Conversation with Marie Thiebault

Published in Figure/Ground

Interview by Suzanne Unrein

Marie Thibeault’s large-scale oil paintings address the tension of urban landscape and the natural world. The imagery is informed by the immediate experience of living near the expansive industrial Port of Los Angeles. While referencing the surrounding landscape with atmospheric color fields, the work contrasts industrial structures with organic forms to suggest the ideas of flux, change and instability in our environment.

Her work has recently been featured in exhibitions such as The Feminine Sublime at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and Color Vision, at the Huntington Beach Art Center. Recent solo exhibitions include Conveyance, at the Long Beach Museum of Art, Illuminations at Von Fraunberg Gallery in Dusseldorf, Neon Babylon, at Elena Shchukina Gallery in London, Engineering at George Lawson Gallery in  San Francisco, and Broken Symmetries, Torrance Art Museum in  Torrance, CA. She has recently completed residencies at L’AIR Arts, Paris France, the Two Coats of Paint residency  in New York, and the US Thai Exchange Program at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Her work has been reviewed in several publications, including Artillery Magazine, the Los Angeles TimesL.A. Weekly, and Art in America.

Thibeault received her BFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from UC Berkeley. She is currently a Professor of Art at California State University Long Beach where she teaches painting and color theory.


Photo credit: Cynthia Lujan

When did you know you were an artist?

It happened early for me.  I grew up in Baltic, Connecticut, and in eighth grade I started to realize I wanted to paint.  As kids we would explore around town and one day we came across this building, an old train station that had burnt down.  In it was a room that an artist had made into his painting studio.  I went in and smelled the paint and saw his paintings and it was an epiphany.  The whole thing was an overwhelming vision.

Had you painted anything before that time?

Some watercolor and drawings.  I think I started painting with oil in high school.

What were you painting?

Landscapes.  I’ve always done landscapes.

Do you know why the landscape was speaking to you more than other genres?

It came from living and being immersed in my surroundings and living near the Slater Museum that had a collection of New England landscape paintings.  Amazing traditional American paintings.  And I also fell in love with Cezanne.  The art teachers at my high school would show us Cezanne and Giacometti.  I learned to draw like Giacometti and paint like Cezanne.  With Cezanne’s planes.  I still kind of do that.

Amazing you had that early on.

Yes, my destiny was clear from the beginning.  The way my life suffered was the lack of ability to do anything else.  Where I went to high school you could major in art and then I went to college at the Rhode Island School of Design.  I did not know about history or finances or any of the other subjects.

Did you continue with landscape at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)?

Yes and no, I had to go through the foundation program and start all over.  I had already had that in high school but I took 2-D design, 3-D design, enormous amounts of figure drawing.  My sophomore year I was in a residency at the Delaware Water Gap.  It was a really seminal time because I was painting plein air in the woods by myself.  I would find these abandoned shacks and sit there and listen to the rain.  It was really a deep experience.

Was it a spiritual experience for you?

Yes.  I felt one with it.  And that’s a very American tradition.  Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, pantheism, the transcendentalists.

You were inspired by Cezanne early on.  Were there any landscape painters you were thinking about in college?

I was really trained to paint abstractly.  Two different things were pulling at me at that point.

The Pattern and Decoration movement was big then, and the other was my teacher, Lorna Ritz a student of Hans Hoffmann.  Lorna would teach us about push and pull, no dead spots – formal concerns.  She was very spirited.  I pattern my own teaching after her.  That’s when I decided to be a teacher because I wanted to pass that along.  I planned on being an education major and that same year they dropped education as a major.  It was a life saver because I was thinking I was going to be a high school art teacher but instead became a painting major, and eventually got my masters.  MA and MFA both in painting.  MFA is where I studied with Elmor Bischoff and Joan Brown.  That’s where the atmosphere and expressionistic aspect came in. Not from direct teaching but looking at the art.


Oracle, 48″ x 46″

Do you remember anything that Bischoff or Brown said that was a real eye opener?

Well, Bischoff was our graduate teacher.  He was in a jazz band, drove a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket.  We all went to his studio which was a real garret. When he first knew who I was he said “Oh, you are Marie Thibeault. You paint disasters.  Well so do I.  But mine are happy disasters.”  He made figurative work and then abstractions.  The painters then were looking at Krazy Kat and other comic strips and the marks they were using were bringing humor into painting.  It was the late 70s and humor in painting was big then in the Bay area.  Bischoff said “Everyone loved my figurate paintings of the lone person among the romantic sky and they wanted to know why I wasn’t still making those paintings.  I told them because it’s like going to church.  And I’m sick of it.  I just want to go to the gym and workout and have fun.”  I always think of that, if you aren’t really having fun then it’s too reverent, too pious.

