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Marisa Adesman

Marisa Adesman, BFA ’13, recently mounted a solo exhibition at the KMAC Contemporary Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. The Birth of Flowers, on view through October 29, is a collection of paintings that invite a deeper examination of femininity and domesticity, while simultaneously drawing the viewer in with vibrant colors and layers of minute details.

Adesman shares insight into the exhibition as well as her path from WashU to full-time painter.

Q&A from October 2023

Where are you these days?
I live in St. Louis — I grew up on Long Island, came to St. Louis for WashU, moved around for a while after graduating, then returned in 2019 to take a three-year visiting professor position at Webster University. We’ll see what happens, but I’d be very happy to stay in St. Louis.

Where does the title of the exhibition come from?
Before I started painting my canvases for The Birth of Flowers, I did a lot of research to get ideas — during that time, I actually spent many lovely afternoons at WashU’s libraries. While I was at Olin Library one day, I found an old book called Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, published in the late 1800s. It was full of behind-the-scenes diagrams, illustrations, cross-sections, and mechanisms each revealing how the magic tricks were done.

One of the tricks in the book is called “The Birth of Flowers,” which I thought was a very evocative and compelling title. The trick involves flowers appearing instantly from a box of seeds. I like how this connection between art, magic, and creation, and the impossibility of it all reminds us that things aren’t always as they seem. In many ways, the artist can be a magician — conjuring, deceiving, and carefully engineering the viewer’s attention.

There’s a thread about femininity and domesticity in your work. How do those parts fit together, and do they interact with the magic piece?
That’s been a component of my work for a long time, probably even before I realized it. In my last few shows, there’s been an emphasis on the domestic sphere, which has traditionally been the woman’s place. I’ve been interested in investigating the seen and unseen — the roles women play within those domestic environments that go unnoticed.

A few of my paintings show a glass woman who transforms between flesh and glass. She has a foot in both the physical world and the invisible world. And she reflects the world around her, which relates back to stage magic — the trick of making the woman disappear, suspending our disbelief – and then she magically reappears.

It’s fun to be playful, magical, and whimsical. And it’s important to communicate more serious messages about female resilience and strength, too.

What are some themes someone might notice in the work?
Flowers are obviously a big part of this exhibition. Besides being beautiful and ephemeral, they’re a lovely stand-in for femininity and domesticity.

There’s also the recurring theme of hands — exclusively glass hands and hands covered in black lace. As I was developing this body of work, I was reading Elizabeth Harvey’s book, Sensible Flesh. She writes about how women’s hands and women’s touch have been moralized within our society. There are all of these expectations of where we place our hands, including the idea of idle hands as the devil’s playground. Again, it’s this play on visible/invisible. The lace suggests pressure to perform femininity, and this burden to inhabit a disguise. I also think about the connection to magicians’ hands – when they roll up their sleeves to show they’ve got nothing to hide.

Other recurring imagery include pulleys and rope, bugs, fire, and drapery, which I hope are in conversation with the Dutch still-life paintings of the 17th century and their notion of Vanitas. I was interested in how the themes of destruction and resurrection that occur in myth often parallel seemingly frivolous tricks, such as the rope cut into pieces and then magically restored moments later.

a painting of a woman who's body appears to be glass full of nature and fruit
Marisa Adesman, “The Conduit,” 2023. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

When someone views your work, is there a feeling you hope they get?
I put so much of myself into each of these paintings, that for me, people experiencing my work in person is just the ultimate treat. I use the tiniest, #000 brushes and include a lot of details that are best appreciated up close. I love when viewers can get an inch away from a canvas and find those details — ladybugs crawling in the grass, a small papercut with a single drip of blood, a lemon peel piercing a woman’s foot. It’s the magic of discovery.

I am fascinated by our endless movement between the mundane and the sublime. During the pandemic — when the ideas for this body of work really started — I was at home noticing those quiet moments and finding wonder and beauty in them. You can go from doing laundry one minute to looking up at the stars the next, and have to reconcile those two realities. I hope people who see the work get a sense of that, too.

Where and when do you make work?
I tend to be a creature of the night. Things seem so much more mysterious and full of possibility. But now that this is my full-time job, I try to paint on a more regular schedule to make sure I am home for dinner with my partner each night. Although I have a gorgeous studio on Jefferson Avenue, I still have a little room in our apartment where I can make smaller paintings and drawings.

Walk us through your path to becoming a full-time artist.
I truly loved my time at WashU. I graduated with my BFA in painting and did a double major in psychology. I took a few years off, then went to grad school at Rhode Island School of Design in 2016. That time in-between was really important — I moved back to New York and was doing odd jobs here and there. I didn’t have a separate studio. I was just working from my bedroom. In that time, I proved to myself that I was incredibly dedicated to my studio practice outside of external, academic pressures and expectations, and began to discover my own voice and style within my work.

I went to graduate school because I missed that conversation with the artistic community. That was a space where I could really poke holes in my practice, in a good way. After I graduated, I did a handful of residencies. Those provided the biggest learning opportunities in terms of practical know-how of being an artist. Being around other professional artists and getting a glimpse into their daily lives was incredibly helpful. After a few years of residencies, I took a full-time position job at Webster University as an assistant professor of art, which I absolutely loved.

Last year, I decided to switch to painting full-time after three years of teaching because I was feeling pulled in two directions. I was trying to both teach and paint full-time, and I felt I wasn’t doing my best at either. My gallerist, Anat Ebgi, encouraged me to finally take the leap!

painting of a chair with a flower pot and cloth hanging from the ceiling
Marisa Adesman, “Out from Under,” 2023. (photo courtesy of the artist)

What would you say to your college self, now that you’ve had this journey?
I’d say that it’s a dream come true and that I feel very, very fortunate to be in this position. There are still things I’m getting used to in the day-to-day. It’s very quiet, you don’t have co-workers, there’s no office drama. But I get to hang out with my imagination all day. I’d love to go back to teaching someday, but for now, I couldn’t be happier.

So far, have you found any day-to-day routines that are beneficial for your practice?
I use a time tracking app to keep myself honest and make sure I’m painting at least eight hours every day. Ramping up to a show, it’s really intense, no days off.

Right now, there’s not a single canvas in my studio, so it’s back to the drawing board. During this part of the process, things are a little less structured — I take long walks, explore the library, draw, and take lots of pictures.

A big part of my practice is taking reference photos since there are always elements of realism in my work. So, I inevitably create these strange and wild setups in my studio to get the exact photo I need. Last week, I attempted to stage a magic show with flowers under my desk where I was able to best control the lighting the way I wanted. I start with inklings of an idea, and I like to see how it looks in real life.

Lightning round: Do you have a favorite St. Louis activity and/or food?
I love going to all the parks in St. Louis. We are lucky to live down the street from Tower Grove Park where my partner and I love to throw the ball for our German Shepherd, Luna, enjoy the farmer’s market on the weekend, and take Kim’s yoga class on Saturdays.

As for St. Louis food… that one’s harder! I have to go with Clementine Creamery’s gooey butter cake ice cream.