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Tender Awkwardness: An Interview with Ananda Balingit-LeFils

Girl in Front of Ty Ty Mansion

Ananda Balingit- LeFils, “Girl in Front of Ty Ty Mansion” (2011), gouache on paper, 42″ x 29″.

by Kristie Moore

I met with Ananda on November 16, 2012 at Atomic Coffee, one block away from the Fine Arts Building. We secured our caffeinated beverages and found a small table in the middle of the noisy and bustling coffee shop. When I produced my small digital voice recorder, a look of horror crossed the face of the petite and elegant artist whom I was meeting for the first time. I tried to reassure her that I would not make it too painful and that even though I was prepared with an interview script, I doubted I would transcribe the interview verbatim, (although I secretly intended to do so). However, about 7 minutes into our “getting-acquainted” introduction conversation, I realized that I had not yet turned on my recorder.

Because our conversation flowed so easily and because of her friendly nature, the air of formality was out the window and I decided so too was my interview script! I did record our conversation, and excerpts from the recorded interview are included here to give voice to the artist, however including the interview in its entirety and verbatim would read rather strangely, and therefore I will present a more coherent and distilled version of what I considered to be a wonderfully interesting conversation.

I began recording as Ananda was explaining to me why talking about her art was uncomfortable and difficult for her. She explained that she had to do an artist talk for her MFA thesis show, but that it was very much outside of her comfort zone. I questioned her about this because in her artist statement she wrote that the subjects of her portraits are close friends and family. And so it seemed (to me anyway) that because of her familiarity with them that it would be more like talking about people who she cared about, as opposed to talking strictly about her art per se. She replied:

ANANDA BALINGIT-LEFILS: Yes. Some parts are easier to talk about, like the people in them, but sometimes I make artistic decisions about some elements of my work and I don’t have some great story about why. It’s more like “I liked that color or pattern, so I went for it.” But it’s uncomfortable to have to delve deep or justify every decision, with some deeper story.

KRISTIE MOORE: Do you think you have to justify it?

A: Yeah. I think that was a big thing for me in graduate school, not just me — I think for a lot of people. The questions of: “Why do you do what you do?” and “Why is it important?” and “Why should I care?” I never had those questions asked of me before I started graduate school. In undergrad it was easy – taking classes, improving technique — but when I got to graduate school you have to be serious about it. I had to talk about it and actually say why I was doing it, so I still struggle with that. All the decisions I make matter to me. They are conscious and deliberate decisions and so I don’t care if everybody gets a particular reference — I mean it’s nice if they do, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

We went on to talk about her perspective on teaching art and she said she encourages her students to ask these questions of themselves and to figure out why it is important to them. She asks them how they can make it more personal and to think through the derivative qualities of other artists that they idolize to emphasize their own unique voice.


K: So who do you idolize? Do you make the delineation between trying to become yourself more than just emulating someone else or is there someone who has had an influence on you?

A: The artist who has had the biggest influence was Alice Neel. She was introduced to me as an undergrad, and my work was very referential to her. She was a portraitist who worked in oil. Even though my work now doesn’t resemble hers very much, she is still one of the most influential. I never get tired of looking at her work. As an undergrad it wasn’t hard to see the direct link.


K: So you said someone introduced her work to you?

A: Yeah, Mark Messersmith! I got both my undergrad and graduate degrees from FSU and I would say Mark taught me how to paint from life. I took his class several times. As an undergrad my emphasis and investigation in painting was painting from life. I don’t work that way anymore but that was really important to me at the time. The way I work now is from photographic sources. So I use pictures of people and other images and I put them together.


K: What was the reason for the change?

A: Well, I started grad school painting the same way I did as an undergrad and the enthusiasm I had for working that way — I had exhausted it. So, on a lark, I started painting with gouache. I had this crappy little set that I bought and I was messing around with that and I really liked the immediacy of it. I liked doing these really quick paintings — like 10 paintings a day— these little portraits from photographs. And I really liked how I could knock them out and I liked working on paper. I also like not working with solvents. There is a freedom with water media that I really enjoy.


K: So I recently learned that you do commissions and I was under the impression that you would have the person sitting in front of you.

A: No, they are not from life. I ask the person to take a good quality photograph of their face and then for the body — I don’t use the body from the photograph — I usually reference early American folk art paintings or really old photographs or European miniature paintings.


K: In your artist statement, you mentioned that you were influenced by the early American itinerant artists. I didn’t know what that was, so I had to look it up. When I saw images and examples of American itinerant art that’s when I saw the connection or reference to your work. So I’m curious how you were introduced to it, or how you made that connection.

