Meredith Feniak is a Denver native and mostly self-taught artist specializing in botanical illustration with a strong emphasis on realism and process. Certified by Denver Botanic Gardens, Feniak is inspired by the life of plants from initial sprout to final wilt. In her newest series on display for "Rush Before the Reaping," the artist paints with pure carbon pigment and crushed mica on silk that is stretched onto hand-gilded custom frames. The results are luxurious and stunning.
We asked Meredith a few questions about her work and what inspires her:
1) Where are you from? Where do you work/reside?
I am a native Denverite! I lived in Manhattan, New Jersey, and then Westchester county for awhile but came back eight years ago. My studio is in my home in Capitol Hill where I can stay in my pjs and take breaks laying on the floor with my dog.
2) Did you attend art school? Or are you self-taught?
I did not attend art school, but I did get certified from the Denver Botanic Gardens in Botanical Illustration, which is one of the few programs in the country. I started classes there when we moved back here from New York. Their program focuses on drawing accurately and mastering media, but they have amazing guest teachers from all over the world! I've had great classes with James Gurney, Beatrice Coron, Sarah Simblet and many others. It has been a great springboard for all of my crazy ideas.
Recently I went to a workshop at a ranch to learn how to draw and paint horses with Denver artist Jill Soukup. There's a group of illustrators who meet up once at month at DMNS to draw the animals (we go to the zoo if we really want a challenge) and I realized I needed more formal instruction on animal anatomy, so off I went with Jill. I was in Jackson Hole Rodeo growing up so I like horses, but their anatomy is complicated and now I see how easy it is to draw animals incorrectly. Sometimes art schooling is very valuable!
I know I'm missing a lot of information that artists who went to art school have, but I'm fine with that. I would've forgotten most of it by now anyway!
3) How would you describe your style? What's your medium/media of choice?
I prefer realism, but I am obsessed with process so I like to show that in my work. Leaving all my initial lines and thoughts results in drawings that have more movement and life. Realistic impressionism is the best way to describe what I end up with.
I am an experimenter, so I really like to try totally new materials. For this series, I tried painting on silk because I wanted a translucent canvas to stretch around gilded frames. In botanical illustration, we learn how to gild on paper for lettering, but I taught myself how to gild on glass like the old days (I'm one of just a few people in Denver who can do it!) and am sort of obsessed with gilding things. I was lucky to have the opportunity to gild a powder-coated jewelry safe, which had never been done before, so I had to figure it out! From calling and emailing experts all over the country I eventually figured out how to make it happen, but it was an incredibly slow and delicate process. Since I love the traditional techniques learned at the Gardens, but want to make more contemporary botanical art, I decided to gild the frames and wrap the painting over the gilding so that the translucency of the silk allows a peek at the traditional art underlying my ideas.
I also prefer a limited palette, and love neutral tones paired with metals. Once I decided to paint on silk, I wanted to keep with the simple/natural theme and was able to locate a pure carbon pigment for the warm black tones and a metallic pigment made of crushed mica! The rock! I sometimes get motivated and inspired by the media itself.
I'm also a botanical illustrator for Botanical Interests seed company, a Colorado company that sells seed packets all over the country. I was in the Bowery in Manhattan and saw our seed packets for sale! I hadn't really thought about it. My work can be found in all 50 states in Whole Foods stores!?! For these hyper-realistic illustrations, I prefer to use watercolors.
Working with watercolor must be why the bleeding while painting on silk didn't totally freak me out! It was great to be forced to accept the unpredictability and work with it. Once the pigment was on the silk, there were no do-overs. Sometimes I had to work up the nerve to do something and after practicing a few times in the air, I had to just go for it and hope for the best!
4) What themes/philosophies/aesthetic principles guide your work?
Botanical illustration is such a detail-oriented process that I like to take a break from that, but I still use the observational techniques and accurate drawing processes for studies. After looking closely, I'll usually wait weeks or months to actually start the final drawing. Seeing the life in plants also inspires the work; I watch plants grow, turn, and wilt away as a living being. I was the caretaker for my mother and witnessed her death. Obviously that had an impact on me, but it also greatly changed how I see the subjects of my work. When you're directly involved with someone dying and are present during death it changes everything. As an artist, I am very interested in capturing more than a moment in time in one image.
I've always been very hesitant to make decisions and I think that this is why; I have never much cared about the outcome because the process is so fascinating to me. Negative space, working lines, and imperfections with brushstrokes and washes are always welcome to stay in my work because they are like life. You live and learn.
5) Are you associated with a gallery? Co-op? Collective?
I am not.
6) What does your creative process consist of? Any rituals/habits/superstitions?