And I wonder if you’re just boring yourself.

Yes, exactly.

So when did you start painting disasters?

That started with these painting from RISD which were patterned.  I started looking at landscape and then Wayne Thiebaud. In his aerial views you can see the patterned landscape from a distance, mapping.  I was really into that.  I did these trees with patterns and natural landscapes with ruptures.  I was looking at George Inness too.  Then in 1979 I moved to San Francisco where a lot of turbulence was going on.  Looking at their newspapers was very different than on the East Coast because they published everything – a plane crash, a nuclear disaster, Three Mile Island – and everything had a picture.  I wasn’t used to that so I started drawing from those photographs. For my MA I set about making one large scale drawing each day.  If I found a disaster, I would make a big drawing of it.  With charcoal and ink.  Pretty realistic.  For two years.

Why do you think you were drawn to disasters?

I think it’s about rupture and it’s about life.  You try to make a pattern, you try to make things consistent but there’s always rupture and breakage.  I almost died when I was twenty-one.  The scarred landscape became a metaphor for my body at a very deep level.  Consciously, I didn’t know that but now I do.  I think it’s a deep structure that happened from a profound experience.

Your paintings feel that way to me.  That they are working on a personal and environmental level.

Yeah, I started seeing this in landscape painting.  These spots that are like tombs or windows into something else.  Inness had it and Van Gogh.

Do you think they were aware of that too?

Inness, yes.  Maybe Van Gogh.  Corot too.  Portals where you go to the other side.  The idea that the portal portrays the human.  That you can’t really portray nature without portraying the human.

Do you think that’s true?

No, I don’t, but it does form some need I have to have a mirror in my work.  A mirror for the body or psyche.

I was thinking about your paintings that deal with Hurricane Katrina and Sandy.  They have an added power to them because you capture the objects that once belonged to humans.  The viewer can’t help but think about the humans and their experience.  Was that one of the reasons you were interested in those disasters as subject matter?

I was interested in the epic flood theme.  It affected me on so many levels.  With Katrina there are portals. There’s a lot of pool shapes which is also a key hole and a guitar in painting.  But it’s also the feminine to me. Now I’m interested in bird forms.  They are negative spaces.  I put a stencil down and paint over it.  The removal of it is the absence of the species.  It’s an empty spot.  To me that’s also what’s going on. Now instead of honoring the human experience, I’m more interested in honoring the situation that the other species are having to cope with.

The birds also remind me of bird strikes and the disasters that occur when birds fly into glass buildings.

Right. I’m concerned with migratory paths.  There’s a beautiful movie, Messenger, about song birds and their migratory paths.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.  About how the building and light pollution is changing.  And cell towers are not having a good time.  There’s an interruption there.  There’s also loads of communication going on in the world that we don’t have an appreciation for so I was putting those images together.  Like Siren from my show at the Long Beach Museum of Art.  It has three cell towers and the birds are trying to navigate. The cell towers are how we are communicating, invisible lines of communication.  And the birds are the pre-technology communication and the interruption of the paths.


Siren, 78” x 116”

I wonder if the birds are affected by the microwaves of the cell tower.  Do you know if they are?

I think, yes, in some cases.  I started researching it.  I think as a visual symbol, the hubris of these cell towers is popping up in the landscape everywhere.  That we can’t leave anything without being touched is very tragic.  The black painting in the show, Oracle, is like a Geodesic dome.  A black web.  The Geodesic dome is a utopian structure, the highest thing we can do, optimism.  But it’s a faltering one as it doesn’t hold together.  It’s also a bird cage and the birds are stuck in there and can’t fly out.  It’s about constructing a symbolic relationship between us and nature.

Are your paintings commenting on what is happening, or trying to find a futuristic solution?

I get that question a lot.  It’s very interesting.  I think it’s about witnessing the moment, but I want the paintings to be at the moment of change.  When it could go either way.  They aren’t dystopian or utopian. They’re a hybrid mutation.  It’s about co-existing – a little humorous, a little dark, a little strange.  That’s what I’m going for.

Is that how you see the world?  Is that a kinetic experience for you?

Oh yeah.  But it’s also an ecstatic energy.  Like High Tide.  The water coming over the flood wall with the birds flying through it.  There’s also a reflective plane acting as a mirror for what is happening behind you.  I’m thinking less about how we are affected by the environment and more about how we are affecting it.


High Tide, 48″ x 46″

What’s next?

I’m interested in the ocean.  In the tide pools.  But I think I’m going to concentrate on migratory patterns first.  And the geodesic dome form.   A lot of the things I explore in the drawings I may play with.  I’m experimenting with the idea of smaller forms among bigger shapes.

