Today I’m interviewing artist Christianna Cassisa. Her work came to my attention recently when a friend of mine commissioned her to paint a portrait of my dog, Harry, who had passed into Spirit a few weeks previously.
Hello, Christianna, and thank you for agreeing to the interview. Could you tell me when you first discovered your artistic abilities?
When I realised what it meant to have a ‘talent’ in art I was seven. I told my dad I was bored. He took a small pad of paper, and drew a cartoon profile of a gangster, with a squashed nose and heavy eyebrows under a wide-brimmed hat. He gave it to me and just said, “Go and copy that.” So I did. I really enjoyed it, copying all the shapes and lines, and enjoying the ways my dad had indicated something like the collar of a shirt with only a few lines. I remember absorbing techniques that I have never forgotten. After I had copied the drawing, I added a scar to the man’s face and a bullet hole in his hat. When I showed my dad, he acted like I had just handed him the Shroud of Turin! He showed it to all his friends and took a keen interest in the way I had copied so well, he made me feel like a genius for the added scar and bullet hole! I suppose if there is an “artistic ability switch” that was the event that switched it to ‘on’!
Artists use a variety of materials and methods – oils, water-colours, pastels, charcoal, etc. Do you have a preferred medium?
Sculpture was my first love. My dream is to one day be able to afford a home with a garage or barn that I can convert into a studio to be able to sculpt again, as in a residential area you can’t really carve stone or wood, as the noise gets on the neighbours’ nerves. So now I paint at home; I have only returned to painting in the last few years. I started in acrylic, and moved tentatively on to oils. They are very expensive, so I was afraid to ‘waste’ them to start with. However, I was sent a gift from a really kind person, who bought a little wooden sculpture from me from Ebay. He messaged me to say that he knew he had won the sculpture at a silly price, we had a conversation about how much I thought it should have gone for, and a little about my dreams as an artist. To my surprise, he bought a set of oil paints, and sent them to me in the post with a note to get on and try some oil painting! We are still good friends.
Do you have a preference when it comes to your choice of subject – e.g. landscapes, animals? Where do your ideas come from?
I have different styles and my preferences for subjects vary. Sometimes I have a very clear idea in my mind of a surreal image. The images are usually metaphors for a particular situation or idea, a bit like a snapshot of a dream. Strangely, I usually feel compelled to paint the image, but the meaning seems to evolve and come clear over time. Sometimes the meaning of one of these paintings changes as I change and gain different experiences. For instance, in my painting ‘Transcendence’ there is a stone archway in the middle of a grey, parched landscape. Crows fly about in the grey sky above the door, and through the door there is a beautiful night time scene, looking over a lush field of grass. In the distance there is a sea, lit by a brilliant full moon. This to me is about how we can all become stagnant with what we know, we stay in a life that we are not really happy with, and we dream about how we would like our lives to be. To step through the door would mean change and a step into unknown territory. And so the reason that we don’t step through into success is fear of change.
I also paint abstract paintings that rely solely on the effects of colour; they have no form, and I call them landscapes of light. These paintings mean something different for everyone who looks at them, as the colours or mixture of colours reach people through emotions, memories and past experiences and each one of us is different in this respect.
I like to paint realistic paintings, and this is the style that I often use for the commissions I receive. Many people like to have portraits of animals and family members done, and I like to do these. I always tend to have to overcome nerves when I start a commission; it is a bit like stage fright. “Will I do a good job?” It is like a little brick wall I have to overcome in my mind, and on that brick wall, there are always the words, “You can’t really paint; all the other times were just flukes.” I just have to get on with it, and make it work, every time! I do make mistakes, and that is when I find my feet, when I start putting those mistake right. Sometimes, I have to leave a painting till the next day, as everything keeps going wrong and I just don’t understand what it is; then the next day I see the painting from across the room, and I either realise it is actually not as bad as I had thought, or I see where I was going wrong and can put it right!
