Interview with E. M. Saniga
“Maybe art can even show us that everything in this life is beautiful” — E M Saniga
JSS in Civita is pleased to share a recent conversation with E.M. Saniga, an intriguing and enigmatic artist based in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. Simultaneously the distinguished Dana Johnson Professor of Information Technology at the University of Delaware and an avid observer of nature, he paints rural and urban landscapes, still lifes and figures with a palette, construction and diffused light of his own unique realism. His artistic formation includes studies at the University of Delaware, Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and privately under Bruce Kurland. Saniga’s insatiable curiosity in the fields of mathematics, nature and art has led to published mathematical and statistical papers on diverse topics such as “Bayesian Tests for Matched Proportions”, “Planning Art Museum Exhibitions”, “The Relationship Between Size and maturation in vitro in the unstimulated human oocyte”, and “Some Optimal Policies for Management of Wildlife,” as well as several hundred delectable fine paintings on panel, several of which were most recently revealed to the public in a solo exhibition at steven harvey fine art projects in New York in October, 2010.
Many thanks to the artist for permission to post these thoughts and images.
JSS) How did the urge to begin drawing and painting come about? Was it a passion from your youth, or a new discovery later on? What aspects of drawing and painting interested you? What contributions does painting provide in your daily life?
ES) I grew up in a rural environment, in nature. Nature produces its own sensations and interesting outcomes, some are cruel, in all there is a layer of beauty. Most of my youth was spent in an area of Pennsylvania where coal is mined and steel was produced, and, in fact, I worked in a large steel mill in the summers while in college. There were different sensations in that place, strong but beautiful nonetheless. As a boy I toured Dachau and Auschwitz with our family. Both places made me feel like I was carrying a truck on my shoulder. It had nothing to do with beauty but much to do with life. Years later I saw the Anselm Kiefer show in Philadelphia and the same truck seemed to park itself on my shoulder. That is one thing art can do.
What does one do with all of these sensations inside of you? Me, I drew and I painted.
All of this is a big part of my life.
JSS) Given your parallel formation in science and art, it would be interesting to hear what overlaps, similarities and polarities you have discovered between the world of mathematics and science and that of drawing and painting. Are there lessons you can learn in one discipline and apply to the other, and in doing so, what learning curves take place? Does one field enhance the other?
ES) There are a few similarities between what I do in painting and in mathematical model building, which is the primary concern of my research. Both are abstractions of reality, and both can yield unexpected outcomes, which is part of their magic, and both involve invention.
When I first started to understand the physical principles of light I would open a book on Vermeer and look closely to see how the darks, the lights, the reflected lights, the cast shadows and the halftones related to each other and see how they fit the formal model of light taught to me by Bruce Kurland. Vermeer’s objects were modeled analytically but he added great inventiveness. It looked like Braque or Picasso could have painted some passages. The result was a living, breathing thing.
Later, I would go to nearby Philadelphia to look closely at the work of the American painter Thomas Eakins. The clarity of his modeling was as high as Vermeer’s. And he had his own inventions. He, too, made life.
There are hundreds of other painters that modeled light wonderfully that way; I believe the method originated with Leonardo.
This idea of modeling light is closely related to modeling mathematically; it is an analytical approach to a problem of abstraction and it is very structured. I mention it because it is part of my thought process when painting.
I don’t want to argue that this approach is some kind of rocket science or that one has to paint that way. Some great painters, past and present, modeled analytically; many other great painters didn’t. And it is just a starting point – a way of evaluating relationships – and it has no impact on inventiveness. For me, it helps.
As an aside I am also interested in sculpture, in particular relief sculpture, although I have never made a relief.
I was always amazed how the Greeks and Romans could construct such convincing reliefs; I thought there must be some formal process for modeling depth just like there are formal processes for modeling the other two dimensions of perspective. Art historians told me that wasn’t true. In fact, I could find nothing published on the topic. Finally, Bill Homer, the art historian who wrote an important book on Eakins, gave me a copy of Eakins’ lectures which Eakins gave at the Pennsylvania Academy in the nineteenth century. (Eakins was quite the mathematician, I found) In those lecture notes was a short explanation on modeling relief. Eakins developed a rule of thumb geometric procedure, or heuristic, for the third dimension, or depth, of relief. I’ve started from there and have come up with the solutions to the problem based only on geometry and will publish them sometime, unless, of course, some journal referee tells me that it has already been published! They could be useful to the relief sculptor in much the same way perspective is useful to the painter.
JSS) “If you are going to paint life, you have to paint all of life, not parts of it,” you once said during a slide lecture about your work at Lock Haven University, and I would like to explore this thought further with you. There seems to be a critical threshold in picture-making with “reality” as its label: a) creating a construction of reality that includes its inherent harshness and sweetness and b) seeking to select one or the other – the perfect & beautiful or the brutal & sad. Where and how does, or should, the ego intervene in the making of art? What is the purpose of a painting for you? And how do you consider your role as an artist?
