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Paula Cahill

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I create linear abstract oil paintings that are often comprised of a single, luminous line that meanders, changes color, and seamlessly connects back to itself. As I prepare to paint, I mix up to 100 gradients of color derived from my memories of scuba diving among tropical fish on the world’s coral reefs. By repeatedly laying down the colorful gradients one brushstroke at a time, I create radiant, light-filled lines that change color hundreds of times, reflecting a quality reminiscent of the bioluminescence that emanates from sea-life. My work is interactive, inviting the viewer to track a meandering, color-changing path. 

It’s ok with me if someone takes in the paintings quickly and interprets each one as a bunch of lines in a variety of colors, but for others who prefer to linger, there is more to see. I know the viewer gets it when I see their necks shift from left to right and their heads bob up and down as they follow the ever-changing line. Once someone realizes they’re looking at a single line, the paintings become a source of contemplation or an experience akin to playing a game. Can you imagine sitting back after dinner and asking your guests how many lines they see in your new painting? Better yet, where does the line begin or end? At this point, I often see the viewer’s eyes twinkle, and they want to know more. Where do the colors come from, and how do I make the paintings? How do I come up with line formations? What did I draw as a child? 

I glean ideas and lines from my favorite experiences, memories, and research. Memories of coral reefs and tropical fish, museum visits, linguistics, art history, and geometry are my favorite sources. I start by making small, quick drawings. Nefertiti, Cleopatra, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, marine organisms, geometry, shorts, and even a pile of octopuses have been among the catalysts for my drawings and paintings. I have made thousands of these quick little drawings. I arrange them on a wall in my studio, and eventually, I am drawn to certain ones that are developed into larger paintings. My paintings range in size from five by seven inches to six by eight feet. For the large-scale works, I use rolls of craft paper to work out the compositions in a larger format before I proceed to the painting. 

I usually have six to twelve paintings in progress at the same time. I begin by rolling a thin layer of blue paint onto a canvas or wooden panel. Next, I set the linear composition by removing paint to leave a trail of white surface that indicates a formation and placement for the line. At this point, I am still working very freely and quickly. I often revise the line several times, sometimes completely wiping the surface clean and starting over. 

Once I am satisfied and relatively certain that I have a general idea of where the painting is going, I can move on to mixing colors. Since I use eighty to one hundred closely mixed gradients for each painting, I devote at least a half day to color mixing before I begin. At this point, I’m excited to begin applying each gradient one brush stroke at a time. This is what allows the eye to move seamlessly from color to color as the line is tracked visually. 

I want the colors to pop, and I strive to follow little rules that I make up for myself and the line. I’m always watching where the color is going so that adjacent and intersecting lines are made of different hues. I usually want the lines to weave over and under each other alternately. I also give the lines pardons, such as allowing them to skip gradients at angles and abrupt turns.  

After the gradients are applied, the line either travels off the page or connects back to itself seamlessly. Not even I can discern where it began or ended. Once everything seems just right, I look over every weft and square inch of the painting before I make final adjustments and set it aside to dry. Finally, the surface of the painting is varnished, and I sign it on the back. The process is lengthy, usually requiring six to nine weeks for large-scale and intensely lined pieces. 

“Wall Diving” oil on linen, 16 × 20 inches, 2021 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

 

People are surprised when they learn that I was not always an abstract painter, and there was a time when I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even draw or paint as a child. With two young parents who worked and struggled to make ends meet, there was little time or money for art supplies and lessons. My occasional experiences with coloring books, resulting in colors outside of the lines, lead me to believe that I was not good at art. Instead, I focused on my schoolwork and water sports.

“Night Diving” Oil on Panel, 16 × 20 inches, 2019  References the movement and scale changes observed while diving Photo Credit: Karen Mauch  

I grew up in the Great Lakes region, where I spent my summers swimming and fishing. School was important to me, with French, geometry, and cursive writing my favorite subjects. Eventually, I joined my high school’s Varsity and synchronized swim teams. My first jobs during high school were as a lifeguard and a swim instructor. Given my comfort in and enchantment with water, it was only natural for me to save my money and put it toward scuba certification. I spent a fair amount of my spare time underwater, and scuba diving took me to faraway places like Aruba, Moorea, and Bonaire, where I could dive on colorful reefs and swim with tropical fish. I didn’t know it, but my childhood and young adult experiences would figure prominently in my future career as an artist.  

During my undergraduate years at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture and Parsons School of Design, I studied figure painting and realism. After graduation, I pursued an MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where I fully intended to continue my study of the human figure. I was surprised when a professor suggested that I paint a fish to learn how to depict human flesh more skillfully. Other professors also suggested painting fish. Each week, I bought a whole fish at our local seafood market and painted a still-life or self-portrait with the fish. In between painting sessions, I wrapped the fish up and kept it in our refrigerator. When my family began to complain about the fish, I decided to buy an aquarium and paint live fish. It wasn’t long until I became more interested in the way the fish were moving than the fish themselves. I began to record their movements with line. My fascination with the fish’s movements coalesced with a growing interest in abstraction. Soon, surrounded by little pieces of paper with lines that were recordings of fish activities as my muse, I created my first abstract paintings, which were exhibited in my class’s graduate thesis exhibition. 

