Interview: Sophia Flood in Gowanus

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein / Sophia Flood and I met at one of my art-handling jobs. We became friends, and I’ve admired her work since visiting her studio in Gowanus. I wanted to find out more about her process, and this past Tuesday when I paid another visit, we talked about her four most recent paintings.

[Image at top: Sophia Flood, Small Cemetery, 2015, oil on canvas, acrylic, Flashe, and spray paint on concrete.

Sophia Flood, Inner Shade, 2015, oil and spray paint on canvas, latex paint, flashe, plaster.
Sophia Flood, Center of the Earth, 2015, oil, graphite and bleach on canvas, plastic shell, sponge and mirror in plaster, 56 x 46 x 9 inches.
Sophia Flood, Wishing Well, 2015, oil and oil pastel on canvas, concrete, acrylic, pom poms.

RKS: What is the last painting you did, and how do you feel about it?

SF: Wishing Well. It’s
an image of a hole in the ground I saw in Maine–or at least that’s
what I was thinking about when I started it. The first attempt is on
the back. I thought it was god-awful, so I unstretched it. Actually,
all of these paintings have really bad attempts on the back of them.
It’s impossible for me to push through when I have a bad start because
the paint is so thin, with washes and scumbling–I can’t hide
mistakes. I don’t gesso the canvases or paint thickly, so if it’s off
to bad start the painting is doomed. The title Wishing Well made sense to me–it’s the closest I could get to describing my logic.

RKS: How is the wishing well close to your logic?

SF: The
idea of a wishing well is so dumb and superstitious and kind of
sentimental and that is how I approach most things. In terms of color,
it’s a departure. A huge part of these paintings has been figuring out
color relationships. For a long time I was working in the blue range
and I liked the light that results from that.

RKS: Tell me about the color in Wishing Well.

It’s funny because it takes colors from an object, these pom-pom things
[points and prods tri-color pom pom embedded in this painting’s
sculptural element] that came from a bracelet a friend gave me.  I
hadn’t been thinking about this kind of color [the colors are kind
of commercial yarn, red yellow green]. For me, color comes in obsessive
phases, and this bracelet abruptly introduced a new color scheme
that seemed really odd and appealing. I was fascinated with it.

had to figure out how I could make the transition to these red, green
and golden colors and still have the painting make sense to me. When
I tried it on the other side I was just barfing because I hadn’t
learned those colors yet. I added the pink and it started to make more
sense. I wasn’t trying to create an specific atmosphere using color as
much as I was in the other ones, but that’s OK–I created a
different atmosphere that I didn’t really intend.

the images come from pretty specific lived moments. I am try to
remember the moment as I paint and it becomes more solidified and fixed.
Like a personal myth that gets much more diffused and strange.

RKS: But they are always images, as opposed to process-based work?

SF: Yeah,
I’m not just going in there and mucking around, responding to what’s
happening. Which I definitely do, but there has to be a vision driving
it. That’s not something that I set out thinking about, it is
something I realized from making lots of work and not finding what I was
looking for if I didn’t have some kind of reference point that was
significant to me. But I have also just sat down and painted because I
wanted to make some type of mark or make something and think that I will
come up with some reason to keep going by the time I am midway.

RKS: Have you ever done that and been happy with the result?

I have, but usually I felt like it was a lie and it felt unsatisfying. I
don’t feel like I’m that strict with my paintings, but maybe I’m just a
different kind of strict. There are all of these tiny decisions
within each painting that are acceptance or rejection of something.
You’re honing your internal sense of strictness or whatever you want
to call it. If you think about it in that way, I’m chock full of
rejection–a million things happen in these paintings that I just
can’t deal with. Or remind me too much of a kind of painting that I
don’t want to make.

RKS: Example?

SF: Not
that I could show you because I usually get rid of those marks. But
when the paint gets too thick or blended it reminds me of learning how
to paint and how frustrating that was and how I never thought it
made sense to try to do something in the representational painting
tradition. I never really got why that was so important.

mark-making has to be about a certain feeling and I want the marks to
have connotations outside of painting. Like the staining and brushing, I
hesitate to talk about the body being a huge part of it, but in
some ways it is. There is a painter Albert Pinkham Ryder,
an American painter. He is cool and a weirdo and he would talk about
not wanting his paintings to look too painty, that was his word, and I
read that and I knew exactly what he meant. So he would mix his
paint with mayonnaise and dirt from his boot and try to get it outside
of being too referential to painting. Which I think you also can’t
escape because now that I am painting more, I realize how much I am
talking with other painters in these paintings.

Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein: What’s with the shelves at the bottom of each painting?

