David Grossmann’s art explores the lines between nature and the inner landscape of intuition and memory. These explorations began early for Grossmann, whose family moved from the United States to South America when he was two years old. The Atacama Desert and the Andes Mountains framed his early awareness of nature’s fragile balance, and his bend toward introspection was deepened by the experience of growing up between cultures and languages. Grossmann received his first informal training in art from his mother and grandmother, and inherited a love of nature from his father. Over time, Grossmann’s artwork has gained recognition through solo and group exhibitions across the U.S. and in Europe. His paintings have been featured in publications including Artists and Illustrators, American Art Collector, Plein Air Magazine, and the Royal Academy Magazine. In 2021, Southwest Art Magazine named him as one of the “10 top artists who will help define the future of western art.”
In this interview, we spoke with Grossmann about one of his most recent art exhibition titled Passages and how he explores the permeable boundaries of time within his paintings.
Last year you showed a painting titled Passage, as well as an entire exhibition titled Passages. What’s the definition of the word “passage” to you, as you think about it from the perspective of these artworks?
The word “Passages” came to mind as I was looking through my paintings for my upcoming show. These were pieces that stemmed from distinct chapters in my life, a “before” and “after” that felt separate but also flowed into each other. Some I had finished before the upheavals of the pandemic, shut down, and social unrest, while others had taken shape during those times of new uncertainties. The world felt fragile in new ways, and as I came out of lockdown I wanted so much for the forced time of solitude to lead toward healing. Our lives had become unexpectedly quieter, and I wanted to hang on to that quiet. I felt the idea of passage expressed some of that sense of journeying together, and also captured the stages of life that I saw in my individual paintings.
I am often drawn to paint reminders of those fragile passages from one thing to the next when we are open to newness and also exposed to loss. I felt the fragile-ness of life in new ways during the start of the pandemic. My wife is a healthcare worker, and she was at the local hospital when the first cases reached our city. It was a time of deep anxiety and of grief that is still shaping how we interact with the world around us. That sense of loss and of hoping for renewal became urgent as we faced shortages and realized that time is always short.
I wanted to say something about all of that in my paintings, about moving from one thing to the next, about the permeable boundaries between the seasons in our lives.
Can you talk about your painting Passage more specifically–what was the process for creating this painting? What inspired this composition? An actual place, a memory, a feeling?
I’m an amateur birdwatcher, and birds often make their way into my work. I was painting patterns of birds in other compositions and the idea came to make a painting filled with flying birds. Since then I have kept coming back to that thought, and I am starting a series of paintings of bird murmurations. The area where I live, the western slope of the Rockies, is a large migratory path for birds of all sorts, so when I paint birds I am thinking about how we as humans affect the world around us, how it affects us. The more I study birds, the more I realize how fragile and connected the world is.
In this painting I wanted to capture the feeling of motion, of being swept across the sky. First I painted a textured color field, and when the color seemed right after several layers of paint, I began to add birds. I painted them one at a time and the patterns between them evolved with each new bird. This took several weeks of painting one form after another until I was happy with the sense of motion and rhythm between them individually and as a whole.
A lot of your work explores liminal spaces–the overlap between the physical world and interior life, the boundary between one moment in time and another–and you grew up straddling a cultural divide between North and South America. Why are these ideas important for you to explore in your work, and how has your lived experience contributed to this interest?
You said that beautifully, thank you. My paintings are often prompted by ideas of fragility and transition. Those moments that are most fleeting in the world around me are often the ones that I am especially driven to capture, to hold on to. They are reminders that I am a pilgrim, and that in every day there is great beauty that points past what I can see. These paintings are my way of meditating on that beauty, and I hope that they are an invitation for other people to step into that space of contemplation as well.
My years growing up in South America gave me a sense of how fragile nature can be, and those years also deepened my bent toward introspection. My family lived in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world. The city where we lived was an oasis but as soon as we left town there was an absolute dryness. The landscape felt almost unearthly, like stepping onto the moon, and it was very beautiful, though in a harsh way. Conserving water was a part of daily life. Water was at least as precious as food in that environment, and those years of using as little as possible shaped my way of thinking about my impact on the environment. The landscape of the desert also shaped my appreciation for subtlety; the land around me was an endless palette of brown and gray.
I grew up feeling lost between cultures and languages, in a world of my own making, and making art was a way for me to express myself without the difficulty of words. Art is still its own language for me, and I like to think it is a way of exploring those lines between inner and outer landscapes.
How do you see the relationship between painting and time, in terms of both how an artwork comes into being through your artistic process, and how the meaning of a completed work evolves over time as it exists in the world?
Again, what a beautiful question. Time is an important element in my process. My studio paintings usually evolve over the course of several months; typically I have ten or so paintings in progress and I go back and forth between them. The ideas of the paintings feed into each other, and since I work with layers of oil paint, each layer takes several days to dry. The slowness of watching colors and textures and ideas emerge becomes a way for me to slow down, to observe.
That’s a fascinating point about the meaning of a completed work evolving over time as it exists in the world. I hope that my paintings leave space for people to step into them with their own meanings. Imagination is so powerful, and visual art that leaves space for imagination is like poetry that says just enough to conjure a depth of emotion; there is a simplicity on the surface that allows for depth to emerge. So much of that process takes a willingness from the viewer as well since it takes time to observe a painting in a meaningful way, to step into that space of contemplation and vulnerability.
We tend to associate meanings with the world around us based on our specific views. I love to hear people’s responses to my paintings because their thoughts bring life to ideas in new ways. For instance, an engineer told me that a painting of aspen trunks made him think of the lines on a seismograph. Other people have described the same compositions as being like bars on a window or like musical notes.
The process of creating a painting seems central to your identity as an artist, but also as a human being. How does painting play into your sense of a life well-lived?
The process of painting opens a space of contemplation for me, and that act of observing can ripple out into the rest of my life too. I tend to be distractible and anxious, which can easily cause me to overlook the beauty around me, so to counter that I try to build quiet spaces into my routine (painting, reading, praying, birdwatching, running, gardening) to calm my mind and bring me back to what is important.
How did you end up in western Colorado, and how does this setting affect your art?
Initially we moved here for my wife’s job at the hospital. We both fell in love with this area – the diverse landscape, the friendly people, the quiet. The land around us inspires many of my paintings, not so much the specific places but that sense of connection with place. There is a herd of deer that often wanders through our yard, and every day there are birds to watch. National forests filled with aspen groves are a short drive away.
How is your work evolving day-to-day? And how do you see your evolution as an artist on a larger scale, looking back to what you were creating 10 or 20 years ago?
I hope my work is becoming more thoughtful, more driven by concept. When I started out as an artist I had so many ideas to chase after; I still do, but maybe I’m narrowing down my goals a bit. I want to focus more deeply on one idea through a series of paintings, to be less distracted. As I prepare for my son’s birth (any day now!), I’m thinking through how to be structured in my painting routine – I’m sure being a parent will change the way I see the world, the way I want to paint it.
To learn more about Grossmann’s work, visit his website https://www.davidgrossmann.com.