August 23rd, 2017
Jesse Gussow

Seattle based painter Maj Askew is an artist that I took note of almost instantly. Her work is dark and has a very surreal feel to it. I’m always drawn to the beauty of her work initially and then notice how dark and macabre it really is. The water imagery she uses, is just outstanding; it always seems to be the perfect foil to the main subject in the works.


We were able to interview her and it’s one of the most insightful interviews we’ve done. She’s currently also open to commissions, so if you have an idea for some work and adore her style as much as we do, we’d highly encourage you to contact her.




Where are you from?

I was born in the American Midwest, and I’ve lived in the Seattle area for fourteen years.




How did you get interested in art?

It think it’s something that has always compelled me. I remember being a young child, traveling with my mother, and spending whole days just totally entranced in art museums. It was, and still is, one of our favorite things to do together. But even before that, I couldn’t be torn away from a page. I used to sit while she read to me at night, with a giant sketchbook in bed, and just draw and draw for hours. If she reached the end of a chapter, I would beg for another because I wasn’t finished with my drawing yet. If I finished my drawing, I’d have to start another, because we weren’t done with the chapter yet. I think we often stayed up much later than anticipated.




What was the first thing you ever painted?

As a child? I have no idea what thing must have come first. There were a lot of arts and crafts for me growing up, and it was kind of a gradual evolution from indistinguishable scribbles, to the animals-and-people phase, to Star Trek battles and velociraptors. I took every art class I could get my hands on, and participated in a few large-scale mural projects in my adolescence. When I went to Cornish and they first taught us traditional underpainting techniques with oils, the first assignment was to duplicate an image just to go through all the steps and understand the process. I chose a promotional photo from the BBC production of Gormenghast, of Steerpike, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, standing on a giant clock face. I made a small, sepia-toned reproduction of this image — probably an 8” x 10” canvas. I suppose that was my first really intentionally-constructed oil painting.




When did you know 100% that being an artist was what you wanted to do?

It was only after I tried something else. When I first moved to the Seattle area, it was to study video game programming. I had always really enjoyed coding, but two years in, I really missed the presence of art in my life. I realized that while programming was something I enjoyed and could do for fun, it wasn’t something that was going to be fulfilling for me when I dialed it up to eleven. Art had always scaled.




How would you describe your art?

Darkly figurative and narratively iconographic, with strong mythological influence.




What inspires your artwork?

Stories and emotion. I try to expose myself to as many new ideas and stories as I possibly can, and often a combination of phrases or visuals will combine and shift, then spark an idea for something new. I find a lot of inspiration through mythology, literature, and other character-driven narratives. During my week, I religiously set aside a block of time to read, listen to music, and run simultaneously. I find that the combination of intellectual, emotional, and physical stimulus really works for me, and I get some of my best and most fulfilling cognitive work done during these hours.




How long does a typical piece take to complete? What are all the steps involved in making a piece?

Typically, work on a piece begins with a reference photoshoot I design, style, and photograph in my studio. I use these images to help me work through the visual ideas I have for a piece, and figure out the final composition. For a piece in which the finished medium will be oil and digital, the next stage is to begin with a blank canvas in Corel Painter and create a digital underpainting based on usually the best several reference photographs from my studio. I find that painting digitally offers me a different hand and brush character that is looser and more, ironically, painterly than how my detail- and blending-oriented painting style tends to be in oils. In this way, I can play to my strengths in each medium. When the digital painting is completed, I have it archivally printed at Bellevue Fine Art reproduction. I then mount it onto a panel, and prep it to receive oils. In the oils phase, I build up glaze layers of color, contrast, and light. Because I will have lost the trans-illuminated quality of working digitally, I now need to recapture that with what oils do best: luminosity. I add things like smoke, rain, and reflected color, as well as small highlights and reflections, skin details, et cetera. My favorite thing to do in this phase is really pull out the drapery — there’s always drapery. The whole painting becomes much brighter and more detailed during this phase.

After that, it's signed, sealed, and either framed or given edge treatment. I generally ballpark about a month per painting, but of course that depends on how large a piece is, how much time between the different parts of the process, and how many I’m working on at once. I often complete more than one painting per month, but they each took the whole month, or more, to complete. If one is drying, I can still be equally productive elsewhere. I find it easier to keep track of how many I am producing per year.




What kind of music do you like to listen to? Do you listen to music when you are working?

I admit it, I’m a sucker for late-90’s, early-2000’s synthpop, futurepop, and EBM. While I’m working, I listen to a ton of podcasts. And I’m in love with audiobooks — I get so much reading done while I work! Depending on my mood, I will do a few podcasts, then some music, then more podcasts, then maybe a book for a solid day…I just bounce around as my energy and interest dictate. There’s almost no time in my life when I don’t have some sort of sound going.




If you were not an artist, what job do you think you would have?

In addition to painting, I also freelance as a photo editor. I really enjoy working with images, and genuinely love this work.




What is the biggest challenge that artists face today that they didn’t face 50 years ago?

Social media. (There are numerous struggles associated with dependency on a pseudo-public service.)




On the flip side what's less challenging today for artist than it was 50 years ago?

Social media. (It exists and presents a lot of opportunities for self-driven outreach in the first place.)




What is your favourite thing to paint?

I have a serious obsession with drapery.




What's the best feeling in the world?

Moving through the quiet morning, early, in the light before dawn.




Do you prefer Oreo or Fudgee-o cookies? Or some other treat?

I actually don’t like cocoa, so I’d have to say neither, unless they’re Golden Oreos. I really like marshmallows a lot. The store brand jumbo ones — put ‘em in the fridge and they’ll melt in your mouth.

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