The Amazingness of Everything: An Interview with Genese Grill
by Emi River
She told me her home was the “green and white house with lots of wild flowers out front; the only one without mowed front lawns.” I walked down the street towards Genese’s house on a hot, blue-skied June afternoon. The front lawn was beautiful and felt much more natural than all those other mowed front lawns. It was brimming with flowers and bugs, and I’m almost positive I caught glimpse of an imp bustling through the grasses. I knocked on the front door, and Genese, with sparkling eyes, led me inside into a refreshingly cool living room, filled with what seemed to be ancient artifacts and an air of peace and brightness.
Genese’s house is a sacred space, devoted to a non-mediated experience and atmosphere of being present, while experiencing silence, sound, color, music, literature, and art. She compares it to “a cult of art,” inspired by the English arts and crafts aesthetic movement and her love for Vienna, a city devoted to art, thinkers, culture, the riches of the past and present, and the life of the spirit.
We sat down in lovely chairs beside her paintings and books and drank homemade Jasmine and honey iced tea, as I showered Genese with the many questions I had about her recent art show, “Aphrodisiacal Anagoges.” Her artwork was hung at the Block Gallery in Winooski this past May, comprised of “egg-tempera paintings and mixed-media works exploring the heights of spiritual and romantic ecstasy and the depths of memory and darkness.”
Her paintings on panels, large paper pieces, and prints are images that come almost entirely from her imagination, while her grimoires are created from both her imagination and the physical world. The paintings were done with egg tempera. Egg tempera is an ancient medium. To use the paint, the artist seals a piece of wood with rabbit skin glue, then makes a mixture of egg yolk, pure pigment, and water to create the paint. Genese is drawn to egg tempera because of its intensity of color, matte finish, and its ease of use for detail.
Some of Genese’s pieces began with loose ideas and more conscious symbolism, while others grew freely with no initial intention. In the latter, figures and images would spontaneously appear on her panel that she would later contemplate and find meaning within. What’s more, her separate works of art symbolically connect to each other in mysterious ways.
I was curious about the title of her show, “Aphrodisiacal Anagoges,” so I asked Genese to explain. Anagoge is a word she learned from her friend Kathryn Barush, a scholar of theological aesthetics at Oxford, and its meaning refers to an ascent or climb upwards. It dates back to medieval theologians, as one of the ways they interpreted the Bible. This was a way of understanding the Bible so that every story was a symbolic description of the ascent to the divine. Thus, anagoge refers to the spiritual journey experienced when gazing at, or contemplating, a work of art – this can be in writing, fairy tales, paintings, and beyond. Genese views art objects in this way, a way of lifting up to the divine. By dwelling on an image, we can all enter a dream-like, meditative, mystical state where meaning and clarity appears. Aphrodisiacal refers to Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who connects physical, sensual love to spiritual, sacred love.
Many of Genese’s grimoires were created during her travels. “Grimoire” is a word that originated in Renaissance and Middle Age times. According to the dictionary, they are books of “magic spells and invocations.” While we talked, a grand red box glistened in the middle of the room like a treasure chest. It was overflowing with years and years of Genese’s grimoires, sparkling in the sunlight that was parading through the windows.
Her grimoires are often made with goauche paint and any other art materials available to Genese at the moment. In these grimoires, Genese uses writing, drawing, and painting to explore ideas while concentrating on a question in her life. During this creative meditation, she evokes subconscious wisdom. Each grimoire contains a universe of its own. Genese is fascinated by the way that books, like our brains and bodies, seem like finite structures – and yet within them exists infinite space, energy and potential. Books, for Genese, are sacred passageways to other worlds, waiting to be unfolded and discovered.
I wondered how Genese felt about the use of words in visual art, as it is a conversation that has been debated many times. I didn’t notice any words in her paintings, but there are often many in her grimoires. She explained that while she is working, images and words seem to spring up. During the creation of one of her paintings, she kept hearing the phrase, “She concentrates.” In another, she heard, “Just because part of you is dead, doesn’t mean you are dead.” She does feel that there might be a danger of limiting someone else’s experience or even her own experience with words, but “you can’t dwell on the same dream forever,” she reflected. She pointed out that her work often does have a certain meaning, so it feels appropriate to use words to describe it. Those meanings are open and poetic, more evocative than descriptive. She thinks of words as prayers or mantras, and considers the act of writing to be magical.
I was intrigued by the “not for sale” signs on Genese’s paintings. Because her paintings are so intimate, she wants to either hold on to them or give them to friends. Though she feels that artists should sell their work if they want to, she personally has no desire. She made silk screens “as a way for people to have her things.” Prints became the answer to how to sell her work. Although she thinks it is great for artists to be admired, Genese can’t imagine ever being part of the commodified art market. I found this, among everything else Genese had to say, as uplifting as the artwork she makes.
Genese grew up with literary, creative parents and began making art at the age of twelve, while she attended the Art Students’ League in New York City. There, she took a number of figure-drawing classes. When she reached the age of seventeen, Genese was expected to go to college. She fervently didn’t want to do so. She told herself that she would only apply to one school, and if she were accepted, she would go. That one school was the Cooper Union free art school in New York City, and she was admitted.
