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The True Artist: An Interview With Greta Waller

The True Artis:t An Interview With Greta Waller

It’s a very brisk late afternoon in January. The sun is setting and Greta Waller is quickly moving through her art studio/living looking for supplies. She recites something to herself that serves as both a status update mantra and a to-do list: “I’m going to eat so I have energy, I’ll grab my shit, and I’m going to paint Dick Blick because it’s a corporate art store. And I work there now.”

This is very much Greta’s style: she will do anything to get herself painting. She has itchy painter’s hands that need to be scratched daily. She isn’t satisfied unless she is making more and more and more paintings. There are a literally a million things Greta wants to paint and she will not stop until she has painted them.

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She is so passionate and so dedicated to her craft that she’ll do anything from paint on the street in freezing temperatures to barter her pieces for services she needs to converting the living room in her Mid-City apartment into a work/play studio where giant seven feet tall paintings overlook seats and a table covered in various paints and artifacts from projects past. Art is something that has such a strong grip on her that everything else in life comes second to her making. She is a true artist.

Surprisingly, Greta has not always had this passion for art. It wasn’t until late in her teenage years that art came to her. She literally had an epiphanic moment one night and she became ravenous for art. She sits in an enveloping armchair with a cup of tea and begins telling her story. “I’m from Indiana: I grew up in the Midwest. I could always draw but, when I was seventeen, I didn’t know what I was going to do. My aunt and my uncle worked in New York City and they told me about Cooper Union and I really wanted to go there. I had to go there. I would stay up late and watch TV in high school. I watched the movie Fame one night and it changed my life. It just clicked. I was going to fucking be that. I was going to do it! I changed the next day. I was seventeen.”

This change meant inhabiting an artistic lifestyle and, most notably, starting to paint. “I did my first oil painting in the garage, which was a true still life because there were bugs in it,” she says with a giggle. “Oil paint was so smelly, I was using real turpentine–but I loved it. I went through the applying to schools and everything: I applied to SVA, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Cooper Union…and I didn’t get in! I was wait listed at Pratt and my college counselor called in and said I really wanted to go and that I had to get in.”

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Thus, Pratt is where Greta learned her foundation for art. This was essentially the education she needed before she could attend that Fame like institution. It was a lot harder than she anticipated, though. She went to some very drastic measures to make her mind click into the artistic mentality. “I almost dropped out of art school freshman year because I couldn’t understand color. They told me that I would never be a painter and that I was strictly linear. I audited every pairing class: I was painting 24/7. During Winter break, I decided not to go home for Christmas and I did that fucking home test night and day. Night and day!”

“I drew sixteen hours straight one day for a final,” Greta mentions. “I got a crick in my neck and I couldn’t move one morning in art history. I had to go to the hospital and I had to see a psychiatrist after I had told them I was drawing for sixteen hours. They had to give me a muscle relaxer and pain killers. I had all these lucid dreams and I kept dreaming that I got in [to Cooper Union].”

Greta was having these dreams because she still had her mind set on Cooper Union: Pratt was just a stepping stone for her. “Pratt really changed my perspective on art making, though,” she says. “I had a natural facility for drawing and I actually thought I was the reincarnated Alberto Giacometti during my foundational years. I did! I swear to god. I looked to Giacometti and Braque a lot: they were amazing to me.”

The work Greta put into Pratt was all worth it too because she ended up making it into her dream school: she got into Cooper Union. “I’ll never forget the day. If you get a little letter, you didn’t get in. I got a big one!! February 6, 2002: I got in to Cooper Union, which was like getting into a secret club.”

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Rather than transferring to Cooper Union, Greta enrolled as a freshman in order to maximize the amount of education she would receive.  “I wanted to start from the beginning,” she says with a nod. “I wanted as much art as possible.”

Cooper Union was good for Greta. Not only did it expand the scope of how she viewed art but it helped to make her want to create even more. “Cooper Union really taught me a lot. It made me an educated woman in terms of conceptual art and art history, I found myself falling in love with medieval art. I loved it! Form changed: Greek art was more ideal and Roman art was more naturalistic–and then form collapsed. It was amazing to me how art could shut down and open up: it’s limitless. I remember a quote from Braque that, ‘One’s greatest limitation could yield ones greatest invention.’ I always loved that.”

She also bent the program to her demands so that she got exactly what she needed from the institution. If the art program wasn’t satisfying her, she turned to another department. Greta didn’t idle once while pursuing higher education. “I hung out a lot in architecture because they had life drawing. I’d walk across St. Mark’s Place with a plate of salmon or a plate of steak in order to get to my studio to do still life paintings: I did not let anything get in the way. That drive has always been there.”

“You have to be persistent,” she asserts. “If you are not persistent, someone else is going to do it. There’s always somebody else.”

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This mentality is huge for Greta because she has always made her own path. She also found herself to be incredibly misunderstood as people did not value her representational work. Moreover, she found that she needed to be experiencing and seeing more in order to paint. “How am I going to make good art if I’m too busy painting all the time? What experiences will I have to make art? My experiences are documented through my paintings.”

To fulfill this need to experience, she did everything from take a leave of absence to live and paint in the mountains of Greece and even found herself painting on the street, a practice she proudly still participates now.

