Isabella Innis (Los Angeles)
It’s not that the work’s not happy, exactly. It’s that the colors don’t tell the whole story at first, you know? Here’s what I mean: when you look at an Isabella Innis painting, your initial impression would probably be one of happiness and play. First of all, the colors are bright – pinks and whites and neutrals are the most dominant although more recently she’s used a golden yellow shade and dark lines to detail a scene from a new piece called “Jaja Selling Eggs.” Her shapes and gestures also appear playful. However, Isabella’s work in actuality does a fascinating job of capturing various complexities of identity, history, politics, and intense emotion – an ironic interplay of light and darkness that first delights and then urges you to pause. Her travel, international upbringing, and interactions with other cultures have all played an important role in inspiring her work. Her paintings often grapple with a diversity of local and global issues: socioeconomic privilege and injustice as well as archetypes of western expansion and colonialism. Isabella’s desire to use art to shed a light on these stories has inspired a strong body of work that’s both intensely beautiful and timely.
Where did you grow up and where you do live now?
I was born in Nashville Tennessee, but grew up partly in Oxford, England and Colorado Springs, Colorado. I live in Los Angeles now.
How would you describe your art? What’s your medium?
I work in acrylic and oil stick. I mainly paint abstracts, but I've been exploring figurative work more recently, while still maintaining a somewhat raw and unfinished approach.
How would you describe your creative process?
I spend a lot of time researching and putting mood boards together before I begin painting. Because I often make series based on certain people groups or periods in history, I spend time reading archived articles and looking through old photos on the internet. I then make a set of sketches and color scheme mock-ups to plan my compositions. It's easier to narrow down what works when I can see my paintings in small format.
What other artists or personal experiences have inspired your art the most? In what way?
I'm very drawn to Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown-- their painted flesh tones almost glow off the canvas in person. I also reference paintings by Adrian Ghenie and Francis Bacon often. I admire their ability to capture mystery and darkness using ethereal forms and bright, vibrant colors traditionally associated with happiness. I find the irony intriguing.
Some of my greatest inspiration comes from listening to stranger's stories during international travel. I put away money each month to save for a trip at the end of the year. I usually travel to different countries in Africa, but last year I extended a layover in Dubai for a week. There I met the loveliest Syrian artist who was assisting a local UAE painter in his studio. Her story of struggle as a refugee could not be further away from my own, yet our mutual love for painting made me feel as though she was a friend from back home. I always return back to Los Angeles feeling a greater sense of creative direction, even if it's just in the form of my painting titles being pieced together from different conversations. Other times my experiences abroad inspire my work in a more tangible way, such as a series I painted based off a collection of encounters with children in Uganda.
What does it mean to you to be an artist? (Do you call yourself an artist?)
As I'm getting older, what I feel my purpose is as an artist is changing. I'm realizing that it should be less about me, and more about others. What that exactly means, I'm still working out... but in the past I've made work so personal to my own experiences of pain, suffering, anger, etc. that I think it lacks that universal quality that people are searching for. It's not that I think it's wrong to make personal work, but I want something deeper as I move forward. I think imagery has a certain power to it that we as artists must be responsible with, especially in this digital era where our posted work can never be completely deleted.
What are your biggest creative challenges?
My greatest struggles as an artist are isolation and lack of motivation. Although I create best alone, I would ideally like to be involved in a community of artists where we could share the craft together. Creating a schedule and being my own boss is a big challenge! I have to write out daily lists of what I need to get accomplished and give myself deadlines so that I feel some direction. If I don't have an exhibition in the pipeline, applying to residencies and online shows with deadlines increases my productivity. Instagram has been a huge blessing and curse in my career as well - it's a total time warp and comparison game if I don't limit my usage, but it has brought me new collectors and helped me to book exhibitions. I had an art professor in college who told me it's not the most talented artists that make it, it's those who refuse to give up. I try and remember that advice when I want to throw in the towel. Prayer is really important in those low moments. I ask God for direction on what to paint, for new doors to open, and conviction that I'm pursuing the right career. I always feel more grounded after that.
What are your favorite songs to create to?
Some favorite songs to create to... "Pay No Mind" by Beach House, "Cosurmyne" by Jungle, "III" by Foster the People, "Power On" by James Blake, "Love Streams" by Night Beds. I also love painting to old and new school African music that I've learned about during travels in East Africa. I have a whole African playlist on my Spotify that I played during an exhibition last year compiled from music I listened to while creating the series. Some favorites off of it are "Will You Promise" by Ebo Taylor and "Emergency" by Solidstar.
For someone who wants to be an artist but is finding it difficult to get started, how would you encourage them to begin creating?
When I first started out, I would make paintings for people for free, only asking for supply costs to be reimbursed (which didn't always happen). It's important for you to build a portfolio and get your name out in public somehow, then once you gain momentum your prices can increase. Creating a website and Instagram for your art is very important. Reach out to local galleries on Instagram, or even ones out of state and abroad. I booked my last exhibition in South Africa with a gallery by sending a DM on Instagram. Also spend time researching other artists, both of past and present, and take notes on what they did. Try to emulate their techniques and gain a sense of the concepts behind their work - this helps your own style to form. Research galleries and note who and what they're showing - this will help you identify what the market wants. My greatest piece of advice though, would be to not listen to much advice :) Art is subjective so everyone will have a different opinion about your work. It can get discouraging and confusing. Trust you gut, lose your fear, and go for it.