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New Times / Art

The following article was posted on September 6th, 2012, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [] - Volume 27, Issue 6

Anatomy of a painting

At Steynberg Gallery, artists showcase work in response to the written word. New Times speaks to one of them


Be careful of words,” warns poet Anne Sexton, “even the miraculous ones.”  

Be careful of words,
even the miraculous ones.
For the miraculous we do our best,
sometimes they swarm like insects
and leave not a sting but a kiss.
They can be as good as fingers.
They can be as trusty as the rock
you stick your bottom on.
But they can be both daisies and bruises.

Yet I am in love with words.
They are doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.

Yet often they fail me.
I have so much I want to say,
so many stories, images, proverbs, etc.
But the words aren't good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
but with the wings of a wren.

But I try to take care
and be gentle to them.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.


Sexton’s imagery-laden poem “Words” was the inspiration behind local painter Lena Rushing’s The Holy Oranges, one of many new works in the Steynberg Gallery exhibit “Brushstrokes 2012,” organized by the SLOMA Painter’s Group. In keeping with this year’s theme, “Painting is the Silent Written Word,” artists interpreted literary works into paintings and sculptures.

Words have long been a part of Rushing’s work, whether in terms of images culled from lines of poetry or lines of actual text on canvas. Last year, the artist even organized a group exhibit on the theme titled “Mincing Words.” Her work can presently be seen in an awesome window display at Coalition—on Monterey St. in downtown San Luis Obispo—and in basically every local group show in existence.

Intrigued by Holy Oranges, Rushing’s bizarrely striking new piece, New Times spoke with the artist about “Words,” words, literal and figurative nudity, impossible dimensions, eavesdropping, insecurity, accidental self-portraits, and tiny little alligators.

NEW TIMES Why did this particular poem by Anne Sexton appeal to you?

LENA RUSHING One, I’m a fan of Anne Sexton. I thought this particular poem was good because it’s called “Words,” and the imagery offers so much to choose from. So I took the three that appealed to me the most: the doves falling from the ceiling, and the insects, and the holy oranges.

NEW TIMES What about the orange heart?

RUSHING I like using hearts, anatomical hearts, in my paintings. So if I can see a way to put one in, I often do. But things like painting or writing—the arts—they come from the heart. They’re more of a feeling thing than an academic thing. So that seemed appropriate. Part of why everything is elongated is, the Painter’s Group members, they got the first call for entries and responded to that, and the dimensions were insane. They were, I want to say, like 18” by 60.” That’s why mine is so long. And then they went and altered the dimensions, but it was already too late.

NEW TIMES Well, it works with the vertical lines of the wallpaper. It’s really striking.

RUSHING I was concerned that they might not accept it because of the nudity.

NEW TIMES At Steynberg? I’ve seen so many boobs at Steynberg.

RUSHING I’m not saying they would have an issue with it, but I’ve just found over the years that, because I like to show in public places, like cafés, they usually feel a little uncomfortable with nudity. Peter has shown a lot of progressive, interesting artwork and I don’t think he would be squeamish about anything, but you just never know who is.

NEW TIMES How, when you read poetry, are you translating it into artwork?

Be careful of brushstrokes…
The Painter’s Group of SLOMA (San Luis Obispo Museum of Art) presents “Brushstrokes 2012” at Steynberg Gallery, located at 1531 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo, from Sept. 7-29. An opening reception will be held Friday, Sept. 7 from 6 to 9 p.m. in conjunction with Art After Dark. For more information, call the gallery at 547-0278 or visit

RUSHING Well, I translated it literally in my painting. Sometimes I do it more with symbols and things like that. In general, I think that they can compliment each other. When I did the “Mincing Words” show at Linnaea’s, there was one man there who was saying he hated it. He was like, ‘You don’t need words in paintings.’ And its like, of course you don’t need to. But I like to add text to my paintings. I think it adds a whole other dimension. I take a whole lot of inspiration from literature and poetry, or even lyrics. And I think when this piece shows, and it has the poem next to it, it will open it up to more people. I’ve said it before, but I don’t paint these things to make a bunch of money, obviously, or else I would paint what sells in our area, you know, vineyards and these kinds of things. I paint to get people talking about art.

NEW TIMES Now that I think about what you said about nudity and worrying that it wouldn’t be accepted, I notice that the woman in the painting looks kind of pixilated, and I’m wondering if that was maybe a reason—that you were thinking about censorship.

RUSHING It’s not. I go through these weird phases with my brushstrokes, and that’s one of them. I use a big square brush. I did an abstract that had a lot of those in it, and someone was looking at it, and she’s like, ‘Ugh, I really don’t like this, it looks very artificial.’ And I’m like backing away slowly. But the way the brushstrokes are does make it look artificial.

NEW TIMES You seem to be running into people all the time who are looking at your art, going, ‘Hmm, I don’t know…’

RUSHING I know, because I’m always eavesdropping, right? Some people in front of the Monterey window said I must be really angry. And I was like, I’ve got a girl with a crocodile and birthday hat on! How am I angry?

NEW TIMES You do a lot of women with animals. I haven’t seen any men at all in your work.

RUSHING The only one in the last ten years that has a man in it is the one where the woman is ripping her heart out and force-feeding it to him. Other than that, they are all women.

NEW TMES The woman in this particular painting, The Holy Oranges, she looks a lot like you.

RUSHING Her face looks a lot like me. My breasts don’t look like that, two kids later. But I’m shy about asking people to model, so sometimes I have no choice but to use myself, and I did. I set my camera up on self-timer, and it’s me. But I totally gave myself a boob job. And cinched my waist a little. Other than that…

NEW TIMES That’s brave.

RUSHING But even when you’re not painting yourself, you accidentally put a lot of yourself in. I did a nude that’s hanging at Heaven and Earth, and it’s totally not me. And actually, at Linnaea’s these two older women came up to me and said, ‘I just saw a self-portrait you did, hanging at Heaven and Earth.’ These women had never met me, they just saw the painting and saw me. I’m like, ‘That is my painting, but it’s totally not me in it!’ It’s weird, you might put in a little bit of yourself.

NEW TIMES How long did it take for you to learn how to depict faces?

RUSHING I don’t know, because I still feel like I have so much to learn. I wouldn’t say I’m there. I’ve been working on it for more than twenty years. I don’t do realism, that’s not what I paint. I want it to be figurative expressionism. I like chunky brush strokes. I like to see that it’s painting. I still have so much to learn. I get scared every time before a show. I get insecure, afraid to be compared to the other paintings in the room. Turning in “Brushstrokes,” my friend and I were outside the museum, sitting on the curb, finishing up our little envelopes to stick in the little mail slot thing, and I was shaky; I was nervous. You feel a little naked. Even if you were proud of what you did, even if you were honest.

NEW TIMES Is there a piece in your head that you would like to paint?

RUSHING One piece I’m working on right now is like a really big shadowbox, and it’s a woman, a nude—and I had to use myself!—and she has a crown of an open alligator’s jaw, and she has no top on, but a big old-fashioned peasant skirt that she’s lifting, and she has strange contraptions on her hands, as if she’s strapped on long claws, and she’s holding up part of the dress to expose a bunch of cracked-open eggs—and they are actual eggshells—and coming out of them are lots of different alligators.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at