Language of Water
written by Isabel Zacharias | photographed by Tim Sugden
Alexandra Becker-Black lets me in from the rain and we start down the wood stairs; she tucks some long hair behind her ear and reminds me again how bad she is at “this stuff.” She means the interview, and when I spin seconds later around her window-lit studio, my eyes land on a painting against the back wall: a woman, poised chest-out in a scream, but with only two birds coming out.
To say Becker-Black’s work speaks for itself feels less accurate than just saying it speaks — in owls, in roses, in skulls and cellos, and always, in body language. With a background in drawing, she brings a precise mastery of the human figure to the fluid, often unpredictable medium of watercolor.
A self-titled introvert, Becker-Black likes to wander incognito at her own gallery shows, gauging people’s responses in safe anonymity. She says, laughing, “It’s not necessarily my goal to make people cry,” but she’s seen it several times. What she captures in expressions of the human body is beautiful, but more than that, it’s vulnerable, and that’s what gives it power; “It’s very spiritual,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but I want to capture a person’s spirit.”
Here, she speaks on the prison of perfectionism, the intimate realities of painting nude models, giving a painting the effect of effortlessness, and that in this world which is elementally beautiful — but for a full and stunning understanding of these things, you really should look at her paintings.
How did you initially become interested in art, and from there, how did you realize you wanted to make
it your living?
I was kind of a troubled teenager, got into the wrong scene, and was shipped to the middle of nowhere in Maine for boarding school. But there was an unbelievable art department there, and the teacher — her name was Babs Wheelden — was beautiful and so supportive. She cultivated this group of kids who, if it weren’t for art, would’ve been suicidal and dropped out of school.
I never considered what I was going to be when I grew up, but I’ve always been drawing. And when I found that teacher, she believed in me and saw what I was capable of. That watered the seed of realizing that it was possible to make something out of it.
And that added up to the decision to go to art school?
Exactly. I didn’t used to want to go to college. I wanted to drop out of high school, back in the day. But I became inspired to be really good, and I started to thrive off of the competitive nature of the class.
I built a portfolio and got into the Rhode Island School of Design. It was really hard to be there, and I did struggle emotionally, but it brought something out of me that I had never felt before — this drive that was kind of remarkable.
I chose to study illustration there, because I was always fixated on and inspired by the human form. I wanted to really master figure, and the illustration department worked best for that goal.
Do you ever feel boxed-in as a certain type of painter?
When I first got into some galleries here and got to explore the fine-art side of being an artist, I learned a lot. But it’s tough — they want you to kind of make the same thing over and over, and fall into a niche. I became synonymous with beautiful nude figures.
I did really well at this gallery that had beautiful work, but also had really corporate work. Things would sell so quickly that I would have no inventory and was just trying to keep up. I couldn’t complain, but I started to lose my spirit. I couldn’t make another beautiful nude. I wanted to bring in symbolism and make my work larger. Maybe, for the sake of my sales, I should’ve gone backward to those simple nudes, but I couldn’t. I think that’s when you’re selling out — when you’re no longer true to your voice as an artist.
Could you talk about the idea of story in your paintings?
Because I studied illustration, I love work with a narrative, but there’s a fine line with too much information and not enough. I think I veer towards not enough, and maybe sometimes just the right amount. I want to leave room for wonder. I want people to relate, and that’s why I like to use iconic imagery, like figure.
Figure has been used as far back as we can see, on cave walls, and of course in the Renaissance — it’s probably the most iconic image in history. I want to combine that with imagery that carries a lot of nostalgia — like a rose, which, in its own cliché way, is about love, but usually also brings up personal memories. You think about when you received a rose — it’s not my memory, it’s your memory.
I don’t want to say it’s selfish, but there are a lot of artists who want to share their story, and everything is very articulate about what exactly their experience was. Mine is definitely telling a story that means a lot to me, but in the end, it’s about you. Say you see a skull, and for you it brings up death or fear — but to me, a skull is a vessel of imagination. Your skull holds your brain, and your mind is endless. There’s so much meaning, but I don’t care too much to tell anyone that. They already know in their own way.
What symbols do you find the most versatile that way, with viewers able to apply their own narratives and meanings?
