Expressionism, folk art, art brut, illustration, realist as well as naïve – her art could be described with all these words. But the most important feature of her works is that each one defines her as a person. We talk with Canadian artist Isabella Di Sclafani, who decided switch from science to art school guided only by what truly made her passionate. And since then, she has never questioned her decision.
Tell us about the moment when you realised that you wanted to become an artist. Did you you always knew this was your path?
I think the moment hit me when I was 18 and I had received my acceptance from McGill University in Occupational Therapy. Instead of being happy, I felt overwhelmed and uneasy. I’d been studying science since high school and although I found it interesting, I just wasn’t passionate about it. I remember my grade ten Chemistry Teacher telling my friends and I that science was a smarter choice towards a more financially secure career path. So I chose science over art thinking it was the “right thing” to do at the time.
When I went to see my parents and told them that I wanted to switch to art school, I was so nervous. But they understood and supported my decision. I realize today that their support was extremely important at a very crucial time in my life. I prepared a portfolio of work right away, applied to art school and got accepted. I’ve never looked back and have never questioned my decision. It was the right thing to do and felt 100% right.
I’m not sure if I’ve always known that I wanted to be an artist. Art has always been part of my life throughout my entire childhood. My dad was an avid traveller and would take the whole family on trips to Europe and across North America. Whichever city we visited, the museums were always the first place we would visit. I have memories of walking all those long halls in the Louvre and looking at gigantic paintings on the wall. It was a normal part of our upbringing. Later on, my mom would always buy us art supplies and let us draw or paint if we wanted to. I guess art was encouraged in our family because it was genuinely appreciated.
What do you think about art and education? Studying art is a must to become an artist?
I think that’s a tricky question. Art is both talent and hard work. Personally, going to art school was very important to me. It taught me a lot and made me a better artist. School helps to learn technique, to get new ideas, to discover new approaches to your own art so that you can push it beyond your own self-imposed limits. If you’re lucky, and you get the opportunity to learn from a good teacher, that experience is invaluable and can be life-changing. And when I mean a good teacher, I mean a person that you can relate to and that can push you and teach you to do the best art that you can make.
Having said this, there are plenty of self-taught artists out there. If they’re good, it’s because they have talent and also work hard. Talent alone can only get you so far.
How would you describe your style when painting?
I find difficult to describe my style. It’s a hybrid of many different styles all put together: expressionism, folk art, art brut, illustration, realism, and naïve art. I listen to music a lot while I paint. It helps me to zone out and to forget the rest of the world for a little while. My studio has no door, so sometimes the TV will be on in the living room and I’ll listen to that while I paint as well. Any little distraction from my own thoughts in my head helps me focus better on my work while I paint.
Why do you choose creating portraits mainly? What can you find on people’s expressions or what are you trying to communicate by painting them?
I only began portraits in my thirties (after I got married and had kids). When I was in school and after I graduated, I painted mostly nudes for almost 13 years before I began to explore faces. I switched from nudes to faces because I felt that I had done enough nudes and needed something new to explore in my work.
I find faces an intriguing subject to paint, but not every face is interesting to me. There has to be something in the face that strikes me, that makes me stop and look at it. Sometimes, it’s the eyes, sometimes maybe only one eye. Or it can be the ear or the nose or the teeth. It doesn’t always have to be the entire face that is interesting. The hair is also important. It can change a face very dramatically.
I think painting is just a vehicle for my own emotions. I cannot just paint. I have to put my heart and soul into my painting. To paint is to breath, to be alive. What you see in my work is everything that I am as a person. It has always been like that for me, even when I was painting nudes.
Who are your main influences and referents?
When I was in school, Betty Goodwin had a show at the Montreal Museum in 1989. Her work blew my mind. The way she painted the figure and the grand scale of her work was eye opening. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It influenced my approach to my own work. The impressionists have always been a favourite for me since I was a teenager, especially Edgar Degas. I love Andrew Wyeth’s work as well.
