In the Studio: Cornelia Hernes
Throughout her life, Norwegian artist Cornelia Hernes has cultivated a lasting connection to nature, a natural love of the arts, and an abiding appreciation for cultural diversity. Growing up on Foynland, a small village off the Southeastern coast of Norway surrounded by forests, farmlands and beaches, her childhood was filled with many magical moments exploring the great outdoors. These adventures were complemented by the regular reading of beautifully illustrated fairytales, which furthered her already budding desire to draw and paint realistically. At the age of twelve, her family moved to Africa, where she attended boarding schools in Tanzania and Kenya, and at nineteen Hernes was off to Canada to earn her B.F.A. at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Knowing that she needed to seek out more skill-based instruction, Hernes next traveled to Italy to attend the Florence Academy of Art, and it was that decision that set the pace and course for the rest of her artistic path.
Hernes graduated from the FAA in 2007 and taught in the school’s Drawing & Painting Program for the next three years. After moving to Sweden with fellow artist and now husband Stephen Bauman, the couple spent the next six years as Principal Instructors at the academy’s Göteborg branch. Last year, Hernes and Bauman relocated once again, this time to America, where they have joined Jordan Sokol and Amaya Gurpide at The Florence Academy of Art’s Jersey City campus as Principal Instructors. Prior to my official interview with Hernes, I had the opportunity to participate in her figure-drawing workshop at the FAA in July and observe a more three-dimensional picture of who she is a person, painter and teacher.
Whether in the ethereal light and metaphoric subject matter of her earlier fairytale-inspired paintings, the layers of delicate fabric carefully painted for a recent commission, or the patient and intelligent way in which she works with each of her students, Hernes consistently displays the lovely spirit, curiosity and appreciation for life that she has carried with her from childhood. In this interview, which took place in the artist’s studio at the FAA’s Mana Contemporary location, Hernes and I talked further about the sources of inspiration from which those traits derived, the type of subjects she enjoys painting the most and how she is adapting to her new environment and community.
AM: In looking at your painting Midsummer Night and others like it, I imagined that you might be someone with a strong interest in classical literature, folk lore and/or mythology. Where did this interest and inspiration originate?
CH: This is a topic I have been thinking a lot about lately: the idea of where does inspiration actually come from? I think there are different layers to it. First, I define inspiration as the experience of something resonating with who you are and fueling the creative process. I think some inspiration is the result of direct seeking, such as going to a museum or listening to music. Other forms come from the subconscious and can be expressed at certain points in one’s life. I think the experiences you have as a child can often surface as inspiration. I was fortunate that my parents read to me often when I was a child, and fairytales were my favorite. If anything could bring my mind to a place of imagination and magic, I was all in. My parents invested in these books with gorgeous illustrations. In those fairytales and stories, I always felt a sense of darkness and danger intertwined with beauty and hope. I think there’s something really powerful and essential about that, and also cathartic. Only recently have I stared to fully realize the influence that seeing those images at a young, impressionable age had on me and on my desire to be an artist. I tend to feel the most connected to my work when my inner child is resonating with what I’m working on.
I was also fortunate to grow up close to nature on the southern coast of Norway. It was a little island connected to the mainland by a bridge. There were beaches all around and farm country and little forests. As children, we would play and explore and let our imaginations unfold in this diverse landscape. But just as in the fairytale books, nature has two sides: there is an absolute magic but there is also potential danger. I think as a child you intentionally seek those thrills, which is important for one’s development because life does contain both beauty and tragedy.
AM: It’s interesting how certain life experiences, including childhood memories, can come into play in the painting process. I also think an artist’s temperament is revealed in both subtle and overt ways in his or her painting. What would you say your artistic temperament is?
CH: Although I do enjoy talking with people and teaching, I am also an introvert and need time alone to recharge. I enjoy the sentiment of melancholy expressed through music, film, storytelling and certain imagery. I think melancholy is this tranquil and slightly weighted place. It’s a state of mind that has a drizzle of sadness but also an appreciation for life and beauty. I don’t see it as dark or depressing. Melancholy, for me, is a deep feeling of appreciating the fragility of life while being grateful for something that is or was. I also admittedly think about death a lot—not in a depressing way, but in a way that acknowledges how quickly time passes and the importance of making decisions that celebrate life. Celebration doesn’t necessarily have to mean having a party and champagne every day. My Mom would always say, “No joy is small.” Anything that makes you happy is equally important. Listening to wonderful music, enjoying a bite of chocolate, and then getting to brush colors onto a canvas to form a beautiful image — it’s a wonderful way to celebrate life.
AM: How would you say your approach to painting and choice of subject matter has progressed or changed since your student days, through your twenties and thirties?
