Anne Kearney Artist in Barcelona

Communicating Abstract Emotions and Narratives with Anne Kearney

Anne Kearney is a figurative painter, creating art in her home studio while keeping an eye open to inspiration from the everyday art she finds in nature and on the streets of Barcelona.

In addition to her artwork, Anne is an environmental psychologist with extensive experience working for universities, non-profits and NASA.

We sat down with Anne to learn more about her unique vantage point obtained from studying the interactions between people and their surroundings and how her research and experience in cognitive science inspires her creative outlet.

First, a bit of background—can you please tell us a little more about yourself and where you come from?

Artist Anne Kearney in the studio

I grew up in the US, in a small town in Idaho, but I’ve always had a bit of wanderlust and have lived in Italy, Nepal, Ireland and now Spain.  My earliest memories were of making things – little creations out of cardboard and tape, creatures out of chestnuts, clothes out of scraps of fabric. At the same time, I loved school and was an avid reader, writer, and observer of people.

I went on to study cognitive science and environmental psychology at university and graduate school and worked for many years as a researcher. I even spent several years as a consultant to NASA where, as my daughter once explained to a friend, I “helped design spaceships so that people don’t go crazy.” And, of course, I was also always creating and making art.  I have now more or less retired from my research work and am fortunate enough to be practicing art full time.

What were the circumstances that took you to Ireland and later brought you to Barcelona?

My husband and I had both spent time living abroad with our families when we were young and it was something that we wanted to experience with our own kids. We were living in Seattle at the time and although our life was great, I had the feeling that I would blink and 20 years would have passed in a blur of sameness.  We both started looking for opportunities in Europe and ended up in Dublin where my husband took a job and I was able to bring my work with me.

Eight years after what was supposed to be a two-year experiment in Ireland, my daughter headed off to university and my high school aged son, who is a serious classical violin player, started lobbying for a gap year to come study with a special teacher here in Barcelona. We managed to organize an initial six-month stay and, as so many expats do, we ended up falling in love with this city.  Two and a half years later, we are still here!

What led you to choose painting as your means of creative expression? Tell us about the influences behind your work.

Anne kearney painting
Serene with Hands.

I’ve gone through many phases with my creative work – textile art, mosaic, jewelry making, furniture making, collage – but about 10 years ago I decided to focus on painting.  I love paint because it’s immediate yet forgiving, and I like the challenge of communicating abstract emotions and narratives through a tangible two-dimensional form.  Paintings are both one captured moment in time and a portal through which a whole range of emotions and insights can flow – for the artist and viewers alike.

The main inspiration for my work is my background in psychology. Environmental psychologists study the interrelationships between people and their environment and take the view that what’s outside us is as important in determining who we are and how we behave as what’s inside us. My artwork is a different way to continue to explore and communicate about some of the same ideas and questions that I’ve been studying and researching for many years.

I also draw inspiration from many visual artists. At the moment, I am particularly drawn to the drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, the early drawings of Frank Auerbach, and the emotional intensity of Goya.

You paint figures up-close and personal, evoking a compelling sense of vulnerability. What are the qualities you seek to transmit?

My recent work has explored the idea that while we’re often vulnerable to the whims of what’s going on around us, we can also draw on our own inner strength to make our mark on the world.  It’s about the tension inherent in the idea that some of the same things that help define and support us can also end up changing or constraining us.

When someone looks at one of these paintings, I want them to feel that the separation between the figures and their surroundings is ephemeral and shifting.  I want them to wonder: Is the figure being supported or constrained? Is it eroding or emerging? Hopeful or resigned? Vulnerable or strong? Or perhaps all of these things the longer one looks.

Then again, people may see something totally different in a particular piece, which is one of the fascinating things about creating and showing art!

Texture is an important element in your work. What are the methods and materials you use to achieve the layers and surface in your work?

My pieces are usually comprised of many layers and I add texture into each of them, although much of it ends up getting lost along the way.  Part of the texture comes just from the way I apply the paint but I also scrape into the paint with a variety of tools. I often start a piece with collage, which gives some underlying structure and texture, and then move on to oil paint mixed with cold wax medium which imparts lots of body and holds texture well.  I also scrape back into previous layers, allowing the figure to be constantly lost and brought back out of its surroundings.

I often wish my process was faster, but I have learned that there is no short-cut to building deep texture and history into a piece.  Plus, for me, the process of creating a piece is as important as the finished piece itself.

Do you have a goal that guides you throughout your painting? What does a good painting look like?

I don’t meticulously plan my paintings before I begin, but I do usually have a clear idea about the emotion or abstract narrative that I’d like to communicate.  This can sometimes make it hard to tell when a painting is done. As much as I can try to analyze a piece rationally, it really comes down to a gut feeling – has the expression and narrative fallen into place? Is there something still niggling me about the piece?

For me, the notion of whether one of my own pieces is “good” is a moving target.  I feel like I’m always striving toward something that I never quite reach, which is both frustrating and motivating.  I suspect that many artists feel the same way.

Can you share any insights about how to make time for art and creativity alongside a career, family and travel?

Anne Kearney Artist
Head On.

This is something I think about a lot! Like so many artists, I work hard to be disciplined and to block out consistent time for my art practice, even when those time blocks are tiny.  I also look for and take advantage of everyday opportunities for creativity – photographing patterns and textures while walking through a park, for example, or doing art projects with the kids when they were younger. While these little moments aren’t substitutes for time in the studio, I find that they can help sustain my artistic self, especially when studio time is short.

I think it also helps to be realistic about how much one can actually get done.  The idea that we can have it all is an unhelpful hold-over from the 1980s. Even the more recent version of this – that we can have everything we want but just not all at the same time – is mostly wishful thinking. What I do find helpful is sitting down regularly, looking at how I’m actually spending my time, and asking myself if that reflects my priorities. Then I can figure out how to make changes to bring about a better balance. What can I outsource? What can I let go?

There have definitely been times in my life when my artwork has taken a back seat to other things, but I no longer stress about taking time away. I know that I can always find my way back to my work through writing, sketching, and walking.

How do you share/show/sell your art in Barcelona?

I had just started researching opportunities to show my work in Barcelona when the pandemic and quarantine hit.  Needless to say, that search was put on hold for a bit, but I would very much like to show my work in person in Barcelona.  Virtual shows – like the Frikifish Confinement Chronicles exhibit that I was fortunate enough to take part in – are great because they can reach so many people, but there’s nothing like seeing a painting in person.  Surface texture and scale, for example, are really hard to capture in a photograph.

While I’m exploring in-person venues, I’ve been selling some smaller work on Instagram and hope to have my work available soon on the Saatchi online art platform and through my website.

Do you have any news you want to share or big projects in the works?

I’m excited about a new series I’m starting that will explore how people are defined by their relationships with those around them.  If there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the political unrest around the world, it’s how interconnected we all are.  What makes us “us” comes from within but also from outside ourselves – especially from our connections with the people around us.

My dream “someday” project is to have a larger show or installation that explores themes related to people and their environments through paintings, writings, and possibly other media. I’m still trying to figure out what this would look like!

Where are the best places for people to see your work online and get in touch with you?

Like many artists, the pandemic has me searching for more ways to share my work virtually.  I post regularly on Instagram @annekearneyartist – not just finished pieces, but also work in progress and other things that inspire my work.  You can also view my work, get in touch with me, and check out my blog on psychology and art at my website


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