Darla Bjork in conversation with Mary Danisi

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Abstract painter Darla Bjork has pursued her career in the art world for over thirty-five years. Bjork experiments with combinations of oil pastels, paint, and encaustic to create intense color fields invoking the spirit of abstract expressionist painters among the likes of Joan Mitchell. Alongside her profession as a painter, she has also managed a successful psychiatric practice and continues to see patients. Her studio in TriBeCa, New York, once home to a fabric storage facility, is distinguished by its broad, light-drenched windows, as well as by a charming garden on the back patio. In the glow of afternoon light, I chat with her on one sunny day.

MD: Your work possesses a visceral, embodied quality. Do you think your art has been influenced by your psychiatric practice in this way?

DB: Oh yes! I think my work is autobiographical. Whatever artwork is made reflects the artist. When I first started painting, I was painting faces, screaming faces, like Edvard Munch’s kind of screaming ones. My father’s side of the family is Norwegian, so I joked that it was in my genes! I was working in a state hospital at the time and the process of making art really helped me cope. The paintings became more of self-portraits, and then I slowly moved into the world of the abstract. Painting always involved a kind of exploration or search: what’s the meaning there, what’s underneath things, what’s behind the surface, is the same.

MD: It’s encouraging to hear your art supported you when you were confronted with the struggles of patients in the state hospital. So you consider painting to be a meditative or revitalizing act?

DB: For me it is. When I’m painting and really into the work I feel as though I am in another world, so to speak. I’m just sort of gone. I like music, so up in the country in my studio I put on my ipod and listen to jazz and classical music. When I am worried about something, or thinking about something else, or just too tired, I can’t really paint.

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MD: You’ve mentioned before that you create your pieces through a system of adding, removing, and re-working encaustic on the surfaces of your canvases. And you even use dental tools to make incisions. This experimental method aside, do you think that your scientific bent engages with your artistic spirit when you paint?

DB: Actually I like to reject the science part of it. Fifty years ago I came out to New York as an intern, so I have been a psychiatrist for a long time. But as to how they link together, I would get rid of the medical part. But at least I can make a living! Some people probably integrate it better than I do, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere!

MD: Do you approach a new project with with a particular inspiration in mind? You’ve explained that your design in this series reminded a friend of a torii, the traditional Japanese gate that demarcates sacred ground. Do other works of yours embrace similar inspirations?

DB: Actually the torii, a wooden arch usually painted red that many of us in the West are unfamiliar with, demarcates the entrance to the shrine or temple. The torii therefore is the focus of the transition between the outside world and inner sacred space. This sense of transition has been my focus in this series. This is the one series where I very specifically started with a form that I know intellectually echos Eastern traditions. But I struggle to meditate. I always think I’m going to but I just sit there. Over the years I have tried to meditate but have had a difficult time even sitting still and doubt that I’ll ever quite get there. I’m too Western! However when I’m painting, it feels like I’m meditating on some level. As if in a trance-like state, I’ll reach for one color, and grab some other instead, and start playing around with that one. It’s sort of like . . . whatever! It’s a more intuitive process at this point. But it is also directed in a deliberate, special way that feels right to me.

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MD: So your works are the product of a more intuitive process. Would you say the same about a series? Do you ever intend to compile a particular series in advance or does each series develop organically on its own?

DB: My work is the product of an intuitive, spiritual search/exploration. After each show I flounder around, exploring and probing in different directions. There is a transitional time when I want to do something new and just keep painting and reworking the piece. This time can be quite unsettling, until I hit the mark with something that feels right. Often these are transitional paintings that get worked over and over, never work, and get set aside in the back of my studio to be studied at a later date when I get stuck again. I’ve learned the hard way that this exploration is a necessary step towards the realization of my next new series.

MD: Is there a reason for approaching this particular color palette in this series?

DB: Yes. The last series was mostly blues, but in this series I have used red, a color which denotes energy, rage, blood – usually seen negative for most people in our culture. However in the Hindu culture red is the color of survival and the life force. With red you see all of the jarring movements… the way it moves back and forth. There’s something about how the black comes through all the other color. If I used a different color, there would be a different feel. I like also that, with some of the paintings, you can get up very close and see something, but then if you step way back you see something different. They’re almost different images: one painting transforms into something else.

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