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  • Victoria Hood, Founder

IN THE STUDIO WITH PETER CUSACK

How Challenges Become Joys through Patience and the Passing of Time



Peter Cusack is analytical, disciplined, and inquisitive. His spacious ground floor studio in Torrington, CT is clean, organized, and feels natural and earthly. Peter’s work in contrast is emotional. As jewelry designer and maker Mary MacGill writes,


“Peter Cusack’s practice is rooted in his drawings of lived experiences, cultural observations, and early 19th Century French art. In the face of a society that can feel chaotic, 19th Century art offers him a solace: a reverence for humanity and for how we fit into nature. It is this dichotomy, between chaos and order, that informs Cusack’s paintings. Many of the figures Cusack depicts are representations of loved ones passed. Their presence in his paintings are both palpable and abstract, much like memories. Through painting, Cusack is at once externalizing his own memory, while simultaneously examining our collective history and relationship to the human form through art.”


Saying I sat down to interview Peter feels unauthentic and untrue to his thoughtful nature. Below is more a discourse on the meaning of art and space, practice and medium, past and future, as well as fear and courage. 



Where did you grow up and what is your first impactful memory of art?

I grew up in Bronxville, NY, just outside of New York City. My family was very active in the city and the downtown cultural life. My parents would take my brother and me to Soho, the Lower East Side, and the Village on weekends. The first time that art made an impact on me was when I was about 9 or 10, and my father brought me to see a Richard Serra exhibition. As I remember, the show consisted of one large, curved steel sculpture in a room that was not much larger than the sculpture itself. This was in the early eighties, and I was a very quiet kid. My father and I stood just inside the entrance of the gallery space. He bent down to my level and, with his hand moving in the air, made the gesture of the curved piece. He asked me, “See how it changes the room?” With that, I was struck by the grounding effect that simplicity and reduction could have.



When did you know you wanted to pursue your career in art? What path did you take to become an artist?

Over a 25-year period, I’ve had three artistic lives. The first was as a student which began when I was 28 years old studying classical painting and drawing in France. In that time, I amassed an extensive art history library and spent most of my waking hours drawing. I showed my work regularly in the city and

began teaching.


The second life was as a freelance illustrator with a commercial agent, Morgan Gaynin Inc. This was a fun period where I learned to professionalize my painting life, work on a deadline, meet the needs of clients, and create pictures that told stories and conveyed feelings within seconds. Beyond book covers and magazine pieces, I had a lot of interesting projects like being embedded in a top secret mission for the United States Airforce and producing a poster for the MTA that hung throughout the NYC subway system.


My third life as an artist is now. And it’s about painting exhibitions and collaborating on interesting commissions that explore the themes and ideas that I love. It’s about working with people that have a vision and creating beautiful spaces.


Why is oil on canvas your chosen medium?

Oil on canvas is my chosen medium because it’s such a fraught, personal arena. Our culture holds it to be almost mythical. The artist standing in front of a blank canvas implies the great human drama of knowing and accepting oneself. The other aspect about oil on canvas that interests me is the very simple and raw qualities of the material itself. Oil paint on canvas can have a soft, porous quality—a subtlety in how the paint merges with the canvas. It can leave traces of the artist's presence. It can have a slick, oily quality that suggests speed and a hardness from varnish that’s impenetrable. These material qualities amount to the first impact that a piece has on a viewer. Beyond the picture illustrated in the painting (and like the Serra I mentioned above), it's the material’s story that is on view. In my studio, you will find many large canvases pinned to the wall, unstretched. This feels like the medium and material’s most natural state—without the rigid tension that stretcher bars constrain. It excites me to live with art in its most unpretentious way – pinned to a wall, leaning on a sill, mantel, or desk—as it suggests the daily life and poetry of art. The facts of how it’s made and the moments of its intention remain a priority.



Many of your paintings depict human figures surrounded by natural shades. What are you portraying through these subjects and colors?

I look to the natural order of things as a source of inspiration. I understand its place, but I believe that life is too fragile for irony. Much of our culture is ultra-particular to time and place. I think in my attempt to say something that’s true in my work, I look to universal experience and notions of existence that are profound. I explore the themes of light, shadow, nature, order, time and passing, and find inspiration earthbound colors, and what can be known through our senses. The figure is a way for the viewer to directly identify with the work. For example, a few of my paintings portray a flutist amongst passages of color that suggest foliage and light. The flutist is in the piece to imbue the work with the idea of a calming gentle sound and the sensation of breath.



Tell us about your studio in Torrington, CT. There is an incredible sense of order and serenity throughout the lofty space.

My studio is a store front space in the center of town. It’s large and voluminous with even light. It reminds me of a loft in Soho with vaulted tin ceilings. There are tables, a few chairs, and a squatter’s (makeshift) kitchen in the back. I have a huge fiddle fig that sits under three windows and reaches for the light that comes in through the back door. The studio is furnished minimally and form absolutely follows function there. A few taupe colored rugs break up the expansive floor space. I was happy to find it. Immediately, the volume and proportions reminded me of a Roman chapel because there is a sense of depth when you walk in. Creatively, I’m interested in the concepts of reduction and minimalism. My studio space reflects that and my work develops in concert. Clutter is disorganized and burdensome, so I create work, like my studio, that has an order and opens up space for the viewer.



What has been your biggest challenges and your biggest joys about being an artist?

I can speak easily to the joys. I’m so glad to have this art practice as a way to live and connect to life. It brings in new ideas, people, projects, and goals. I’m entering a point in my career in which the fruits of creativity are so delicious and enriching. From the beginning the biggest challenge has been understanding and knowing myself so I can create work that is honest and has truth. This challenge still exists, but I so love the process.



What do you have next on the horizon?

There are some new ideas that have begun to crystallize in the studio that suggest a new body of work. So in part the next horizon is about focus and concentration. I’m excited because this new work will be about monumentality, chance, spontaneity, and activation. In the future, I’m looking forward to continuing my collaborations with interior designers and architects. I love interdisciplinary projects. I love painting with particular goals in mind and taking on the challenges that specific spaces offer.


Finally, what is the best advice you can give to aspiring artists?

My advice to aspiring artists would be to start, stick with it, endure, don’t be afraid to be alone, and let it teach you.


Photography by Theo Coulombe

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