Where is that coming from?

Thinking of the intimacy among the grandeur and complexity of nature.  What I want the paintings to convey.  I think they have the resolved, big impact – an aesthetic arrest – but when you come up close and you don’t have the intimacy.  I’m trying to figure out how to do that like the drawings because they are more clear.  The paintings have so much more going on.  Most people don’t want to deal with that in painting anymore.  The drawings are a collage of many drawings.  Bigger moves and smaller, refined moves. I think that’s coming from the collage process more than the drawing process.  I can draw and paint similarly, but the big chunks and separations come with collage.


Drawing wall, Long Beach Museum of Art, 2019

Have you tried to reproduce your collaged drawings as paintings?

I’d be bored in thirty seconds.  I’m not a technician. Some people love that methodology, but for me there’s no excitement.

Why are you drawn to abstraction?

The process and my history of painting.  I think it would be great if I were just starting to paint now.  I’d like to rethink it.  I don’t want to keep doing this same process, but I fall into it.  I want to experiment more than I have in the past.  Maybe switching materials or experimenting with collage.  In the past my motivation was to make the best epic painting ever.  My motivation isn’t that anymore.

As we mature we change our thinking about painting.

Yes, what we value.  I also want to shrink it down.  Making big paintings doesn’t seem as interesting anymore.

Is there anything you’ve lost along the way that you would like to put back in the paintings?

Yeah, I’m looking again for the hook.  What I can believe in and that the audience can believe in.  The question of drawing and representation.  I don’t want to do it because I love abstraction, but perhaps it might be necessary.  So I’m trying to figure that out.


Conveyance #1, 20” x 17″

Do you think people’s interest in representation or abstraction is how they see the world?

Yeah, and I know abstraction fairly well.  I know about  analyzing painting and the vocabulary of formalism.  I’m really a formalist.  But I also like what doesn’t make sense.  I want more of that. More enchantment.  More intrigue.  I’m trying to figure out where the payoff is in the experience.  The general vs specific.  They happen on a different plane.  The drawings have started to do that, and I have to figure out how to get the paintings to do that.

Your paintings are more integrated than your drawings.

Yes, I agree.  And I think that’s problematic.  That they are too integrates perhaps.

Do you think it’s your skill that is hindering you from what you are trying to do?

I think so.  It’s the chess moves.  I know how to do this.  But why?

In all these forty-something years of painting is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now. Not technically but philosophically?

When I was young I tried to become strong in myself and that took a really long time.  To be independent and to learn to be alone.  To cultivate the discipline.  That’s where I was focused and maybe now I have that too much.  I wish when I was younger I had been more open, been able to travel more, taken more risks.

Risks in life?

Yes, variety in experiences.  I was shut in my studio for years.  Building the skills and discipline to keep me going.  I understand the painting process really well and it continues to interest me, but I also wish I had experienced life more.  I wish I had let more of it in.  The life experiences are more lasting, although I still believe in painting even though it doesn’t make sense.

Do you ever wonder why painters become painters?  They aren’t just artists they are specifically painters.

I think it’s how you identify.  It’s a calling to be an artist but specifically to be a painter.  I think it has to do with the limitation of the means and the vastness of the possibilities.  I really love the potential of pictorial space.  A distinct meditative object in the world.  A portal that can transport and be mysterious.

I read somewhere that painters are more inspired by painting than the real world.  Do you think that’s true?

Yeah, I would say so.  Painting is so nuanced and so complex.  It’s infinite.  You paint to the future and the past and the present.  There are sensibilities that run through.  You look at Michelangelo and Jim Dine and there are through lines.  The seminal paintings that inspired me when I was younger still inspire me.  A Monet painting of a big tree still floors me every time I see it.  Certain Cezannes, some Bonnards.  Some images that are burned into your brain carry you through life.

Do you ever think it could happen in the reverse?  If Cezanne came back and saw your paintings that he could see that through line?

I think so!  He’d have to decode it, but yeah.  I think he would be interested in painting today.  I wish more people could read abstraction today.

Why do you think they can’t?

Well when I come to New York it’s different.  There’s more abstraction.  But I think because we are in the information age everything is more literal.  People want stories.  Especially on the west coast.  My theory is because on the west coast we are aware of Hollywood and everyone responds to   story.  So the question is how can you make that accessible without diminishing the power of your work?

How can you?

Some painters do it.  There’s some German painters.  Maybe Per Kirkeby and Albert Oehlen.  Many contemporary painters such as Amy Sillman, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder have been inspiring in this way.

Do you think about the future in terms of painting?

I like that innovation happens simultaneously all over the world.  People are evolving together both stylistically and conceptually.

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