Today with the internet, I’ve discovered so many contemporary artists from across the globe: Jonas Wood, Tamara Muller, Mamma Andersson, Gundi Dietz, Joanna Concejo, Faye Moorhouse, Gill Button, María Herreros, Andrew Ludick, Jockum Nordstrom, Genieve Figgis. These are just a few of my favourite artists at the moment.
What requirements should an artist or an art piece have to get to you? Are you trying to reflect some of this in your artworks?
I guess the only requirement for me is that an art piece is made well. After painting nudes for so many years, I flinch when I see nude art that is done badly. I can see all the mistakes whether I want to or not. The same can be said when I look at other portrait paintings. I can’t get away from having a critical eye when looking at other art. It’s difficult for me to describe what specific kind of art inspires me. I just love art. I love all aspects of art – so many different types and styles of art will inspire me.
You said: “This painting started out with a girl wearing a dress and no sunglasses. Two days later, and it's a swimmer” to describe one of your paintings, titled Bubblehead 10. What happens in the process to make your mind change from your first idea to a completely different one?
There’s really nothing special in this process. If a painting isn’t working out, I have to be ruthless and just destroy it and start again. An artist can’t get too precious with their work. Not everything I make always turns out good. I have to be my own editor and know when and how to fix a painting to make sure it turns out well. Sometimes the best feeling is when I take my jar of gesso and white out an existing painting. It’s exhilarating and liberating all at the same time. Usually the next painting I make is always better than the first one that I covered over. And sometimes, I have to gesso yet again before I can get it right.
Do you remember some special history behind any of your art pieces you don’t mind to share?
When I was preparing my portfolio for art school, I remember staying up all night to finish a particular landscape painting. I was using this tiny brush to paint in all the reflections in the water. It felt like I was painting the entire ocean. I don’t know what time I went to bed, but the next morning, I woke up to my parents’ excitement over that painting and how much they loved the finished work. My dad still has that painting in his apartment today.
Many people say that one of the greatest things about books is that it doesn’t matter how many times you read them, you always can find some new meaning in them. Do you think this happens in art as well? Tell us about it.
Yes, I think art is the same way. Sometimes, we’re not conscious of why we like a painting. It just is. I don’t think we have to consciously seek new meanings each time we view the same art piece. Usually, just enjoying the moment while viewing it is enough. I think it’s magical when an artwork can give you pleasure.
How is your relationship with social media? Do you think it’s something necessary to get more feedback with people nowadays?
I’ve had a blog for a few years now and it’s nice to talk about my work and process, but I find a blog to be kind of one-sided. I’m never sure if anyone is really interested in what I have to say.
On the other hand, I love Instagram. I’m still new to it as I only got my very first cell phone in May 2015. It’s quite fascinating to use the internet to be able to connect with so many other artists from everywhere and so quickly as well. It’s fantastic to see what is happening in the art world in a very immediate way. This kind of interaction was virtually impossible when I was in art school. It has broadened my appreciation of art and has made me more conscious of where I stand as an artist in today’s contemporary art scene.
Is social media necessary for an artist? I think so. I work all day in my studio by myself. Some days, I don’t even go out at all, unless there’s no food in the fridge. Then I go out. But otherwise, I have a pretty solitary social life, other than my immediate family. It’s self-imposed. I don’t think all artists work like I do. But for someone like me, social media is an important connection to the rest of the world. Without it, I would feel isolated and unsure whether my art was relevant for today’s society. Feedback is important for an artist. But at the same time, an artist needs to learn and know when to step back and not listen to it as well. Otherwise, it can affect the integrity of your work.
Is there any new path you want to follow now the year is close to its end?
Yes, I want to continue portraits, as I haven’t quite finished exploring everything about the face. I have many large canvases that are waiting and ready in my studio. I need to go bigger and get away from the small scale that I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. I’d also like to make more than one face on a canvas, but I said the same last year and never did it. Maybe 2016 will be different. I think I have too many faces that I still need to paint and one face at a time still seems to work better for me right now.