The paintings of Syd Bee possess the power of immediately tugging at our emotional core, before we even begin to interpret and unravel the narratives within. This power emanates from Bee’s masterful understanding of colour as a way of conveying atmosphere and creating moods that align directly with the psyche. Her inclination towards the exploration of sombre and caliginous subject matter is in contrast to the vibrant hues it is rendered in, and yet they combine to elicit enhanced feelings of tension and unease. These feelings are largely projected through Bee’s protagonists, who speak to us about matters concerning the more melancholy aspects of the human condition; loneliness, isolation and mortal anxiety. Although, if we listen closely enough, their ethereal whispers will lead us towards inclusion and the realisation that we are not alone in our existential turmoil.
Syd Bee is an American artist, who lives and works in Seattle. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Art magna cumlaude from Cornish College of the Arts in 2013. Her work has been exhibited in numerous galleries throughout the US. Syd has also been featured on the cover of The Stranger, and created comic book covers for Adventure Time.
WOW x WOW is incredibly honoured that Syd has contributed a fabulous new painting to our current ‘Room of a Thousand Doors’ group show. The piece is entitled, ‘The Postreme’ and can be purchased here. What better time to catch up with Syd to talk art? We hope that you enjoy the following exclusive interview.
Hi Syd, thanks very much for making the time to have a chat, we really appreciate it. To get us started, can you give us some background on what has lead you to this point in your professional life, be it your formal training, hard work, serendipity, etc.?
Thanks for having me! The first major moment in my career was definitely attending and graduating from an arts college. It’s not necessary for everyone, but for me it had a great impact. I met so many people and had many great experiences, and I don’t believe that would have happened for me otherwise. From there I put my work online and just kept making stuff (while holding down a couple day jobs, of course). Eventually I was invited into some incredible gallery shows, and it’s just gone from there. I am prone to restlessness, so I often have a few projects going on at once.
Talk to us about growing up. In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
I moved around frequently growing up and as a teen I ended up in a small town, which was supremely dull and there were not a lot of opportunities to find a way out. I could make pretty pictures so I knew had to make that my ticket out. So much had to line up for it to happen, but eventually I was able to move and attend an arts school in the city.
Where does your sense of community stem from as an artist? Do you feel part of a close-knit scene in your home city, or do you connect more with other creatives online? Is community something that is important to you and your creativity?
The benefit of living and working in Seattle is it has such a wonderful and active arts community. A majority of my close friends are all artists and we do weekly drink-n-draws to coalesce. But also the internet has been an amazing tool to connect with some fantastic people all over the world, so many I would have never had the chance to actually meet.
What gives you the impetus to sit down in your studio and create? Do you only work when you have an idea or a deadline to meet, or do you start working and let your images unfold in a more organic way? How does the creative process work for you?
I get distracted easily and my ‘studio’ is my apartment, so it’s too seductive to get involved with tv or cooking or my cats or whatever. The trick to get me to the easel is to make the studio space a little beautiful sanctuary, an escape from the rest of the world. That way sitting in the painting chair feels better than anything else. From there the work just happens. Deadlines certainly help. I also keep a schedule of self-imposed deadlines for all my projects, no matter how minuscule.
Your imagery is heavy on atmosphere and infused with murky emotion. There is a duality between your sombre subject matter and the bright colour palette you often use. Can you tell us a little about how this aspect of your work evolved and also some of your thoughts about the mood it can help you create?
Ideas come to me as fleeting glimpses of a feeling, or a flash of colors that make me feel a certain way. The initial conception is pretty much all emotion and color. From there, I carve away at it with images or symbols or whatever feels right. It’s like trying to explain a dream to someone the next day, where words fail to really capture what it felt like. Painting is like that sometimes, the next project is always trying to get at what previous one missed.
How personal or autobiographical do you allow yourself to get while creating? When you look back at certain pieces or larger collections of your own works, do they remind you of certain events or eras in your life?
I think there’s a bit of everyone in their work, how can there not be? I do try not to make things explicitly autobiographical, because I think it’s nice when there’s enough room left for others to find themselves. That said, I’ve certainly made self-portraits subconsciously. If it wants to happen, it’ll happen.
Being an artist who works within the visual realm, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual?
I enjoy a lot of books, podcasts, and movies. Currently, I’m reading ‘Pictures and Tears’ by James Elkins which is a dissection of the ways paintings make people cry. I’m not very far into yet though! One of my absolute favorite podcasts to listen while painting is ‘You Are Not So Smart’ which focuses on new psychology research that helps to explain why humans do what they do.
Where does your focus lie when you’re painting?
On a good painting day, I’m not focusing on much other than small moments within the act itself. On other days, my mind will wander into other territory, especially if I’m stressed. I prefer to be present with the mark-making because it’s more satisfying that way. So I’ll sometimes meditate before working just to clear my head of all the other junk that might be in there and accidentally spill into the process.
Have there been any occasions where you haven’t always necessarily had a full understanding of the symbols or dialogue that emerge from the narratives within your art? Could you give us an example of an image you painted that ended up revealing something to you after its completion?
Yes, and I love it! I’ll go through old sketchbooks or research books and find common threads, fascinations that have persisted over time. I’ve always been obsessed with nurses and witches as symbols for power and life. It took me a long, long time before I realized it all began with my mother’s white uniforms, as she worked in the medical units in the Air Force. There are more symbols that pop up along the way, and some that I’m still figuring out their meaning for me.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one who’s memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I know how lucky I am to be in a position to pursue a career in the arts, and I’m driven by a sense of duty to take it as far as I can. I owe it to every woman in my family who didn’t get their chance, and I owe it to my younger brothers to lead as an example.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
What’s next for Syd Bee?
I have several group shows in 2018, plus a few other secret projects.