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Kassandra Isaacson

In conversation with Katie Schorr

Kassandra Isaacson image

I wasn’t always aware that I wanted to become an Artist. However from the minute I began to grow up, that was the first thing I discovered about myself. It wasn’t only a coincidence that at fourteen, I decided to take courses that would teach me how to draw and think about art. It was one of those choices a person makes for themselves which reflects who they are on a very fundamental level. I was very lucky that my first serious teacher in Art was a very good teacher and she had a profound influence on how I first thought about Art. I grew up in a large second generation Greek American family which was part of a wider community of people that were writers, painters, poets, musicians, and dancers. It was normal to live in a way that you expressed yourself through things that you made and did.


As well as studying Art in high school, I was also studying ballet very seriously. At first I thought I was going to be a dancer and I trained for years (but at the same time I was learning about painting). For ballet you have to start really young; I got a scholarship to study ballet. The Cambridge Ballet Theater was subsidized by the New York City Ballet. They’d elect kids to be scholarship students. When I reached seventeen and I had graduated from high school, I convinced my parents that I could take a year off from my academic studies to study dance. I realized during that period that I didn’t like the kind of life you were required to live in order to train as a professional dancer. Being in a company meant that my everyday life would be owned by the company.

That was too much a sacrifice for me. And while I loved dancing and I loved the immediacy of it, the fact that as a dancer one makes the work then and there and that your audience participates with you then and there, I didn’t like the world that went along with it. I didn’t like the fact that I was told who to fall in love with, how I took my holidays, what to eat, where to live, you know; everything. And that it was extremely competitive and also so narcissistic, how thin you were etc….I couldn’t accept the limitations that were deemed as necessary to the development of a dancer in those years.

It was a very strange world and as I got older, I realized I didn’t want to make the sacrifice of my everyday life to be a dancer. It was very hard for me to give it up. For years after I had given it up, I would dream about dancing. When I was dancing seriously, I was taking two classes a day and dancing with a company and I was in school as well. I remember my mother saying to me, “Are you sure? Are you sure you want to give it up?” And now looking back I’m sure that was the right decision. I might have been a good teacher maybe, might have been able to teach it, but I never would have been a performer. My love of dance stays with me, but I never encouraged any of my children to dance professionally. Dancers can have a very, very hard life.


When it came to going to college, I decided that I didn’t want to go to an American college, even though I had gotten into American colleges and had been offered scholarships to study Art. I wanted to study Art in a more traditional way than was available to me in the US in those years, particularly drawing. I found out about The Ruskin School of Drawing here in Oxford. In those years it was hours of drawing a week drawing from plaster casts, Greek statues, painting from entirely white still life. We weren’t even allowed in the Life Room for the first year. It was all observational drawing, very traditional, Victorian, really!

And I loved it. I had come out of a system where I’d already done photography, 3-D work. This was in the sixties in the US where experimentation was a feature in Art education. I was happy to get into a situation where I wasn’t immediately jumped into a conceptual framework; I was allowed to think about how I observed reality, how I observed my natural world, and how I expressed that. And all those hours of drawing! At least 30 hours a week in the first year! I was very lucky again to have very good teachers who were good practising artists, loved art and had a solid practical foundation themselves in art making. I think the enduring thing was, they just loved art. Also another formative element was the interest of being in Britain, experiencing new cultural things.


Being aware of where I was in relation to what I was drawing, being aware of my physical relationship to what I was painting, these were the kind of fundamental things I was taught and remain with me today as an important guideline…in relation to any image. Being aware of how it affects you and what your relationship is to it. When you’re making something, it’s quite an intimate relationship and it calls forth from you quite a lot of emotional interaction. When you’re working on a painting you can get really cross with it, you know, you can love it the way you would a person. When I start to draw something, I tell myself that I don’t know what I am looking at until I’d begin to draw it. That helps me to use the act of drawing as an investigative tool.

That was one part of the process and the other part of the process was actually, slowly, beginning to figure out how anything I liked to do might relate to anybody outside of me. It’s not just this solipsistic thing where it’s just me and my intimate relationship with the canvas. Somebody else might come and look at what I’ve drawn and how another person responds, completes the creative process. You’ll come here and you’ll look at any pieces in this room and you will make your own associations, you will engage with them on some level. And if you chose to live with it, you would carry on engaging, carry on going back and looking again and seeing something else in it or bringing something else to it.

I would travel on the tube to go to my ballet classes and I remember suddenly thinking how beautiful everyone was. I hadn’t thought about it one way or the other before, but when I started studying art, I began to look for what was beautiful in the world around me. I actively looked for what was beautiful! What I’m telling you I’m sure is not a fashionable way of thinking about Art right now. There is a way of teaching that is about making statements. But for me thinking about things in terms of whether or not they’re beautiful is central to discovering what my response is and what response I am going to evoke from people looking at my work. I think about the questions that suddenly emerge as a result of this recognition of what is beautiful. I found more and more as I looked at paintings, the great paintings, they actively asked for a response to that kind of central issue. Some people say it’s like falling in love. That romanticizes it; I think it’s more than that, it’s connecting up to why we’re alive. What we see as beautiful challenges us.

