Q&A with Theresa Henson

This week I had the pleasure to meet and have an interview with Theresa Henson!

Theresa’s Interview

M: What do you think will change in terms of applying your relationship with nature and your work after the pandemic? Obviously, no one knows what the future holds, what thoughts have crossed your mind? i.e. Have you seen some of the pollution data since the pandemic hit? Is the current state of our society fueling that frustration with bloated capitalism and the effects it subsequently has on nature/Earth?

T: One thing I have noticed about the pandemic is how reassured people have been around the arrival of spring. With most of the structures of our lives altered, it felt like the shifting of the seasons was even more of a grounding place of normalcy. Despite the human affect on the environment, some things have not changed — and I am interested in these really elemental things, like: water is still wet, the sun affects the color and behavior of things, tension, weight, impact, the general experience of objects and life cycles, etc. I see the pandemic has human-created disarray with nature rebalancing herself. I feel grief at individual loss and societal disorder but also a strange reassurance of a sort of great rebalancing. I do think about the role art plays in a healthier, more just economy. Would the decline of a bloated capitalistic society affect the commerce of art? It would no doubt be healthier for human expression and community, in general.

M: What are your thoughts about marrying that connection between a community in crisis and a climate crisis? 

T: We are definitely learning about our capacity to make changes whether its convenient or not…which has always seemed like the impediment to more sustainable living for people. We’re still learning to make those connections: a healthy environment means my self and home are healthy. A healthy community includes me as a healthy member. We are never outside or above either of these realms. Our capitalistic, racist, environmentally-damaging constructs have started out with dualistic thinking that leads to exploitation of the other.


M: What is the choice for utilizing wood in your sculptures?

T: I love the specific resistance of wood…it is harder than paint and softer than stone. I like the pace at which I can manipulate it…which is a bit labor intensive but just enough for me. I think it’s the physicality of sculpture that I love. The body creating another body. There is also collaboration…the wood has its own grain, movement, color that I enjoy exploring in my pieces.


M: How do you receive your wood? What methods/resources do you use to gather the material?When you say you want to incorporate mixed media, what mediums are you thinking about? I see some sculptures have gold, is that gold leaf or gold paint? Is this the start of your experiments with mixed media?

T: My wood has come from a variety of places: friends who are tree trimmers (I have had several of these, synchronously), neighbors’ yard projects, second use stores, and most recently end pieces from wood lots. I also like mixed media with materials one finds in the hardware store. I explored this quite a bit years ago and am looking to bring more of mixed media back to my sculptures. The gold has come from an interest in metaphysical contrasts — and that’s more recent. I am using a gold paint I like (it’s hard to find a good gold paint!) and metallic gold leaf. Someday I might spring for actual gold leaf but no need to yet.


M: What is your favorite thing to do to gather inspiration for your work?

T: I daydream, go for walks, look at things…I also try to take good care of myself and get lots of rest so I will have lots of physical energy. I love looking at art and learning about other artists. I don’t necessarily get ideas there but I love the companion swell of creative energy and intellectual/aesthetic exploration. It’s a way to be in community. 

My Interview

T: How does your relationship with control, the letting go in your life, emerge as a painter of hyperrealism — which requires precision?

M: It is the other way around for me, I was working to achieve hyperrealism when I had to grasp onto some sort of control in my life. Now that I have let go, I do not care to make that precision/accuracy anymore. The precision in my current work is due to my past technical training. That part of my mark making has become a second nature when it comes to a human figure. When I paint or draw, I do not try to make the figure perfect or even achieve a level of detail that outlines every aspect of their face/body. Now I focus on abstracting and distorting the figure rather than giving the viewer every detail. Unfortunately, pictures of my work can only show you so much. If you see my paintings in person, you will see that my marks are blobs on a canvas that make up the whole. Same with my drawings, you will notice a lot of it is just line work rather than detail work. I plan to stay away from hyperrealism, it was stressful for my personality. I prefer to work quick and move on, trying to outline every detail down to a pore is labor intensive and frustrating. I used to spend days-weeks on one piece, now I spend a max of 10 hours total on one painting, drawings get a max of 5 hours total. The larger I go the longer my current work will take. However, it will be easier for me because I can apply giant blobs to make up the figure.


T: In the work on your husband, you mention an attention to emotional accuracy and a caution around exploiting the emotional subject. Can you explain a bit more about where the line of exploitation might be for you as the painter?

M: I walk a fine line when talking about others experiences since they are not my own. I am comfortable using Bryan because I know him better than he knows himself. However, I don’t want to reveal too much about his psyche and experiences because he projects differently to everyone else. To use someone else in my work as the emotional topic, I exercise care in getting to know them and what they are comfortable with sharing. I consider it exploitation when I reveal what they aren’t ready to reveal. That line of exploitation is it at the point of what they feel comfortable displaying emotionally. I have the person check throughout my process to ensure I won’t expose something that they aren’t ready to confront. This ties in with my psychological background. There are many moments when I’m talking to people about their lives where I crack open a new unexplored door just by listening to them. This goes the same with my work, I must be cautious of what I explore in a piece in the event I display something they aren’t ready to talk about.


