Duluth artist embarks on unique project in downtown storefrontAs AJ Atwater begins a painting, she has no idea what form the finished product will take.
As AJ Atwater begins a painting, she has no idea what form the finished product will take.
She instinctually applies layers of paint to the canvas. She uses tape and a ruler to divide the painting into rectangular boxes when the time seems right. At times,
she uses a Sharpie to draw on her canvas. And she uses a scraper to remove paint more often than she uses a brush to apply it.
Atwater stops only when the work has a look that she describes as “authentic.”
“I call myself a ‘compositioner,’ instead of a composer,” she said. “Because of the way I work, I don’t have any plan. I’m constantly composing as I go.”
Currently, Atwater can be seen creating her paintings in the storefront window at Perry Framing in downtown Duluth. For the first 30 days of July, she is doing one painting a day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., while chatting with passersby who stop to see her in action.
Each painting is 30 inches by 30 inches. She plans to exhibit all 30 works, bringing the pieces together as one piece of art, on July 31. She calls it “Project 30/30.”
It’s the same idea behind Andy Warhol’s famous collections of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy paintings, Atwater said.
“This is a conceptual art piece. One painting is not just one painting,” she said. “There’s something abstract about having 30 things form one piece. They build on each other.”
Atwater launched the 30-day project on a whim. She had an exhibit close at the Washington Gallery on June 30 and wanted to immediately start something else. She asked friend Penny Perry, owner of Perry Framing, if she could use her storefront, and Perry quickly agreed.
Perry said she liked the idea having a live art performance in her front window on the already art-friendly 200 block of East Superior Street. The block also includes the Zeitgeist Arts Café, Lake Superior Art Glass, where owner Dan Neff frequently provides glassblowing demonstrations, and the NorShor Theatre, which is undergoing a restoration project.
“There is a lot of positive energy and feeling
on this block,” Perry said. “We really have a lot of exciting artists. One who wants to work in front of people is great. Most of the rest of us like to work in the dark by ourselves. …
“Most people just see art on the walls, so it’s intriguing to have that. And there are a lot of people just wandering around, looking for stuff to do, maybe don’t want to be down in all the tourist areas. So this has been intriguing to them.”
Atwater gets a handful of pedestrians who stop in to chat everyday. Even more stop outside for a look, or stare in through the windows as they pass by the shop. She interacts with guests as she paints, explaining her method and critiquing her own work as she goes.
Quick thinking is necessary for Atwater when she paints. With no con-
cept in mind before she starts, and only three hours to complete a painting, she is constantly making decisions as she paints.
Atwater calls her work abstract expressionism. Her paintings mostly utilize rectangular shapes of varying colors. She frequently applies paint and then scrapes some off, applying a tint and allowing hidden layers to peek through.
She considers her paintings landscapes, even if many have a vertical design. She says there is no symbolism or hidden meaning to be found in her works. Rather, each painting is like a story.
Atwater is also a writer, and says she believes that, like stories, paintings should have only the necessary components, and nothing else. Before finalizing a painting, she makes sure it has an “in” and an “out” — a point that draws the eye into the work and one that pulls it out — like the beginning and end of a story.
Atwater splits her time between Duluth and New York, where she studied art history and has exhibited paintings. The rectangular design of her paintings comes from what she calls the “grid” of Manhattan — the way the city blocks are seemingly lined up perfectly.
But Lake Superior factors strongly into her influence as well.
“Lake Superior is kind of like Manhattan,” she said. “Lake Superior is huge in scope, large in scale, never the same, always moving and changing. That’s what Manhattan is. Manhattan is huge in scale and always changing and moving and different. I kind of have the best of both worlds.”