The people that I teach usually are coming to learn to draw because they want to, not because they have to get a degree or because they need to fulfil a particular kind of academic criterion. They’re doing it because they want to learn how to draw. And people can have lots of different reasons for wanting to learn how to draw. It’s interesting teaching people who start out wanting to learn. Many times I teach adults who were discouraged from studying drawing formally as younger people because they were quite clever! They were “meant” to be studying other things. In that generation of people, those same sorts of people would never have been discouraged from studying the violin, or the piano, or any musical instrument. But it might have been suggested to them that Art was not as important and as serious a thing to study. I think that attitude towards Art education has changed now.

I teach younger people as well. The challenge is figuring out what combination of things helps people to wake up to their own capabilities.

Because I love drawing and painting myself, my enthusiasm for those subjects communicates itself to people. I almost take it for granted that everybody I teach will be enthusiastic about the subject.

I have also taught in situations where people were required to do drawing as part of a qualification. The most challenging of that kind of teaching was teaching people who were doing some kind of qualification for design and technology (it wasn’t as formal as architecture). These people were kids who were sort of disenfranchised and they had been put on programmes to get some basic skills. They saw Fine Art as a class-related thing, it wasn’t something that was necessarily for them; it belonged to museums. It was very interesting, engaging their attention and engaging their interest. It was challenging. Some of these kids were very, very talented, that was a bonus for me.

But for the kids who weren’t as talented, it was really getting past their question of “What’s the point?” What is the point of drawing when you photocopy something or you can take a photograph of it, why draw it? I pointed out to them that a lot of our made world originates in drawing. Almost everything we have in our made world now, because it’s made through factories using machines, starts out as drawing! So that, as a language, art is probably one of the most powerful languages we have! And that it is a way that people communicate ideas to one another. It’s fun teaching those kids.

People have to be woken up to their artistic ability. While it’s automatic on some level, there is a great deal that can be discovered about expression by learning techniques and how to use different media for example.

In my opinion everybody should be taught drawing the way everybody is taught to read.

I think it’s very hard to be creative if you’re unhappy, and having really sad things to deal with. The brilliant artists, who have had personal suffering, I think have been able to be creative because of their fury. Actually making anything is essentially a happy activity. It can make you happy to express your anger. Many artists have become enraged with suffering, injustice, brutality, the brutalizing of the spirit in some way and have found profound ways to express their fury. But I don’t think it’s a retreat from suffering.


I remained here, in Oxford, because my personal life took hold. I had children and they needed an education and a place to live. They had lives to lead too. I needed to fit in with that as well as being able to do my own work. In my generation at college, I was almost unique in being a mum. At that time, most of my fellow students and graduates from Ruskin weren’t parents as yet. But, we all needed a place to work. So we set up the Oxford Print-makers Cooperative, an open access printmaking workshop. None of us could have afforded to set up printmaking studios individually, but we could collectively. So a small group of us applied to the Arts Council for core funding to set up a workshop. Likewise, with Art Weeks, there were no exhibiting spaces in Oxford, there wasn’t a municipal gallery. So another group of artists thought, “Well, we will work at home; we’ll have Art Weeks and invite people into our homes!” Now both of these things have managed to survive for over 25 years.

Many things which can benefit the wider community come out of necessity of the artists working in that particular environment.


We think of artists as international. The audience can become international for some artists, but basically every artist is a “local” artist responding and interacting with their chosen environment.

For ages, I thought, “This (being an artist) is such a grand thing to be! I can’t possibly say I’m an artist!” I’d say, “I’m a teacher,” or “I make pictures.” I think the role of the artist is to be some sort of catalyst in your environment, to provide a way of seeing things that might interest people. I think society needs artists in practical terms, to look at the world they’re living in, to help people think about how they feel about the world. Art can be a kind of celebration of life. People ask, “Can you make that, can you do a portrait for me, can you design a picture for a present?” I’ll try. I’ll have a go. People don’t feel confident enough or don’t have time to sit down and draw a picture, so they’ll go to an artist.

I could say I was an artist when I thought, “There are great genius artists and there are also jobbing artists!” And I’m one of those; I’m a jobbing artist. If you need a picture, I can do it. If you need a backdrop, I’ll have a go. And I love it. And if you even need just to have a conversation with somebody about art, I’m there. This is where I am. While it’s a very grand thing, it’s not a high-falutin’ thing. The people who are grand in it are grand in it, but it doesn’t take away from the professionals who love it and do it successfully in varying degrees.