ES) Can I take that first quote back?
JSS) Of course!
ES) I paint all of life – at least my life – but I don’t want to be adamant about anything in art. Honestly, one can’t, because there are no rules about what to paint or how to paint. It all is so artist dependent.
Can you imagine someone telling Corot that his range was limited?
When I make a painting it seems it may be because of some sensation; this can seem very old fashioned with its echoes of romanticism. Or it could be that something is just plain interesting and doesn’t involve one’s self, sort of like what T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound did as writers. Or even something else which I can’t pinpoint. Someone told me that Stravinsky argued that the highest level of appreciation of music is when you just appreciate it for itself, not for an emotion. Or something like that!
Representational painting is so old fashioned anyway, but we still do it in spite of the resistance to it in today’s world of art.
Its purpose may have to do with Oscar Wilde’s claim that nature follows art, or that it is the job of the artist to explain nature to the viewer. But I really don’t know.
I haven’t thought of the role of ego? Maybe Francis Bacon was right when he said it is perhaps vanity that drives artists.
Taking all of this together you can see for me at least, that there is a world of uncertainty in art, and that ranges from what to paint to how to paint to trying to decide when something is done. Maybe that uncertainty is some of the allure of art.
JSS) About Wilde’s idea of the artist “explaining nature to the viewer”: Does this come to mind when painting? What do you feel you tend to see in nature, from general to more idiosyncratic? And when a synthetic element is included, what role does it have in relation to nature?
ES) Let’s talk about nature without the human part for a second. There have been many painters that have painted its prettiness, even though it is very nasty out there even in a suburban meadow each night. Add humans and it can even be nastier. I think the lesson is that beauty is bigger than pretty.
I like the line in a Billy Bragg song where he sang that he wasn’t looking for a new England, he was just looking for another girl.
Maybe we complicate things too much when we start thinking about big ideas like what should we be looking for and why. Sometimes it might be better to just look and hope to see. This might even contradict Wilde’s statement so who really knows?
The synthetic part of my painting has to do with my painting things that aren’t there next to the subject, but they are only inventions in the sense that they aren’t there at the time. Everything is real or could be real like the dress I might paint on a female model when she is standing naked in front of me.
JSS) Naturally, your lengthy immersion in the countryside of Pennsylvania with its hunting fields, golf courses, meadows, stables and the people and animals that populate them has weaved itself into your many paintings. Yet having looked at numerous paintings of yours in person and in print, I never once got the sense that you are trying to make any “statement” about who you are and where you come from, or about what is good and what is bad, or what is beautiful and what is not (like I read in an online article).
For example, “Stolzfoos Doe” or “Coyotes in a West Texas Landscape” command attention because there is an unexpected subject of something cold and brutal, but the subdued manner and colors of the painting suggest slower reflection, like a form of adult introspection. Rather than just happy moments, how can inexplicable events or images that affect one’s lifelong perspective, or that continue to haunt the mind, be conducive to appreciating life more, to contributing more to humanity, to creating a picture?
ES) I try to make paintings, not statements, and I’m not trying to be elusive when I say that because I know it is very fashionable now to have a “statement” to show people along with your paintings. For me, paintings and statements are different things and they have different languages to express them – words on one hand, paint on the other. I observe things and make paintings based upon those observations. None of these things are necessarily good or bad; to me the things I paint all are at least interesting to me, or generate sensations in me although there can be other reasons as well. It might be that at least one layer is about beauty. Go back to Kiefer’s show in Philadelphia; his work was beautiful to me but it also had the attribute of placing a truck on my shoulders. I look at Cezanne and physical things happen. That again, is what art does. Other work affects me in ways I can’t describe. Life does that as well.
For example, I have stood in a supermarket and looked at a t-bone steak and been horrified about what it was. I have stood there and found it beautiful as well. I have also thought about how good it would taste when I took it off of the grill. Of course there are other things about meat that one can’t put a handle on. Why do you paint it? For the first, second, third or fourth reason? Or all of them? Do you not paint it because one layer is ugly?
If I recall correctly, Francis Bacon’s interview with David Sylvester addressed some of the same things about meat. He even had another thought – that it could be his carcass in the supermarket case! Thankfully, that one never came to me.
Bacon scares me but he is always a beautiful painter in my opinion.
Bonnard and Vuillard are also beautiful painters but there can be a layer of something troubling in their work.
Chardin, Braque, and Morandi produced work that to me is about beauty, and in them I find a layer that is the true essence of something; perhaps that is enough.
