, as I now meditate on the word transcendence, and the beacon of Tanya’s response.]