David Herrle SubtleTea Interview with Elizabeth Castonguay
Who are your favorite visual artists and what are some of your favorite
you identify "good" and "bad" art? Ayn Rand
wrote: "[D]isintegration is the preface of death to the human
mind. Disintegration is the keynote and goal of modern art - the
disintegration of man's conceptual faculty, and the retrogression of an
adult mind to the state of a mewling infant." Compare Duchamps'
Descending or the lewdness of Schiele's females with an Ingres,
a Bazille, a Klimt, Whistler,
Mucha, or Renoir.
What do you look for in art and what do you seek to present in your own work?
Elizabeth: A few of my favorite artists from the past are Lautrec, George de la Tour, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Degas, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Klimt, Hopper, among many, many others. I don't have any "favorite" paintings. I tend to see the paintings of an artist as being part of their body of work.
and bad art? There are three things
that I look for in a "good" piece of two-dimensional art.
The three qualifiers are good composition, technical expertise and/or
craftsmanship, and archival consideration by the artist.
try to hold my own work to these same standards, plus I add another element. I
expect my work to "speak" to or about humanity.
It needs to have a reason to exist or my time and the space it occupies
You run a lovely studio in Castle Shannon: Creation Arts Studio. Tell us
about its origin and anything else you'd like to share.
Elizabeth: Creation Art Studio was born three years ago. My studios in the past have always been connected to my home or [in] an extra room when we rented apartments. Three years ago my works were getting considerably larger and we were constantly losing our daughters and family dog behind the paintings. The studio that I am in now has wonderful north light. I walked and drove around with my compass to find this studio: north light is a constant light and always gentle. When you ask realtors about north light they usually don't call back.
Your sensitivity to racial and cultural diversity is as important to your oeuvre
as the paint, I deem. And from previous chats with you, your approach is
sensible and not politically charged (which makes race and culture into tools or
weapons). Your work is honest yet celebratory of humanity despite our
failings, and many of your pieces portray physical and traditional diversity as
wondrous human aspects, as beauty to be memorialized in art.
respect culture over race. I try my best to reject racialism altogether as
basically superfluous to human intelligence. We have "different
shells," I guess you would say, since you've a lovely painting called Different
Shells, Same Egg. Malcolm
X eventually marveled that blue-eyed, blonde-haired men united as
brothers. The trouble is, too many others fixate on race for a variety of
reasons or agendas. I'll go so far as to say that even intentionally
positive programs based on race are problematic and bothersome to me. I
prefer to view race as genetic accident (in a non-value sense) and not detriment
or asset. This means that racial pride is thrown out with racial disgrace.
Both approach individuals as something more than or less than human or as a mere
unit in a tribe: what David Littlejohn called "lumping dehumanization" and what Ayn Rand called "the lowest,
most crudely primitive form of collectivism."
Colter, author of the amazing novel, The
Rivers of Eros, said, "I'm
black, I'm a writer, and I'm interested in the black milieu, but I had to see
those characters not as blacks but as human beings in a black environment."
Being overly proud of one's race is as bad as being ashamed of it. Culture
is another matter. It involves human decision and worth. There are
bad cultures as well as good
cultures. Cultures are wider extensions of persons. As Berdyaev
specifies, culture rubs elbows with spiritual freedom while civilization
generally employs necessity (power plays, force, penalty).
Your thoughts on my take? Feel free to add and expand on your own approach.
Elizabeth: I think that your idea about racial pride being fine when it's passive rather than assertive is exactly right. Racial pride and knowledge of one's traditions and ancestry can and should give a person a feeling of self worth. Beyond that however, like you, I believe that the mere superficial identifying characteristics of "race" or ethnicity is quite as irrelevant as eye color. As an artist I have explored the individuality of the person while searching for the commonality of our collective innermost selves. I believe that the celebration of the diversity of humanity will be the only key to unlock the door to peace in a world currently plagued by prejudice, hatred, and war. We are at a crossroads in history and at the threshold of science where we will soon have the technological expertise to extend life beyond our greatest imagination, but we already have the ability to destroy human life as we know it. It is my obligation as an artist to speak about our diversity which can be the vehicle either to divide or empower humanity. It is my hope that through my work I will be able to address prejudice while breaking down barriers. I believe that we must begin to see our differences as stimulating while seeing our innate similarities as the gene that ties us to one another and to the Creator of all humanity.
Shells, Same Egg ©
you mentioned, I frequently use the image of Different Shells, Same Egg ©
to depict the idea of individuality and commonality.
To me the egg shell can be representative of color, ethnicity, religion,
sexual orientation, etc. It represents those characteristics that people use to
isolate a group from the rest of society or that a group will self impose due
D: Your favorite book(s) and films(s)?
Elizabeth: I love to read in the middle of the night after having slept for a couple of hours. Some of the books that I have recently read and really enjoyed are Wild Swans, Black Like Me, The Kite Runner, Middlesex, Snow Falling On Cedars, and The Girl who Chased Away Sorrow (a book for children about a Navajo Girl). These books are about very diverse people and I recommend them all strongly. I am also looking forward to reading more poems of the Chinese dissident poet, Hwang Xiang, when they are translated. I really enjoy the ones that have been translated. He is hoping to find a translator in the near future. If any of your readers translate Chinese-English we are looking for them.
D: You tend to focus on human hands as focal subject. Why? To address a particular hands piece, please tell us about Creators.
My 2004 exhibit was entitled, "A Portrait Of Us." It was again a celebration of humanity. I used the human hands as the vehicle to speak about our diversity and similarities. The human hand is as personal as the portrait. It can tell us the age, size, color, gender, and sometimes indicate kind of occupation of a person, etc. Recently a surgeon who was in my studio told me that when she was in medical school the head and hands of a person were covered when they were doing autopsies. Seeing the hands made it as difficult on the student as the seeing the faces. Another reason to use hands was that I wanted the exhibit to be strong. I did not want to get schmaltzy. I was afraid that faces of different colors, etc. might become too "sweet."
