Lisbeth Firmin, Artist
By Dympna Burkhart
What strikes one first about Lisbeth Firmin’s moody urban landscapes are their pervasive sense of mystery and haunting use of light and shadow. An expressionist realist, she is constantly exploring the relationship between people and their environments. Her paintings often feature enigmatic figures on busy city streets; her bold, confident brushstrokes capture their isolation amid the light, movement, and character of the surrounding urban space. Lately, she has received recognition for her paintings of solitary people heading to ambiguous places, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s inscrutable, isolated figures.
Lisbeth has exhibited widely in galleries in the United States and abroad, and her work is included in several private and public collections. She also teaches printmaking and painting workshops at the University of North Carolina School of Arts and the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. She has received numerous awards and grants, including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and a New York State Council for the Arts Grant. Her next solo show is in August 2014 at the Rice Polak Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. For more images of Lisbeth’s work, visit her website at LisbethFirmin.com or the Rice Polack Gallery website.
I interviewed Lisbeth in February 2014, in her airy, light-filled studio in the small Catskill Mountain town of Margaretville, as she prepared for a new show. Several large, half-finished oil paintings hung on the walls, and her enormous hound and constant companion, Nadine, snored gently in a corner. Lisbeth spoke passionately and eloquently about her work and long artistic career. –db
C617: Tell me briefly about your work, and what inspires it.
Lisbeth Firmin: I currently work in three mediums—gouache, monoprint, and now, primarily, oil. I consider myself an expressionist realist, and in my work I try to transcribe the real world, especially the relationship between people and their environment, and how light and shadow describe a particular moment. I’m usually inspired by an intense emotional reaction to some visual thing—it could be a person, a dog, a particular street corner, or almost anything. Then I feel compelled to paint it. I find I’m really drawn to watching people on city streets and wanting to capture a unique moment in time of their solitude and isolation in a crowded city environment. So, for the past several years I’ve focused on figures in urban landscapes.
C617: Where are you from?
Lisbeth Firmin: I was born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1949, and spent my early life on the Ohio River in Metropolis, Illinois. And, yes, there was a statue of Superman in front of the library. My early life was very small town and middle class, although family dynamics were complicated. I lived with my paternal grandparents when I was very young, and then with my father and stepmother. Later, my family moved around quite a bit, eventually to Indianapolis and then to Los Angeles.
C617: When did you first start making art?
Lisbeth Firmin: I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I still have a book of my Dad’s that I drew all over when I was very young, maybe four, and I won a coloring contest when I was six, so I guess that was the start of my career. I was sort of a solitary, shy, neglected child, left to myself a lot, and I had this innate talent for drawing that garnered me praise and fed my sense of self-worth when not much else did. At that time, I felt like it was the only thing I was any good at.
C617: What type of art education did you receive? Was it very structured?
Lisbeth Firmin: No, it’s been very scattered. When I was fourteen, I was awarded a summer scholarship to the Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, and then, when I was sixteen, I got a scholarship to weekend classes at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. I was the youngest student there and it was the first time I ever saw a naked guy. It was pretty funny—I just sat there and drew what I saw! The instructor came by and said, “You draw just like a man.” Well, I thought, what the hell does that mean?
From there I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, which lasted only a year. They just didn’t offer the art courses I wanted. Besides, I had met this older guy, a bohemian artist, at my summer job, which was doing portraits of tourists. We fell in love, I got pregnant, and we married. I was all of twenty. In 1970, we moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for several years. It was a very creative place at the time, and I was lucky to take classes from several good artists there.
C617: How did those early years in Provincetown influence your work?
Lisbeth Firmin: P-town, which is what we called it, was crazy wonderful in the ‘70s. It was so unconventional and just sparking with creative energy. A beautiful, quirky seaside town on Cape Cod, all changing light and water, and full of artists, writers, drag queens—everyone mingling with the local Portuguese fishermen in the town’s seedy bars. I remember the Beat poet Gregory Corso flying down Commercial Street in a black cape.
I studied with the painter Philip Malicoat. I loved his still lifes, and it was in his workshops that I really learned how to paint. He saw something in me and worked hard to make me see as an artist should, which I didn’t get at first. He taught me so much—how to mix colors, what paints to use, about palettes. I have wonderful memories of painting all day in his studio and then playing chess into the night.
C617: It must have been challenging, being so young, having a baby, and trying to pursue your art.
Lisbeth Firmin: Yes, we really scrambled to make money. My husband was a portrait artist on the street and we were living a hand-to-mouth existence. We were like a band of gypsies—no illusions about fine art—we were just trying to put food on the table using our talents. There was a group of us, and I think I was the only one who considered myself a fine artist. But it was my own little secret. I didn’t act on it, having a small child and all. I worked mainly in my journals way into the night at the kitchen table, or did still lifes while my daughter was asleep.
