Written by Neal Breton / Photographed by Richard Fusillo

Lena Rushing is the reluctant Queen of the San Luis Obispo art world. If you had a top 5, no, top 3, “Creative Persons of SLO” list and she wasn’t on it, your list and opinion would be worthless. Putting aside the fact that she can out-paint anyone with a brush on the Central Coast, her narratives are deep, dark, personal and unnerving at times. Layers of story woven with intelligent color choices, interwoven with her masterful use of a dizzying amount of materials make her SLO’s only hope of birthing a famous female artist.

Originally hailing from Riverside she made her way up here in her 20s to finish her arts degree at Cuesta. She became a mom and wife at a young age, though she’s far from being a typical soccer mom she does drive a wicked minivan. We asked her about the stuff important to an artist—process, inspiration, choice, and emotional attachment.

TG: If there was one thing you would want people to take away from your show, one notion or idea or feeling, what would you want that to be?

LR: For this show I wrote in my profile “…I hope that you’ll enjoy it, find inspiration from it and make sense of a piece that is unique to you”. You know how people see things differently? For example everyone calls my little Bedlam creature something different and thinks that’s what it is – “what’s with the little bats”? What do the ghouls represent”? Why the black owls”? When a piece offers a scene people attach a story to it and the stories vary greatly from person to person.

TG: Are you frustrated when people don’t make that connection?

LR: I hope that in any show, by anyone, that viewers make a connection, by experiencing art. Frustrated, like if people don’t want to try and they just want me to tell them? No, I’m not frustrated but it sort of diminishes their experience. It’s like when you read a book and your mind makes up the characters and the background, but then the movies come out and it tells you you’re wrong, this is what they look like you’re like “meh”, hahaha.

TG: Do you ever go into a painting thinking “I want to create something that will cause confusion or chaos”? Do you ever throw imagery in that even you don’t have an answer for?

LR: I never go in with the intention of causing confusion or chaos. Every single image in ever painting does not have an agenda, but they contribute to the whole of the image.

TG: So what pieces challenged you in this show and did you set out to be challenged by these pieces? Was there a piece you thought would be less difficult that turned out to be a total pain?

LR: Every piece ends up more difficult that expected! The most challenging was “Divulge and Nurture” It was the most challenging in the show on a basic level—finding and meeting with a model, getting the right photo, tinkering with the photos. The scale is very large, transporting the stretched canvas, prepping such a large surface area with the crackle and molding paste, getting the proportions accurate on the human figure.

I love a huge canvas, though, I really love having this giant canvas in front of you that you have to walk around and stand on tippy toes, it’s fulfilling.

But far more challenging was painting the piece, the adding and subtracting of ideas, of colors, the internal struggle that it seemed to amplify of “Why do I do this, I suck so bad! Who am I, why do I feel the need to do this?” Then it would tilt in favor of my sanity, “that’s looking better, yes! That works! Niiiiice”, only to wake up in the morning and consider starting over…repeat for like two months AND with a looming deadline. It was fucking hard. I don’t set out to be challenged, but I’ve learned from experience that it’s inevitable, it’s just part of the process.

So creating is a very personal process. Can you explain the emotional attachment you have? Aren’t you making these pieces to sell?

The emotional attachment I have is two fold. One, I’m purging a narrative that either upsets, inspires or affects me. For example, my irrational fears.

Two, the process itself, where I struggle to keep a positive internal dialogue. I don’t do commissions, I make only what I am feeling. Sometimes I’m making something as a break from making something, haha. I’ll make an owl box to just relax and enjoy building something; they’re like my Zen intermission.

I don’t create to sell, I create to show and because it makes me feel good, but I like to show a gallery or venue that my work sells so they invite me back. Also, sales make me feel like someone values my work and sheesh, I don’t want a giant stockpile of my own stuff at home so I like knowing that the pieces are living with people who value them.

TG: So the boxes are somewhat of an escape yet they don’t waver from the main body of work. Do you see yourself pushing any boundaries stylistically?

LR: Sure, I push my own boundaries, I experiment with different materials and try to figure out ways to make things happen, like building the 3-D dodecahedrons in my “Counter Clockwise” piece or solving a challenge with a vellum dress (see Lena’s “Unburdened” and “Uplifted” pieces) with a needle and thread. I have an idea and start with the basics and the rest is something I figure out as I go, which I absolutely enjoy. I like to be innovative; it makes me feel a sense of accomplishment when the box is complete.

TG: Do you ever find yourself looking for inspiration from other artists?

There are artists I am amazed by, I don’t go looking for them to inspire me, but sure, I find inspiration when looking at art. I don’t really feel like I adhere to a certain style so it’s not like I find a similarity with one artist. For example, I was considering making the alligators in the nesting doll group gummy alligators and that idea was inspired by my admiration for the remarkable talent of painter Christian Rex van Minnen. It’s not that his images usually appeal to me, but rather, his complete mastery and total unparalleled uniqueness. There isn’t one artist that I seek out for inspiration but I get inspired when I see new art. I find new painters to love all the time.

TG: How important is your gender when considering a narrative? Do you try and lead your viewer though a woman's perspective or would you prefer the viewer to disregard your gender?

LR: My gender is very important when considering anything. I don't have to try and work it into something, just like in my everyday life, it's there at the forefront of every interaction. I'm a woman, so what comes out of me is a reaction from a female perspective.

Steynberg Gallery presents Bedlam: A Lena Rushing Solo Exhibit. Work on display until late December.