Because I do illustrations in watercolor, I'm a bit OCD about planning out each piece and following the steps closely. I definitely change things as needed, but the plan is a bit like a security blanket. Since I don't work with any medium that allows change, I have two tools for making decisions: I use tons of trace paper to lay over the work (usually I photo of the present state of a work since they're big) and play with ideas that way, and I also have an old-school overhead projector that I draw on to project the ideas directly onto the canvas. I use dry erase markers on its screen to try out ideas. Yesterday I moved a single line around a dozen times on the projector before figuring out exactly where it should go! But washing brushes? I don't do that. I'm OCD about the cerebral stuff and totally not with concrete stuff.
7) What is the biggest challenge you face in making art? How do you work through it?
I've gotten better at accepting that everything has a few ugly duckling phases, but it is always hard to see beyond them.
The "preciousness" of art is always tricky, and I always challenge myself to ignore the tendency to be too careful and perfect. Fellow botanical illustrators are totally appalled when I let the paint just drip - so that just makes me want to do it more! When I needed to gild all the frames I emailed this amazing gilder back and forth until I had cut out every traditional guideline and cut it down to three steps. I gave him a heart attack with my final process, but he agreed that it worked. I guess I'm a bit of a rebel. A 40-something mom of twins rebel.
8) What drives you to create? What do you hope to achieve?
Everything. I can't walk around the block without seeing inspiration, but luckily I'm satisfied with just having the idea and I don't have to execute everything - that would make me nuts. I have three more "themes" percolating and would love to be able to see all three through, unless one turns out to be a crappy idea. That's possible.
For all of my effort against being an artist, I'm slowly giving in to being incredibly influenced by my family. I am already working on integrating embroidery into my drawings, which my grandma would love. She made dollhouses (museum-quality ones!) painted scenery for operas, and could crochet and embroider anything. We won the family battle to inherit a piece that she made in the 60s that has been our family motto for a century. Surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colors, stitches, and jewels she embroidered the words "Fuck Housework".
I'm also really intrigued by abstractions and see it surface in my compositional process, but I haven't been able to capture it yet.
I'm not sure what drives me to create. I definitely see the world differently and have always been very visual, so perhaps it is simply my way of communicating.
9) What is your earliest art-related memory? What/who gave you the art bug?
I fought being an artist because I was surrounded by them growing up, but as a child I couldn't not make art. My earliest memories are of drawing on the walls. My mom didn't want to stop me, so I was allowed to draw on the insides of the kitchen cabinet doors and on the walls leading down to the basement.
I also loved painting in preschool and kindergarten. The smell of tempera paint still makes me so happy. I was the only kid who NEVER painted anything realistic - every painting was totally abstract.
10) Most influential artists? Dream collaboration?
Mondrian did the most beautiful flower drawings and paintings - they are sketchy and so loose. They are a complete contrast to his famous colorblock paintings. I also love the pen and ink drawings by Sarah Simblet and try to emulate her expressive linework. There's a street artist who goes by the name of Swoon that I am completely obsessed with. Her linocut prints are full of movement, and her delicate papercutting leaves me breathless. I also love Nick Cave's soundsuits. His intricate constructions and their outrageous movements make me want to sew, embroider and dance.
I would love to collaborate with a fashion house, not only are their clothes incredible forms of art and wearable, but their window displays and runway shows are incredible. Chanel's Spring-Summer 2015 runway show was magical (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiVxqpaRRVI) and Valentino always has botanically-inspired embroidery and embellishments. Gorgeous work.
11) What especially fascinates you outside of art? Any secret talents/passions?
I have a degree in sociology and love people watching. When I was little, my mom would take me on drives at sunset to look in people's windows while the lights were still on but the curtains were still open... weird, but I have a lot of friends who admit that they still do it. I'm completely fascinated with the behaviors of people, and I think that I have that same feeling about plants. I'm also a foodie, but I can't cook or bake! My husband is a crazy good cook and baker, so it works out.
12) Rep your hood/haunts.
I love living in the city and can't imagine living anywhere outside central Denver. I can be found at Kindness Yoga, playing frisbee with my crazy Catahoula at Governor's Park, and eating out. My favorite restaurants are Uncle, Little Anita's, and Pho95 on Federal, but I have dozens more that I love. I also love hiking, and try to get out in nature as much as possible. I don't do much shopping, but when I do its down the hill at Sacred Thistle or at Bloom. They are both florists and both have amazing jewelry, books, and homegoods. And rocks - Bloom always has jawdropping raw crystal formations.
13) What role do you feel you play/aim to play in Denver's art community?
I've been lucky to teach teens at Denver School of the Arts and at Denver Botanic Gardens, and hope I never have to stop!