Entanglements: 003 - Daizy and Steven Cushner

Akemi Maegawa, Cushner Interview drawing #2

Akemi Maegawa, Cushner Interview drawing #2

Daizy Cushner and her father Steven Cushner got together the other night at the Dew Drop Inn to talk about their shared experiences as family, as students, as teachers, and as working artists.

Steven Cushner is a painter and teacher. He has lived in DC for 40 years and taught for many years at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He has exhibited his work nationally and is represented by Hemphill Fine Arts, where an exhibit of recent work is currently on view.  Daizy grew up in DC, in the house where Steven has his studio. Daizy earned a dual BFA in Photography and Art Education from the Massachusetts College of Art in 2012, and is the Pre K Art teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in DC.

Steven - Well Daze, I think this is going to be fun. As much as possible, I’d like to talk about our shared experiences, not only my personal life as an artist. I think we have a lot of interesting questions to talk about. I’d like to begin with this - Can you remember anything that was specifically said, or anything you may have seen or experienced growing up that has had an influence on the work you do? I can clearly remember something that you did and said that has had a big effect on my painting. When you were about 5 years old, you went through a phase where you would sit in my studio and copy my paintings. Yours were always free, loose, and gestural - something that I try to maintain in my paintings but usually end up controlling too much - I tend to overwork and squeeze the life out of my paintings. You would spend 5 or 10 minutes and then begin a new painting. One day you looked up at me and said “I don’t know why it takes you so long.” I try to remember this as I work! I also remember the day you told me that you wanted to go to art school. You were a junior in high school, college talk and pressure was in the air. Growing up, you had always said you thought you wanted to be an adolescent psychologist. I picked you up at the Metro one day after school. You got into the car and said “I think I want to go to art school.” I had a couple of thoughts - the first was “ Alright, score one for me!” The second was “We have told you your entire life that you could do whatever you want, but not this!” I asked you what led to this decision, and you said “I think I ‘d rather get to spend my day the way you do instead of how mom spends her day.” Now I had a decision to make - Say nothing or tell the truth. I told the truth - “I only get to do what I do because your mother goes to work every day!”

Steven and Daizy Cushner In The Studio, 1992

Steven and Daizy Cushner In The Studio, 1992

"One day you looked up at me and said
' I don’t know why it takes you so long.'
I try to remember this as I work!" - S.Cushner


Daizy -  Yep, I remember that day, too.  Some of my first memories as a child took place at gallery openings, art museums and shadowing you at the Corcoran.  I think that when I was little, I wanted to be the opposite of this, because I was so immersed in the art scene and just wanted to rebel.  I think that my interest in being an “adolescent psychologist” came from wanting to work with young people and help them problem solve and figure out the world.  I wasn’t able to see, at the time, that teachers and artists are doing this everyday, and once I made that realization, it seemed like the perfect pathway for me. I have many memories of growing up in your studio that have impacted my life.  I also remember copying your work, but the memory that stands out the most was just the freedom and encouragement to get really messy!  It never felt like materials or projects were off limits, and that I could paint on huge sheets of canvas with “professional” brushes and that anything I wanted to make was ok!  I think about this a lot when I’m working with 3-5 year olds, because you can learn so much by touching and feeling paint, pastels, clay, etc. but when people get so fixated on being “clean” and the “end product” all the authenticity and learning experiences are watered down.

We both work as teachers. Do you think your work as a teacher has had any influence on your studio work?

S - Well, I don’t think that my paintings have been influenced in any specific way, but I have learned a lot about myself through my work as a teacher. My job would be so great if I could just walk around and say “I like this, I don’t like that.” But I can’t get away with that. So I have had to learn to make my thoughts and feelings clear and understandable, I need to understand what I am seeing and why I am reacting the way I am. I need to differentiate between my subjective reactions and my objective responses. What I like is meaningless to anyone else. Why I’m reacting may have some value. Since I have developed this skill as a teacher, I can and do use this to get some understanding of my own work.

Also, I have had the good fortune to work with a wonderful faculty during my time at the Corcoran, and now at George Mason - Paula Crawford, Eddie Bisese and others at GMU, and some of the most interesting artists in DC - Tom Green, Bill Willis, Georgia Deal, Dennis O’Neil, Janis Goodman, Bill Christenberry, Bill Newman, John Dickson at the Corcoran. To work with them, to spend time with them, to share ideas with them, to be challenged by them - not a bad way to spend your time.

