21 QUESTIONS WITH ALEXA BUCHIN

I met Alexa Buchin at Lamplighter on Addison.

I’d seen her artwork on her Instagram, alexalynnartthings. Drawn in first by the metamorphic shapes and earth tones in her pour paintings, I wound up in a face-melting web of abstraction.

There are a lot of ways to describe her style: there are elements of cubism, realism, and impressionism. Perhaps the most striking feature is her skillful use of line quality. But her best pieces communicate the line she doesn’t draw, between the dueling forces of individualism and unity.

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How long have you been taking art seriously?

I decided I wanted to go to art school at the end of high school. I’d taken art classes from elementary school all the way through.

Going to high school in Richmond, we were able to go to so many galleries around the city and see the art scene in Richmond. I was like, “This is really cool; I could see myself doing that.”

At VCU, I did art education. I didn’t really see myself as a gallery artist, and I didn’t want art to be my only source of income. I also feel like lots of artists spend a lot of time making work on their own, and I wanted to have more of a community at work.

Are you an art teacher now?

Going into school, I was interested in art therapy, and I minored in psychology.

About halfway through college, I started working with a guy with autism on the weekends— I was one of his caregivers. I also had some special education classes with art. I really liked both of those experiences, and I realized I didn’t want to just be a teacher at a public school, but I specifically wanted to work with people with special needs.

It was kind of hard to find a job for those things together. At most schools, the regular resource teacher teaches the special education class. So I’ve been a teaching assistant at the Faison Center for Autism for the past year and a half, but I’ve done some art projects with the kids that I work with, and I’m going back to school in the fall for rehabilitation counseling.

What are the principles behind Art Therapy? Creativity enhances quality of life?

Well, there’s a difference between art therapy and therapeutic art. Art therapy is a specific practice where art is used to diagnose someone who can’t communicate well otherwise. I’m more interested now in artmaking as a therapeutic process.

Art can increase resilience and communication skills, and benefit a lot of other mental health areas. I started to get interested in that in high school. The last few art classes I took were very independent, and I definitely used art as a therapeutic outlet, and made art about things that I was dealing with, in a representational way. Especially working with kids who don’t have those introspective skills yet, it’s easier to communicate visually.

When you’re making your own art, what’s your preferred medium?

I like drawing, painting, and printmaking a lot.

I did a lot of painting in college, and I like oil painting a lot. It’s not that practical, because I don’t have a real studio space. I probably shouldn’t use oil paints in my apartment, because it’s kind of toxic, but I still do sometimes anyway. (Laughs).

Printmaking is good if you’re looking to sell a lot of work, because you can make a lot of copies of the same thing. It’s more cost-effective than if you just have this one big oil painting.

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Can you walk me through the process of creating a piece?

I’ve been thinking recently about how you make art for different reasons in different stages of your life. In high school, it was more of a personal process. In college, I started challenging myself to work in different mediums and try new things.

In college, you make a work of art, and you’re going to have a critique on it, and then get a grade. When I got a prompt I would think about how I could try something new and make it unique and personal.

Now, it’s hard, because I’m not making art for a class, so the purpose has changed. I also don’t have as much time to devote to art. So when I do make art, it comes from different sources.

Last summer, there was an awareness walk for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which I have. Their icon is a zebra, so my mom asked me if I could do a painting of a zebra for the auction. That’s an example where I had a direct purpose that I cared a lot about and I was able to do what I wanted with it. I wasn’t doing it as a commission, so I could do it in my own style, but I knew where it was going, so it was more like having a prompt.

I have a hard time getting excited about art if it’s not something that I’m interested in, so I’ve been looking for more specific projects like that.

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When you’re creating a piece and you get an idea, do you sketch something out right away?

Inspiration comes at random times. I’ll find myself having ideas when I’m going to bed, and I’ll write them down on my phone. I’ll also look up pictures online and on Instagram and try to find some pieces for inspiration. Once I’ve planned out in my head how I want it to look, I’ll sketch it out.

Some projects are more straightforward than others. When I painted the zebra, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to paint a zebra.” With other things that are more conceptual and abstract, I’ll often look at other peoples’ art and try to pull some of those pieces together into something new.

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Do you ever just freely start painting and see where it goes?

Not as much anymore. Since art isn’t my main source of income, and since I live in a small studio apartment, I’ve become very aware of the art that I already have, and it’s hard to justify making something just for fun.

If I’m going to spend a certain amount of time and money on making a piece, and I’ve already got a lot of ideas, I usually work with a purpose.