Sophia Flood: I’m pairing down the sculpture-painting relationship in these, or trying to find a way to press the materiality in the sculptural aspects of my practice right up against the painting. I don’t want it to be illustrative necessarily and I don’t want it to have a super-direct relationship to the image. I’m interested in it being this more peripheral, felt, intangible part of the painting. I’m sticking with it for now, but it’s not something I would normally do.

I don’t like calling them shelves or stands because I don’t want them to be like functional things. I think that if anything they are more of a memorial space. They have these objects embedded in them, and they have a lot of different connotations. This one [Small Cemetery] is doing something else because it is like a big blob of paint and that one really excited me because it became part of the painting. It didn’t try to be anything else necessarily. It made me realize that all I want these sculptural parts to do is just be part of painting. I just want them to exist in the same thrust as the painting so I am planning it out as much as I need to but not over-thinking it.

RKS: They have a similar structural quality as the pictorial shapes do.

SF: Right, good. I’m also trying to make them specific. I’m excited about sculpture and working with found things, but what I really like is the familiar moments like this [points to plastic sea shell impression in the plaster under Inner Shade]. Tactility can be transporting. The goal of these forms is to give a sense of life outside of the art. Not general but specific, in the way that the forms in the paintings are. And it’s not just that every painting gets a thing underneath. It has to be part of what I am doing in the painting. I’m not really a rules person, so part of me gets uncomfortable with the structure or this series. I like things to happen fairly organically in my work. 

RKS: How do you start a painting?

SF: I build my own stretcher, stretch the canvas. The first painting I did in this body of work I did on canvas drop cloth. I don’t see anything wrong with painting on canvas drop cloth but Ben [Pederson, studio mate and fiancee] gave me a bunch of canvas for Christmas and I liked it, I like how absorbent it is. He also gave me some linen, but the weave is different–not as absorbent.

Some of them are primed with rabbit-skin glue. I only put down one layer because that leaves the right level of absorbency and still protects the canvas. In this one [Center of the Earth] I did a bunch of turpy, washy-stain things before the glue. I wanted to see what would happen if I put it a lot of liquid into it and then introduce the rabbit skin glue over that. The rabbit skin glue makes the canvas harder so I can do the scratchy marks, so they translate a little better, but once I put that on the stains don’t tend to seep into the fabric as much. So I tried to do a little combo thing with this painting.

There is bleach in two spots in this painting. The two main pedestal forms in the canvas were bleach. I have a hard time figuring out how to use white paint in these paintings but I wanted a light area so I tried bleach. I did some pouring, I waited for what I poured to dry, and then I put the rabbit skin glue on top. They all work a little bit differently. I’m excited about these four paintings because, along with several paintings that came right before them, it was the first time I had ever made paintings by themselves. Now I feel comfortable enough to add in other things and that feels very natural for me.

RKS: The places where you’ve done the alternating with glue and paint there is a surface level tension, a dynamic.

SF: Yes, the depth in the canvas is the depth of the painting, they don’t really use much illusionistic depth. So they end being kind of flat and I like how weird that looks. There is some perspective, but probably not correctly used. Negative forms and positive forms trade places and not necessarily intentionally but it’s based on how I’m building them.

RKS: Can you describe how this bottom one quarter of “Center of the Earth” looks?

SF: There’s a ground that has some kind of pattern on it, or something that approaches being a pattern but is maybe just jumbled shapes that resemble each other and that is being bisected by a pale pink wedge shape that also has slightly different color shapes scrubbed out of it. Then there’s a darker diagonal shape that indicates a shadow or certain slant of light creeping in. All of this activity is happening in front of these two forms that are in the center of the painting. Whatever the light is in this painting is casting a shadow and the stuff at the bottom here is in the shadow.

RKS: What about the area between the two forms?

SF: This part is weird. I have no idea because it was supposed to be the negative space in between the two square things and then when I painted over it it became it’s own thing. It actually has a more dimensional presence than either of those things.

RKS: It kind of floats above.

SF: It’s definitely something I didn’t intend.

RKS: Kind of inflating into the space.

SF: Yeah, sometimes with these paintings the ground has more presence than the objects.

RKS: Especially when you do the objects first, because that messes with the natural order of things.

SF: Occasionally it is what I’m setting out to do, like with the object in the this one I kind of scrubbed them out in the beginning so that they would be just there in the painting and not actually fully articulated.

RKS: How do you know when a painting is done?

SF: I just know usually. I know that’s what everyone says. With most of these I don’t work on it more than five or six times. The less the better.

RKS: Sessions?

SF: Yeah that’s definitely a good word for it. Small Cemetery I did in three.

RKS: Nice.

