A Story of Art and Angela Fraleigh
A major exhibition of the work of Angela Fraleigh, associate professor and chair of the art department, is on display at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, through the end of the year. Inspired by her accomplishment, we spoke with Fraleigh about her work and her love for art and teaching.
When and how did you become interested in art?
Angela Fraleigh: I always drew as kid, but I didn’t think of it as a thing until high school where I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me, so I continued to make art. One day, Stuart Baron, then-director of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, came to our high school to look at student portfolios. Afterward, he actively started recruiting me, and ultimately I went to Boston University on a Dean’s scholarship. There I fell in love with drawing and painting and everything art and immersed myself entirely. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the only thing I ever want to do, and any spare time I have, I am in the studio.
You work in a variety of mediums; what’s your favorite?
AF: I am primarily a painter. I think in two dimensions.
What about making art do you like? What does it feel like?
AF: The emotions attached to art-making encompass both the positive and negative. It’s a confounding, enthralling, engaging, challenging experience from start to finish. What I find intriguing is that art is another form of communication. It’s a language. To become fluent, you need to fully invest, and that means coming to care about it in whatever way that means to you personally.
There’s this notion that art is elitist and that everyone should be able to walk up to a work of art and understand it. I find that shocking. People have devoted their lives to thinking through what art is and means and they are trying to say through their work. If a painting or sculpture communicates to everyone, great, but that’s not its job. You wouldn’t open up a major philosophy text, for example, and expect to understand it immediately. You need to first want to understand and then perhaps become fluent in the language in which that work was produced.
What do you hope to communicate through your paintings?
AF: My work is about how meaning gets made; how we come to believe the stories that we tell again and again and again. I think belief is a thought we keep thinking. More specifically, I’ve always been fascinated by power dynamics. Art carries the potential to address, challenge, and change the power dynamics we’ve come to experience in our culture, on the political playing field, and in society at large.
Power dynamics underlies the current exhibition of your work at the Everson. Will you continue to explore this theme or do you anticipate delving into other commentary?
AF: My work has forever been about power dynamics through various visual iterations, and it moves back and forth between addressing universal narratives and personal narratives. In 2013, I began examining grand narratives, universal tales, origin stories, and myths to find a story that everyone, no matter race, age, geography or economic standing, could plug into. I was reading Joseph Campbell’s controversial theory of the mono-myth when I realized there were few female protagonists that fit the particular narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey. So I began to wonder if there could be a female version of the Hero’s Journey and if so, how it would differ. Obviously, gender is fluid, and I don’t want to suggest there is a male version and a female version, but I was thinking about complicating an already dominant narrative.
In addition, after having a child, I didn’t want to be working through binary notions of power dynamics in a chaotic uncomfortable way anymore. I was dealing with pure, beautiful energy. This little human was happy all the time. I didn’t know how to make art that was ugly and politically driven.
Also, I was surrounded by women: grandmothers, friends, women artist friends also struggling to balance career and parenthood. Lots of sexist thinking surfaced--thoughts like I can’t talk about being a mother at work. I certainly can’t make art about being a mother…. I needed to address that. I realized how infrequently we see the camaraderie and community of women and how belittled that camaraderie is. I felt it was important to prop up and embolden female characters more broadly; to create alternative histories of women.
Why did you choose Rubenesque figures for your current work versus female figures from contemporary media?
AF: Art history is where I go. It’s the foundation of my thinking at this point in life. Beyond that, it’s Important to dredge up the long lineage of how we have come to believe what we believe. There’s a long history to why we have tipped certain power positions in certain favors, and to rewrite the narrative, we have to look back.
Also, referencing history helps provide a distance in the same way a fairytale places a character in a fantastical place to talk about present-day problems. It provides an objective view that one can’t see when looking at a contemporary image because the contemporary is too close.
What is your creative process like?
AF: It depends on what part of the creative process I’m in at the moment. I go through several phases every year—almost like a changing of seasons. The research piece is often the longest. There is a period of not-knowing what’s next—which can be excruciating—and there is a lot of learning to follow hunches, listen to clues that come through, follow the thoughts that feel intriguing while trying not to get attached or hung up on them. Usually in the research phase I’m reading a lot, I’m paying attention to things that I’m drawn to, whether it takes the form of movies, music, books, imagery, time periods, textures, and so forth. As part of this research phase, I’m still making paintings and drawings, but they are often awkward and unfocused. I’ll start sketching, playing around on Photoshop, collaging different images together. I’ll make watercolor studies, do small thumbnail drawings. Once I have the conceptual motivation and imagery solidified, I go straight to the really large canvases. I like being in the painting, being surrounded by the expanse of the canvas. It’s my favorite part. I like getting lost in them.
For example, while creating my current work on view at the Everson, the museum’s Japanese block prints caught my attention. I began conflating the figures, mixing the cultures, fragmenting and collaging western baroque female figures with Eastern depictions of women harvesting silkworms. But after completing the paintings, I realized it looked more like I was just placing these white women on top of Japanese women. I realized that wasn’t going to work--that there was an element of race that I needed to own and address--and that led me to turn the project much more globally; to depict women from all over the planet and from varying time periods.
In putting together the exhibit, five paintings fill one of the walls, and the center painting features Scheherazade who saved her life and the lives of all women through the act of storytelling. In the end, the whole show reveals that storytelling is activism, but I didn’t know that in the beginning.
Creating art is a long, evolving process; there’s no real moment of me knowing exactly what I’m going to do. I wish there was. I feel my way through the dark. It’s like headlights in the night—you only know what’s a few feet in front of you, but you still get from point to point.
You’ve been at Moravian College for 10 years. What about teaching interests or excites you?
AF: I love teaching. I get to talk about art all day. But what’s most rewarding is seeing students tackling and digging deep into their own individual pursuits. I care about finding what’s unique in each student, drawing that out, and encouraging the best work. Our program doesn’t have an agenda that we hope to force upon every student who walks through the door. We teach principles and elements of design in the foundation-level classes, but that’s to give our students a visual language, to build visual literacy. You need to first understand the rules so that you can break them intelligently in the making of art or design.
One of the things I find wonderful about teaching—and I’ve often talked about this with other faculty—is that you often say things to students that you need to hear yourself. It is a welcome serendipity.
And so a circle forms, a connection is made, much in the same way that, for Fraleigh, art and teaching intersect—at discovery, evolution, and in the end, story-telling.