I did go to an open figure drawing session at the Visual Art Center, and that was nice, because I was able to just draw. Later on, I was adding to it while doodling on my couch watching TV, and it turned into something really cool. But that was just paper and marker, so there wasn’t a lot of materials to buy or things to set up.

Who would you say is your biggest artistic influence?

There was one artist I found in high school that I still follow named Andrew Salgado. He does figure and portrait work, but makes it more abstract. When I do more realistic things, like the zebra portrait, I like to have an abstract background, and mix realism with abstraction.

Andrew Salgado is very technically impressive, but he adds a lot of abstract brushstrokes and color.

I think if you’re going to paint something completely realistically, you may as well have just taken a picture. Paint on its own is so beautiful, and can do really cool things, and if you’re just manipulating it to look like something else, it’s not as interesting.

Do you have a favorite classical artist?

I like cubism. I like Picasso. He was one of the first ones to branch off from more realistic things.

I also like the surrealist movement. In high school, Dali was an inspiration— sort of creating these things that look sort of realistic, but are representing something that’s going on in my head.

How would you describe your own style?

A combination of realism and abstraction. I focus a lot on people and nature as subject matter. I try to represent something without just drawing it realistically, but I’m most interested in natural things.

I never really liked drawing still lifes. I’m more interested in movement and organic shapes.

What message do you try to communicate with your pieces?

In high school, I was communicating more personal things, like a self-narrative.

Now, I focus on images that a lot of different people can relate to. I think a lot about how interesting everyone is as an individual. So some of my pieces blend faces together and emphasize that everyone is different, but also connected.

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A celebration of individualism, but all individuals are a part of one entity.

Yes.

Especially with the work that I do, I want to focus on connection. Connecting to other people is helpful to both you and the person to whom you’re connecting.

People in our generation are a little bit more independent, and I’m more interested in communities working together. That’s how we evolved originally.

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What’s your favorite piece that you’ve ever created?

I really like this piece, Collection in Fragments:

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I made this when I was student-teaching as an example of a mosaic. Some of the pieces are glass that I painted on, and some of the pieces are found glass objects that I broke and put together.

It’s the same kind of idea with human figures both broken and stuck together– how people fit together in different ways.

This is a hard medium to work with, and I always think it’s cool to try new mediums and see how I can bring my style and interests to them.

It does seem like a good medium for your theme.

That’s why I like using more sculptural things, because you can get a lot of conceptual stuff out of the materials that you’re using. If I’m talking about how different people are broken and pieced together, this is literally a representation of that. You can paint something that looks like this, but I think it’s more interesting to actually use those materials.

Is there such thing as a truly original piece of art?

No.

There’s a saying: “A good artist borrows, a great artist steals.”

Everything that you do all the time is influenced by everything around you. There’s no way to put yourself in a box and not be influenced.

One of the best ways to make something more original is to put yourself into it, because we’ve all had different experiences. The most original thing about you is you.

What’s more important, originality or execution?

If both of those things were isolated, I would say originality.

I don’t want to get sucked into the hole of making something just because I know people will like it and want to buy it. I want to put my own ideas into it, even if I’m not sure someone else will want to buy it. If you’re just making things and executing without a personal touch, there’s a lot of things like that out there already, and I don’t see a point to making more of them.

If I’m going to be making work, I want it to be different, and that gives me a purpose.

Is it possible to create bad art?

Yeah. It’s all just very subjective to what someone likes or what someone is trying to do.

I think to me, the things that I don’t like as much are things that I’ve seen before. So to me, bad art would be something that isn’t giving me anything new to look at or think about.

Would you say that art is a talent or a skill?

Both. When people compliment my art and say, “Oh, I could never do that,” my response is that all you have to do is practice.

There are people that have a more natural inclination towards things, just like with sports. You can work as hard as you want, but some people will always have an edge.

But I try to emphasize art as a skill you can practice. I practiced a lot when I was younger. What got me into it in the first place was a little bit of that natural talent, but then I just kept doing it. You can teach someone, but so much of improving is doing it over and over again. You can’t jump from being a beginner to a master in a week.

Can anybody develop those skills?

I think so, especially for more technical art where you’re drawing something realistically.

I did a portrait camp with Stanley Rayfield once, who does incredibly realistic paintings, and he didn’t begin drawing until he was in high school, and he just taught himself.

Where is your art up now?

I had art up in April at 68 Home on Broad, but I’ll have art up at the Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition through May. In the past, I’ve had work at Art 180, and I’ve done an event at 1708 Gallery.

I’ve been reaching out to restaurants and galleries that have a featured artist every month. I have so much art sitting in my apartment! Even if nobody’s buying it, I’d rather it be up on a wall somewhere where people can appreciate it.

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