Paintings by Julia Felsenthal
Julia Felsenthal is a Brooklyn and Cape Cod-based writer and painter. Working mostly in watercolor and gouache, she makes intimately-scaled paintings of flowers, people, and the sea. For TPE she created a series of flower paintings based off of the ceramics, textiles, and textures on display at the store. These paintings, made in the tradition of portraiture, explore the psychology of domestic ritual and interior decoration, and the talismanic power of beloved objects.
TPE: How did you make the leap into painting ?
JF: I've always painted; it was just something I did mostly quietly and on the side. But there are a couple ways to answer this. One is that in the years leading up to the pandemic I was writing a lot about artists who really inspire me—Alice Neel, Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz. And immersing myself in their lives and work made this nagging thing that I'd been ignoring feel more urgent.
The other is that the pandemic changed everything: there were several months at the beginning where the idea of being a journalist covering culture seemed absurd. In March 2020, my husband and I went upstate to stay in my uncle's house with my sister and her family. It was a privilege and a relief to exit the city at that moment. There wasn't much internet up there; barely enough for the people who needed to be on work zooms and for my niece and nephew to do remote school. It was the perfect time to give myself over to painting. No wi-fi needed.
TPE: What is it about still life painting that you are drawn to ?
JF: I don't think of myself as a still life painter but I do love making paintings that are about interior spaces. I'm obsessed with decorating and the decorative arts. I didn't grow up in a house with a lot of old things, and I find myself drawn to them, as well as to things that are handmade. I have some woowoo thoughts about how objects are haunted by their makers or owners. When I paint those things, the paintings feel like collaborations with all the people who had a role in bringing these objects into being, or into my possession. My flower paintings sometimes feel like I'm hosting little psychic tea parties, or seances.
TPE: Can you tell us a little about what you were doing prior to painting?
JF: I was a magazine editor and writer for a decade and a half. For about five years prior to the pandemic I was writing full time, at first on staff at Vogue and later as a freelancer for a bunch of different style and culture magazines. I still write but much more part-time. I find that writing and painting occupy different regions of my brain, and only one can be activated on any given day. I'm much more vigilant than I used to be about protecting my painting time.
TPE: What does a typical day look like for you ?
JF: I wake up early, drink coffee, read a little, paint for several hours. If I'm on the Cape I'll take a break to walk the dogs on a beach. If I'm in the city, I might walk them to meet my sister. Go home, paint some more. Take a bath. Early to bed. It's thrillingly unthrilling. I'm a creature who thrives on routine.
On the days where this is impossible, I'll meet my sister-in-law, also a painter, to go look at some art. I'm trying to do more studio visits. Of course I've omitted the alarming amount of time I spend looking at Instagram and LiveAuctioneers, and the equally alarming amount of time I spend aimlessly fretting.
TPE: What is it about flowers that you are drawn to ? Any favorite types ?
JF: My first and abiding love in painting is portraiture. I turned to flowers when people weren't available. Flowers make wonderful alternative portrait subjects. They are idiosyncratic and they have personality, attitude, and faces. Petals are not unlike skin. Flowers are better than people at sitting still, but there's also this time constraint: you only have a day or so before they start to move, and a couple days before they wilt. Not a lot of time to fuss.
For texture, I love to paint poppies and teddy bear sunflowers. Graphically, I love anemones, astrantia and tulips. Peonies are a beautiful dimensional challenge. So basically, I'm not terribly discriminating.
TPE: What do you like to do when you are feeling in a rut with work / looking for inspiration (if that ever happens) ?
JF: I feel this way a lot! Sometimes it's just a matter of switching gears, in terms of what I'm painting. Often it means I need to go look at someone else's art. Seeing other people's devotion is the quickest path back to my own.
TPE: Where / what environment is your favorite to paint in?
JF: I am neurotically attentive to my surroundings, and if things aren't in order I find it very hard to focus on making anything. I make tidy watercolor and gouache paintings on paper, and I am compulsively neat. My studios—a small room in our apartment in the city and a truly tiny room without a door on the Cape—don't necessarily look the way you'd imagine. More than workspaces, they are living spaces where I put all the things I most love to look at. I'm extremely spoiled by this: I hate to work anywhere else.
TPE: Any music, podcasts, you like to have on while you work ?
JF: Not just when I work: all day. If I'm not reading or talking to someone, I have audio on. Mondays are the best, because that's when the week's New Yorker stories hit the Audm app. I'm loving Helen Molesworth's podcast about Ana Mendieta. I'm a devotee of the Slate Culture and Political Gabfests, I'm sure in part because I used to work with all the hosts and hearing them chatter gives me a very cozy feeling. My one audible credit per month is a precious resource I deploy with care. Most recently I bought Carlene Bauer's novel Girls They Write Songs About, which I found so moving. Before that, Ada Calhoun's brilliant memoir Also a Poet, which incorporates original audio recordings of interviews with Edward Gorey and Jane Freilicher—my idea of heaven.