I’m very aware of what it is to see things. You take into yourself with your eyes an image even before you know what it is that you’ve seen. If you take something in with your nose and you don’t like the smell of it, you can close your nose. But if you see something you can not know what you’re looking at and only realize what it is after you’ve taken it into your consciousness.

So that interests me. And you can not know that you’re seeing something. For a long time I was very interested in the peripheral vision, you know, that you can look at things directly, but you also look at things from the periphery. I always bring it back to two-dimensional framework. I was so interested in this for a while. I did a drawing that was all about peripheral vision. I stretched out this long piece of paper and it was longer than I could look at at any one time, so I had to have an awareness of it peripherally as I was working on it.


Because I paint and draw and printmake, I have those three media, those three areas available to me to use to make things, sometimes abstract, and sometimes things from observation. I have quite a few ongoing pieces on which I’ve been working over and reinterpreting. There’s a lot of actual, practical work in creating a painted image. The size of what I’m looking at is very, very important. I’m very interested in that when I’m painting and printmaking. A painting is a unique object. That awareness has influenced my printmaking and it’s made me want to be very much more experimental. And so I’m not worrying about editioning work, I make prints which are unique objects rather than one copy after another of the same image. If I want to do that I use another medium, like photocopying or Giclee.

For a long time, I was very conflicted about selling my work. I had come to Oxford out of a very materialistic society (the USA).

At that time there was a real difference between the United States and England and one of the reasons I loved England was that it didn’t seem as materialistic to me as the States. People didn’t need to spend money to have a nice time in those years, for example. There was nothing like conspicuous consumption in those years.

Now things have changed very much here. And again I keep coming back to the practicalities of it. It’s expensive to make art; it’s an expensive education, the materials are expensive, an expensive process. And so you can’t, unless you’re independently wealthy, you can’t ignore them. And so there is the whole issue of patronage and who’s going to buy the work.

I like it when people buy my work, I do. I really like it. I like it when people respond to what I’ve done when they get it. It’s fun. Galleries are one of the ways artists can make contact with people. The reason I don’t actually pursue the gallery – I might some time in the future, but I haven’t so far – is because I don’t want to have to limit myself, the kind of work that I make, to fulfil a contract or a particular kind of gallery market. For example, in the last exhibition I had, the things that sold the most were prints. While I enjoy printmaking and I love printmaking, I don’t want to not paint anymore because I’ve got to work up a certain body of work for gallery exhibitions. But I can afford the luxury of that because my life is not supported exclusively by the sale of my work and my teaching.

If I were to have to generate a lot more money, I don’t think I would choose to support my life with the sale of my work. I couldn’t be sure of that bringing in a steady income. I think what I would do is do more teaching. When you’ve got a gallery, you’ve got a middleman. I think the best galleries are the galleries that are really enthusiastic about the artists that they’ve got and the artists they represent. The galleries which really personally like the work which they show are the ones that have the most interesting exhibitions.

Art education should include coming to terms with actually making work for sale, what connections you need to make, so that artists don’t abandon the work made for love in order to keep up the production of salable work. Professional artists have to be able to keep working; you have to keep the process alive if you want to be able to support yourself. They should have courses, on how to find an agent, how to exhibit in galleries. There’s a lot in art education that’s very romantic and it perpetuates a very romantic view. I think the most successful artists, in terms of life and work, who do it their whole lives, are very practical, down-to-earth people. They really know what work sells, where to sell their work, how much work to make, all of that, where to take it to be seen and sold.

The world that popular, big-name artists inhabit – The Art World per se – is a very sophisticated, very exclusive world. They’re like movie stars. There’s a lot of money involved; people’s careers are made out of these fantastic artists, you know, not just the artists’ careers, but the curators’, the people who run the galleries. There is a whole network. It’s huge. And I think to be ambitious to become part of that, can be time-consuming and takes a certain kind of imagination. These people don’t just paint quietly in their own worlds and then suddenly somebody from the Tate discovers them. They study with particular people; they’re known; they’re identified. Because the work that they do will create a market beyond anything that they, personally, will benefit from, and it will also create whole areas of study. I think it’s a fascinating world, I love reading about it.

It was interesting, recently, when the East London art warehouse went up in flames, how few people seemed saddened by it. I mean you had great reports about the artists themselves naturally being saddened that all their work had been burnt. But I was trying to think about any other kind of art that might’ve been destroyed in such an enormous quantity, and people would have been crying. If it had been a whole warehouse full of nineteenth-century sentimental paintings, people would have been weeping about it. But this work, for some reason, people really find it difficult to love. Some people were glad about it. A lot of that work was quite cynical and that’s part of the problem for people generally.

Also, Art is tied to what is considered to be fashionable. What might be current today, tomorrow, might be completely foreign to people.

