Judith Kruger, born 1955, is an American visual artist whose paintings, prints and mixed media works address Human-Environment connectivity and their shared vulnerabilities. She is recognized internationally for her advocacy of natural painting materials and historic, ecological processes.
Norma: Your employ an amazing array of materials from the natural world in your art work and your workshops: pine soot, shells and earth minerals, natural metallics, cured shells, precious minerals, soils, indigo, insect secretions. When did these materials become part of your process and what opened you up to the idea of working this way?
Judith: In 2001 during a trip to Kyoto, an artist took me to meet Saiundo Fujimoto, one of Japan’s finest pigment purveyors. It was there, at his tiny shop, where I had my very first introduction to Nihonga, traditional Japanese mineral pigment painting. The fact that I could make paint from the natural environment that had the capacity to give back visually as deeply as nature often does, was mind boggling. I had no idea then how obsessed I would become with every aspect of this ancient painting system and how much I would eventually expand its boundaries for my own practice.
Norma: Do you see yourself as part alchemist, part artist? How did this develop in your creative work?
Judith: Most definitely. The excitement of making my own painting materials is sort of like having a baby. One can only imagine the miracle of birth, but there is nothing like the actual experience of it. On a daily basis, I am buried deeply in alchemic potions and processes. The thrill of inventing and metamorphosing just keeps growing.
Norma: In your artist statement you say, “My on-going work is the byproduct of a deep engagement with environment, place and the physicality and materiality of all phenomena.” Can you think of when you first began to have this “deep engagement with the environment,” perhaps even as a child?
Judith: Nature has always fed my soul. I had a huge rock collection as a child and lo and behold the collection continues to grow now, however, for paint’s sake. I attribute my love of wabi (beauty of the imperfect) and grit from growing up in Pittsburgh around the steel mills. I find beauty in subway stations and rusted boiler rooms.
Norma: You order some very specific Japanese papers for your students to work on in your workshops, can you talk about how you became acquainted with these papers and why they are an important aspect of the processes you teach?
Judith: In (my workshop) “Nihonga: Then and Now workshop”, it is important to use the traditional hand made Japanese Kumohada paper, protected with layers of gofun (white shell gesso). We learn about sizing, how inks, dyes and minerals are used in different particle sizes, etc. In the “Abstract Alchemy” workshop, the students work on both Western and Eastern papers in order to push alchemic boundaries and invent. This course, while rooted in Nihonga, focuses more on an environmental or material aspect of the medium than the Orientalism.
Norma: Your workshops are highly attended and generally wait-listed. Can you talk about what your students come away with after the workshop, and comments you often hear from you students?
Judith: They learn how to size, and mount paper on canvas and wood, make hide glue size, binders, and make gessoes and paint from shells, mineral and plant material. After the paint is made they learn many different painting techniques: some that stems from ancient China and Japan and others developed by me for my environmentally focused work. I do not delineate subject matter. I welcome representational as well as non-representational painters. Some students say they really learned how to abstract from me, others say they “see” differently. Many of my students continue to work with me for years, generally meeting (again) in another workshop.
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