Then I started doing portraits on the street in the summers during tourist season. I hated it but I loved the cash. It also taught me how to draw quickly. The other artists always sent me the squirming babies and dogs because they didn’t sit still and I worked fast. I became very good and it financed my big break—leaving the marriage, which had been rocky for some time, and moving to New York City in 1979.
C617: How did you first come to New York City?
Lisbeth Firmin: In 1977, I was visiting friends in Soho and had created several collages to give them as gifts. They were very kitsch, covered with sequins and glitter, so different from my later work. My car was parked in front of an art gallery with the trunk open, and the gallery owner spotted the collages and offered me a show right then and there. So a year later, I had my first one-person show at the Marie Pelliconi Gallery in Soho. I thought if it was that easy to get a show in New York City, then fame and riches would surely follow. Of course that did not happen.
C617: Why, what happened when you first moved to New York?
Lisbeth Firmin: At first, it stopped my art! How ignorant I was to think that I could move to the City with a nine-year-old daughter, no skills apart from being a street artist, and find a job that would support both of us and be a fine artist. I finally got a day job as a waitress on the upper West Side, and then I trained and started doing graphic design. We were very poor, but I had a lot of artist friends and was always making art or getting involved in projects with other artists. Manhattan was a lot of fun in the ‘80s. There was a renegade feeling downtown.
I landed a “real” job in 1983 at King Features. Things settled down, and I started doing a series in gouache and oils that I called road paintings, which were of lonely highways and crooked telephone poles. I can’t paint straight, I don’t see things that way. They were inspired by my travels up and down the Northeast coast. Many were mounted on nautical charts. These paintings attracted attention from some dealers and I started to sell them. I was lucky to find a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on Sullivan Street at a time when Soho was still affordable. My daughter had the main bedroom; I turned the second one into my studio and slept on a futon in the living room.
C617: How long did you live in New York City, and how did it influence your art?
Lisbeth Firmin: I lived in the City for more than twenty years, and it had a tremendous impact on my art, although it wasn’t immediate. For many years, I was doing the road landscapes, and then I started making monotypes, which I loved from the start. The immediacy of the medium suited my expressionist style so well. But in the early ‘90s I made the decision to paint what I saw when I walked outside my apartment on Sullivan Street. I did thirty small gouaches, all depicting everyday New York City scenes—cabs, garbage trucks, buses, a street corner in Chinatown or Soho, usually with a figure or two, all emphasizing light and shadow. I put them in a studio show, and they sold out in ten minutes. That’s when I knew I was on to something. They were very visceral and I still consider it some of my best work.
C617: How did your work evolve?
Lisbeth Firmin: Besides the little urban gouache landscapes, I started to paint more in oils. Around this time I got into the MacDowell Colony. While there, I painted twelve hours a day, working on a series of dark, moody oils—like alleyways with shafts of light.
I had my first show of this new work at the Michael Ingbar Gallery on Prince Street in 1994, which was very successful, and I soon acquired more dealers and galleries around the country. During this time I also won first prize in the Lana International Art Competition and one of the judges was the artist Wayne Thiebaud, who became a mentor and friend. It was a very good time for me. In 1998, at forty-nine, I was finally able to quit my day job and commit to my art full-time.
C617: So your art is inspired by New York City, yet here you are living a couple of hundred miles away, in a small town. What prompted the move?
Lisbeth Firmin: When I quit my job to devote myself to painting full-time, I needed to find a bigger studio space. So in 2000 I moved to to Franklin, a very small, picturesque, historic town in the middle of upstate New York dairy country. Suddenly, I had a huge new studio in a renovated 1830 Greek Revival storefront—real estate was cheap! I was so intimidated by its vastness that I painted out of one small corner at first. But it didn't take long for me to spread out, literally and figuratively. I was painting full-time for the first time in my life, concentrating on urban landscapes and working from photography taken down in the City. I even started painting other cities I spent time in, like Havana.
The new space, the new freedom, and the new focus drove me to produce some of my finest oil paintings over the next five years. I also had several galleries to supply—the two primary ones were the Rice Polak Gallery in Provincetown, which I still have a wonderful relationship with, and another in Santa Fe, which closed in 2008. For years I had an annual show at each gallery, so I was producing a lot of work, easily twenty-five paintings a year. One year I sold more than $100,000 worth of paintings, and it looked like the sky was the limit. But then things changed.
C617: What changed? And how did it affect your work?
Lisbeth Firmin: Hah, how things changed. In 2005, I had a personal reckoning phase that coincided with the economic downturn. I was working too hard, had just broken up with my long-time partner, and I was not loving my imagery as much as before. Living in the country, not in the City, painting things that I didn't see every day, I found I was losing my chops. It was becoming a chore, even a burden to go to the studio. I think I was burned out but couldn’t admit it. I started questioning myself—why was I still painting the City when I lived upstate full-time? Was I turning into a hack?
