"Dropping the first name actually came from signing my full name on art pieces," she explains. "It just took up too much space." Off with the excess; it's a do-what-works attitude that the young Brooklyn painter abides by, both in her unconventional, self-taught art background and general outlook about what it means to build a creative career in New York. Photography by Andrew Musson
We meet on the summer solstice in her sunny Bushwick studio, and Sherwin has a sore neck from a couple bad nights of sleep made worse by the fact that she can't quite find anywhere quiet to escape. Between her studio's location on a busy Brooklyn industrial thoroughfare and her new apartment smack in the middle of Chinatown, it's no wonder that Keating is wanting to install her next art show—an in-the-works series of abstract portraits—inside NoLIta's quiet, lush Elizabeth Street garden gallery space
. "I love it there," she says, "But actually, my ideal place would be more like The Secret Garden
, you know, with ivy walls and no distractions."
Sherwin has a direct, serious presence and an artist's intuition that results in big, textural and color-driven pieces that are at the same time powerful and delicate. It's a mesmerizing balance founded on instinct. "I don't work this or that way," she says. "I just go!"
In our studio visit, we talked with Keating about following her nose, finding a place in the "art world," and trying to make her own way amid all the noise.
Tell us about the current series you're working on, a set of portraits all done with live models.
Well, I'm still trying to figure out how long it takes to make one! I'm seven portraits into this series now, but the sittings have all been kind of spaced out, which is not so good for positioning. I spend a lot of time backtracking. I feel like at this point I should say: It's five sittings for a portrait, but I could work on one for two years! At some point you've got to stop.
I like the process a lot. When you're painting from your mind you have to make every decision; with this, I feel like I can just get lost in it.
What else are you working on?
The other big project is a commission for a film, a portrait that's supposed to be a love homage painted by this character's ex. He painted it when they are in love and now they're separated and it's the big piece he paints in this show. So it had to be kind of this epic thing. I think Alec Baldwin is going to be playing the painter, which is amazing and really hilarious.
That is amazing! Who is the painting of?
I painted that from a photograph—this is creepy—that image is a combination of a photograph of me when I was 21 in Savannah….and a selfie of Molly Shannon's face. [Laughs] I don't know!
Where did you grow up?
I'm originally from the Northeast but grew up in South Florida on the water. I'm used to constant humidity. When I came here, the first winter I was just pissed off. Then summer came and it's so amazing that you forget winter could ever exist.
Do you think being in New York matters for work?
Personally, I'm affected by where I am. I don't think I need the intensity of New York to get work done—in fact, I might be better off from being somewhere else. But I feel like I'm at a place where I'm so close to having a firm hold on my career, and I am not going to walk away from that. I can be very focused here.
So no summer escapes in the works?
My only plan is to be here, working and being hot in this studio! I've been on lockdown over here. You know, it's summer but I feel like I am just now coming out of my winter hole. I was recently talking about how I think September is the perfect time to leave. The summer months are overrated! You go to Montauk in September and you have the whole place to yourself.
You didn't study art in school, and actually came into painting in a roundabout way. Can you talk about your background?
As a child, I remember having a thought that I would grow up and be an artist in New York. Actually, maybe I made that up in retrospect. But either way, I didn't have a concept of what it meant. So I moved here in 2007, but it took me awhile to step away from just being caught up in the city. I worked in fashion showrooms, and then I worked for a branding company and then I was working in nightlife and met so many interesting people and artists. I think that made me re-remember, like, 'Oh yeah. That's why I'm here.' At the time I was doing makeup on photo shoots, and—this sounds weird—but I just picked up paints and started painting. I didn't have a clue what I was doing.
Kind of the opposite way of getting into it than most people.
Right, totally in reverse. I said it, and then I had to become it. But I had no fear to hold me back. I took a drawing class in college and loved it and worked hard in it, and I've always made charcoal drawings. It wasn't something that I was even aware of was 'art.' But sometimes, as far as art is concerned, when you have too much knowledge about a field it can steer you away.
So what was a turning point then in transitioning from deciding to make art to getting solo shows?
Oil paint. Once I started using it I got a show! Well, first I had a couple solid years of painting and painting and making crap. I didn't feel like I was in control, so I incubated for awhile. I had been working in acrylics and I randomly went out and bought three tubes of oil paint. A friend told me I should enter this art competition so I did, and I ended up winning, and that got me a show.
Are there people who you look to for advice or guidance with your work?
I share a workspace with another [hyperrealistic] painter, and from sharing a studio space I have learned a lot about technique. In the past, I just used my own made-up technique! It's been great to observe what he does and take what I want from it. I find it very hard to find people who you trust their opinion of your work, but then there are times when you're alone and frustrated and you're like, 'How did this thing ever get to this place?' I have a friend back here [in another studio in the same building]… another artist, and it's so valuable to have someone you can express things like that to. You don't want their advice, you just want their mutual understanding that you know they get it, and now you can move on.
How do you approach that balance then, between relying on your intuition and knowing you have to participate to some extent in order to have a career?
It's tricky: It's great to be a little bit oblivious, but you don't want to be a moron. Some days people will see what I'm doing and call it out and say whatever painter it looks like, which is so annoying! I don't work that way or think about that at all. I have freedom but it's both an asset and an inhibitor. But, you know, I try to remember that this is a long-term operation; I have some time to discover things.