By: Doron Levine  | 

Feature Interview with Connie Rose, Painter of YU’s Brand New Library Mural

Just when students thought that the library construction was just about finished, they noticed a woman enter Nagel Commons with a camera, a tripod and a bag full of painting materials. She positioned the camera on top of the tripod, opened up her bag, laid out her materials, and began to paint with the most bright and vivid colors. Intrigued, students began to converse with her and soon learned that her name is Connie Rose, and that she has been commissioned to paint a huge mural alongside the new staircase leading up to the library, a massive abstract landscape that has already become a prominent colorful feature of our small campus. The Commentator sat down with Connie to find out more about her personal story, her artistic style, and the circumstances that brought a young talented British surrealist to the halls of Yeshiva University.

Tell me a bit about your background. Where are you from? Are you originally from New York? Where did you go to school?
I’m British and I studied Fine Art at Chelsea Art School, which is part of the University of the Arts London. Chelsea was my first choice because the school doesn’t specify what type of art you have to do. You can choose to do any type of art you want and take your art in any direction during your degree – you don’t have to choose just painting, or just sculpture. I did my art foundation, a one-year course before my degree, at UWE (University of the West of England) and I studied for a semester at an art school in Vancouver called Emily Carr. I’ve now been self-employed working full-time as an artist for nearly four years. I’ve always painted. I started off doing photo-realistic portraits in oil and then I began developing more of an abstract style. Now I’ve found what I would call my ‘voice’ as an artist in the more abstract style. I moved to New York because I think it’s the best place in the world to be an artist.

Why is that?
I think there’s a real artist community here. So I’m inspired by other artists that I get to know and we have exhibitions together and exchange ideas. I didn’t really have that in London. Also, there are so many more art galleries in New York.

Are the galleries concentrated in a certain area of New York?
In Chelsea there are over one hundred art galleries. There are many in the Lower East Side as well, which is where I live. So I find that very inspiring. I think that the art in New York is more avant-garde than other cities that I’ve been to.

You’ve been self-employed for nearly four years, and you’ve spent all that time in New York City?
No, I’ve only been in New York for about six months. But I’ve been visiting for years and it’s a dream come true to live here. The artist visa is supposedly difficult to get, you have to have a certain number of successes to get it and you have to prove that you earn a certain amount of money as an artist. Getting my artist visa to be able to live in New York was my number one goal, and I sobbed with joy when I got it.

Wow, congratulations on getting the visa and welcome to New York! You mentioned that you paint with an abstract style. How specifically would you define your style and what drew you to this type of art?
I call my style Abstract Surrealism. Because it’s not strictly Surrealist and it’s not strictly abstract – it’s a mix of both. My work often involves Abstract Surrealist landscapes.

Interesting. What elements do you take from abstract art and what elements do you take from surrealist art?
Abstract art is any art that doesn’t resemble something in the real world. But Surrealism involves taking things that you might see in real life and painting them in an abstract way. It means seeing things in a way that you wouldn’t see them in real life, but it uses objects from the real world. My work is a mix of these two styles because you could point to elements in my paintings and say that they look like an atom or a bubble or a shape that you’ve seen in real life, but often these shapes don’t specifically mean anything and the viewer can take what they want from them. They are to be visually enjoyed at perhaps a purer level than something representative. There’s not necessarily a set meaning to the shapes.

Where does this style of yours come through in the mural you’re painting for YU?
That’s the whole nature of the mural – it’s based on the shape of a book. It was originally a swing wall so that’s what I based my design on, and, of course, it leads up to the library. So the idea is to make it look like an open book, and the walls are the pages. It is there to inspire possibilities because that’s the whole notion of a book, both writing and reading – it can send your imagination into any place that you want it to go. The limits are endless.

Does that relate to the part of the mural that is designed to look like outer space?
The idea is that the viewer becomes a participant in the work as they go up and around the staircase into this parallel universe. The concept of a parallel universe is challenging and bewildering. It sends my mind into an uncomfortable yet expanded place. The notion of endless possibilities of what’s out there. That again relates back to the book – the book is a symbol of your imagination, which is limitless. A book can expand your mind and go anywhere.