A: Well, I always loved the really quirky old folk paintings with the proportions being off, because they were not classically trained. They were self-taught artists. So the paintings are always a little bit off. But I don’t remember how I was introduced to them. I just enjoyed that quality in those works. But one thing they do that I kind of do — because they were itinerant, they would go from town to town, and they would show up with the dress, the body, the dog, the tree, everything but the head already painted and they would just paint the face in. So it’s kind of similar to what I’m doing. I’m just getting the photograph of the face, and I’m painting it onto this other body as well. But I really like how they are very static. They’re not naturalistic — they are almost uncomfortable and there’s that very obvious reference to the idea that “I’m posing for you.” Instead of that candid,

“I’m just hanging out”. So I really like that stiff very formal portrait setting.


K: So tell me about the painting hanging in the Westcott building, “Girl In Front of Ty Ty Mansion”. Why is it called that?

A: It is called “Girl In Front of Ty Ty Mansion” because the house was the genesis of it. The mansion is a barely noticeable element in the background, but it was the thing that started it. There is a park in town that has this old mansion that was built in the 30’s, and it’s really bizarre because it’s not a traditional park. I think they’re going to tear this house down — it might not even be there now actually. But, it was built by a prominent businessman and I guess someone donated the land to the city and so it’s just this old relic. I love old abandoned houses. I was kind of obsessed with the house for a couple of weeks. The other thing with that work is that I was really intentionally integrating Southern imagery and thinking about regional art — like being more conscious of the seashell border and the possum being a Southern animal. And even though it’s not a plantation style house, it kind of references those grand old Southern homes. So I wanted to put it in a painting, but it ended up being such a small barely noticeable element. Well, except for the title!


K: There is something a little bit mischievous about that painting. Not so strange that you are put off by it — but it is curious…

A: Ha! Well, that’s kind of what I’m going for. I mean, I’m not trying to go all the way toward bizarre surrealism, but I definitely wanted to be — like what I love about the folk art thing — to be a little off. The feet are a little too small, or the arms are a little too long or the linear perspective is off, so you feel like the figure is going to slide down the floor. Little things so that it is not quite right. But not so that it is so obvious at first, of why it is so strange —why it is a little off-kilter— but so it comes across a little peculiar.


K: Since you have taken multiple figure drawing classes and multiple figure painting classes, I’m guessing that you have honed your skill and ability at painting realistic figures. So is it hard to back away from “right” to get to “not quite right.”?

A: Well, actually, when I paint from life my style is much more loose, it’s more painterly. But when I work on paper, especially when I work from photographs, it’s harder for me to be looser. I kind of tighten up. But it hasn’t been hard. I kind of go back and forth.


K: Have any of the FSU professors influenced you?

A: Mark Messersmith is probably the biggest influence. I actually had Mark as an undergrad, and then had him again as a graduate student — he was on my committee. So he was with me all along the way and he was the one who first mentioned the idea of going to grad school and that was something I had never even considered. I wasn’t going to go to FSU at first. I had applied to a bunch of schools and then found out I was having a baby and so that got put on hold. Then when I was ready to go back, it made sense to go to FSU because I have family in town and so that’s why I ended up back here, and I am glad I did!


K: When you spend a lot of time with someone you may take on some of their traits. Mark’s work is very distinct; do you see any influence of his work in your own?

A: Not in my current work, but maybe in my work when I was an undergrad. I don’t think it influences me directly in my work — more just him being a really positive influence. He was the one who encouraged me to get my MFA. So just having someone there who is encouraging you makes a big difference.


K: What if you hadn’t gone back to grad school?

A: Well, I don’t think it would have affected me technically because I don’t think you necessarily go to grad school to be able to paint better. So for me grad school was more about thinking about the work you make and why you are making it. The body of work I’m making now — the gouache and watercolor on paper — is very different. And so I probably wouldn’t be making the work I’m making now if I hadn’t gone back to school. I did lots of different bodies of work that failed miserably before I got to my thesis show, so it was painful. I didn’t know what to do, I felt lost. But the grad school experience made me keep pushing through that until I got to something that I really cared about.


K: So can you tell me a little bit more about your commission work?

A: Yeah. A lot of people ask how long it takes. And honestly I don’t know. I paint pretty quickly, but a lot of the time is spent planning — spending hours finding the right pattern or the right image. I do like doing them — it’s enjoyable. But it’s also really nerve-racking because you really hope the person likes it, and if they don’t… With watercolor on paper there is not a lot of room for corrections to be made. I haven’t been asked to change anything yet, but you always hope they like it.