My advice to young artists starting out, as well as the tips for improving style, content or technique is this; you are brilliant at what you do already. Where you are now has come from enjoyment of what you do, so don’t let anyone tell you or make you feel that what you do isn’t as good as a work by Picasso, Rembrandt or Tracy Emin. It is fine to explore different styles, or ways of expressing art, but always remember what you love. If you go to learn about art, you will meet a lot of people that feel they ‘know’ more, and so will tell you that you should change your style with the latest fashion, go where the money is, perform like a monkey for that golden carrot! By all means, try it, but if you suddenly wake up one day and feel completely lost, empty and like a big fake, return to what you are, what you know in yourself and what you do well. Remember what you did a lot of as a child, and that is probably what you should be doing now, for me it was always plasticine and colouring in: sculpture and colour. If you want a short cut to being a successful artist (I said successful, I didn’t say rich!), if you would like to be an artist of integrity, then DO WHAT YOU DO BEST. Let what you do best point the way, to which artists will teach you, which artists you LOVE and which artists you don’t. If you do what you do best, everything else will follow.
My greatest inspirations are very few and far between and although this sounds like a big ego trip, they are usually artists that my art relates to very closely. As a sculptor, my greatest inspiration came from the works of Rodin. I didn’t do very much reading or academic work at all at college. I was either sculpting or drinking coffee and eating cakes in the canteen with my friends, but now and then, I was lucky enough that a tutor who knew their stuff would come and tell me that I really should look at a particular artist. Rodin was one artist that I was told to look at. When I did, it was like seeing something supernatural. I was looking at the same style, and the same subject matter that I was sculpting! As a painter, the same thing happened. I was painting my landscapes of light, in denial that they were abstract (I have never thought myself to be an abstract painter), when a journalist came to see my paintings in a small library exhibition. He said that I should take a look at Rothko. I had seen Rothko’s paintings and dismissed them as just ‘paint on canvas’ with no meaning, however now, if Rothko walked in the room, I would happily lay at his feet shouting, “I’m not worthy!” His concepts and the colours he uses are very much what I am trying to do in my paintings, the difference being the reasons why.
When you need to switch off and relax what helps you do that? Do you have other hobbies or interests that allow you to recharge your batteries?
Painting is my way of switching off and relaxing. I am a mum, so there is only a limited time I can paint, many people think that a stay-at-home mum has free time from the time she drops off the kids at school until they come home at 3pm, but there are many things that should be done in that time, that a lot of the time I don’t do, just so that I can get a painting done. My partner and I have been together twenty years and he is very understanding and supportive. He has also been an artist, so he knows how the feeling to paint can take you. I am constantly in a state of guilt, either guilt that I haven’t done the housework, or if I have done the housework, then it is guilt that I haven’t been able to sell the painting I have finished to bring in some money! But yes, painting is my hobby as well as my way of making money. Now if I can just make the money, everything will be peachy!
You do commissions. If a famous person were to approach you and ask you to paint their portrait, who would you like it to be? Assuming that time travel is a reality, is there a historical person you would like to paint?
Ooh what a good question! I know straight away who I would love to approach me for a portrait, Robert De Niro! I think he is a very interesting, insightful and compassionate and humble man. His face is fascinating, with so many different moods with each expression. I would imagine I could have some great conversations with him and a good laugh while I painted! And if I could choose another, it would be Brian Blessed, who I think is a real champion of the arts, with so much zest for life. I would love to paint him in his kitchen surrounded by animals, as I love the way he lets them share his home, what a strange portrait that would be?
If I could time travel, I would use the excuse of painting his portrait to meet Heron of Alexandria, he invented the first working steam engines in Ancient Greece. He made a small table-top engine with a spinning thingamabob, and apparently invented steam powered doors that opened when you lit the torches on either side. Very Indiana Jones! I would like to meet him and spend a couple of months listening to his ideas and inventions and telling him all about the future!
If you could have one wish for your career as an artist, what would it be?
My one wish for my career as an artist, would be that I have a career as an artist. If I can make money at what I love to do, I will never have to work again! Painting and sculpture to me, is life, it is how I breathe with my soul. A canvas is a window into my world, a world where I can find answers to life and bring those answers to people who can see my vision. If I can be paid for doing that, for the rest of my life, there will be no more ‘work’.
Is there somewhere people can go to view your work? How do they contact you?
My paintings hang on my walls, are propped up against walls around the house and are shoved into tight spaces out of sight, to save room! I have very few exhibitions. I hope to start selling my work soon, when the summer holidays end. I am very happy for anyone to come and see my work at my house, come round for a cuppa and talk art! My Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/cmcassisa. People can contact me there.
A huge thank you, Carol Browne, for asking me to do this interview. It has been really enjoyable. Great questions! It got me thinking!
Thank you, Christianna. A fascinating interview!