CH: By the time I found the Florence Academy of Art at the age of twenty-four, I was keenly aware that I lacked the tools to express the images and ideas that had been brewing in my mind for years. I was inspired and ready to go, but I didn’t have the ability to communicate: it was like wanting to speak but not having any words. The training at the FAA gave me those tools, which I am still building on. I think the subject matter and what I’m drawn to, however, has largely been consistent throughout my twenties and thirties: the desire to use the painting process to reflect on something beautiful, tranquil, or dramatic. I’m now at a stage that feels like being on top of a hill after focusing on a long climb. I’m assessing and reassessing. It’s the strongest internal shift I have felt. I’m not physically close to nature, I’m in this new urban environment, and it’s making me see my earlier paintings from a different perspective and re-evaluate my path forward. I can’t necessarily see myself painting forests here, or these dream-like scenes, because that just feels a bit out of touch in this particular environment—but I will still find a way to paint what I find beautiful and interesting. It may just be a slightly different angle.
AM: Speaking of, let’s talk about this dress that is currently in the studio and the painting you are doing of it. Is it a commission?
CH: Yes, it’s a commission from a couple in Sweden. They are two lovely people who like to have a lot of fun together, and a few years ago they went to a ball at a castle in Stockholm. For this event, they purchased a magnificent pink ball gown for her. She of course loves this dress and the memories associated with it but was a bit saddened by the prospect of having to store the dress in a closet. So for her fiftieth birthday, he decided to commission a painting of the dress so she could see it and appreciate it every day. My task has been to capture the sense of this dress hanging on the wall, waiting to be put on. There is an anticipation of entering into this fairytale world of grace, beauty and magic. She herself is not in the painting, but rather she is the observer, able to appreciate and remember the moment. I think it will be interesting to develop this idea into other commissions: wedding gowns perhaps and other memories and milestones in people’s lives that they want to bring into the present. Painting this dress also connects to my childhood: I was fascinated by princesses and ball gowns as a little girl. These types of commissions are timeless and fairytale-like but also contemporary. It weaves all of these different threads of myself together.
AM: You are a teacher with a natural ability to clearly articulate ideas and quickly assess where a student has gotten off track, while treating people with kindness and consideration in what can sometimes be a frustrating and vulnerable atmosphere. What is it about teaching that you love?
CH: As a teacher, you have to quickly decipher a puzzle and use problem-solving skills to help students find their way forward. It requires making a quick visual analysis and getting an intuitive sense of where someone is in the process. To be honest, though, I do sometimes feel I lose my patience. I get internally frustrated—I look at a drawing and sometimes there’s a knot in my head and I think: How do I unravel this? But as long as there is a mark on the paper, there is something positive to be said. I like to pair a positive remark with constructive criticism. You do need a balance of both, but I believe that positive reinforcement is more impactful than negative. It’s important to point out what is working and what the student is naturally doing well because you want them to keep doing it. If there is something that is close to working but not completely, they need to know that too. And of course it’s important to know areas of improvement. Everything I need to know, I can see on the students’ projects. I don’t actually need them to tell me what they were thinking, where they’re struggling or what they have been working on. But I let them share that anyway, because part of learning a visual language is being able to convey various visual phenomena through the spoken language.
AM: What other forms of artistic expression are important/inspiring to you as a fine artist?
CH: I enjoyed writing stories as a child, and although I do not write creatively anymore I am still inspired by the idea of formulating thoughts in words. I really poured myself into photography in university, and I still find it quite alluring as an art form, especially black-and-white photography. I also enjoy listening to music tremendously. I hope to one day learn to play the harp. I had a student who lent me her harp and taught me a little. Playing the harp is like having Northern lights at your fingertips, it is such a beautiful experience. Classical music and opera are also inspiring to me: the decadent costumes, the incredible storylines, and the strong visual composition are all very painterly. The stories in opera are quite simple but can also be so heartbreaking and powerful. I love the idea of exploring sorrow in the context of beauty. Currently one of my favorite pieces is Orpheus by Monteverdi.
AM: I thought it was very interesting when you played the Blanche Dourga aria from the opera Lakmé during the workshop and correlated it to the building up of structure and light/shadow in drawing. Could you summarize the thoughts you shared?
