By Joanne Higgins
One of the first questions we ask new people is, ‘What do you do?’ We want to know where to place that person, how they rank in the value system of humanity. Lynette Reed’s answer to that question is as multi-faceted and dynamic as her work. From Design school and modelling in 1980’s New York to global fragrance and candle-making sensation, it wasn’t until Lynette found herself marooned in Northern Italy, during the pandemic, that she finally picked up the paintbrush that had been whispering her name for over 30 years. Instagram went wild and within weeks people were clamouring to buy her paintings. We sat down with Lynette Reed to uncover the secret to her rebirth as a fully fledged visual artist.
What was the artistic or spiritual background of your childhood?
As far as I can remember I had to make things, to express emotions whether that was clay or paint or chalk on the cement, I had to express emotions through doing things with my hands.
So, it was always just there – this desire to create?
Absolutely. My mother is a painter and when I was young, she would be painting. I’ve always been drawn to the arts, and anything visual is just everything, I can’t imagine not being able to see the beauty in the world and being able to do something with that. I think it’s a matter of what you see and what you feel, and being able to express that.
Clearly, you are a very visual person, but you are not only a visual person because you have this sensibility for scent. You have a huge world of fragrance. How do you think fragrance and art collide? How do they impact each other?
It’s interesting because I’ve been trying to think of ways to bring the two together. Fragrance has been a big part of my life. I started illume candles back in 1994 and today I have a huge factory in California and I do the fragrance work for all their brands. I work with a lot of retailers and luxury brands. So, fragrance is a huge part of my life. I haven’t yet found a way to bring the two together, I have some ideas though on how I might do that in the future.
I was wondering if you experience synaesthesia for example when you see a colour does it evoke a particular scent or vice-versa?
When I look at colours, they absolutely have scents. Italy is especially rich in this way – on the street, even if there isn’t much going on, you walk past the bread shop, and the scent – it’s like nowhere else. Colour comes along with that.
You attended Art School in New York [Parson’s School of Design]. The art scene in 1980s New York must’ve been amazing, how has that experience shaped your artistic career?
When I first went to Parson’s, interior design was going to be my major. I was drafting floor plans and things like that. I also took classes in art history, eastern philosophy and Italian, but after two years of that it just hit me that it was wrong for me and I switched to clay. [I was] Down in the basement of Parson’s working with clay and loving it. It was me, it was that thing of getting my hands into the material. I was married to a painter in New York for a few years. It was really a bad experience, he was very abusive, and that’s why I eventually left New York. But he was quite a successful painter so I did spend a lot of time at gallery openings and I remember wanting to paint. We lived in a loft in Tribeca, in the original Tiffany’s building – it was really cool. New York then was an amazing place to be; I was a model then too. But I would go into his studio, and the smell – he painted in oils – I loved the smell. I wanted to paint so bad, but I knew he would only mock me and make fun of me so I didn’t. When I left and went home to California, I went and bought paper and pastels – I was going through a lot emotionally. I was 30 or 31 and I started doing these drawings, they were women with legs but no arms. Their legs were wide open and they had words written all over them. I remember I had a roommate and she came home with friends, one of whom was a psychiatrist and he said to my her, my roommate, “At least she’s working through it.”
And I did and I feel that the art helped me process it and get through it. After that I stopped doing any art and I went into the candle thing. It became big, I had 150 employees at one point. Then I had my children and the business was growing, so it was Covid before I finally picked up a paintbrush again, a very long time.
What was it like picking up a paintbrush again during the pandemic?
When Covid hit Italy I was still going back and forth, spending a month here [in Italy] and a month in California. My boyfriend, now husband, was here, but I had to be careful not to overstay the dates on my visa. I work with Asia through the candle factory so I knew things were happening there. Nothing was happening here and then suddenly, it was here. I remember getting off the plane in Venice and they were taking our temperature. I thought, ‘This is really weird, what’s going on?’ It was like a week later that Italy just closed. It was so scary. I didn’t set a foot outside the apartment for three months. I had two jobs at the time, I had the candle factory and then another client for whom I do all their fragrance. I was so scared I was going to lose my job. So I went on Amazon and ordered paint – I had to do something with my hands. I was following the numbers every day, and they just kept going up and up – I started painting about that. I was just painting, and it really helped. It stopped being about that [the pandemic] and I started watching YouTube videos to learn because I didn’t remember anything from 30 years ago. And then, I remember on Facebook everyone is on because now the UK, the US has shut down and everyone is posting pictures of their banana bread and I just posted one of my paintings. As soon as I did, friends were asking to buy them! I think it was the experience of being with the ‘real’ artist husband who was in soho galleries, museums etc. And he was so condescending to others and had that snooty art-type mind that people can get – I never wanted to be part of that because of him. So when people wanted to buy my art I thought, ‘I’ll just sell them cheap so I can buy more art supplies.’ So, I did that for a year. I think in the first year I sold 75 paintings. Then I heard about the Creative Visionary Program run by Nicholas Wilton its online, 3 months and very intensive but there are artists all over the world on it and I did it and it took me from a place of – sometimes I would do paintings and they would work and I knew they worked but I didn’t know why. I didn’t have the critical eye to know why, I was stumbling around. And I really worked at it – I was painting every day. After I took this program I now know what the problem is, I know what to do when I am stuck, If the problem is in design and composition or contrast. I look at artwork so differently now. I feel like I now know what I’m doing. I’m learning how to get out of my head and to paint from my soul.