Creators is a painting of friends of all colors and ages that are visual artists in different disciplines. I currently have a painting (eight oval canvases) of different friends eyes that are people of different ethnicities, religions, ages, and colors, which is in the juried group exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg for the summer. [My] painting called Seeing Complementaries is about seeing our alter ego or sole mate in a person who make look very different then ourselves. Each painting is paired with another set of eyes very different then their own and matted with complementary colors. [See relevant and other paintings.]
D: You've recently become acquainted with Chinese dissident poet, Huang Xiang, who now lives in the U.S. Can you tell us a little about him? What are your impressions of this talented and experience-full man?
Elizabeth: Hwang Xiang and his wife Zhang Ling (also a poet) are courageous, strong, intelligent, talented artists that are very much in love. Hwang Xiang was in prison in China for many years because of his beliefs and writings about individual freedom. Zhang Ling supported his beliefs and waited for Hwang Xiang to be released. She acts as his translator and is a wonderful, loving support to her husband. Hwang Xiang and I have begun a painting/poem which we are working collaboratively on. I am very excited about this opportunity. It was amazing how many paintings in my studio were akin to his poetry which was written across the world in a totally different set of circumstances. The three of us were touched by this coincidence.
You're quite concerned about and active in social improvement, ranging from your
family's volunteerism with Three Rivers Youth's Academy House (which earned the
Jefferson Award for Public Service) to establishment of Celebrating
Diversity in Pittsburgh. I'm impressed with your drive to reach out to
others, your obvious sincerity, and your ability to express a
human-unifying gospel through your painting.
Tao Te Ching encourages us to treat and love the world as ourselves (echoing the
recurring expressions of the "Golden Rule") and says the Sage helps
all people without denial. Jesus considered neglect of the least of folks
to be neglect of himself. The Ancient Egyptians praised provision of food,
water, clothes, etc. to the needy. Hindu traditional describes the poor
and unhealthy as "lords of the atmosphere." The Torah speaks of
the entire world being saved through the salvation of a single life. In
Mitya, accepting punishment for a crime he did not do, says, "[W]e are
all responsible for all." In other words, a spirit of compassion and
mercy runs through humanity despite frequent evil and political situations.
Though I see the spiritual insufficiency of wealth, I'm careful to avoid popular classism and especially class warfare. Leave that for the emotional exploitative politicians and armchair anarchists/communists to gag on. There are evil poor as well as evil rich, as Victor Hugo shows in Les Miserables. And I find it amusing that much bashing of "rich white guys" are rich white guys, from John Lennon to Michael Moore and Bill Clinton. Lenin continued Max Weber's idea of "vanguard" direction of revolutionary action: the intelligensia or elite -- who are usually removed from the so-called worker class -- stoking the fire and allowing the masses to spread the conflagration.
dread the fall of business infrastructure, since I know so much depends on
wealth generation: like food, utilities, and medicine/hygiene. As things
stand in reality, charity is largely supplied by
wealthy folk. And voluntary giving is surprisingly high (mainly in
religious and social-activist circles).
I'm also cautious about mass provision and charity in regard to intent or
implied or explicit exchange. What if criminal enterprises doled out the
poor folk, founded cheap housing, etc.? Is "what I get out of
it" satisfactory reason to support a regime or a president? When
folks judge leaders by their past or present financial delivery or failures, I'm
quick to reject support because of economics. The hand that feeds you can
I tend to trust in charity and social programs on a smaller scale, more heart to
heart than institution to nations or globe. Love is kept genuine by
familiar sincerity, by careful concentration on goodness rather than compulsory,
state-directed socialism or campaigns. The heart must be healthy and
wealthy before it can truly promote health and prosperity. Ignoring
problems, of course, deadens the heart.
Noonan wrote in Life,
Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (1994): "The
worst thing about what is called the homeless situation is that people are
living in the cold and damp of the street.
The second worst thing is how it corrupts the people who walk by, making
believe that they don't see, making believe that they don't hear what is
being said to them..."
Your reactions to my spiel? Please tell us about the projects you've been/you are involved in.
Elizabeth: A well thought out last statement David with much information to ponder. As far as who will do the dirty jobs necessary for a complex society to run? My painting, A Tribute to Labor is my answer to that question. This painting of twenty-two canvases and still growing is my tribute to those who use their hands to make their living. I respect and admire both the skilled and unskilled laborer. These people are the lifeblood of any country. They provide the infrastructure that keeps society going. They serve their country throughout their lives and their sons and daughters are often the first to serve their country in time of war.
Elizabeth, I'm honored to know you. Your work is quite important,
especially in this age of regression to tribalism and international upheaval.
You exemplify the responsible, inspired, edifying and worthy artist amidst
disappointment and approaching chaos. Perhaps more attention to art such
as yours might contribute to the heart-to-heart salvation of different-shelled,
same yolked humans.
I wish you blessings on your path. Have you any closing words for readers/fans?
quick thought on the current crisis on the Middle East.
When one kills who they perceive to be a terrorist it is like cutting a
worm in half. When terrorists are
killed surely you have one less terrorist at the moment.
However you have spawned even more terrorists for the future because
there will be retribution from that persons children, siblings, etc. Hasn't
every country been a terrorist in their own way?
Our own country stood by while as many innocent African-Americans were
lynched in the twentieth century as died on September 11.
It is time for humanity as a whole to work for the common good. If every group doesn't learn how to clean the slate we will
all be erased.
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