Left : Portraits of Steven Cushner by Drawing 1 students at George Mason University

Right: Portraits of Ms. Cushner by Pre - K students at Capital City Public Charter School.

D - How long have you been showing your work at Hemphill, and how did this relationship begin? I have a photograph that George took of me when I was about 4 years old, I think we were hanging out in Tom Ashcraft and Georgia Deal’s back yard, so I know you have known George for a long time...

S - I’ve known George for close to 40 years - I think we probably met shortly after I got here ( I arrived in DC in 1978 to go to graduate school at the University of Maryland). Maybe we met in the Tentacle Room, Michael McCall’s after hours club above the old 930 Club - a cool hangout where you would see everyone. There was quite an active scene - many young artists around. George was working for Chris Middendorf at Middendorf Gallery. I know George included me in a drawing show there so we were friendly and he liked my work. When Middendorf closed, George dealt privately for a couple of years before opening his first gallery in Georgetown, and I’ve worked with him ever since.

D - Can you describe your relationship with Hemphill? How does it work?

S - I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to work with George, Mary Early, Caitlyn Berry, and Stephen Chambers at Hemphill Fine Arts. I always thought that the artist’s job is to make the work, and the gallery’s job is to do everything else, and in the best situations this is how it works, and I am in the best situation - it really is a partnership.  The work that the gallery does allows me to go into the studio with no worries or pressures - I am free to allow my work to develop in its own direction and at its own pace. They trust me to work hard, and I trust them to present my work in the best possible light.


Steven Cushner in his studio 2016, Max Hirshfeld

Steven Cushner in his studio 2016, Max Hirshfeld

"I always thought that the artist’s job is to make the work,
and the gallery’s job is to do everything else,
and in the best situations this is how it works,
and I am in the best situation - it really is a partnership."

- S. Cushner

D - I see you brought the book INSIDE THE PAINTERS STUDIO with you. I assume there’s a reason?

S - This is a great book. The author, Joe Fig, interviewed a number of contemporary painters, and in each interview he asks a series of very simple but enlightening questions, and I thought perhaps we can discuss some of them.

D - OK, lets go - How long have you been in your studio, and has this particular studio influenced your work in any way?

S - After I graduated from graduate school, I had a couple of studios around the city. The first was at Hanover Place just off North Capital Street. I was part of the first generation to occupy this raw warehouse space - we needed to put up walls, run electricity, no heat, quite romantic. After a couple years, I repeated this and moved into a raw space near Catholic University - again, no walls, no heat (and this one had no windows). The romance of no heat got old pretty soon, and I didn’t like commuting to work, so I soon moved into a live - in loft space on 7th Street in Shaw. I really enjoyed the comforts - heat, a kitchen, tv and stereo, and my wife Debbie around. Eventually, we moved to our house in Brookland - a small bungalow with enough room to build a smallish studio, which we did right around the time that you were born. This allowed me to work whenever I wanted - early morning, late at night, and allowed me to stay home with you and your sister Grace while you were quite young. The flow between life, family, and work is perfect for me - there is no separation and I feed off this. 

D - Can you describe a typical day?

S - This one is easy for me. On days when I am not teaching, I say goodbye to mom when she leaves for work, get another cup of coffee, and start working. I’ll paint till about noon, take the dog for a walk, come back and maybe read for a half hour, then start painting again. I’ll work until 5 or 6, then maybe for an hour or 2 later in the evening. On teaching days, I’ll work for 3 hours, go to school, come home, have dinner, and perhaps work for an hour or so. I live pretty much the same way as I did as an 18 year old college student.

D - I can answer the next one for you - Do you listen to music, watch TV, or work in silence? No silence ever. Same music over and over - Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Ramones, Bob Dylan. Indians games on television during baseball season.

D - This is another question from INSIDE THE PAINTERS STUDIO - “What advice would you give to young artists?”

Daizy Cushner In The Studio, 1992

Daizy Cushner In The Studio, 1992

“What advice would you give to young artists?”