Looking at the title image, how do you feel about seeing your work now with fresh eyes?
This one makes me really happy. A lot of times time of year, season has a lot to do with how I feel. To me every single painting represents a moment in time for me. It is a reflection of how I am feeling in that moment when I start that canvas. Who we are is a compilation of all of our moments. Who we are in this present moment has to do with our past. When I start, I have two ways of starting. Sometimes I start with just line using a pencil or a big old chunk of charcoal. Sometimes I start with colour and this one I started with colour and its funny because I did a bunch of paintings using pink around the same time – and I don’t even like pink! I don’t know what happened but, I love these pink paintings. It’ll start with colour and then the first step is what I feel and then the next step is a reaction to what I see.
The reaction is usually a contrast to what’s there, so that could be in colour or in texture or if I’ve put a whole bunch of stuff down, maybe I calm it down. If, for example, the colours are all dark then I’ll put in light. I’ll put in reds or greens – some contrast, or if the canvas is smooth, I’ll put in a bunch of texture. I keep going back and forth until it starts to make sense. At a certain point, when I start to see things in it, I see/feel the sense in it. . . sometimes a story emerges. Individual elements I look at and see what I want to keep, what I want to highlight – which is always the hard part because there is usually so much beautiful stuff but I have to get rid of a lot of it in order for you to see any of it, because it’s just too much and then that’s when I’ll start refining it. My screensaver is this painting.
This painting speaks to me, there is a lot of nature in it.
Yes, there are always natural elements like seeds and buds and hearts. And painting hearts which is so not me, so girly but then they show up and I love them. This one has a heart right there and it works and I love it. People always ask how do I know when a painting is done and what I do is every evening before I leave the studio I’ll take a picture of whatever stage the painting is at and then it really helps me to get out of the studio to see it differently and then I know what I am going to do next. But when I get to the place where I look at it and love it, I know it’s done.
They feel deeply psychological to me. When I look at your work I am ‘peeling back the layers,’ so to speak. This one is very evocative. I love how you have a flower that could be a butterfly – an interspecies element, if you will and the loops of yellow colour that remind me of nerve ganglia, a bundle of nerves. It’s teaming with life.
I wish you could see this one in person, it is so bright and colourful. Sometimes it is hard to be able to see all the layers contained within a painting. This one is sold, it was in my show in Antwerp.
Rick Rubin, legendary music producer, has written in his book, The Creative Act, that all art is a cryptic form of public confession – is this the case for you? I have a sense when I look at your artwork that you are processing things.
Definitely, I am processing emotions. The other week I was having a really bad week – family issues etc. I was upset. During the day I was working on my California job, and I was just mad sitting in the office. I put everything down, grabbed a sketchbook and went into my studio. I was only there for 5 minutes, through some paint on the sketchbook, scribbled ‘fuck, fuck, fuck,’ into it, got it out. I felt better, I went back to working. I took a photograph of it and put it in Instagram stories and all these people wanted to buy it. And I was like, ‘What??!’ It was just sketch book pages and 5 minutes, but they could feel the realness, the emotion, they could feel it all there. And I think that’s the thing, sometimes when I see something and I want to paint a thing a certain way, it feels flat – and I don’t mean flat in the way it looks, but flat in its soul.
You wear many hats – businesswoman, artist, wife, collaborator and mother. How does being a mom play into your art work?
Well, my son is 26 and my daughter 23 and they both have big personalities. As a mom, I feel like I am living multiple lives at the same time. I am very close to both of them, so whatever is happening for them I am carrying that with me. Like the ‘fuck, fuck, fuck,’ thing I did the other day – that was a lot of what was going on for my daughter. Being a mother, I feel like their lives are my lives, we are so intertwined. It makes me a little crazy sometimes, so it can be a lot.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists, regardless of age?
The best advice I can give is to paint as often as you can, or whatever your chosen artform is. Keep doing it. I never intended that this would become my career, I just thought it would help me through Covid. The more you do it the more you discover and the better you become. You have to keep at and look at other artwork and talk to other artists. I have a huge network of other artist friends and to be able to talk to them and look at what they are working on. If I am not doing it myself, I am looking at somebody else’s. Just immerse yourself and keep coming.
An exhibition of Lynette’s work will be running at UnFair Milano March 3-5 and as part of a group show at YAH Factory Milano www.youngarthunters.com which runs through May. Artist Meet & Greet on the evening of Saturday May 13.
With huge thanks to Lynette Reed @i_am_lynette and @lynette_reed_art and @illumecandles