SF: Inner Shade took a lot of sessions and I was really frustrated by that. I felt like it was getting really overwrought and over-worked. Usually in the beginning it is pretty open. That’s usually when the best stuff happens-when I’m feeling free, uncommitted, and un-self-aware and trying to figure things out in a very immediate way. Then as the window closes I become more wed to whatever was happening in the painting and more invested in how those parts and pieces are affecting what I am are doing now. My moves become a little more tight and controlled and usually at that point I kind of just know what I am going to do to finish it. It stops being fresh and I just feel like where it is currently is the most revealing of the strange things that have happened over the period of time I worked on this thing.

RKS: And you haven’t unstretched it and flipped it.

SF: Yeah that’s step one, getting past that part. One painting just smelled to high heaven, I think something got in the linen or something reacted with acrylic, but it was really unpleasant. It was hard to keep working on that one.

RKS: Do you have one pictorial problem in particular you remember resolving?

SF: In Inner Shade I was struggling with this top portion a lot.

RKS: The part with spray paint?

SF: The spray paint actually was the solution. I wanted it to be flat but also deep space at the same time. I wanted a flat section of color, but didn’t want more information in that beyond space. Like the back room of a store for example, or the distance in theatrical stage set seen at night. So I was doing all these different things. I think this painting went through like ten different versions and they were all really unsatisfying. Then at one point I leaped with joy at the memory of spray paint and rushed to get the spray paint. I just knew. I started spraying it on and it was really weak and dribbly and it was perfect for what I needed. It made these kind of pawing soft marks. I think there are a lot of ways of painting that are very soft but this is beyond what I can actually do with my hand, so I was very excited about that. It has just the feeling I was going for without really knowing what I was going for. That’s the most satisfying moment in a painting.

I’ll lose track of what the image is supposed to be because I don’t always know and don’t have a photograph. But then when you do something that reminds you strongly of the reason you wanted to make that painting I think it is totally fucking magical that that is even possible–for that to happen to a painter or viewer.

RKS: What brushes do you use?

SF: All the brushes next to the paintings are my favorites, those are actually all the brushes I have. I’m envious of painters’ level of commitment who have a gigantic glass table that has every color paint and five hundred brushes. Only recently have I graduated to real brushes. For a while I used craft brushes because I didn’t care and because I didn’t use oil paint. So it didn’t matter if they weren’t a stiff bristle. I would use this [fishes out a Crayola jumbo craft brush the kind with a big yellow handle] or this [chip brush]. Now I like big brushes but house paint brushes don’t hold enough paint or enough liquid so I got these number 16 and 18 round ones and filberts. I would say that if I had to pick a brush that looks the most like “me,” I would pick a filbert. They have always been my favorite. Brushes end up kind of looking like you, looking like your paintings.

I ruined some of them with the bleach actually, and I was bummed about that because I had some good ones. These are all hog bristle, and basically what I can afford. I am still learning about this whole material end of it, like these jars and how to deal with your turpentine. I got a glass palette. They are not things I did in the beginning because I was like “I’m gonna be a painter now” they’re actually just necessary and I think I have a lot more respect for a part of painting practice now. When I was in school I pooh-poohed a lot of elements of a traditional studio practice and now I have arrived at them out of necessity.

RKS: You’ve come to it honestly, you’re using tools to make the kind of image you want. It’s hard not to be self-conscious about it prior to getting into the work.

SF: Yeah it’s like I was thinking about other artists: “What a show off.” [laughing] It is just so fun to make art your main interest and goal. It is just what drives me in my life and if I didn’t have these things to think about and care about in a studio related, practical way, I don’t know what I would care about. But that corner of my studio is still full of debris. I won’t probably clean that up because that kind of material activity predates my the painting-type activity–it’s a continuous progression.

RKS: How long do the paintings take?

SF: A lot of that depends on when I get the chance to paint. But I made all four of these have since late May. So I have done about four paintings in four months. Which is pretty good, I feel like I had a really productive summer. The sessions thing you hit on is really true. Coming in here for a period of time and being able to really get into it. That’s another thing is how you use your studio time. I have been a lot more focused about being in here since I moved to New York because it is so much more precious than it ever was before. So assuming that I feel like I am onto something good and I have got it all set up I can just jump into it and spend a certain amount of time. Not every painting session is created equal. Three to six good sessions to finish a painting.

These ones I have been working on the sculptural parts at the same time so that is part of it, but before I would try to have a sculptural project going on at the same time as a painting so it was more of a completely fleshed-out world.

RKS: Is there something in these paintings that people want to talk about?

SF: I haven’t really talked about them with many people, which is actually kind of nice. I know they are part of the conversation about abstraction that’s going on right now and I’m not bothered by that.

RKS: What’s your favorite tactile experience with painting?

