A Conversation With Diane Cherr: Art as Humorous & Whimsical Narrative

The Who, What & Why of the Artistic Process By Karen Akst Schecter

We sat down a few days ago with Diane Cherr, an accomplished artist, renowned for her use of color, design, whimsy and narrative in her painting, collages, mixed media, drawings and printmaking. Our questions and Diane’s answers follow:

Q. Why do you do what you do, or create what you create?

A. I love color and research. I love putting together my own narrative and storytelling. Sometimes the images come before the stories, like The Royals and Waiting for Solomon. My Israel was filled with research of Shabbat, Israel and life symbols. I enjoy looking up symbols and creating my own interpretations within the parameters of my piece. Humor and whimsy are essential to my work. There are small combs creating the floor of Samson’s Hare Cup and the central cup has a frieze of rabbits, or hares on it.

I love creating trees. My most recent tree of life is an aerial view of an imaginary floral tree created from graphite and ink. Woven through the tree are ten braids, a tribute to my dear friend the artist, author and civil rights activist Faith Ringgold. The piece is titled Faith’s Tree, for what Faith and faith bring to the world.

 

Q. How long have you’ve been working as an artist? Did you enjoy any other career?

A. I began taking art lessons as a young child when I was drawing in school instead of doing my schoolwork. My parents felt I needed a special time for art making outside of school.

After getting my MA in Art and Education from Teachers College at Columbia, I got a great teaching job at Manhattan Country School (MCS) in NYC. The school is 50 percent minority and 75 percent financial aid. I was the art teacher for eight years, teaching pre-K through eighth grade. Working with such a diverse population was one of the strongest influences on my values today. I learned to teach art and to collaborate with other great educators, my strong ethical and political beliefs were reinforced, and I learned from my students.

Currently, I often work as an artist in residence in Westchester County, New York.  Some of the programs are as an independent contractor.  I have taught at schools, senior centers, pre schools, museums and galleries, working with both students and educators. I also work as a teaching artist for Arts Westchester, the largest policy making arts organization in the County. It is rewarding to educate other teachers so that they can use new techniques and media in their classrooms.  I also work with high school students to help them prepare their visual art portfolios for college admissions.

 

Q. How did you become interested in the medium/media you use?

I was predominantly a printmaker in college and graduate school.  The last etchings I created were a washing machine and dryer series. When I wanted to start a family, I became a painter, since so many printmaking materials were toxic.

I always loved quilts and began exploring pattern in my gouache quilt paintings. My Judaic work began with a series of twelve paintings representing a Hebrew calendar year.  I also created other pieces that were more figurative.  I love working in gouache.

I have recently expanded to include more drawing, some printmaking, collage and mixed media, giving me endless possibilities as I combine and explore media.

 

Q. Did you receive formal training or have an apprenticeship?

I studied art as a young child and through high school.  I was one of the first three studio art graduates at Wheaton College, Norton, Ma.  I am proud that Wheaton now has a thriving visual arts program.  Post grad, I took courses in graphic design and sculpture before attending the Art and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.  While there, I was a Teaching Assistant in printmaking.

 

Q. Is there anything interesting or unusual in the creative process that you would like to share?

Some formats have become iconic in my paintings, such as Dancing Torahs and Quilt paintings.  Some of my pieces are straight forward and do not require research. Often when I get an idea, I research, using the web, books, biblical interpretations and legends. I explore ideas until a “midrash” or narrative speaks to me. I love creating these worlds. It’s exciting and fulfilling to watch my ideas take form and come alive. Most recently, process has been a primary focus in collages as I cut, tear, add paint and draw, becoming consumed by the surprises that happen in the process. Ideas come from an article in the newspaper, a radio story, a blessing, a Women’s Seder and every day living. I love to create and believe whimsy and wonder play important roles in my work.

 

Q. Is there anything/anyone in your life that is your source of inspiration? Who, what, and why?

My two daughters have always been a source of inspiration and wonder.  I have cherished every stage of their development. Now they are strong powerful women with important voices. I am proud of them and their values.  They continue to inform my work as their worlds evolve.

Children’s creativity always gives me pause. Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I don’t always love his work, but his words and philosophy are important guides. My work as a teacher at MCS helped shape my values.  I was lucky to teach there for eight years.  I’m glad I get to teach and work with other people.  It is inspiring to see how they interpret their worlds.

Two other special women inspire me. One, with whom I have worked for over twenty years, is an amazing storyteller, educator and director. We are great friends and collaborative partners in education and art.  We often brainstorm about creative ideas. And my cantor is always introducing me to new ideas. It is through her grace and strong vision of women in Judiasm that I continue to grow.

 

Q. Please tell us about your favorite piece of art you’ve created.

Tough question. As I work, my favorites change. I guess that means I’m evolving, which is very exciting.  I love Shira, the pregnant mermaid, and Faith’s Tree, which was a pleasure to draw.  Researching My Israel was so exciting. Watching my vision become a reality was incredible. I love the grass at the bottom that I painted with chop sticks. My current favorite is The Royals. I am having such a good time with collage and mixed media, seeing how it expands my vision and process.

 

Q. Please tell us about the funniest or most unusual experience you have had as an artist.

One extraordinary experience was having Keith Haring, a noted New York artist, come to MCS in 1988 to work with my seventh and eighth grade students. I had heard that Keith loved kids and would come to schools that fit certain commitments to equality and diversity. So I called his people and waited to hear. And he came to MCS. He was so generous with his time and talent.  He offered to paint a mural on a wall for the school. Unfortunately, the school could only approve him painting on a door, which did not fit into what he was able to offer, as it could be removed and sold. It was an amazing experience. Each student received a personalized drawing, got to work with him on a project and learned about his background as an artist.

 

Q. Who are your favorite artists or artisans?

I love the Impressionists, Post Impressionists and the Fauve. Their use of color and light are awesome.  Seeing the collection at Musee D’Orsay two years ago in Paris made me soooooooooo happy!

I love Dale Chilhuly and his amazing glass work. I am inspired by the organic fluid qualities he gives to glass. His drawings are very cool too!

When I arrived at Wheaton College as a freshman, I was given a folder with all the important information I could need. My advisor was listed as Vaino Kola. I did not know which was the first name, which was the last or this person’s gender. Vaino (first name) is the most amazing realistic artist. He was born in Finland. I still marvel at his amazing work. He introduced me to the magic of printmaking and gave me new ways of seeing the world. I love his attention to detail and the joy he creates in his gorgeous paintings and prints.

I also love Romare Bearden, the 20th century African American artist. Like all of the artists I admire, he takes his cues from his life experiences. I love his use of collage and how he uses mixed media to tell his stories.

 

Q. Please feel free to share any other information that you believe our customers will be interested in learning about you.

I am a volunteer art coach for Future Five in Stamford, Ct.   Future Five is a wonderful nonprofit that helps motivated, low-income high school students in Stamford connect to their full potential.  Visit www.futurefive.org to learn about the extent of the programming.

I am proud to work with a team of artists and art educators who share the dream that we can give talented art students the opportunity to create visual art portfolios and apply to colleges and universities in the arts.  We work with tenth through twelfth graders accessing their portfolio needs, take them on tours and interviews at programs of higher learning, encourage their creativity and personal growth and build confidence. We offer fine art critiques, weekly individual meetings for seniors, helping them with their individual progress during the rigorous college application process. We help access their financial aid packages as they make decisions about the schools they hope to attend.  We are building a very rich program and I am proud to be a part of this amazing initiative.

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Learn more about Diane and browse her art here.

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By Karen Akst Schecter

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