K: I don’t know how to describe the look on your face when you were talking — you looked genuinely distraught about the possibility of someone not liking a piece you have done for them. There is a part of you that seems so self-critical. You have said, “I’m impatient” or “I paint fast” — but not as a proud, matter-of-fact statement, but almost as an apology for a weakness…

A: [She gives a very humble smile]. Well, I think it is a strength that I can make quick decisions. I go back and forth — sometimes I’m not so happy with my work and then sometimes I think, well, there are not a lot of people doing what I’m doing in quite the same way. But I personally think that you should go back and forth because if you think your work is always great and you are totally satisfied — then what are you doing it for? That means you can never evolve. I think you should never get to a point where you have nothing to learn. Ultimately, you have to be your own best and worst critic.


K: So let’s talk about your parents. Were they an important factor in you becoming an artist?

A: Probably. My mom is an artist, she went to art school. She does graphic design and drawing as well. They were never like, “you should be an artist, or you should be something else.” They let me be my own person. But they always saw art as a legitimate pursuit. Since my mom was an artist we always had art books in the house — so that was influential — and she had prints of different artists that she loved up in the house.


K: When I was doing some background research on you and looked at different web pages and blogs that had your work on them, I never saw the commissioned aspect of your work mentioned.

A: I’m actually in the process of getting something online in the next couple of weeks and that will have a “contact me for commission” section. It has been a long time coming but will be there soon.


K: What do people who have bought or acquired your work say about it? What aspects of your work do you think resonates with people?

A: That’s a good question, I’m not quite sure of the answer. A lot of the work I have sold has been at shows that I wasn’t at — so I didn’t get to meet the buyer. But I think that one of the things that you said, about how people respond to with “Girl In Front of Ty Ty Mansion” is that it kind of brings a smile to your face. It’s kind of interesting and slightly bizarre. A lot of work that has sold has been of little children — and I’m not afraid to say it — I really love beauty! So maybe they’re responding to that — the attention I give in my work to beauty. I don’t make it only to be beautiful — but it is important to me. I reject the idea that if you make work to be pretty that it’s trivial or superficial, or that there’s no content to go along with it.


K: So what do you think about having student\faculty\alumni art in Westcott, and other places on campus rather than generic office art?

A: I think it’s great! I mean art enriches our lives. And I think that there often isn’t enough emphasis put on the value of original art — with evidence of their hand in the work — is special. It makes me feel special to have original art in my house! When I come home and see different pieces of art on the wall, and it makes me think about the individuals who made it. And every day I love it more. It’s also really great for people to have the opportunity to see the excellent work made by people affiliated with FSU.


Ananda and I talked about a variety of other topics in our almost 2 hour conversation, the remainder of which I won’t include here in transcript form, but I will conclude with a synopsis that I hope will serve to illuminate the quality and characteristics that I couldn’t quite describe in her work until I was able to see these qualities in her personality.

Throughout our conversation there were topics, words or art-related techniques that I was not familiar with, and without stopping to verify my ignorance, she would gently slip in an explanation or definition. It seemed that she could tell that I might not know exactly what something meant, and with a caring intuition would supply additional information so that I might not feel awkward or embarrassed. However, when she spoke about herself, especially with regard to being able to write and talk about her own work, she spoke with humble humility. In one of her artist statements she described the source of inspiration in her work: “These paintings are inspired by American itinerant painters of the 18th and 19th centuries; I seek to depict the tender awkwardness that those naïve paintings exemplify.” The phrase “tender awkwardness” really resonated with me, and so before publishing this interview I asked and received her permission to use that phrase as the title. Here is why I found it appropriate:

Her empathetic reading of her subjects results in beautifully rendered pieces that allow, if not embrace, the uniqueness in each individual, but not to the point of exposure or exploitation. It is like she can see your inner quirks and hidden idiosyncrasies, but is willing to keep your secret. She uses symbols and iconography to convey an archetypal theme, but somehow manages to slip through the stodgy art history trappings of heavy symbolism, while respectfully dodging the tendency for truth-in-representation through historical and biographical documentation or even raw, full-frontal emotionalism associated with portraiture. She appreciates the quirks and flaws in human nature as beauty, and has the insight to portray these folksy yet authentic qualities and character traits as light-hearted thematic narratives in elaborately detailed portraits that (to me at least) are not a “little bit off”, rather they are right on. Thus, it is a sincere compliment to say that I do not think Ananda could effectively portray “tender awkwardness” if she did not herself embody “tender awkwardness”.

This interview was conducted by Kristie Moore in November of 2012.