T: How has your work changed in response to your deepening knowledge of psychology?

M: The knowledge of psychology was first before my current work. I didn’t start to make anything until after I broke free of that control I was holding onto. The work prior was to hold onto something I loved, art. I think my work has changed due to the deepening of my life experiences and my understanding/education of psychology. Ever since I was little, I asked the “whys,” around human behavior. I was more interested in why we do what we do and how we do it. Once I got my first taste of psychology, around 13 I believe, I used as much of it as I could to explain my behaviors and the behavior of the people around me. This hasn’t stopped, the learning continues/evolves as situations appear before me. A lot of my knowledge has come from analyzing my own experiences (trust me, there are plenty of them, a whole colorful rainbow of them). The more I encounter my own crazy life, the more I understand. The best way to describe this response to my work is when you tell a newly 20-year-old that they something switches when you hit 25 and you just are different. The world is seen differently, your actions are different. The same goes for the further you get in age, the more you experience, the more you learn, the more you can apply what you learned to life. The change in response to the approach in my work came from an event that opened my eyes to being truly happy in life. I then take what I have learned from my experiences, with the understanding of psychology and apply it to my work. You can’t tell by my work, but I’m in the happiest stage of my life…so far. I haven’t experienced that severe depression I currently paint about in a LONG time. That is from my education and training in psychology coming through, I can always remember and express emotions whether it is for me or someone else. Because of my psychology background, I can apply a deeper meaning into my work.


T: As you paint subjects in various emotional states, is there something you are trying to learn about that state? Or help the rest of us learn?

M: Usually when I paint a subject in a state, I want to understand what they are going through. Either through a means of discussion, or as my family would call it, a free psychology session. I find that I need to be knowledgeable about the emotional state first to effectively portray the state. However, that doesn’t mean I do not learn from the experience or the process of painting the subject. I do not necessarily want to educate the viewer. With an understanding of the emotional state I can keep it vague enough for a viewer to see and apply what they want to apply to the painting. I think of my work as emotional windows that someone can either look at or ignore. I mainly want to achieve a connection of some sort rather than telling the viewer what they should/shouldn’t feel or should/shouldn’t know. There are times where I think of projects that highlight a specific struggle, but when I start painting, I still want to keep the highlighted emotion open enough to invite others into the world.


T: You seem to invite your subjects to also “let go” into whatever emotional state they might be in…do you have a specific way to do this?

M: Hmmm, I take this both ways personally and in regards to the viewer.

For me, years of therapy haha!

I have my own coping mechanisms in place to help me let go. I have a very mellow “that’s life,” outlook on everything. My mindset is what really drives me to let go. However, I’m not perfect and I slip, so I have other coping mechanisms.

As for the viewer, I don’t see myself as having a method for inviting them to let go. If it works, great! If it doesn’t…oh well, try again next time? From my understanding, when someone shares an emotional experience, it makes others want to share as well (granted that they are not a psychopath). I guess the act of sharing would be a means of allowing the viewer to let go because they feel more comfortable in that space at that time.

My Studio

When thinking about my studio practice, I realized I do not give it much thought, I just do. While observing myself, I noticed that I cannot work in the evening and the time must be scheduled. Mornings are my time to get to work, additionally, I require a setup that is optimal for my inspiration. If I start late, on a different scheduled day, no music, and in a different environment, my ability/desire to interact with my work diminishes. The regular studio time that I have thrives off the chaotic nature of the room. I thrive off this chaos because it allows me to let go from my personal cleaning/organization rituals of my own household. The act of letting go (of which you should know about already) is integral to my practice. In my house I have a minimalist approach, not too much clutter, anything you need you can see, and I celebrate open space. In my studio, which is within my house, I celebrate not caring. This space is my space to do whatever without worrying about how it looks, art, statues, figures, toys, collections, posters, paper, supplies, clothes…etc are thrown all over the space.

Once I enter my sanctuary (a.k.a. my studio), I have a sense of relief…if I entered at the right time/day. The perfect formula to fuel my creative flow always starts with my “Mina Recharged,” playlist. It is a compilation of music that will surge my energy to start working. This playlist can only be played when setting up, mixing paint, and stretching canvases. Once I feel complete in my setup, I switch playlists to “Arts Farts,” and begin painting. “Arts Farts,” is another compilation of music I put together that keeps me focused and in the mode of the type of work I intend to create. The main playlist for getting down/dirty with my work depends on topic I want to portray in my work. I create these playlists ahead of time and modify as I go along.

