Lisbeth Firmin was born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1949. She is a contemporary American realist known for her urban landscapes. For over four decades her work has been in hundreds of solo and group shows across the country and internationally. There was a retrospective exhibition at the Taft School in Watertown, CT in 2011, featuring painting and prints from 1994-2010. In 2010, Firmin’s monoprint, “Heading to Work, Varick Street” won ‘Best in Show’ in WSKG’s annual Art in Motion Competition in Binghamton, NY. Her paintings were included in the 2009 Winter Issue, Stone Canoe Review, Syracuse University. She was cover artist for the 2008 spring issue of Epoch, Cornell University’s literary magazine and was the featured artist in the 2008 summer issue of the Gettysburg Review. Her urban landscape paintings were included in “Five Women Artists in New York,” curated by Ken Ratner, Flushing Town Hall, 2008. Awards include a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for printmaking (Lily Auchincloss Fellow) and a Merit Award at the 2007 Roberson Regional Art Exhibition, Binghamton, NY, juried by Philip Pearlstein. Firmin was awarded a Community Arts Funding Grant, New York State Council on the Arts in 2007. Other awards include a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, the New York Print Club Emerging Artist Award, the CCVA Award at the Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts, first prize in the LANA International Arts Competition; along with full fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, National Seashore Residency, the Vermont Studio Center and Saltonstall Arts Colony. She was a guest artist (printmaking) at the Vermont Studio Center from 2001 to 2004, working with master printer Sarah Amos.
Selected publications include: Provincetown Arts, American Artist, American Art Collector, McDougal Littell/LITERATURE, The Boston Globe, Art and Auction, Art of Our Town, The New York Times, Arts Magazine, The Banner (Provincetown), The Albuquerque Journal, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
I spoke with Lisbeth Firmin in her studio in Margaretville, New York.
Simona David: How did you become an artist?
Lisbeth Firmin: This is a picture of me at three. I’m left-handed, and seriously trying to stay in the lines. I started my brilliant career right there.
SD: One could say that you were born with an innate talent.
LF: What I can say is that I could draw since I could remember. I could always draw something that looked like something. Kids love to draw, and they all draw the same way when they’re young. But when they get older, they want to draw something that looks like something, and can’t – and that’s the difference: I could always do it. So I kept on doing it.
SD: Did your parents notice immediately that you had this amazing talent?
LF: Not immediately, but I started winning scholarships when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was sent to an art institute where we lived. I was sent there with these teenagers and 20 year old artists, and I was only 12. That was an eye-opener.
SD: Were you a mature child, or everybody knew you were just a 12 year old?
LF: Everybody knew, but I was accepted because I could draw, and my drawing had this vigor in it. I was full of energy, and even at that age I had a style of my own.
SD: You already had your own style when you were 12. After forty years of artistic career, do you think you still maintain something of that style?
LF: Yes. I think so.
SD: Do you have formal training as an artist?
LF: No. I won these scholarships to art institutes – one in Indianapolis and one in Los Angeles. I wanted to go to art school, but my father wasn’t going to pay for it – he didn’t think I was serious about it. It was also the late 1960s, and everything was falling apart. I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara for a year in a liberal arts program, and took as much art as I could. I took just exactly what I wanted to take, and got really good grades. The second year I didn’t go back.
SD: So you continued to be self-taught, and continued to draw and paint.
LF: Yes, constantly. It just poured out of me. I was doing all kinds of things: I was doing prints, and drawings, and collages. I didn’t have my subject matter down. What draws me is painting what I see – translating what I see into a painting or a drawing.
SD: During your formative period were you working with other artists to develop your skills? Or perhaps you had someone in mind you wanted to emulate?
LF: Artists have this kind of creative bent. And I’ve always been curious, and always had a ton of energy. When I was in Provincetown I studied with Philip Malicoat. He was good friends with Edwin Dickinson, a very good painter, who is in a lot of big collections. I spent a winter working with Malicoat in his studio. He taught me how to paint, and how to lay out the palette. That was in the 1970s.
SD: You spent the 1970s in Provincetown, in a bohemian artistic community. Talk about that period in your life and career.
LF: I believe the hayday of that artistic community was a bit earlier when Hans Hofmann was around, and everybody from New York City came up, Pollock, everybody. I lived in Provincetown for a decade. I worked in the theater there. I was also painting a lot, and selling: my friends were buying my work. I was also a street artist for a time: I was doing portraits for tourists. It was an amazing period.
SD: In the early 1980s you moved to New York City. Let’s talk about your artistic trajectory in the Big Apple.
LF: It’s funny. I was visiting friends in New York City, and had my trunk full of collages I was bringing as gifts to my friends. I was stopped in front of a gallery, and the gallery owner saw the collages, and offered me a show. I thought if that was that easy to get a show in New York City, I’d stay. It was a great show, it got great reviews.
SD: That was in 1978 at Marie Pelliconi Gallery in New York City, a show called Souvenir Collages.
LF: Yes. I had twenty collages in that show. It got Holly Solomon interested in my work, which is a pretty big deal, but I wasn’t ready.
SD: What happened next?
LF: I guess there is a big gap in my resume. From 1979 to mid 1980s I was just trying to survive and bring up my daughter. I got a job as a graphic designer that was paying a decent salary. I would paint at night after my daughter went to bed. At one point I did a whole series on cockroaches, because we had so many of them. I was also doing some landscape, some subway stuff. I was doing all work on paper. I didn’t start painting in oil until the late 1980s. Back then I was doing gouaches or collages, all kinds of images.
SD: And in the late 1980s you started to paint in oil.