“To me, art is about living. It’s living,” Greta explains. “All my senses are activated when I paint. I can guarantee you that smell or taste or something will be involved when I paint.”

Being activated is a huge reason why Greta paints outside. During her years in New York, Greta devoted much of her time to painting the gallery storefronts in Chelsea. This practice did everything from educate Greta on contemporary art movements to engage her with the community surrounding these institutions.

“I love it,” she says of painting in public. “People come up to me and talk. Some painters who paint outside don’t want you talk to them. You’re a part of the community when you go out into someone else’s neighborhood. You have to respect them!”

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In addition to painting, Greta worked at Soho Art Materials and found that she was happy but needed to take what she was doing to the next level. She was–and is–very serious about her art but others needed to feel the same way, too. “I’m not the girl behind the register: I’m a fucking good painter,” she notes of her thoughts at the time. “I needed to go to [graduate] school because it’s the next step.”

“The only place I got in was UCLA out of applying to Yale, Stanford, and UCLA. I didn’t know it was such a reputable art school and that it was the Yale of the West. Obviously, I accepted to go and I was apprehensive to move out to California because I love cold weather painting.”

“UCLA was fantastic,” she continues. “I was still on my, ‘I am a representational painter!’ idea, that I paint from life, that I paint what I see. People called me a human camera because I paint so fast (which is because I’m so excited to see that white canvas turn into something).”

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There was an issue with UCLA, one that has been echoed by graduates of the program: immersing yourself in thinking about art and thinking about how you make can often distract you from your point of view. Getting caught up in your head leads to your visual product being somewhat distorted. Greta had some troubles with balancing her MFA and staying true to herself.

“It caused a lot of blocks because I had to think before I painted,” she says. “I had a choice to think about what I was doing. Just because you have a choice doesn’t mean you have to think, though. You can react! That’s what I love about painting.”

“I am now having to relearn, reaccept my natural satisfaction in painting. I don’t want to think about what I paint! I just want to paint it. That’s why I am blessed to have the eyes of a painter. It’s not about taking: it’s about looking.”

“I’m trying to go back to that naiveness of someone who has just opened their eyes.”

It’s been a year since Greta finished her time at UCLA and she is still in Los Angeles pursuing painting. Having come from New York and from generally cold environments, LA was bound to have a big impact on her since her paintings are a direct reflection of what is going on around her. The biggest thing happening for her? The lighting.

“LIGHT!” Greta exclaims. “Light has been an influence.”

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“Los Angeles, because of where I was and what I was doing, enabled me to get into Newtonian physics and understand the light spectrum. Here, I don’t need a weather radio either. It doesn’t rain! I had to listen to my weather radio all the time in New York because you can’t paint with oils in the rain. You can’t do watercolors either!”

“If I didn’t come to Los Angeles,I wouldn’t be painting ice. My fascination from clear things came to me on a Friday at like 5PM: I just wanted to paint clear things, things with that tiny highlight. I love that little white highlight! What I’ve learned in Los Angeles is that that highlight is not white–and it is never white: it is always a color. In fact, it’s made of infinite colors radiating in circular shifts increasing and decreasing from complimentary colors. It makes complete sense.”

“Basically, Los Angeles was my introduction to the colors of light,” she says nodding her head.

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Greta doesn’t see herself living in Los Angeles very much longer. There is too much she wants to do! That list of things includes everything from painting in more cold climates to launching a new medium she developed herself called C2, which she wants to sell and to look like Chanel. She calls it “Homage.” For the time being she’ll continue to work at Dick Blick and will continue to do things like teach her dentist how to paint in exchange for dental work.

Ultimately, Greta is finding that Los Angeles is too safe and too calm for her: she wants to be thrilled by nature again. “If it weren’t for school, I would have never come here,” she says laughing. “I grew up with the mountains and snow and the trees. I climbed so many high peaks in the Adirondacks and went to wilderness camp! Runyon Canyon is not the Adirondack wilderness. I love life or death type situations where it is all or nothing. Not that LA doesn’t have that but I’m a seasons girl. I like four seasons. I like jumping in leaves and all holidays: I love them! For me, it gives a certain sense of time. It’s a cycle.”

“This is what my future is: I am leaving LA,” she says.

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“I am going to go back to Indianapolis because I need space. I cannot paint big paintings I’m a small apartment! I’m going to go, get some space and pay cheaper rent, because I need to make a lot more art. I’m not stopping anytime soon: I’m going to go to Indianapolis and paint some art, I’m going to go to New York City and paint some art, and–I just finished the Rome Prize Grant–so hopefully I’ll be going to Rome for eleven months to paint some art.”

“I want to go to Greenland to paint, too,” she says as she starts listing off dreams of hers. “I want to paint the Seven Wonders of the World–both the seven Natural Wonders and the seven Man Made Wonders. I want to paint lava.”

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“And, I want to be the first fucking woman to fucking paint in fucking space,” Greta proclaims, throwing an arm up. If anyone can follow through on such a claim, it is Greta Waller. She’s certainly the most dedicated artist in Los Angeles. She may even be the most dedicated artist in the world, even.

For more on Greta, check out her website here. Daytime photos of Greta’s studio courtesy of Greta.

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