CH: I think there are a lot of commonalities among different art forms. They have the same ingredients; they are just expressed through different media. Music is a perfect auditory metaphor of visual phenomenon. The concept of dark and light in music and in painting have many parallels, and several words from both genres can be used interchangeably: low keys and high keys, the melody and rhythm. If we could say that the contour of a human form has a rhythm and melody, what would that rhythm and melody be in music, and what instrument would be playing it? In this aria from Lakmé, her voice is in the front of the composition, it’s leading. It has this crystal-clear, light sound. This would be the light that is flowing through the form. Or when there is a sharper sound in this song, you can visually pair it up with the outer edge of her contour. For her shadow-shape contour, bathing in the midst of half-tone and atmosphere, that would be the male choir chanting in the background. Together, her voice and the choir create a dynamic harmony and an audible structure, in the same way the light-shape contour of the model and her shadow shape interact and reveal her gesture and proportion. If a student is working on, for instance, an outline with a sharp contrast and edge, I will refer to the outline as carrying the sound of a high-pitched violin. If there is an area in the background that is more obscure and immersed in atmosphere, the association that comes to mind is the deep vibration of the cello.
AM: I’m looking at your recent self-portrait and also the Northern Sun portrait and noticing this golden ochre color that has made its way into a few recent paintings. And I am also of course noticing the bright-purple color of your studio walls. Any particular reason for these color choices, and can you talk a little about this self-portrait?
CH: I love the color purple, and decided to paint the studio walls this rich, royal purple. This color affects what I’m seeing (it turns the shadows very cool) and also creates the need for certain other colors to balance and harmonize, such as yellows, ochres and blues. This particular self-portrait has a little bit of a different composition with yellows, purples, and teal/turquoise. I like an element of abstraction in the background. Maybe the lemon tree grove in the background is a more symbolic, it’s not literal. It could be a tapestry behind her, or a dream. I like that visual ambiguity. My tendency in painting is to want to explain everything that is there. I like to resolve things to a high finish, but I also think it’s beautiful to balance that with something a little bit more impressionistic, unresolved or suggested.
AM: How are you adapting to your new environment in Jersey City? Have you found that being in more urban and grittier surroundings affects or informs your artwork in any way?
CH: I’ve always been pretty adaptable, which has to do with both my personality and the fact that I traveled quite extensively from a young age. As I’m getting older, I notice that I am becoming more selective. I am probably a little more critical of my environment than I was when I was younger. And although I don’t suffer from culture shock, I can see clearly what I do and do not like in the world around me. I do miss trees and nature, but there is an exciting pulse in the New York City area. I think living here will continue to inform my work. There’s also a side of my personality that just wants to isolate myself in a cottage in the middle of the country somewhere to focus on painting, but there is a time and place for everything, and now is a great time for us to live in this type of environment. I think when you’re young and you travel and experience life, you don’t necessarily know what you like, so you take in everything. When you’re older you know what you’re interested in, and you become more selective and focused on what you spend energy and time on. We really are in an ideal situation now where our lives and careers are perfectly aligned with this great opportunity of living in this culturally rich metropolis.
AM: I have noticed that in the last year since you’ve moved here, you have been included in group exhibitions, taught at other schools, spoken at clubs, etc. Are you finding that there are more opportunities and support for the kind of art you do in the States?
CH: Yes, there is a much larger and more established community for realistic and traditional painting here than in Norway and Sweden. One of the reasons we decided to move to the New York area was to get a better bearing on the art world and get in touch with a wider community. It’s interesting how each country has a different history and culture related to art production: In Sweden they are accustomed to modernism, so naturalism is a bit out of their comfort zone. In Florence they already have such a high quantity and quality of classical art work, and they think, why do they need more? In Canada and America there is this need for an old cultural connection. In the States there seems to be more people aware of, interested in and supporting the kind of art we do. It has been inspiring to be involved in these different shows and events over the last year and meet some of the artists I have admired and respected for a long time. Being included in the recent self-portrait exhibition at Eleventh Street Arts curated by Colleen Berry was amazing.
AM: Is where you are today as painter where you imagined you would be when you first started art school?
CH: I originally went to university to study psychology, and it would have been the more rational career choice. However, studying art continued to beckon my heart and I eventually decided to switch majors. I decided I wanted to lead my life with my heart and use my intellect to find solutions to the challenges along the way. Today, I could not be any more fortunate to do what I love and also to be married to an artist whom I greatly admire. I get to live in unique environments with other people who devote themselves to honing a craft to portray their internal poetry. As an art student, I didn’t fully realize how much is involved in forming a career as an artist. And now with the advancement of social media, for instance, there are new demands and possibilities that we couldn't even fathom ten years ago. Career-wise this is both daunting and exciting to me.
In many ways I have been able to achieve much of what I hoped and imagined when I first began my studies at the FAA. I feel a strength and confidence about having the skill set to pursue the projects that I wish. I have the vocabulary to express my ideas and emotions on linen or paper. Having said that, as an artist there is always the driving force of advancing, exploring and staying challenged with new projects and ideas. While at times it can be a struggle to be painter, it continues to be spiritually enriching. It is a path that has become for me a symbiosis of my mind and heart.
All photos by Allison Malafronte unless otherwise noted.