But all of that work, from the most frightening to the most pleasing, reflects nature in general and humanity in particular, and that may be the target of a representational painter.
Maybe art can even show us that everything in this life is beautiful, an idea expressed very well in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire.
JSS) When looking at your paintings, I would think you might agree, that all the layers in life are actually beautiful, valuable for consideration, or full of awe – “awesome,” referring to the original meaning of that word. It seems to be a “spiritual” concern of artists, a form of respect for things that awe, and by that I don’t necessarily mean any particular religious belief or canon. Some artists might feel it to a greater extent than others, and perhaps that can be seen and felt by the viewer.
ES) I agree, all of the layers of life are full of awe for me and thus valuable and a worthy subject!
JSS) I read that you work under a variety of lighting conditions – outdoors, indoors under natural light, and in the evenings under artificial light. What about your choice of wood surface, smaller scale, and palette? When and how do photography, memory or invention intervene in the process?
ES) I work in the studio under a hazy glass natural light where the light is controlled by two large steel shutters I built. I also work outside. I have worked under artificial light when I have painted the figure but I prefer the studio or outside light because I understand that light better and thus it is easier to get things right. Inside the studio, for me, it seems easier to get things right when the sky is grey, maybe because objects seem to be more humble and alive in that light. I also prefer smaller paintings, although I have done a number of 5 or 6 feet, and I prefer a hard surface or an unstretched canvas because I edit so much.
I use everything available in making paintings. I generally start at least parts of a painting from life and then I edit using memory, photographs, or whatever else seems to help. For example, the painting Blood Trail, which is illustrated here, started out as a plein air summer landscape in the meadow outside my studio. It ended as a winter landscape with a blood trail, all from memory. But I painted many winter meadows before I did Blood Trail, and I looked closely at blood on the snow many times as a hunter.
The painting Stolzfoos Doe came about one day when I was running past the Amish neighbors farm and I saw the doe hanging from his tree. I ran home, got my painting things and spent several hours painting the scene exactly as it appeared and never touched it again.
JSS) You studied with Seymour Remenick and Arthur DeCosto at the Pennsylvania Academy, Steve Tanis at the University of Delaware, as well as with T.S. Daly and Bruce Kurland. Can you talk about some of the most important concepts and lessons these teachers imparted to you?
ES) I learned valuable things about the figure from Seymour Remenick, and much about drawing the figure from Steve Tanis. Arthur Decosta, also at the Pa Academy, and a good friend of Carl Laughlin, the painter and framemaker, helped me with materials and preparation. So did Carl, with his encyclopedic knowledge of technique and materials and the history of art. Carl, a gruff former infantryman in WWII, will tell you right away if there is something dumb or bad about your work if you ask, and I always do! Tom Daly helped me understand light for first time and introduced me to Bruce Kurland, who was at the Arts Student League with Edwin Dickinson years ago. Bruce taught light like he was giving a science lecture, and when I learned the principles and saw that Vermeer, Eakins, and many others that I admired worked off of those principles, it became part of what I do.
JSS) Students interested in studying art today have the choice of learning on their own, attending an art institution or college where they can concentrate on art and art history alone, or liberal arts universities, which emphasize the election of a major alongside outside course requirements in other fields of the humanities and sciences. How do you feel about your own formation as an artist, and were someone to ask your advice today, in which direction might you encourage them? What advantages or disadvantages do you feel exist in these 3 options?
ES) My own formation as an artist was such that I wanted to make paintings of a certain type and I sought out good practitioners to learn from after I had the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Many good painters have come from academies, from universities or even taught themselves.
At a University, such as the one where I teach, I believe the curriculum stresses the idea of art as philosophy, not as craft. Academies such as the Pennsylvania Academy or even the Leipzig academy (I have heard) stress craft, not philosophy. I wonder why there is such a difference?
As a painter you always end up on your own anyway – it has to be you that decides what to paint and how to paint it if your work is going to matter. Teachers can help you get started but ultimately it is your responsibility so the avenue one takes to get there may not matter. I believe history has shown that to be true.
JSS) You have cited a long list of artists that have shaped how you think about painting – Vermeer, Velazquez, Titian, Tiepolo, Chardin, Corot, Ingres, Courbet, Degas, Vuillard, Constable, Homer, Eakins, Gwen John, Dickinson, and Sargent, and contemporaries Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Anselm Kiefer, Antonio Garcia Lopez, and Frank Auerbach. Amongst other contemporaries or lesser known artists, who have you been looking at? And in literature or music, do you find any influences on your thinking process?
ES) Last week I saw four contemporary realist shows in New York and all were as terrific as they were different. They were shows of Anselm Kiefer, William Copley from the 70’s, Luc Tuymans, and Kurt Knobelsdorf, who spent four months living with us and has become a good friend.