LF: Yes. What happened was that I was trying to decide what I was going to do, and I walked out of my apartment on Sullivan Street, and I said that’s it: I’m going to paint what I see. I did thirty gouaches – small 10 x 10 gouaches. I had an open studio party, and I sold every single one of my paintings. I knew I was into something, and I had so much fun doing it. I was painting things I didn’t know I could paint: police horses, cabs, people – people started to appear in my paintings. My career just started to take off, right after that.
SD: Taking off, like showing in galleries?
LF: Yes. I started working in oil paint, and showing urban landscapes in galleries. And people started buying them. I began to do one new show every year. I was producing a ton of work at this point, and had some big names interested in me like Allan Stone.
SD: Nowadays you also make monoprints. What is the process?
LF: I work on plexiplates, and apply ink, and then use rags to create a pattern; I press on paper, then pull out the print, and clean the plexiplate for future use. I learned to do this at Parsons: I took a class there in 1991. It’s an amazing medium, it’s called the painterly print.
SD: Talk about these two monoprints you have here.
LF: I made these in the early 1990s. I come from a small town in Maine called Eastport. They have an art institute there – Tides Institute. In 2013 they offered me a show – these monoprints were shown there in an exhibit called Coming Home.
SD: How do you choose what to work on? How do you decide what comes next?
LF: I can’t explain that. It’s a visceral thing. I could be walking around, and doing grocery shopping or some other mundane stuff like that. And I see something, and I say “I want to paint that.” I don’t even verbalize it. It’s more like “I could paint that, I want to paint that.” Now I always have my iPhone with me. And what’s happening these days is that I see something about the light on a figure, and this is what interests me. And it is just coming naturally to me these days: I know where to put the paint, and how to capture the light. I’m moving away from buildings and streetscapes.
SD: What role do colors play in your approach?
LF: It’s a good question. But honestly it’s not about the colors. It’s more about the light and the shadow: that’s what gets me. For instance, last year I was in Barcelona and painted this woman on the street: I wanted to get her in the dark, in the shadow of those buildings, and moving towards the corner of the street where the light was blasting. It was the light – I knew I wanted to paint the light, not the color. Generally I paint with pretty muted colors.
SD: Talk about your style. You describe yourself as a realist painter. Some have called you an expressionist realist.
LF: It is realism – old-fashioned realism, but somehow unique. What I notice every time I’m in a group show is that my work never looks like anybody else’s.
SD: What kinds of works are usually exhibited along with yours?
LF: I enter various competitions like this show at the Bonner David Galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona called What’s Your Favorite City? Or various shows upstate New York like for instance Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region at the Hyde Collection Museum in Glens Falls, or the 63rd Exhibition of the Central New York Artists at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica. My work just never looks like anybody else’s work.
SD: Would you name any artist as being influential to your work?
LF: I have painters that I really admire. When I started painting the City I compared myself to John Sloan and George Bellows and all those guys known as The Eight. I was painting the streets of Manhattan, just like they were doing a hundred years earlier. So I thought I was carrying on that tradition. But I think my work has evolved beyond that.
SD: You’ve been represented by the same dealer for quite some time now.
LF: Yes. I’m lucky. My dealer has stayed with me for 15 years while transitioning from urban landscape to figural painting. Her name is Marla Rice. She owns Rice- Polack Gallery in Provincetown, where I sell a lot of work.
SD: How does your work make you feel?
LF: I know that when I work for about a year or so to produce new works for a show, and then they’re gone and the walls are empty, I don’t like it and feel compelled to fill up those walls again.
SD: What kind of feedback do you get from your followers?
LF: What I do is so instinctive, yet it seems to have an emotional connection with the public. I know that I’m emotionally repressed, but I think it comes out through my paintings. People tell me they get an emotional reaction to my paintings.
SD: Talk a bit about the artistic process.
LF: I’m mixing the colors to get it right, and that takes a long time, because I mix all the colors that I want to use, and then I start painting and I’m still in the real world, but then after about an hour I’m not in the real world anymore. I am somewhere else – I don’t even know what time it is. I’m just in this amazing mindset, I can’t even describe it.
SD: How has your style changed over the years?
LF: It’s hard for me to say. The medium is the same – a lot of work in gouache on paper, but the subject matter is different. And the brushstroke has gotten more confident, I guess.
SD: What are you working on now?
LF: I’m preparing a show for 2016 in Provincetown. I show there every other year. Over half of the new oils I showed last year sold.
SD: Do you have a favorite painting?
LF: Every once in a while a new painting will come out that is magical. I don’t know where it comes from. “Woman on A Train,” painted last year, was such a painting. Everyone who saw it was moved by it. It sold before the show opened: Marla told me she could have sold this painting twenty times.
SD: You’ve received many awards and recognitions such as the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Printmaking in 2007, the Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts Award in 2003, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 2000, a Manhattan Arts International Award of Excellence in 2000, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 1999, and many others. What do these recognitions mean to you?
LF: Every time I win something I feel like I am on the right road. I feel like I have something special to give, and I just want to keep it pure, and give it. I also think all these early awards came to the right time to propel me to push myself to the next level.
SD: Your work is in many collections, including the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York Historical Society in New York City, Vermont Studio Center, but also corporate collections such as Thomson Reuters and Barclay Investments in New York City. That must be feeling really good.
LF: Yes. Some of these works were done on commission for corporate collections.
SD: You’ve been shown in many solo and group shows all over the country and internationally. What are some of your favorite moments?
LF: What I really like about being shown in galleries is that it pushes me to meet deadlines. I know I have to have a certain amount of work done by a certain date, and I’m enjoying the need to produce.
To learn more about Lisbeth Firmin, visit http://www.lisbethfirmin.com/.
All the photographs were contributed by the artist.
© 2015 Simona David