“Inquiry” oil on canvas, 60 × 84 inches, 2018 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

After graduation, I continued to make the linear abstract paintings for a while, but being a new abstract painter was like being a kid in a candy store for me, and I wanted to experiment with many different types of abstraction. That is exactly what I did for about six years. When I decided to get serious about exhibiting my paintings in 2017, I consulted with friends and a gallerist who seemed to concur that I was an art dealer’s nightmare. “You’re all over the place. You’ve got to settle down and try one thing for six months,” one of them advised. That’s when I returned to the lines and decided to infuse them with colors derived from my memories of coral reefs and tropical fish.

Soon after, I debuted the new blue paintings with multi-hued lines in two solo exhibitions. The paintings were received favorably, and since then, the paintings have been acquired for private and public collections throughout the United States. They have also been exhibited in group shows in California and the Northeast. Some of the paintings have helped to raise money for philanthropic causes, and I was able to hold a sale to help fund local food pantries at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m also very fond of the time I have spent with elementary students, college students, and teachers to help them move their own artistic practices forward. 

“One-liner” oil on canvas, 36 × 36 inches, 2020 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

My first dives were filled with color that emanated from the live coral and marine life that I observed at 30 to 130 feet below sea level. When I visited Tahiti, I noticed that the coral was white. I asked the dive master why, and he explained that the coral was bleached white when France tested their atomic bombs in French Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. I felt a deep sadness and a sickness in my stomach. The coral reef, which took thousands of years to grow, was dead.

It has been estimated that over 50 percent of the world’s reefs are severely damaged and bleached due to pollution, litter, over-fishing, and climate change. Reefs serve a greater purpose than entertainment for divers. By providing habitat and food for small organisms, they are crucial to the survival of our ecosystem. Finally, I hope the story of my lines will alert people about the state of our reefs and encourage others to take small and large steps every day to protect the environment.

“Cartouche 2020” oil on canvas, 48 × 48 inches, 2021 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”—Andy Warhol

 

I create linear abstract oil paintings that are often comprised of a single, luminous line that meanders, changes color, and seamlessly connects back to itself. As I prepare to paint, I mix up to 100 gradients of color derived from my memories of scuba diving among tropical fish on the world’s coral reefs. By repeatedly laying down the colorful gradients one brushstroke at a time, I create radiant, light-filled lines that change color hundreds of times, reflecting a quality reminiscent of the bioluminescence that emanates from sea-life. My work is interactive, inviting the viewer to track a meandering, color-changing path. 

It’s ok with me if someone takes in the paintings quickly and interprets each one as a bunch of lines in a variety of colors, but for others who prefer to linger, there is more to see. I know the viewer gets it when I see their necks shift from left to right and their heads bob up and down as they follow the ever-changing line. Once someone realizes they’re looking at a single line, the paintings become a source of contemplation or an experience akin to playing a game. Can you imagine sitting back after dinner and asking your guests how many lines they see in your new painting? Better yet, where does the line begin or end? At this point, I often see the viewer’s eyes twinkle, and they want to know more. Where do the colors come from, and how do I make the paintings? How do I come up with line formations? What did I draw as a child? 

I glean ideas and lines from my favorite experiences, memories, and research. Memories of coral reefs and tropical fish, museum visits, linguistics, art history, and geometry are my favorite sources. I start by making small, quick drawings. Nefertiti, Cleopatra, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, marine organisms, geometry, shorts, and even a pile of octopuses have been among the catalysts for my drawings and paintings. I have made thousands of these quick little drawings. I arrange them on a wall in my studio, and eventually, I am drawn to certain ones that are developed into larger paintings. My paintings range in size from five by seven inches to six by eight feet. For the large-scale works, I use rolls of craft paper to work out the compositions in a larger format before I proceed to the painting. 

I usually have six to twelve paintings in progress at the same time. I begin by rolling a thin layer of blue paint onto a canvas or wooden panel. Next, I set the linear composition by removing paint to leave a trail of white surface that indicates a formation and placement for the line. At this point, I am still working very freely and quickly. I often revise the line several times, sometimes completely wiping the surface clean and starting over. 

Once I am satisfied and relatively certain that I have a general idea of where the painting is going, I can move on to mixing colors. Since I use eighty to one hundred closely mixed gradients for each painting, I devote at least a half day to color mixing before I begin. At this point, I’m excited to begin applying each gradient one brush stroke at a time. This is what allows the eye to move seamlessly from color to color as the line is tracked visually. 