SF: I can tell you very specifically that I recently was digging the V-shaped sponge out of the plaster shelf here. That was really interesting. I realized I could remove the sponge because of its composition, and that it’s shape would remain and so would the texture. It felt like something that I had done before.

There is a lot scrubbing that goes on in these paintings. Something will get scrubbed out and then I’ll go back into it. There isn’t a lot of scrubbing on the final surface. I like the scrubbing part, that’s my equivalent of painting over something, if something isn’t working I’ll try to scrub it out. I actually bought a scrub brush recently, it’s hanging up on my peg board, and when inner shade was not working in the beginning I was like “Oh I know, I’ll just go to Lowes and get a scrub brush and soak it in turpentine and scrub the shit out of this painting.” It didn’t work, but I was excited about it. I like the scrubbing. What is exciting also is when that action reveals a mark I made and don’t remember.

RKS: Can you mention any known compositional strategies?

SF: I actually used to be very aware of compositional strategies, and I felt like that was the strong point in my work for a long time. With these paintings because there is a specific image I want to articulate I’m not as focused on composition. When you are doing a collage you have all these parts and pieces in the beginning, and you can watch this work unfold before you. But with painting I don’t have all the parts in the beginning so I feel like the compositions end up being weird and kind of weak. Inner Shade I thought was really weak and it bothered me for a while.

My strategy is usually a square or oval seen from a particular perspective, but it always ends up being the same perspective. I have kind of tried to deal with that and figure out why it is happening. The closest thing I can think of is that it is a psychological image, or a figment like it, appears one way all the time, a repeating perspective, so usually there is something in the center that give off a certain type of shadow that comes from a certain kind of directive light.

RKS: Where would your paintings be best shown, for your intended audience?

SF: I think anything I say will be overly romantic, so brace yourself. I would like there to be some emotional space around the work or the potential for that and I would like it to be very personal. I think galleries are terrible at setting that up, so not a gallery and not a museum. But something like an uninhabited domestic space, somewhere that had all of the familiar architecture but no other objects that were charged with emotion. No hyper-charged or overly specific objects. A house that wasn’t lived in. Some place with a generally familiar feeling without being overly sentimental.

Definitely it would not be my house. I would go finding the right house with the right sized rooms and the right colors and the right light. It wouldn’t be a new house. I wouldn’t want there to be too many traces of the previous residents. I think I would paint the whole thing white to try to neutralize it, but leave the shapes and angles and lighting situations that made it feel like you where in a house and maybe some of the paintings would be on the outside of the house and there would be sculptures in the yard, the back yard would be really nice, or front yard. The audience would be people I know but it might even be people who are going to look for a house, people who are actually house hunting, but kind of forced into like “Oh honey, look in here” in a hidden room all cobwebbed over.

Related posts:
SURVEY: Bleaching, staining, and dyeing

The donut muffin: Uniting two worlds
Painting? Painting?
Greetings from Nudashank and the Transmodern Festival


Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.


  1. "A house that wasn't lived in."

    That may be the most sensitive and thoughtful answer to that question I've ever heard a painter give.

    Great interview!

  2. Painty, brushes, and the conversation about abstraction going on.

    Love the word painty, reminds me of expensy. I first thought of DeKooning's Women series. I pretty much do most of my work 55" X 60" paintings with a number 6 flat. I can get almost any kind of mark with that brush, or scrub opaque veils, though I use larger flats for broad areas. I use my fingers a lot. I do figurative work with large disjunctive, found imagery in the background and detailed botanicals in the foreground. Part of my work is about using painting as a means of learning nature. Learning the shape of a forsythia bloom in relation to what mark I make with the brush (pressure/less pressure) to realize the flower thrilled me to know end. A generative grammar of the brush and paint writing the bloom. I wish we could elaborate on the 'conversation about abstraction'. I get the idea that domain has fallen into a binary: university clean attempts for tenured professors, and people out of the loop experimenting on low-fi levels.

  3. " I wish we could elaborate on the 'conversation about abstraction'. I get the idea that domain has fallen into a binary: university clean attempts for tenured professors, and people out of the loop experimenting on low-fi levels."

    I think this is true. And faculty don't like/appreciate the low-fi approach. They think the students are just lazy and no imagination. They want this to be a phase that passes and then they can start talking about "real" painting again, right?

  4. Comments like these intsill a binary. These paintings don't seem at all "casual", nor are they "academic." I don't even know if they're abstract. I do also wish for an expanded conversation about abstraction, though- how frustrating was that panel on the "state of abstraction" where the panelists spent the whole time complaining about young painters?

  5. Yeah, hahaha "where's the STRUGGLE," etc., etc. zzzz

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