There’s a good chunk between 2012 and 2014 when birds were in everything I did. That was a time in my life when I felt really stuck. I’m a really fixed person; I tend to fall into rituals and patterns that are healthy in some ways, but can also trap me and keep me from growing and being adventurous. So the bird was a symbol of release and freedom.
Then the flowers came in, as a symbol of undeniable beauty and a reflection on how remarkable the natural world is; flowers are perfect, and they come from the ground.
But lately, I’ve been doing skulls and focusing on this dichotomy of beauty and death, and the cross between the two. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, an amazing combination. I did this sacred plant medicine ceremony where you revisit old traumas; death was a huge thing that came up for me, and impermanence. I’m obsessed with beauty, and most people are, I think. We all find different things beautiful, but juxtaposing conventional ideas of beauty, death and impermanence — that’s my theme right now.
I wanted to talk about watercolor as a medium, and what about it stuck with you.
By my senior year of college, I was getting comfortable with oil painting, but on the flip side, I got really sick — I thought maybe food allergies. Then I spoke to a teacher of mine, who said he had a feeling it was something toxic in the paints. When I started breaking out in hives, I completely stopped working in oils.
At the time, I hated watercolor. I always had judged it as such a domesticated, hobbyist material. But the day I stopped working with oils, there was an open drawing with a live model. All I had were these gesso’d canvases made for oil paints, but my roommate had a travel watercolor kit, so I brought that and started painting three-minute sketches of the model, really sloppy and really suggestive, just squinting and trying to find the values of the body. And something clicked. I wasn’t good at it right away, but I understood something right away.
There’s only so much control that I have over this material. Otherwise, it’ll just be a tortured mess, and it’ll be very obvious that I’m struggling. I want my work to feel and look like it came out of the paper — so I spent a ton of time practicing.
In a printmaking class in college, I found a paper that I fell in love with and still use. It’s not at all typically what you’d use for watercolor. It’s totally cotton and thick, but really delicate. If I mess up and make a mark that I wish I hadn’t, with watercolor paper, I could rub it out. But with this, I would scar the paper, and it would reveal this flaw. My challenge is that, if I do completely mess up, I’ve got to start over.
Where do most of your painting ideas come from?
I bring models in here and take photos of them, and I’ll take hundreds of pictures, but there’s always that one photo. You know it when you take it — especially working with a real person, who has their own guard. You know, when you see a picture of yourself and think, Ugh, that’s not me, but then you see another and think, Oh, wow. That’s the photo I want to paint.
I love working with beautiful bodies, but in the end, it’s not even about that. I have a model who’s really hard to work with; she’s gorgeous, but I can’t paint her, because she doesn’t show me that thing that I need.
Figure painting from models is a much more interpersonal job than if you were painting landscapes or something more abstract. What’s been your experience with that aspect, being a reserved person?
There was a woman who fainted in our shoot, she was so nervous. There are people who cry, because it’s a release. Of joy, of course! Not terror. I hope. It really is vulnerable, for both of us, but that’s why it’s the most inspiring part of my process — and the scariest, of course, especially if it’s completely nude. I asked a complete stranger to come model for me today, and I’m terrified for them to get here. But it’s all about the person giving you that unguarded moment.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
I think watercolor has taught me that knowing. With oil paint, I would just add and subtract and push and pull, and it felt endless. You could work on a painting for three years. That really stresses me out.
I think perfectionism is my biggest flaw. I’m trying to get away from that. What I want to keep pushing, aesthetically, is accuracy executed with looseness, emphasizing the feeling of the painting.
Which artists have had the most influence on you?
My biggest influences, ever since I was a kid, are from classical sculpture: Michelangelo, Bernini — how they made marble look like flesh. Soft, warm flesh made out of stone — I remember seeing that and thinking it looked effortless. It looked like it came out of the ground that way. I couldn’t believe a person made that.
How do you want your work to be remembered by viewers?
I want to make iconic images — like Shepard Fairey, how you look at his work and you know right away it’s him. He’s still alive, but he will live forever, because his style is so specific. I really want that to be the case for my work. I think that, because I wasn’t traditionally trained in watercolor, I learned my own technique, and it definitely gave me the style that goes through everything I make. I’d like to stay true to that visual voice. It’s like a language. I want people to see that language in my work.