Impossible to look away, irresistible to the heart, and illuminating to behold. Work that unashamedly radiates and uplifts, while rooted in the mystic recesses of High Renaissance and Mannerist tradition. Born in Sedalia, Missouri in 1975, Finley received her BFA from Pratt University (New York) and an MFA from California State University (Long Beach). Having worked in the film world as a set decorator scene-painter, she is more recognized throughout Western Europe and the U.S. for her Wallpapered Dumpster project, and has expanded her repertoire to large-scale murals, paintings, posters, and into curation with the foundation of the Every Woman Biennial (which began as the 2014 Whitney Houston Biennial: I’m Every Woman). Her work has been featured in The New York Times, DAZED, and Fast Company.
FRONTRUNNER spoke to Finley in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown about her past, her future, and how Renaissance art continues to save the day for humanity, at large.
When I first saw your work, it seemed to emit joy. It’s bedazzling. What is your opinion about the contemporary art world having this predilection or this obsession with melancholy?
You know, for so long I really struggled with that. It’s devastating to me. That’s my honest answer. The deeper the soulful ugliness- the more attention it gets from the art world. Which is kind of why I made the Every Women Biennial – I’m making my own world. I’m not scared of it. I know what melancholy is, I have it. It’s just that if I have an opportunity to make the world, why on earth would I make an experience that is going to hurt? Art for me is to uplift and to create the world in which I want to live. I’ve tried to be other ways and it just doesn’t work for me. I’m 44 years old, and I have a lot to do, but I do know who I am.
Talk about your background – where are you from and how did you start? I know you split your time between New York and Rome.
I am originally from a very small town in central Missouri called Sedalia. From the moment I was born, everyone knew I didn’t want to be in a small town. I was fascinated with New York and obsessed with Madonna, which lead me to Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the entire 1980s New York scene. I was this kid living in the middle of nowhere fantasizing about all things New York. I come from a place of unconditional love and sweetness and an ability to be very free. It was a little town and I could go anywhere I wanted. I’ve been a freedom seeker and I’ve been curious about the world ever since. This created a deep lust for traveling the world – for creativity and being a part of the mix on an international level.
Did you feel a pull to be a part of the academic realm of the art world? Was that an important stepping stone for you, or did you feel like you were ready to dive into the cultural element on your own?
I went to the University of Missouri first, Pre-Law. I realized it wasn’t for me, so I took a class called “The Creative Process”. The instructor hypnotized us: it was very spirit-science-oriented. That class completely unleashed something inside of me. I had a breakdown and went to a psychologist who told me to apply for art college. I got accepted to Pratt institute in New York. Pratt was all about art. It was all about making things and learning how to make things and the discussion of money or theory was very vague. A lot of my teachers were old Yale professors from the 50s and 60s. They really had this purity thing going on- that pure abstract expressionism feeling.
I decided to attend grad school, Cal State Long Beach, for an MFA in Intermedia and Sculpture. I was craving theory and professional development from a grad program, but when I really got into it, I realized it was damaging my practice. When I got there, I really dove into my spiritual practice. I wanted the theoretical and academic, but I got the complete negation of that. It came full circle with that creative process course I took in Missouri, which was a deep dive into spirit-science.
About your work during this period…
In New York, I was a scenic painter in the film industry and learned a lot of cool skills. I had access to fine wallpaper. During grad school in California, I wallpapered my first dumpsters as a project for an intermedia class. It went over well, so I thought, if people could see a dumpster as a work of art there is a raising of consciousness happening. I’ve been wallpapering dumpsters ever since 2006.
Right. When did you first come to Rome?
After I graduated from Cal State, I walked the Camino de Santiago. I returned to LA and became the assistant curator at the Torrance Art Museum, but LA was failing me. I had a terrible heartbreak. I didn’t like my job. My car and my flat got broken into – the city was pushing me out. A friend had a patroness who gave me a 10k grant and said, “how do you want to start your new life?” and I told her that I wanted to see what’s happening in Europe. On this trip I went to Rome for four days and I ended up staying for almost 12 years.
Where in Rome are you now? The same place?
