Rebecca McFarland’s layered portraits captivate and enchant with a sharp intensity, balancing the soft, earthy tones that make up her compositions. Inspired by female heroines found in classic literature, the women in her paintings carry a sense of strength, giving each character a unique voice. There is an air of nostalgia in her ethereal, floral backgrounds, as they are full of embedded texture from layers of paint and material. McFarland explains that experimentation is an important part of her creative process, which is why she integrates journaling, with both writing and sketching, into her artistic practice. Join us in conversation as we discuss with the artist the trial and errors of developing her visual style, living in working in LA and her interpretation of the female narrative. Being both an artist and an actress, McFarland shares with us a unique perspective on art making.
AMM: Hi Rebecca! I see that you are an actor as well as an artist. Can you tell us a bit about your journey into the realm of painting? When did you first realize your talent in the visual arts?
RM: Ha! Somewhere between five years ago and yesterday. I started messing with paints after an inspiring trip to Europe fifteen years ago, but I had no talent whatsoever–except maybe in mixing colors. Color has always come easily to me. Sometimes that’s all you need to keep going…a seedling…a tiny bud of possibility. I created sporadically until one day, I remember looking down at a piece of artwork and thinking, “Oh, wow, that’s not bad.” “That’s not bad” became my obsession to try and get good. My confidence grew, I experimented more and, bit by bit, found my visual style.
AMM: How has your background in acting influenced or transformed how you approach your practice as a painter? Does your painting experience seep into your life as an actor, or are these two artistic forms intertwined for you?
RM: I’ve been captured by portraits my whole life. As an actor, long before I was a painter, my job was to portray all different kinds of women—uncovering their hidden stories, revealing their frailties and deepest insecurities, their longings and triumphs. My paintings are an extension of the passion I discovered on stage at thirteen—excavating and examining the hearts of women. I’m using different instruments to illuminate my interpretation of the female narrative, my face and body vs. my paintbrush, but the creative impulse is the same.
AMM: Describe a typical day for an actor and artist living in Los Angeles.
RM: If I am acting or auditioning, my life revolves around performing. My day is spent memorizing lines, being on set, staying focused on the task at hand. You might find me doodling in my trailer while waiting for my scene to be up. If I’m not acting, my day goes something like this—coffee, walk the dog, paint, wonder why I have no talent, walk around aimlessly questioning what’s missing from my painting, rearranging the furniture, painting some more, think I’m a genius, dinner with my fella, more painting.
AMM: You have your hand in many different artistic mediums, including collage, drawing and journaling. How do these processes inform your paintings?
RM: Experimentation creates the space for which my painting is possible. I’m a self-taught artist. Every single discovery developed from trial and error. In fact, most of what you see in my paintings formed from figuring a way around not knowing how to do something. Journaling is the place I keep freedom to fail, to be terrible, to unearth something new, alive. When I hit a road block painting, when I wonder if something will sell, when I’m taking this art life too seriously, I jump back into my journal, draw and collage and play with the abandon.
AMM: In regards to journaling, have you always included this in your artistic practice or is this a new development? Has it changed the way you think about your artwork?
RM: I have always had a journal, but the form has changed over the years. I kept a diary starting in middle school and continued this writing practice for twenty years. I recently threw most of them away when I reread them and realized how repetitive I am. I’m so repetitive!
It took a while for me to take up an art journal. I was afraid I might create something great and this “masterpiece” would be stuck in a journal never to be heard from again. Once I released this misleading notion, keeping an art journal became an integral part of my practice.
AMM: In your series Vintage Wallpaper, there seems to be a delicate mixture of materials that build up your compositions. Can you describe your process creating this body of work?
RM: I’m interested in what we reveal to each other and what we keep as privileged information. The layers we cover ourselves with to hold our secrets. All of my work involves layers of paper and paint and sanding and more paint—I want the cracks to show, the worn down bits, the broken parts. I want the women in my portraits to confess their deepest woes. I want to see beyond their masks and be surprised by their disclosure.
In my Vintage Wallpaper series, the faded nostalgia of the floral backgrounds appears feminine and pretty, but on closer inspection, the patterns are deteriorated, tattered. The past can be oppressive and difficult to escape. Only when we are ready to reveal ourselves, do our pasts become the key to our healing and wholeness. The women in Vintage Wallpaper are ready to unfold themselves, but the past still swarms around them, waiting to be transformed.
AMM: Your paintings often include both airy and earthy pastels that emit a sense of comforting warmth. Where do you find inspiration for your palette?
RM: Old cracking paint on an outdoor bench, a faded sundress, old linens, a beat up bicycle. I am enamored with aging objects and their worn-down-ness, their lusterless colors almost impossible to duplicate. But I try.
AMM: On your website you mention you grew up reading classic literature. How have the characters in these novels influenced the characters present in your paintings?
RM: I love a good yarn. Put a female heroine at the forefront, and I’m in. My mother was an English teacher and did everything she could, shy of Chinese water torture, to get me to become a reader. She fed me every great novel with a female lead until my appetite could no longer be satiated. I spent my summers with Jane Eyre and Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice. These imaginary women are part of my DNA; they are sewn into the fabric of who I am. They beckon to me when I’m in the studio. “Paint me,” says Elizabeth. “Make me a beauty,” says Jane.
AMM: Your compositions offer us individual voices of the characters they portray. Are the figures in your work ever modeled after people you know personally in real life?
RM: Rarely. I have painted friends, but often feel there is something lacking in the final analysis. Maybe because I know the real person with all of their quirks, and nothing I do on canvas compares to their aliveness.
Painting people I don’t know gives me the freedom to create works that don’t suffer comparison to the living, breathing women sitting at my dinner table. Although, I painted my dad once. “I look like a bad ass,” he said with pride. Maybe I’ll paint the men in my life more and go from there.
AMM: Do you see yourself in the women in your paintings? If yes, in what way?
RM: If everything we do expresses a bit of who we are, then I am my paintings. And If I don’t put something of myself into a painting, what’s the point? We have a kinship—my women and I. Like a good book, they entertain me, comfort me, keep time with me. I discover myself in them, and when they go, there is a true loss.
AMM: If your artwork could tell a story, what would you want to convey in its narrative?
RM: A beauty comes with age and is born from brokenness.
Find out more about the artist: www.rebeccamcfarland.org
Text and interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.