I thought I should paint what I saw around me, as it always worked before. I did a series of paintings of my local town and countryside and another series of female nudes. But my galleries didn’t like this work. They felt it didn’t have the energy of the New York City paintings, and they begged me to go back. So I felt a bit adrift and lost.
By the end of 2007, I had to admit that I wasn't making a living from my work anymore. I needed to get a job. I needed health insurance and I needed to get out of the studio. I was lucky to find a part-time job at a local nonprofit arts center, where I run art workshops, curate the gallery space, and do the marketing. This took the pressure off financially and gave me some breathing room. But I never stopped painting and drawing. I was still showing regularly at my gallery in Provincetown and a few other places, and I started experimenting with new things.
C617: Where did this crisis take your art?
Lisbeth Firmin: After a lot of experimentation and soul searching, I rededicated myself to painting urban landscapes. But instead of emphasizing the streets and buildings, like I did with my earlier work, I started focusing on figures in their urban surroundings. Now the figure is the main focus of my paintings, and I get very excited painting the light on these figures. I think this work in many ways truly reflects me. I’m that solitary figure walking somewhere, alone but not lonely. Headed somewhere. And maybe viewers will also see themselves in these figures.
C617: What is your latest work like?
Lisbeth Firmin: In my newest work, I have pulled these figures inside, away from the urban background, into subway stations and train compartments, for example. They are stationary, more reflective. It’s probably me, getting older.
C617: Where are you today?
Lisbeth Firmin: I’ve landed in a sweet spot. I met a wonderful man in 2008 and we married in 2011. I thrive in the security of it all, and I think my work reflects this. I sold my former living space/studio in Franklin and moved my studio into a wonderful old building in Margaretville, New York. I love working there and the work is going well. I have a big show at my gallery in Provincetown this summer, and eleven new oils will go into it. I haven’t worked this hard on my painting in years, and I’m very happy with it. I also have some projects that I want to explore, including some bigger oils, a subway series, mostly interiors. And I want to do a series of monoprints from this new body of work I’m doing now.
I’ve also been lucky in that I had a number of shows last year, including a solo retrospective, “Moments in Time” at the Martin-Mullen Art Gallery at SUNY Oneonta, along with a solo show, “Coming Home,” at the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, my mother’s hometown. And I really do feel like I’m coming home, finally.
C617: Let’s talk a little about your work itself. How do you approach a new painting? Can you describe your artistic process?
Lisbeth Firmin: I work from my own photography. I still go down to New York City to shoot. I recently did a whole body of new oils from a photo shoot I did in Chinatown, with this wonderful late afternoon light. I loved the moody colors and the neon—I really wanted to paint that neon. Though, as I noted earlier, my work is changing, and I’m finding myself drawn to painting interior shots rather than exterior urban scenes.
As for the actual painting process, I work on custom wood panels my framer makes for me. I gesso them, cooking it up the old-fashioned way, and then use big brushes to do several really loose passes, letting the paint sink into the surface, and then go back and slowly build up the layers using smaller brushes.
C617: What is the most stressful part of the creative process for you?
Lisbeth Firmin: Well, it’s usually finishing the piece, especially the oil paintings. Some people think that a piece of work may be finished in a day or two, but in reality it takes weeks and several layers of paint, and I’m always fighting to keep the freshness, the initial spontaneity of the vision. If something doesn’t work, I’ll just sand it down and start again.
C617: Do you think your artistic talent is innate or more of a learned discipline?
Lisbeth Firmin: In my case, I followed my talent to a niche that was my own. But I also have the good fortune to have a tremendous amount of energy, grit, and ambition. My need to create art just poured out from some place inside me, and I’ve always known it was there. It’s kept me out of the insane asylum—I was in one, briefly, when I was very young. It has seen me through so many hard times. It’s saved my life, being an artist.
C617: What do you do away from your work to help nurture it?
Lisbeth Firmin: I do try and paint every day, but it’s good to take breaks now and then. In addition to my part-time job at the arts center, I teach several workshops throughout the year. I also play chess and GO to keep my brain nimble, and I love to hike in the local Catskill Mountains. I really need to get outside to invigorate my body and mind. I enjoy traveling, and when I do I always bring my sketchbook. My husband and I have a trip planned this summer to hike through the Spanish Pyrenees. However, when I’ve started a new body of work, I don’t like to take breaks. I want to see it completed.
C617: What do you see for your future?
Lisbeth Firmin: God willing, I see a long stretch of making paintings and prints, letting myself go in new directions. I really enjoy teaching. I teach painting and printmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and at the Truro Center for the Arts on Cape Cod, in addition to some other places, and students seem to like my way of doing things. I would really like to be a member of the National Academy. That is a personal goal of mine, and I’m working on it. I’m sixty-five and in good health, so until that changes, this is my game plan. Time becomes precious as we get older, especially for artists, and I’m trying to make the best of it.
Visit Lisbeth Firmin's website at LisbethFirmin.com.
View a slideshow of more of Lisbeth Firmin's work below.