It is hard to look at good painting and not be influenced, maybe not directly, but you find things creeping into your work that are references to others. And I think that is good. Nothing I know is done in a vacuum, why should art be?
While not contemporaries I could add many works in Italy that are particularly important to me such as the Pontormo fresco cycle in the Certosa at Galluzzo, which defines beauty for me in a modern way, even though it was done in the 16th century.
Duchamp and Beuys, the conceptual artists, also appeal to me, not conceptually, but because of their quality as draftsmen and because of the beauty of their objects.
I like how Joyce took his every day upbringing in Dublin and made it universal in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And who wouldn’t want to use paint as beautifully as he used words? What a formal and conceptual model for a painter he is!
For the same reason I’ve been looking at Stanley Spencer more recently – Cookham to him was like Dublin was to Joyce.
Earlier I mentioned the film Wings of Desire, which expanded my notion of beauty.
And the David Sylvester interview with Francis Bacon is a wonderful read for any painter because of its honesty and lack of artspeak – it all made sense to me!
JSS) What is your painting practice like now? You regularly get together with a number of other artists in Pennsylvania, including the painter Carl Laughlin who makes your beautiful wooden frames. You also offer a summer residency at your home for PAFA recipients of the Charles X Carlson residency prize. How did this residency come about? What kind of significance does this exchange with experienced and young artists provide?
ES) I step into the studio very early and look at things I am working on. Some days I will paint until dark. Lately, I don’t work after dark. Artificial light changes the way things look.
I also paint the landscape and views inside the house. When I travel I take a paint box and paint the new light I see. I think it is like the golfer that is always hitting practice balls; they are preparing. And light is so dependent upon location. My first thought when stepping off the plane in Venice and seeing the morning light was: No wonder these painters were so good!
It is the same with drawing. I draw because it is a challenge and it is practice, just like golf practice, but images come out of it. Drawing is important to me and I study it as much as I do painting.
I make paintings in the same way I do research. I start with a concept and a picture in my mind of what I want to do. Then what comes out is mostly different. It might be that a studio is a lab, like Picasso said, where one runs experiments. The only difference is that Picasso ran different experiments and got different results. For some reason I get different results with the same experiment!
My friends, like Carl Laughlin, help me to evaluate the results. I listen to what they say but invariably make my own decisions.
Bruce Kurland said to me: “Try not to be an artist when you paint – just make the painting.” Later I read where Matisse said essentially the same thing: “Leave the art out when you paint,” he said, and then added, “If you are lucky, it will enter on its own.”
That is always in my mind when I paint.
We sponsor an award given to a Pennsylvania Academy student called the Charles and Lois Carlson Landscape Painting Prize. It is named for a fine painter that lived near us and made a very nice life for himself without seeking fame. For the award, the faculty at the academy choose a student each year to spend 8-12 weeks with us, living in a small guest house on our property. We also provide board. The Carlson Trust provides them with financial support to make up for the money they would have made if they weren’t staying with us. When they are with us the students are turned loose to just paint for the whole summer in the area, no requirements, no rules. All come to us very well trained in painting; this summer an excellent young painter, Paul Metrinko , won the award and spent the summer painting landscape. I think I told him two things that could have helped him. One was to experiment with key, with paint, with everything. The other was that a sky may grade left to right or vice versa depending upon the sun. The latter was a physical truth that he seemed to miss.
We have hosted 11 students so far and I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I also seek their feedback on my own work, and it has always been valuable.
JSS) How much of your art has to do with the construction “story” of the artist, with the representation of nature, and with the paint itself? What kind of balance are you seeking, and where do you feel you err or do something “right”? Where can this balance be different when painting a portrait, a still life, and a landscape?
ES) I talked about the first two earlier; one being the concept, the other the execution. The third – the paint – is important too. I like the look of paint, paint quality that is, without it being dishonest. Again, it seems one has to have good luck when painting if one is going to get something that is almost right.
I err frequently in all areas, probably more in the first and the third, and I destroy much of what I do.
I never thought about the difference in landscape, still life and the portrait until you asked: I think that when I can get the “presence” of a person in a portrait I am more willing to give up the other properties because I have ruined so many portraits when trying to improve them.
JSS) As artists, we all have our influences, which can include “non-art” sources like what we had for breakfast or family upbringing, hands-on experiences with abstract patterns of light, color, scenes and surfaces that move our artistic temperament, as well as a specific catalogue of artworks that have shifted us as painters. Is it a relevant concern for artists to create something uniquely personal or new? Why should painters paint?
ES) The first question is as hard as the second. The easy answer to the first is that one can paint new ideas in an old way, old ideas in a new way or new ideas in a new way. Or, I guess, if your painting is personal, anything goes.
We should paint because the world would be a cold place without painting in it, don’t you think?