Kinstler Conversation with Rachel Hayden
By Maddie Klett
The following is a conversation with New York based painter Rachel Hayden. This interview took place in March 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Maddie Klett: Tell me about Self-Portrait as a Florist, 2022. Were you ever a florist?
Rachel Hayden: I have an affinity for florists. When I was 15, I got hit by a car when I was riding my bike and a florist stopped traffic, put a towel under my head, and potentially saved my life. They sent me flowers after. I think being a florist is a romantic job and sometimes I wish I was one.
MK: Wow, that is a wonderful person! Do flowers appear in most of your work?
RH: Definitely. I would say 75% of my paintings have flowers in them. If I describe my work to someone who hasn't seen it, I’ll say “I do flowers and butterflies and fruits, mostly with faces on them”
MK: Where does your impulse to personify things come from?
RH: Personifying groups of objects is interesting to me, to see how they might feel about getting arranged. It’s like group dynamics, where people who know each other have certain ways of looking at one another, and those gestures have meaning. Especially in families. I try to incorporate that into flower arranging and fruit bowls.
Before I moved to New York, I was a teacher at a museum in early childhood education. I gave tours to children from newborns to age five. Whenever I was looking for paintings to use, I sought ones that could tell an interpersonal story, where you could infer meaning behind looks. The lessons were meant to be 10% art appreciation and 90% learning about life, and feelings, through art. It’s something I still use now.
MK: There's an art therapy element to it, or is that not the right term?
RH: I wouldn't say therapy, but similar to ways that caregivers use a picture book to talk about a certain concept in childhood life. At the museum, we would use paintings to talk about the seasons and identify shapes, colors and types of lines. That influenced my work, so I paint recognizable shapes and feelings, things that you can count.
MK: Could you talk about why these components look the way they do? Your head and arms are disembodied. They’re made to look like objects, like the flowers and fruits.
RH: I’ve developed a way of composing an image where it’s almost like a puzzle. I start with the big pieces first and then slowly add all the little pieces in between until it's full to the right degree. There are shapes I'll use often. That’s partly for the subject of the work and partly because I need something that fits in a space that is triangle shaped, or I need something that fits into a vertical rectangle space. I use heads and hands that are disembodied because they fit better into a complicated composition, compared to a full figure. And I feel you can get a lot of implied movement from just the head and hands.
For Self-Portrait as a Florist, I started with the big flower arrangement, added the face and hands, and then finished with all the little pieces in between. These become smaller and smaller until they’re like sprinkles on top.
MK: I like that idea of sprinkles. Those little pieces are like charms.
RH: My last show was called Charm Bracelet!
MK: That’s perfect. Did you begin the work knowing it would be a self portrait?
RH: Yes. When I include figures I really only paint myself. It adds to the sense of loneliness, so that I’m essentially creating characters to surround myself, which illustrates a desire to connect. With Self-Portrait as a Florist, I wanted to combine a flower arrangement painting with a self portrait, which I hadn't done before.
MK: I'm interested in this idea of building characters. Is there a narrative in the work?
RH: It's not a specific narrative, but an interaction where there's a lot of side-eye. Where there’s love but also sometimes annoyance. Since the composition is packed in, the characters end up looking kind of irritated to be squished together.
MK: They’re packed in, but it’s organized. There is a lot of symmetry.
RH: I think symmetry and balance are essential parts of joy. I don't know exactly why I do this, but everything needs to be equally weighted, and full, on either side. It happens in nature, butterflies are symmetrical and fruits are symmetrical. I think a sense of control is important to me, and things need to be contained.
MK: Right. Most of the objects are within the frame, they aren’t extending off the panel.
RH: It’s organized chaos. I'm a naturally messy person and have a lot of clutter in my life. But I did the Marie Kondo clearout a few years ago and got particular about which things I was going to have around. I live in a pretty small apartment so I can't have a lot of stuff. I definitely feel like making a painting is an opportunity to be really particular about which objects are the sparking joy and which to discard.
When I’m trying to make stuff, it's essential to not think too hard about what to do and start doing it. Otherwise I won't make anything. So inviting some chaos is essential to productivity, but I do it in controlled ways.
MK: How big is the painting?
RH: It's 30 by 40 inches. It's my biggest. My studio is really small. It's maybe 6 by 8 feet. So that takes up most of a wall.
MK: Your palette is pretty varied, you use a lot of bright colors. How do you decide what to use?
RH: It’s actually a really organized process. I do the background first and then I have ColorAid swatches. It's kind of like Pantone, it’s a numbered color system of cards. I have 40 that I use regularly. I hold them up to the background and usually pick 10 to start that work well together. And sometimes I don't know what the painting is going to be yet, I only know the colors.
MK: That sounds fun.
RH: It's so fun. I love my life. It’s essential to me to have a silly fun time. With all of my paintings, I’m trying to channel a childhood self. When I used to doodle in the margins of notebooks and not think about what I was doing. I try to think less and less every day.
MK: I love that.
RH: I had one teacher tell me that he didn't like that he could tell my paintings were made by a woman. I definitely took it to heart at the time. But looking back on that now, it was a terrible thing to say and so sexist. So I'm leaning into my work looking like a girl made it, and that's cool.
MK: That’s a crappy thing your teacher said. It also implies a hierarchy of taste, that works in good taste look like they are made by men.
RH: Yeah. I feel, in general, there is starting to be pushback to ideas of what media is considered valid. For example, people have long called reality dating shows trash tv, but it's largely because it's a mostly female audience.
MK: Definitely. So Self-Portrait as a Florist is becoming a puzzle, which means instead of encountering the work on a wall, it will be on a table in thousands of pieces. Have you thought about how the interaction with your painting will change?
RH: I think about it all the time. It's honestly not that different from the making of the painting. Because you're probably going to start with the big chunks of color first. I would do the two blue orchids at the bottom first, and then group the other big parts together. I think it will be great because you'll be able to spend time finding all the little surprises. I try to reward the viewer with little treats. If somebody is going to take time to look at it, there should be some fun stuff to find.
MK: What is puzzling you today?
RH: I've been in a rut since the new year. It's so frustrating when you are trying to make paintings and none of them turn out and you don't really know why. You feel like you've gone to the limit with your methods, and you either need to introduce some new material or introduce a new color. I'm still on the hunt for what that is. For a while I was doing a bunch of paintings that have a pumice gel medium mixed into the paint, and it makes it sand-papery. That was really rocking my world, but it's not anymore and I don’t know what to do.
MK: You need a new challenge.
RH: I started putting candles in my paintings. That's a new motif. Candles work as figures easily, just like flowers. But they add their own challenge because it's a light source, and that makes it hard—whether the face should be like back lit or should be the light.
MK:: Maybe a jack-o’-lantern, but that gets seasonal.
RH: I’ve painted jack-o’-lanterns before! I love seasonal paintings. I've done two Christmas tree paintings. I've done two calendars. I took off last year, but I’m working on a calendar next year, and deciding what painting goes with each month.
MK: Again, so fun!