In the Studio with Grace Bromley

In the studio with Grace Bromley, whose practice explores feminine archetypes, weaving fantastical narratives with a sense of whimsy, surrealism and dark humor. We met with Grace to tell us more about growing up in the midwest, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

It started when I was pretty young, I was a shy kid at school and loud at home, it was a way that I bridged that gap and came out of my shell. I would draw portraits of my friends and my teachers, kids would ask me to draw things for their projects. Years later I started college as a biology major and worked lots of random jobs- but drawing was something I continued to do on the side. When I couldn’t stop drawing at school or work I thought I had trouble focusing or was easily distracted. I finally saw myself as an artist when I kept coming back to it, it’s been the common thread in my life that connects everything. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’m from the Midwest. On my mom’s side I’m the fourth generation to be born in Chicago. My parents are divorced and lead very different lives. Half of the time I was with my dad and the other half with my grandma and mom. I had a very contradictory childhood, being raised in part by my grandmother. It was filled with Midwestern Roman Catholic traditionalism (going to church, large formal family dinners and holidays). When I was with my dad I was camping and going on adventures in the woods all the time, kayaking and rafting, making sandwiches in grocery store parking lots. I think as an adult I have these conflicting sides of myself that I express through my work. I’m always trying to make sense of how opposites can exist at once, I think that’s why I love using complimentary colors so much- they either make eachother vibrate or turn into complete mud. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

My first memory of drawing is my mom tracing the shape of an eye while comparing it to a seashell. There are certain moments in my childhood that activated my senses like this. Looking up at the stained glass in church was one of these as well, and listening to biblical fables, these things made me obsessed with abstracting reality and creating narrative. I also spent a lot of my time at my neighborhood library, I would bring paper and try to replicate illustrations and book covers. I clearly remember sitting in a big leather chair in that quiet old building reading a book on Freud’s interpretations of dreams then trying to draw pictures of my dreams. I have always loved the feeling of time being distorted, 10 minutes turns to 10 hours of painting and then you are faced with an image that teaches you so much about yourself. All information you have absorbed by following your curiosities comes out in paintings as well. I realized it was a place to put all of my curiosities, observations and doubts. I always feel like I am on the right track when I surprise myself with things I paint. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I think they are narratives about finding strength and power in softness, expression of gender and sexuality in ways that are contradictory and self soothing. They expose the darkness of self reflection and the awkwardness of intimacy. 

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

My grandma – She had a strength and steadiness that I hope to have in my practice and in my life. As far as artists – Leonora Carrington, Otto Dix – surrealist filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. The History of symbolic folklore of plants and wildlife. Movies like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor dreamcoat or James and the Giant Peach, weird and whimsical set-design from my childhood that made me feel awestruck and confused. Biblical tales and imagery, stories and creation and destruction (any good story with duality usually gets me excited to paint.) 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Children’s books- I am a nanny for twins part time and when I read them bedtime stories I’m always taking photos of the illustrations for reference. The way that they look at the world really inspires me as well- they always want to climb on top of or underthings, getting the absolute most out of every moment and experience. 

Flesh- of plants, animals and people- when I am out with friends I am always analyzing how they hold their bodies, how light travels across skin, the color of trees at night against the sky, especially when these things are illuminated by a fire.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I hope people feel reminded of things they didn’t know they remembered. My ideal audience is someone who is not afraid to look at themselves as a child. In fact, someone who is interested in looking at themselves as a child. 

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

I’m interested in bringing more subtlety into my work, I don’t think everything needs to be so overtly decided, I try to let paintings guide me these days instead of forcing them into submission. Deciding to grow my hair out has become an oddly symbolic thing in my life- and it relates to this approach of painting. As a young person I spent a lot of energy trying to change my appearance, lately I feel more accepting of myself and thus have more energy to put into my work. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Starting Early in the morning with a clean space, coffee, no time limit or plans later in the day and the ability to just sink in. Having absolutely no expectations of myself or the painting is crucial in order to make something that feels honest. 

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

Afternoon Meshes came from an incident when I found a film photograph of a sand castle competition from the 1990s mixed in with a roll I developed. It is very grainy and greenish- you can barely make out what the sculptures are and it made me want to make paintings where I interpret the forms. It sent me down this long rabbit hole of thinking about dream worlds made of sand, everything is delicate and can be blown away yet has so much presence and structure. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

Swamps, deserts, more prickly briar bushes, conditions in the natural world that are uncomfortable and unforgiving. These spaces are wise and the people that make homes in them are clever and powerful.