I want to come back to specifics of the painting, but first a few more background questions. You said that you started with oil paintings but now you paint more in this Abstract Surrealist style. What drew you away from the oil paintings toward this style?
I actually still do the realistic oil paintings, but the Abstract Surrealist work is extremely different in terms of the creative process. When I paint a realistic portrait, I’m very slow and methodical and it’s a lengthy, still process. Whereas painting an abstract piece comes more from the soul and it’s more of an expressive moment that can’t be repeated. While I paint a realistic portrait I normally listen to an audiobook. I focus on a small part and then I stand back and look at it and say, “Oh wow, I’ve done that.” But when I paint an abstract piece, I usually listen to a piece of music on repeat – the same track all day – because it sends me into a sort of meditative state. I work with the rhythm of the music and it can inform the piece.

Right, I’ve noticed that you’ve been wearing headphones as you paint. Can you share what you’ve been listening to as you’ve been painting our mural?
I change the track each day. But the track I’ve been listening to most is called “Slow Love” by MØ. And I also listen to “I’m The Man, That Will Find You” by Alice Russell. Those are the songs that I’ve been playing – I’ve tried painting to these songs many times and they just work; there’s something about the beat and the rhythm.

I was wondering if you were just wearing the headphones but there wasn’t really anything playing, and it was just so you could pretend that you couldn’t hear people…
No, but that would be a good trick (chuckling).

Who is your favorite artist, and why?
I have many favorite artists…

I won’t limit you to one choice. Can you name a couple favorites?
Well I love Yayoi Kusama – she actually lives in a mental institution. She paints what she hallucinates, and her work is very bright and sort of trippy. I’m certainly inspired by her work. I also love Chuck Close, a painter who does bright portraits with a lot of color. I’d be surprised if you can be a surrealist painter without liking Salvador Dali. But I have many favorites, and there are many artists in New York who are my friends who are my favorites as well. I admire Joseph Meloy. He does a lot of bright and colorful street art. We’ve drawn next to each other and he’s inspired me. Also, working alongside Ari Lankin is always inspiring and fun. He asks the right questions and is always mixing things up.

Your work is certainly very bright and colorful. As a painter, do you have to love all colors equally, or do you have a favorite color?
No, I have a favorite color. I love blue.

No way, that’s my favorite color too!
Yes, I could guess by the shirt you’re wearing. But my favorite shade is turquoise. I really like all bright colors – I use so many bright colors because it makes my paintings joyful. The mural that I’m painting here is very bright, and most of my abstract surrealist paintings use a lot of color because colorful art makes you feel good.

And you find that turquoise makes you feel better than any other color?
Yes. I think that blue is calming.

I totally agree. When did YU first approach you about this project? Who contacted you?
It was the architectural firm that is renovating the library, called ROART. Someone in the firm saw a mural that I did in El Salvador and I think one I did in Brooklyn. So they asked me to submit a design, and then I was chosen.

Do you have any idea what the process was like? Did they ask a bunch of artists to apply or did they specifically ask you?
I think they asked a number of artists to submit designs, and mine was chosen.

You were told from the outset what the shape of the surface would be?
Yes. I was given a computer-generated CAD (computer-aided design) image and an architectural drawing, and I submitted my design based on that shape.

Were you told why yours specifically was chosen?
They said that it was original and “light”, and they said that they wanted something light to lighten the weightiness of the building but still respect the weight in seriousness. They enjoyed the concept of a book with limitless imagination and journey.

In terms of paintings that you’ve done, is this one of the bigger projects that you’ve worked on?
In terms of size, it is actually the biggest wall that I’ve ever painted. So I’m very excited about that.

What does that change practically? Does that make your painting more expressive because you have so much space to work with?
The main difference is the physical strain that it puts on your body while painting something that large. I didn’t want to hire an assistant because I believe that there’s something special about the artist doing it themselves. But my hand and wrist have been hurting me a lot – I had to have it on ice all day yesterday because I’m pushing down on the spray cans so much.

How many days in total do you expect the project to take?
I think about two weeks.

Do you have a deadline?
They said I can work at my own pace.