S - I think I have learned much more from watching friends, artists, and my teachers and how they move through the world than I have from anything a teacher has told me about material or technique. In retrospect, I can see that I modeled a lot of my behavior on friends whose work and attitudes I respected, and I have been fortunate to have many good friends who are also great artists. Tom Green showed me the value of looking at as many exhibitions as possible - Tom was everywhere, at every opening and show no matter how important we thought it was, or how seemingly insignificant - he saw everything! Chip Richardson showed me the value of showing up - get to the studio every day and see what happens. Bill Willis showed me the importance of being open and accepting what came along, to keep my eyes open to what was really happening, not what I wanted to happen. I have a friend, Stan Klein, who I grew up with - he visits everyone in their studio, and is helpful to others, making connections. Chris Gregson in Richmond, Howie Lee Weiss in Baltimore, Akemi Maegawa here in DC, Chris Pekoe in Cleveland - they have all played important roles in my career. Be kind and helpful to your friends - its good for everyone! 

D - You keep mentioning all of these other artists… have you ever worked for another artist?

S - I’ve never worked for another artist, but I have worked WITH many - making prints with Dennis O’Neil at his Handprint Workshop, organized exhibitions with Chip Richardson, Robin Rose, Dan Treado, Bill Willis, studied with Sam Gilliam and Ann Truitt, spent lots of time with Jacob Kainen in his studio. Can you talk about your experiences?

D - During my junior year at MassArt, I was lucky enough to travel to China with Fred Liang and John Thompson for the Land of the Eternal Sun class.  We visited Shanghai, Xi’an, Luoyang and Beijing, which was a special experience for me after going with you and mom to pick up Gracie in 1998.  I felt like I wanted to learn more about where she was from, and was always fascinated by traditional Chinese art.  The following year, I was asked back as the Teaching Assistant for the same course, and supported Fred with leading tours and discussions all over China.  It was on that trip that I decided I wanted to apply for an artist residency in Beijing, at Red Gate Residency.  My application was accepted, and in 2012 I was able to spend the summer living and working in a studio space in Beijing.  I met artists from all over the country, and around the world!  I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough going had I not been given the opportunity to TA the trip with Fred.  He had one quote that he repeated over and over during our trip, which stuck with me, which was “you’re never lost if you’re on Earth.” It was a nice reminder that traveling alone or to another country can be hard, but not to get too caught up on the small things.  Just take it all in.

S - We’ve both travelled quite a bit. I’ve taught many times overseas - in Skopelos, Greece, a few times in various places in Italy, and a half dozen trips to various locations in Spain. Some of these trips I have organized on my own, most I have organized and traveled with Dennis O’Neil and Georgia Deal. I do know there are certain motifs and images that I have discovered on these trips, things I would never have seen or used had I stayed home. I’ve been able to visit some of the world’s greatest museums, eaten some great food, had some wonderful times. But the biggest impact is realizing that there is no universal - images, ideas, emotions are local, responding to very particular times and places. This is a constant reminder to pay attention! What do you have to say?

Daizy Cushner In The Studio, Skopelos, Greece, 2016

Daizy Cushner In The Studio, Skopelos, Greece, 2016

D - The majority of my travel has been with you and your friends that feel like family.  Let’s see… we went to Italy together and painted on a farm.  That trip taught me how to be a good observer, and the importance of SLOWING DOWN.  I also went to Spain with you and Denny O’Neil (aka Dad #2) and learned how to silkscreen.  That trip was meaningful because it showed me how to use my photographs in other ways, such as manipulating them through printmaking processes.  I also went to Skopelos, Greece with you, Dad #2 and Mom #2 & #3 (Nancy Zimler and Georgia Deal) and learned how to make woodcut and monoprints.  Again, as someone who’s strength isn’t drawing, learning other printmaking processes was invigorating.  I took a lot of what I learned back to my classroom and taught my 3-5 year olds how to monoprint, etch into styrofoam and make Gelli prints.  

D - So, what’s coming up next for you?

S - This is a great question. Once a show is up, I usually go through a hangover period. The day after the opening, I go into an empty studio. The work that’s in the show is finished, and it creates an artificial closure. I feel the need to create the next body of work immediately, but I’ve lost the momentum and inertia. I usually flounder around for a few months, working my way to what I hope will be some new thoughts and approaches. Right now I am working with my old friend Stan Klein, who operates Firecat Projects in Chicago, trying to develop a mobile gallery which we are calling SIDESHOW. Our idea is to travel the country, do some drawing and painting, meet with artists, look at work, and share our combined experiences of 45 years living in the art world. We are getting ready to test this out, driving out to Las Vegas in April for the Southern Graphics Council convention - 2 guys in a van loaded with prints and drawings by friends of ours, and lots of stories.

S and D -  We would like to thank Georgie Payne for inviting us to do this interview. It was a lot of fun, and gave both of us a lot to think about, and brought some new insights into our relationship.