Gary Sweeney Interviews Meredith Dean

Artist on Artist

Meredith Dean, Gary Sweeney and Magnet the dog in Dean’s home studio
Meredith Dean, Gary Sweeney and Magnet the dog in Dean’s home studio

It has taken me way too long to interview Meredith Dean, one of the true movers and shakers of the San Antonio art scene. After receiving her master's in printmaking from Washington University in St. Louis, she found her way to San Antonio in 1991. Dean was a professor of art at the University of Texas at San Antonio until her retirement in 2014 and continues to produce lush, beautiful prints and resin wall pieces at her home studio north of town. I wish I knew the secret to her energy. In addition, she is president of the nonprofit Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Italy, and has been on the board of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum for nine years. Her late husband, the artist Dennis Olsen, whom I interviewed for the San Antonio Current in June 2014, passed away last Thanksgiving, and the local art world is still reeling from his loss.

Was art an important part of your family life growing up?

Yes. Both of my parents were interested and involved with creative activities, and we were always making and fixing and creating stuff. My mother did ceramics until I was born — I kind of interrupted that so she started painting and writing. My father was always involved in the practical arts. He really wanted a boy and trained me to use every kind of tool in our shop. When I was in grade school, I collected rocks and stones and we did lapidary — especially cabochon-cut stones, that we had gathered from various trips and even from rocks that I collected on the playground.

Do you remember the first piece of art that had an impact on you?

Yes, the Franz Kline painting Turin, in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where I grew up. When I was 13 [and] 14, I was an assistant in the education department at the museum and every time I was there I saw this (very large) painting at the end of the hall where I worked. At that point I thought it was the most stupid artwork that I had ever seen. I didn't think that it belonged in a museum and was adamant about my opinion. As I began to study art and began to understand abstract expressionism, my opinion changed. Now, when I return to the Nelson, the first thing that I revisit is my old friend, the Franz Kline painting. It had a major impact on my thinking and attitudes about art.

You were doing artwork at a time when things were far from easy for women artists. Have things improved since your youth?

I was always aware that it was difficult for a woman to succeed as a professional artist and that was (and is) disturbing, not fair and very much a product of whom the critics chose to write about. There were, however, women who were role models: Louise Nevelson, Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Cassatt, Ana Mendieta, Frida Kahlo ... Anne Ryan, Jennifer Bartlett [and] Eva Hesse, to name a few. At that time I was more interested in the women who had managed to be successful, and they were my encouragement.

You seem to work with structured, complex systems using random, organic shapes. How are you able to combine those two elements? Can you walk me through your process?

When you look at a map, it is a perfect example of a structured, complex system, which is based on random organic shapes. I have always had an interest in aerial landscape and mapping throughout my artistic exploration. I was particularly interested in the micro/macro view of landscape. At one point, I went flying to take pictures from small planes (leaning out the window), commercial flights, helicopters, balloons and even flew with my son when he was 17 and getting his private pilot's license — (crazy?). These images inspired my work — and they still do.

How has your work evolved over the years? Or has it? 

My work has evolved over the years in many different, yet related, directions. Starting with an early interest in landscape, my interest shifted to aerial landscape, not only how it looked but also how it felt to fly. This inspired a series of large and experimental prints. Signs, symbols and icons had their influence and, of course, Italian art and street graffiti. All of these seem linked by my use of color and composition, layering of images and experimentation with media. My work always seems to start with a "what if?" and "how can I make that happen?" which means that my media has changed from painting to printmaking to inventing my own ways of working that are appropriate for the ideas that I am working with. I always feel that the media that I choose to use is a metaphor and reflection of the ideas that I am trying to express.

Did you have a role model or mentor when you were younger?

My early mentor was a close family friend, Marguerite Mitchell, who was a painter with a quirky sense of humor and a strong dedication to her work. From an early age, she encouraged me. We talked about painting and the dedication that it takes to pursue being an artist. That gave me confidence and courage to pursue my path.

Is there a time in your life in which you would be frozen if you could?

I have never wanted to be frozen in time — the next chapter has always been too enticing. Even now as I am aging it is the present and the future, not being frozen in the past, that I embrace.

I see printmakers as the sort of mad scientists of the art world. You are always experimenting with process and technique and materials. What is it that makes printmakers feel the need to do that?

All of the printmaking mediums entice exploration and modification. It is an inventive medium and is ever changing with technology and new materials. I think, also, that printmakers have always had to create their methods and that is part of the romance of printmaking. It is a medium that invites innovation and experimentation.

If you could own any piece of artwork, what would it be?

It would be Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment which is in the San Marco Museum in Florence. I have always been fascinated with his work because it represented a cusp between the medieval and Renaissance ways of thinking. We are still struggling with similar issues today and for me, it is a fascinating period of visual representation.

How have you seen students change over your career as an educator?

Students have changed — yes — and students are still the same. It is the teaching methods and technologies that change, but students still have the same impulses to learn.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give today’s art student?

Technology is a relatively new addition to the artist’s toolbox. It is seductive to depend on the tools and tricks that it offers. I would advise that students still need to master the basics of artistic representation.

This includes learning to use their own eyes, hands and curiosity to explore and create a broad range of skills that depend on the human response to and observation of the world. Technology is amazing, but your individual thoughts, skills, talents and experiences are your most valuable art-making tool.

Tell me something about yourself that would surprise your friends.

When I am totally happy, in the studio, covered with paint and dust, and the studio (to outside eyes) is a creative mess, my family has nicknamed me “Pig-Pen.”

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