Currently, I am bouncing between my studio and the living room/kitchen area. I am working on two pieces that are about 50-60 inches all around. I’m bouncing between the two areas in order to take a step back and look at the piece as a whole. My studio has only so much room for me to navigate these large works in terms of taking a step back and assessing for quality. The piece that is capturing my focus is a watercolor of my husband (Bryan). I had inspiration for this piece while listening to “What Makes a Man a Man,” by Emery. Water intrigues me as a facet of emotions. I had the idea of a person drowning in the waves of emotions that life can bring while listening to the song. I want to depict someone drowning in reverse while strengthening my approach to transparent layers in painting. As a part of my practice, I do not do traditional research when considering an emotional piece. The research I take part in is the music, in this case, songs that my husband finds appealing to his emotional status at some point in time. When using myself as the subject it is easy to call to my own feelings, worth, and expressions. Since I am using Bryan as a subject, I call to him to stare and look at what I’m making, while I’m making it. This is to ensure his emotional status is conveyed correctly without exploiting his vulnerable side.

The secondary piece is also Bryan and the flat-lined emotional status he has maintained while growing up. I have this one on the back burner because it requires a great deal of time towards executing transparent layers via oil paint. I want to start off with something that is easier to grasp in terms of transparent layers, then move on to a higher difficulty. This piece will also exercise caution regarding exploitation of Bryan’s vulnerable side. I’m going to need more of his time on this second piece versus the first one to ensure I do not overstep my boundaries.

What Do I Do?

This is a good question to ask…well, put simply, I am a painter, in broad terms I create. However, this answer can be and is more complex than a general title.

To begin this complex answer, I describe what I do by one phrase, I let go. You are probably thinking, “What is this Frozen [insert-expletive-here]?!”  Well, dear patron reading this, who I am and how I got to this place in life, is significant to my practice. I come to the art world with an extremely analytical background where everything is based on hard facts. I went that route first because of my inability to let go. For years I struggled with having 100% control over my decisions, events, and life in general. I pursued a path that was wished upon by my immigrant family, being a doctor…the Psychology part of it gave them a heart attack. That decision was the beginning of an extensive road to letting go of control.

It’s important to note that traditional European families have very strong attributes or authoritarian control. Not that this was bad, it pushed me into art and I landed here. What I used to “do,” was aspire towards control by making hyper realistic work while continuing education towards being a doctor. I would lie to myself and say I was enjoying that part of “creation.” Every stroke was controlled, and I would be miserable sometimes because it wasn’t “perfect.” I did this for years not knowing it reflected my mental status. I struggled with the constant damages to my work (way more than most have experienced), I feared ruining a piece by one stroke, and I was smothered by my ability to emotionally control my anxiety/depression.

Even though I finished that education and started treading towards the path of being a doctor, I never let go of “art making.” I held on with a 3-year stint of absolutely no work made, not even a sketch. At some point, something must give, that something was me. I succumbed to the slowly swallowing nature of depression/anxiety…I let go


NOW I am referencing “Let It Go,” by India Menzel.


I let go of that control I held onto for my whole life…Then I really started creating. I let go by purposely damaging my surfaces, I let go by welcoming constant change within a piece, and I let go of the weight I carried through these years. Upon letting go of control, I forged a new path that marries my analytical side and the creative side I suppressed for so many years. I don’t see my choice to become a Neurodevelopmental Psychologist as a detriment to my current/future path. With that exposure I can come into my own and…well…let go. The act of letting go is what I do and it’s something I will carry into my future work. By me letting go, I can help others let go.

Now with everything going on, I feel it’s more important than ever to get in-touch with our mental wellness. The veil has been pulled back and so many people are finding themselves alone or realizing how much their mental wellness was ignored unintentionally. For others, this is the first traumatizing stressful event in their life. I feel now is time for the work I’m trying to do with others. Now more than ever are we shining a spotlight on the mental wellness of each other. Not to mention how poorly equipped we are in general to tackle mental health and wellness. No, I’m not talking about reiki and yoga, I’m talking about true wellness where you overcome/deal with your struggles, fears, and smothering feelings.

With the pandemic I find that my practice hasn’t been interrupted…other than buying supplies and my own physical limitations….thanks tiny human inside of me…I find that the practice I have of letting go and wanting to facilitate connections with each other is stronger than ever. Prior, this voice I have was so small it was hard to pass through all the “fun,” that I see people enjoying in social platforms. People are becoming more connected with the status of their mental wellbeing. Now that a larger portion of society is sounding alarm bells and craving that honest connection, I can truly start developing traction with helping others. Sure, some of my practice will change to finally incorporate social platforms, but it will only be an adaptation to what I do currently, Let Go.


Retreating to my cave now…


TED Talk Display

On March 25th, 2019, I will be displaying my art at TED x ASU from 5:00PM-10:00pm. This is a pop up show and I am excited to be a part of it. More details can be found here.