I started out in Magliana. It was very working class – nobody spoke English. I met this famous fashion designer, (Gai) Mattiolo, and his creative director, Attilio Vaccari – [he] basically saved my life. He gave me an apartment and a studio across the street from him and told me, “I want you to stay here and work and paint on canvas.” Still to this day when I see him, it’s magic. There is no one in my life like him. He saved my life. He set the bar so high for friendships.
Did you start the Kaleidoscope works there?
Attilio challenged me to make 20 paintings in one month. My signature style became traditional patchwork quilt units cut up into psychedelia and painted intuitively. Even though it’s hard-edge geometry, but there is something comforting about it- this Americana women’s world. They often include Roman Gods and Goddesses and antiquities through all time and space – the lava of all that is – these things that last through hundreds of years. There is something so human about them.
When I see the work, I see something inherently familiar, but the word “novel” doesn’t apply. It’s as if you’re peeling away layers and exposing the brilliance beneath. When you are surrounded by these works, do you feel as if there is there is this interior world to these?
Oh my God, yeah. It’s there is this divine light shining through them, through time and space. There is also a layer of people praying for 500 years – lighting candles praying. It is so thick and so dense with rapture.
Especially seeing your Bernini.
Bernini is the best because it’s in its place. Where it was always meant to be. And you can get close to it. Finally seeing Michelangelo’s Pietà was a disappointment to me because you must stand so far away from it. Painting the Pietà was my way of bridging that gap because I really wanted to see. I formed a deep connection with each fold- the beauty of each piece. You can do it ten times and you would find new things in it – that’s the beauty of humanity and who we are. We can keep spelunking into ourselves and it never stops. That’s been my best education. To paint those icons.
Moving into your next phase, the Every Woman Biennial. What was its origin?
For many years I’ve been doing these large-scale exhibitions. My first was in 2001. It was this collection of 80 artists. I love salon style – it’s against the ‘one artist per room’ style of the art world. I started by asking myself, “What do I want? I want to be loved and encouraged. To be shown. To make connections and have a community of artists that help each other.” For example, if I need a welding project, I now have thirty welders I could contact and ask for advice on how to make something. I put that into the mix with my love for salon. The first biennial was very DIY, a one-day show with 80 artists. There were lines around the corner! We had women who were 80 and women who were 18, and everyone in between. It really opened my eyes. It was rickety, but it was glorious.
How have your plans changed for the Biennial with COVID-19?
We are working on a digital biennial: 30 women and non-binary artists from LA, New York and London for 3 months in 2021. We are trying to create a platform that is fun and interesting through website that’s got this cool animated party where you can click through to the different pieces of art with high res imagery, studio visits and a bio. We are hoping to launch that in June.
How has your own creative productivity changed?
I’ve personally taken a deep dive. Which has been amazing and horrifying. I’m really struggling with my painting and I think it’s because I like to create large scale murals and projects that I can’t right now. People are really struggling and its harrowing to see websites for grants applications crash because there are so many people on the platform trying to get, well, crumbs.
I’m grateful because even though I’m struggling, and I’ve lost a lot of business, but I know it will eventually all work out. If I really took a good hard look at my own finances, I would be very depressed, but I decided a long time ago not to freak out about money.
For younger artists – artists who are just coming out of a digital version of their MFA programs –what would you want them to know?
I want them to know that the most important thing is to create the work. The making of it is the one thing you can’t skip. And some things need editing, some things need to sit in the studio forever, while some things hit straight out of the gate.
Currently as a painter, I’m making some weird paintings in that studio I am very unhappy with, but I need to make to know what the next thing is or where I’m going. There is no auto pilot right now. You have to sit with yourself, which you need to learn how to do as an artist. It is so interesting to have this time to go deep into yourself and then communicate with others from probably more of a heart-based space without the distractions and outside stuff. It seems like there is a lot of authenticity and genuineness happening from this moment.
So more of a fun question now. In your studio space, name five things that you need.
Because I’m nomadic, I have just a few things I need in my studio. I need a beautiful candle. I also have a folder of talismans that is ever changing. I went to Chartres Cathedral and I have a postcard of the rose window. That’s always with me. I have pictures of Louis Armstrong and Madonna, amongst others. I have these non-stick tabs and put together this wall of amazingness. I have paint carts in every city. On the road, my iPad Pro really saved my life. I was dreading buying it for so long, but my God it’s amazing to be able to do a quick sketch up of a mural quickly. And that’s really all I need.