At the Cooper Union in the 1980’s, it was a “hard climate” for art. The artistic atmosphere was very conceptual. The community tried to push Genese to be edgy, sarcastic, and “cool.” Genese, conversely, wanted to “make beautiful things.” At the time, she was deeply intrigued by the artwork of Pre-Raphaelite and other aesthetic painters. She believed then, as she does now, that art is sacred, beautiful, and magical.
Genese left Cooper Union, deciding that she was not an artist. She began to focus on reading and writing. She went to Berlin, Germany, on the suggestion and invitation of a friend of her parents, who also happened to be a patron of young artists. On a deeper level, she was returning to the home of her ancestors. Somewhere along the way, she also returned to art, though this time without the criticism of her peers or the pressure of pursuing art as her career. She began creating grimoires as journals of her experiences.
In Germany, Genese fell in love with German literature. She went back to New York City and decided to attend graduate school to pursue a Master’s and doctoral degree in German literature. Genese now speaks German fluently and is a writing and literature professor. Although she has fallen in love with words, Genese has never fallen out of love with art.
When she moved to Vermont, Genese began painting larger pieces because she had more time. She spent her last two summers in Vienna and was amazed by the art she encountered. The place where she was living in Vienna had vast walls, so that is where she began making her huge works on paper. The move from her small, intimate art to her large-scale pieces reflects her shift from her personal world into the public world. She has always loved writing letters and making personal artwork, but recently has wanted to experiment with stretching her private voice into a communal voice. She is currently writing a book about the Austrian novelist Robert Musil as well as a collection of essays about bridging the physical and spiritual worlds, particularly through art.
In the paintings featured in “Aphrodisiacal Anagogs,” Genese noticed many of her influences after their creation. Although she doesn’t really like Picasso, except for his drawings of classical Greek subjects, she realized that those drawings as well as the paintings from his Blue period influenced her own. The stark lines of Germany’s New Objectivity artists like Max Beckmann are also connected to her style. She also observed, in her work, references to the Viennese and German Arts & Crafts movements, the Viennese secession, Art Nouveau, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, William Blake, Renaissance art, Greek and Roman art, Remedios Varo, Symbolist painters, German romantic painters, and Ernst Haeckel’s “Art Forms in Nature.” If she had to label herself a certain kind of painter, she’d say she was a Symbolist painter.
I asked Genese what else about the world and about life inspires her. Her answer included W. B. Yeats, his ideas about the magical possibility of symbols, fairy tales and their motifs, as well as mythology. She is also deeply moved by her friends. With Angela Chaffee, a unique artist inspired by medieval manuscript illumination, and Jackie Schlein of The Pansensical Parlour, a pianist and singer, she creates collaborative music and poetry performances in a sort of free-interpretation on themes she likens to the Jewish scholarly practice of Midrash. I was very intrigued when she began to describe German Romanticism and Idealism, with its emphasis on a connection between the physical world and the world of ideas, imagination, mysticism, magic, and spirit.
She loves Immanuel Kant, Existentialism, Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau and Emerson are especially significant to her: “Their sense of the primacy of the imagination. The transcendental imagination as free from the bounds of time and space and matter.” She also loves the German poet, philosopher, and novelist Novalis, with “his emphasis on dreams, fantasy, the importance of questioning the ‘reality’ of the merely physical, measurable world.” She has learned that it is we who create reality with our minds and we who are free in our minds. Reality, Genese recognizes, is “simply much vaster and more interesting than any merely scientific material description of it. Thus we need poetry, images, stories, myths, and metaphors to help us connect to the other realms and to then, in turn, help us communicate what we find there to others!”
Besides being a writer and a painter, Genese is also a musician, an actress, and a puppet-maker. She is interested in how different realms of art inform each other, in how we can create correspondences through metaphor, in how we can say the same thing through different languages. With art, she tries to find and create meaning; she struggles to affirm her “belief in beauty and meaning in a world of cynicism and meaninglessness.” She is not embarrassed to “be sentimental and care about things.” According to Genese, everyone has a responsibility to change reality – with our psyches – by thinking fruitful, regenerative thoughts. She sees art as a meditation, as a way of reaching a state of creative openness, as a prayer that can connect us with our “higher and lower selves.” She commented, “A lot of great art is an expression of pain… but my favorites are the ones that show brightness within pain.”
She is very inspired by gracefulness in art. In her last few paintings, however, she observed that she was playing with a certain crudeness in her work that “felt revolutionary” for her own process of painting. Genese thinks of her art-making as an act of devotion – a devotion to nature, to love, to life, to beauty, to the life force, to sacredness, to anything she chooses. She unabashedly loves seriousness and fanaticism. She loves to celebrate detail and to honor “the amazingness of everything.”
As I left Genese’s house, a soothing gust of wind blew past me – the sunlight sparkled in the deep blue like a diamond – and I marveled at the amazingness of everything.