I want the colors to pop, and I strive to follow little rules that I make up for myself and the line. I’m always watching where the color is going so that adjacent and intersecting lines are made of different hues. I usually want the lines to weave over and under each other alternately. I also give the lines pardons, such as allowing them to skip gradients at angles and abrupt turns.  

After the gradients are applied, the line either travels off the page or connects back to itself seamlessly. Not even I can discern where it began or ended. Once everything seems just right, I look over every weft and square inch of the painting before I make final adjustments and set it aside to dry. Finally, the surface of the painting is varnished, and I sign it on the back. The process is lengthy, usually requiring six to nine weeks for large-scale and intensely lined pieces. 

“Wall Diving” oil on linen, 16 × 20 inches, 2021 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

 

People are surprised when they learn that I was not always an abstract painter, and there was a time when I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even draw or paint as a child. With two young parents who worked and struggled to make ends meet, there was little time or money for art supplies and lessons. My occasional experiences with coloring books, resulting in colors outside of the lines, lead me to believe that I was not good at art. Instead, I focused on my schoolwork and water sports.

“Night Diving” Oil on Panel, 16 × 20 inches, 2019  References the movement and scale changes observed while diving Photo Credit: Karen Mauch  

I grew up in the Great Lakes region, where I spent my summers swimming and fishing. School was important to me, with French, geometry, and cursive writing my favorite subjects. Eventually, I joined my high school’s Varsity and synchronized swim teams. My first jobs during high school were as a lifeguard and a swim instructor. Given my comfort in and enchantment with water, it was only natural for me to save my money and put it toward scuba certification. I spent a fair amount of my spare time underwater, and scuba diving took me to faraway places like Aruba, Moorea, and Bonaire, where I could dive on colorful reefs and swim with tropical fish. I didn’t know it, but my childhood and young adult experiences would figure prominently in my future career as an artist.  

During my undergraduate years at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture and Parsons School of Design, I studied figure painting and realism. After graduation, I pursued an MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where I fully intended to continue my study of the human figure. I was surprised when a professor suggested that I paint a fish to learn how to depict human flesh more skillfully. Other professors also suggested painting fish. Each week, I bought a whole fish at our local seafood market and painted a still-life or self-portrait with the fish. In between painting sessions, I wrapped the fish up and kept it in our refrigerator. When my family began to complain about the fish, I decided to buy an aquarium and paint live fish. It wasn’t long until I became more interested in the way the fish were moving than the fish themselves. I began to record their movements with line. My fascination with the fish’s movements coalesced with a growing interest in abstraction. Soon, surrounded by little pieces of paper with lines that were recordings of fish activities as my muse, I created my first abstract paintings, which were exhibited in my class’s graduate thesis exhibition. 

“Inquiry” oil on canvas, 60 × 84 inches, 2018 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

After graduation, I continued to make the linear abstract paintings for a while, but being a new abstract painter was like being a kid in a candy store for me, and I wanted to experiment with many different types of abstraction. That is exactly what I did for about six years. When I decided to get serious about exhibiting my paintings in 2017, I consulted with friends and a gallerist who seemed to concur that I was an art dealer’s nightmare. “You’re all over the place. You’ve got to settle down and try one thing for six months,” one of them advised. That’s when I returned to the lines and decided to infuse them with colors derived from my memories of coral reefs and tropical fish.

Soon after, I debuted the new blue paintings with multi-hued lines in two solo exhibitions. The paintings were received favorably, and since then, the paintings have been acquired for private and public collections throughout the United States. They have also been exhibited in group shows in California and the Northeast. Some of the paintings have helped to raise money for philanthropic causes, and I was able to hold a sale to help fund local food pantries at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m also very fond of the time I have spent with elementary students, college students, and teachers to help them move their own artistic practices forward. 

“One-liner” oil on canvas, 36 × 36 inches, 2020 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

My first dives were filled with color that emanated from the live coral and marine life that I observed at 30 to 130 feet below sea level. When I visited Tahiti, I noticed that the coral was white. I asked the dive master why, and he explained that the coral was bleached white when France tested their atomic bombs in French Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. I felt a deep sadness and a sickness in my stomach. The coral reef, which took thousands of years to grow, was dead.

It has been estimated that over 50 percent of the world’s reefs are severely damaged and bleached due to pollution, litter, over-fishing, and climate change. Reefs serve a greater purpose than entertainment for divers. By providing habitat and food for small organisms, they are crucial to the survival of our ecosystem. Finally, I hope the story of my lines will alert people about the state of our reefs and encourage others to take small and large steps every day to protect the environment.

“Cartouche 2020” oil on canvas, 48 × 48 inches, 2021 Photo Credit: Karen Mauch

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”—Andy Warhol

 

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