The Call -Neda (oil on linen) 2009

Gregg Chadwick‘s Interview with Artists4Freedom for Iran:

1. What is your background as an artist? Are you a full time artist? If not what is your main occupation?

I make my living as a painter. I began to study painting when I was a young boy and I cannot remember not making art. I currently show with the Lisa Coscino Gallery in Pacific Grove, California, the Julie Nester Gallery in Park City, Utah (the mountain town where the Sundance Film Festival is held each year), and I am just beginning to work with a wonderful new gallery in Los Angeles: the Look Gallery. In addition to the US, I have studied in and shown my paintings in Italy, Japan and London and hope some day to show these new paintings, inspired by the heroism of the Green Wave, in a free Iran.

2. Do you work with other media? What is your favorite material?

My painting process is grounded in traditional materials. I start with primed linen canvas made in Belgium (as it has been done for centuries). At times, I paint on wood or even on zinc and copper plates. For each painting I grind some of my pigments into linseed oil to make oil colors. I also create monotypes and drawings.
The material or medium I use changes with each piece I work on, each idea I consider. As I work with the surface and the paint, I am physically engaged in the now, pulling moments from our flux of time and space. The figures in my paintings express what it means to be alive in the mixing and crossing of the 21st century, here in the U.S. and across the globe.

3. How do you choose the thematic of your paintings?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

-Martin Luther King
The art writer Holland Cotter wrote that the art of Tibet is an “art of fusion” helping us learn how cultures “intersect, interact, serendipitously echo one another.” It is these intersections, these interactions and echoes that fuel much of my work, just as it fuels the work of many of the writers, musicians, painters, photographers, and sculptors who are interested in inclusion rather than exclusion in thought, concept, and content.
The political thread in my artwork is part of a 21st century artistic movement indebted to the political art of Goya, Gericault, Picasso, Max Beckmann and the Chicano Graphic Arts Movement of California. It continues today with artists such as Mark Vallen, Eleanor Antin, Shepard Fairey, Sussan Deyhim and Shirin Neshat.

As I write this, my tweetdeck pulses with thoughts from around the globe. Huston Smith’s words are true: “Our private lives continuously intersect with the history of our time.” My own work, whether involving Tibet, Tehran, or New Orleans, is a response to the stories of our time.
4. What made you paint “Neda” and other works related to the situation in Iran? How many works do you have already on this series?

“Listen to the reeds as they sway apart,

hear them speak of lost friends.”

-Rumi

The fact that in an instant, I was suddenly ushered into the last moments of Neda’s life along with millions around the world had a significant effect on me. The distance between California and that street in Tehran was cut thin and I felt it. I knew the last thing the oppressor wants is for an innocent’s face to be remembered at all. I knew her face needed to be remembered, but not that of a victim obscured by blood as she lay on the street. Rather, I saw Neda as a human being with personhood, with a face of beauty and of innocence but also with cause. I was moved by the image before me and I wanted to act.

The painting of Neda is not an elegy. It is real. Her life was not a fiction and her death was not just a video. It too was real.

With video or photography there’s always a piece of glass between the artist and the subject. But with a painting, the subject emerges from the touch of my hands with paint on the canvas itself. I wanted to paint a portrait of Neda, of her alive but not untouched by her own death; a painting of her looking at us directly, seeing us seeing her.

I have eight works in various stages related to the Green Wave; images of both the living and the dead. What I discovered is that I paint these to mark those who have been killed in order to remember, and to honor those who are protesting in the streets in Iran. Their paintings are not elegies, but calls to action and calls to honor. It is easy to turn away from the struggles and the horrors that the people in Tehran are going through but I did not want to avert my gaze or my brush. To do what I do best to engage the world, I paint images. That’s who I am.

5. What is, in your opinion, the role of artists in situations such as Human Rights violations?
In a museum or gallery, the eyes of painted portraits follow you as you walk around the room. There is life within them. It’s the artist’s way of drawing you in.

When a Buddhist image is created, only when it is finished are the eyes painted in. The eyes give life to the Buddha or the saint. As artists, we “paint in” the eyes, we paint in the freedom, the spark that injustice threatens to take away. Artists should never forget their own power to do this.

It is the poets and the writers and the artists of the world who so often are the ones to speak the truth. If we do not do it, how will the truth be told? How will the justice workers in the streets or on the mountainside be supported? How will they know that we understand? That we care? That we stand in solidarity? If we ignore the call, how can we live with ourselves?

The stories that need to be told, the paintings that need to be done, are global. In times of crisis, when some administrations would rather have us “go shopping,” artists instead are the ones to keep their eyes and ears open and their hands actively at work. By bearing witness, we force those who commit acts of state-sponsored injustice to look upon their own actions. We don’t let them forget.

Visual art is a form of language that can be invoked by disparate communities to create a symbol, to shine a spotlight where it is needed to help those in the struggle. If one is part of a movement that gets recognized through art, such as an Iranian woman or man protesting on the streets of Tehran, the act of expression can open a dialogue and can be life changing. I hope to draw people in through the lyrical nature of my work. It draws people in so they say, “This is a beautiful person. Who is she? What is her story? What is she saying to me?”

I am convinced that a powerfully composed, vibrant painting is more than just relevant. Painted images are both timeless and immediate and can cut through the visual white noise that surrounds us. As I have found with my recent works concerning the struggle for freedom in Iran, paintings can speak across oceans and cultures where words are not enough.

6. What are your plans for the future?

To continue to bear witness.