Back to the painting itself. You said that your style is mostly abstract and surreal. In this mural, you’ve painted some specific images that have meaning. Should we be looking for meaning and symbolism in this mural, or should we approach it more on its own terms and let it speak for itself?
There are definitely some symbolic images in there, for instance, the birds. You’ll find birds in all of my abstract pieces because the bird is symbolic of freedom and movement, a journey, which all comes back to the idea of imagination and books. But any shapes that you see in the mural are just shapes to be enjoyed visually. The mural is supposed to be a landscape that comes out from the book. There is also going to be a little floating land with tiny people looking out into the vastness. Whenever you stand on top of a mountain, there’s that feeling of elation and wonder, which, again, comes back to the birds and the books.

What materials are you using?
I’m using spray paint, Krink, which is a New York brand of ink-based pens, permanent marker, acrylic, and wall paint.

You mentioned the hinge. What about the rail on the wall? Has that been getting in your way?
A little bit, but I knew that it would be there so it’s not a surprise.

YU is a Jewish University. Were you told that before? Did that impact your work here at all?
Yes, I did know. But I didn’t feel that it was necessary to include anything particularly Jewish in the mural. I took most of the inspiration from the library.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that the place where you are painting is a main hall with lots of people constantly walking by. Has the constant flow of people been bothering you at all?
Doing a public mural is nice because you get to meet interesting people. Sometimes, though, when I’m in the flow of the moment I can’t stop to talk. Sometimes if I stopped and didn’t carry on it could mess up the part that I’m painting; I could be in a particular headspace and the paint dries quickly so I have to work fast. Sometimes I feel bad when people try to talk to me and I can’t talk back to them. The headphones help with that. So I guess it is a bit pressurized with all the people passing by but I was on a TV show in the UK where I had to paint live while being filmed and with a huge audience behind me so I’ve had different practice being under public pressure. Public murals are good for mixing up the solitary studio practice.

Has it been annoying? How many people have tried to talk to you?
Most people do (chuckling). It’s not annoying. It’s fine. I’m happy to talk to people and I’m really pleased that people find it interesting. I love the challenge of working in a different environment and when I can, it’s nice to have the opportunity to chat with people.

Have you made any friends with people passing by?
Not many, because I’ve had my headphones on for most of the time. So I can’t even tell that someone is trying to talk to me unless I see them. I can’t hear anything and I’m usually looking at the wall.

I saw that you have a camera set up…
I’m doing a timelapse of the whole process. I’ll post it online for people to see.

Is there some sort of grand opening ceremony planned?
Not at the moment.

So you’re just going to finish, pack up, and leave?
Yes that could be. A press release will be sent to all of the major art magazines. There are already a few who have expressed interest.

Students are studying very hard for finals now. Do you have any words of inspiration for us?
My advice would be to stay sober.

We try our best…
At least for this week and just work really, really hard because anything is possible. I grew up in England and always dreamt of having this career and this life. Because I worked hard I made it happen. So don’t waste your time. If you work really hard you can do anything you want. It’s about working on things you love, enjoy the process of learning as really that’s what life is all about.

Any advice specifically for students studying art?
I would say read widely. Go to as many art exhibitions as you can, and go to as many openings as you can. Get to know other artists. Never be jealous of another artist’s success, let it inspire you instead. Try to travel as much as you can because being in different environments is always inspirational. I’ve travelled a lot and I think it has really helped my work.

You’ve travelled to see different artists from different parts of the world?
I just travel in general. I did an artist residency in Mexico and that inspired me a lot. Because I’m a self-employed artist, I can paint and draw anywhere in the world and use my environment as an inspiration for my work.

We are all wondering, so I’m just gonna ask. What is Connie short for?
Nothing! It’s just Connie Rose.

Ok we had to know. You signed your name so early on…
Yes because people kept asking me my name. So I just thought, “Oh I’ll just put it on the wall now.”

You usually sign it towards the end?
I usually do it last.

Ok well that will put a lot of people at rest. Your name has been the talk of the town. The students of YU will always remember you as the artist who brightened up our school. Will you come back to visit?
Definitely. I will come and check out the mural again and hope people haven’t been touching it. But I really hope that people enjoy it because, obviously, you will see it every time you enter the library. I would like it to be inspiring. The main message of it is: through books, your imagination can take you anywhere.