For the practicing artist, it’s about being able to understand one’s own response to fashionable issues, trends, whether or not they really resonate. But artists can develop their work as a response to what is fashionable and lose something about their own viewpoint. Artists have to be aware of where they are in relation to these issues.

What happens is I find as I get older it’s just more and more “natural” for me to create art. You’re talking to someone who’s spent a lot of her life doing practical everyday things. The practicalities of bringing up children meant that I often felt as if I had to steal time from that life to work.

Now I’ve come to a time in my life when I have more time to work every day. I can get up in the morning and work can be the first thing I do. If I want to stay up all night painting a picture, I can do that, but I couldn’t do that when my children were younger because it meant that they would suffer. So now it just feels natural, it doesn’t feel like a need to me. It just feels like the natural part of my day.


There were times when to work felt like a need. That urgency was actually very useful because it made me think about ways of working that would fit into my life’s erratic pattern and fragmented time and it made me question certain conventional attitudes towards work. It particularly affected my printmaking because the convention is that you make a plate and then you do an edition of it, or you give it to somebody and they edition it. If you edition a plate, each print in the edition is slightly different, no matter how well you edition it, you’re not a photocopier. I began thinking about how to spend the time working on the uniqueness of each print and how the “accidental” played a positive role in that kind of printmaking. The need to work within fragmented time has made me creative about the process in printmaking itself.

I enjoy being on my own and feel perfectly happy doing what I’m doing. I don’t feel lonely. I don’t feel as if my time is heavy on me. That was something I didn’t know about myself until I got older. I didn’t recognize it was something I needed. When my children were little I used to work after they had gone to sleep, mostly because I enjoyed working as a solitary activity.


I think in terms of my experience of working and Art, what I would call love is absolutely fundamental to why an artist wants to make any work.

If it is necessary to say that an artist needs a reason to be creative, that is the reason to be creative. I don’t mean romantic love. I cannot qualify the kind of love I mean really, but it’s the phenomenon, the state of mind, the state of being that allows one to be blind at the right time, seeing at the right time, brave at the right time, make the right mistakes, do the right things for the wrong reasons. It is the kind of logical illogical way that we have to negotiate and understand each other. It allows us to recognize things about ourselves and one another, and gives meaning to what we do.

I guess I was nineteen when I came here and I’ve been here since then. I kept thinking in the early years, “Oh I’ll go back; I’ll live the rest of my life in America, I don’t need to leave now,” or I was thinking, “No I won’t go back just yet.” Now when I go back, I have friends and family there, but I am a foreigner there, just too much of my life is here. I remember thinking that everything here was the right size for people. I didn’t know then that I needed to live in a place that would be as beautiful as Oxford. It’s physically a beautiful place, the buildings, the rivers, and the greenery. I’m very grateful to live here.

I’m like the endless mother. I have one child (out of a total of five children) who is still at home. He is eleven years old so I still have a ways to go before he is ready to go. My other children are all adults now.

In the future my ambition is to be able to keep painting and doing my own work and keep on doing what I do. I’d like to travel; I haven’t really traveled much in my life. I’d like to go to China. I’d like to go around the world. I’d like to go to Russia. I’d like to see what the world is like. I suppose the fantasy script is that when I’m an old lady, officially, at seventy, if I’m fit enough, I will just take my backpack and do some traveling. Because I would love to see what other artists in other parts of the world are like, ordinary artists. And I think I would like to do that for two or three years.

Everybody can have families, these days, it’s a lot easier for people than it used to be. Certainly for women, it’s easier to have a domestic life and to be an artist. It’s whether or not an artist can support that kind of complicated persona. Barbara Hepworth had twins, three or four children, and during the war she gave them into care. She was terribly upbraided for the fact that she gave her children away, because she was working. During the war, she couldn’t look after her children and do the work that she was going to do. (I think she was married to Ben Nicholson at the time, but I’m not sure.)

She was really excoriated for giving her babies away so that she could make art. People hated her. In a way, you still can read that she’s criticized. But she was working at a particular intensity, with particular things in mind. And I think when you’re working in that way, I think it’s very hard to do that kind of work if you have young, young children, babies. To support the two things is very hard. I think you can do it if you’ve got enough money and enough help, but emotionally, it’s very difficult. Because when you’re working you care a lot about what you’re doing and you’re engaged. You can care as much about what you’re doing as you can about your children. So there can be real conflict.

I feel as if I’m very lucky, I’m so grateful. I have a place to work. I have a family. I live in a nice place. It seems greedy to hope it continues but I do. I don’t care about money or fame. They’re not interesting to me. I think if you love pictures, if you love painting, then you’re going to like the quiet, and you like the kinds of spaces, internally and externally, that give you time to think about things.

Kassandra Isaacson imageKassandra Isaacson image

June 2004