EK Interview: Julia Randall

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom

Julia Randall.  Ohhhhhhh lordy.  Her drawings are so erotic, so human and so intense I feel like I need to take a shower after I look at them.  Gestalt psychologists might just have to renounce their beliefs when they see the parts as depicted by Mrs. Randall.  Step into her mind below:

Introduce yourself.

My name is Julia Randall; I am 44 years old, a native New Yorker who now (mostly) lives and works in rural Connecticut. I am an Aquarius. I am married and I have a dog.


What was the name of the elementary school that your went to as a kid?  What did you want to be when you grew up?

I went to a progressive elementary school, Bank Street School for Children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Fairly early on I knew that I wanted to be an artist—although my concept of what an artist actually did as a job/living was pretty limited then. All the art classes were my favorites as early as 12.

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom

What attracted you to art?  

I actually have a really clear memory of being 12 years old, in an art class at Bank Street. Our assistant teacher, who set up a still life to draw (standard apple/banana/lemon set up), helped me as I struggled to draw the apple from the angle as seen from above. It was a “eureka” moment for me at that age; I was so attracted to the problem solving of art. I also loved working in clay and making imaginary animals.


What was the first major piece/series you worked on?

Hard question; I guess it depends what I would consider “major.” I have been preoccupied with recurring themes and ideas over a long period of time, both as a student and as a professional. The intersection of sexuality and humor compel me. I did a series of narrative drawings in my early twenties that featured a recurring female character and her cherished French bread—a baguette. I drew them in intimate situations (romantic, more than overtly sexual). Not a “major” series, in terms of the arc of my career, and they were certainly not my best drawings, but I felt the sexy-humor in that series was genuinely mine.

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom

How has your emotional investment and response to your work changed since you began as an artist?

Although I would love to portray myself as very even-keeled in my relationship with my work, I would be lying. I go up and down all the time in the studio, and have been like this as long as I have been making art. I get very “into” what I am working on in the moment, and I tend to fret a lot. My husband tells me that I am hyper-critical of whatever I am drawing at the moment: that I always bemoan how my “now” work is never as good as what I may have recently finished.  He may be right about that. Once a drawing or a series is finished, it exists outside of myself.  It is sometimes hard to accurately remember the experience of making a particular drawing from the past. Only in this hindsight can I really judge my work.


Why colored pencil?  What attracted you to that media?

In 2002, I was working on a large drawing, Wheel Of Fortune: an image of a self-gratification device, which featured a wheel with tongues around the perimeter, with handles you could crank for personal use (you get the idea). The tongues were drawn in pastel from imagination, and looked too stylized, not “real” enough to get the surrealistic effect I was hoping for. I changed mediums to colored pencil, which allowed me to tighten up considerably, get much more detail and more accuracy in my marks. Changing to colored pencil also enabled me to see differently—it marked the start of me working hyper-realistically.

Why do you focus so often on the mouth?  Do you find the mouth expressive in ways that other parts of the bodies aren’t?

The mouth is the body’s critical site, where we eat, speak, bite, kiss; it is both ferocious and tender. I am struck by how we see the mouth and tongue all the time, yet they are also incredibly intimate and private. I am much more attracted to the mouth than any of the other “racy” parts of the body.

The mouth has also led me to drawing images of saliva bubbles, and most recently, bubble gum bubbles. I am attracted to the barely-there, membrane-like skin of the bubble, and how they literally hold our breath, for the briefest of moments.  I find these images humorous, but also a little sad; the dreaded passage of time, and the susceptibility of the body are hinted at.

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom

How has your interpretation and view of art changed since you first began?  Do you think you can dig deeper?  See farther now?

Obviously seeing more art, befriending more artists over time, learning about work in art history courses, traveling, and sustained studio practice have altered my perceptions about art in general and in specific. In many ways, my tastes have become more varied, and I appreciate a lot more about work that is clearly situated outside of the tradition I work in.  At the same time, I can be boorish in my opinions, and sometimes dismissive about art that I find pretentious or thin or dishonest. Also I have less time now than I did when I was younger, and I only want to use this time to see work that I am really interested in.  I think teaching, in particular, demands that I keep fresh eyes.

What do you think of Connecticut compared to New York?  What was it like growing up in New York?  Where in New York did you grow up?

I grew up on the upper-west side of Manhattan—my mom still lives in the apartment where I was raised. It is funny how where you grow up is your version of normal. I took the bus, then the subway to school, and hung out in Riverside and Central parks with my friends. Apartment life is my normal. As an adolescent I gave my parents their share of anxiety—I was one of the precocious kids who grew up quickly, went to nightclubs, etc., back when bars would look the other way from underage drinking. I definitely got all of that party-stuff out of my system on the early side.

Connecticut is a vastly different place to live than NYC, although only 2 hours away.  In the northwest corner where we live, it is quiet countryside. I have a wonderful studio here. My husband and I even have sheep (as lawnmower-pets, not for meat, wool or milk). I am really into gardening. I just re-read this and it sounds so middle-aged–yikes! Happily, we still have a minuscule space to crash in NYC…

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom


How have you challenged yourself as an artist?  what parts of your work are you currently trying to develop the most?  What parts are you most proud of?

I always strive to use art to speak to my own personal experience, but to make things that also allow others to project their own meaning onto the imagery. This is not always easy for me, as I tend to be overly literal. As proof of this, I have a “failure folder” (a portfolio of drawn images that don’t transcend the beautiful technique they were made with). For me, this is the most challenging part of being an artist, and a never-ending one.

Another highly challenging aspect of being an artist has been powering through the plague of self-doubt in the studio, to keep working in spite of feeling unhappy or uncertain with my work. Most of the meaningful developments, or leaps in my drawings were largely accidental—so it hard to feel truly “proud,” but I am happy and grateful that I was open to trying new things. I am proud of my work ethic, and I am proud of my work as a teacher.


What advice would you tell beginning artists seeking to expand their comfort zones?

I would tell them, “Join the club!”

I teach college students, and a large part of this involves getting them to identify their own default settings, or the manner of working to which they are already comfortably predisposed.  When these default-settings prevent them from taking chances, I urge them to make private, “failure work”: projects that they KNOW will fail, but which allow them to work specifically in new ways, to try new methods, materials, images, etc. It is hard to shake off the fear of publicly failing—and this is not only an issue for beginning artists. Sketchbooks are essential, I think, as a private space for experimenting.

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom


Who are your influences?  If you could spend a month with any artist who would you choose?

Ooh, hard, too many artists! I LOVE the Dutch/Netherlands painters (Memling, Van Eyck, Van der Wedyen).  Abraham Mignon, a fabulous 17th century still life painter, Hans Bellmer, Audubon, Louise Bourgeois, the films of Tim Burton, Michael Borremans, the engravings and imagery from Diderot’s Encyclopedia, cabinets of curiosities, the museum in Florence “la Specola”, Ron Mueck,  dioramas in the natural History Museum in NYC, Nancy Spero, Lynda Benglis, Anonio Lopez Garcia, Meret Oppenheim, Joan Semmel, etc. etc.

Spending a month with an artist I love…yikes—not so sure I want to risk tarnishing my wide-eyed adoration!


If you could travel anywhere for a year and return with everything normal, where would it be?

I have wanted to travel through North Africa for the longest time, especially Egypt—but the timing has never really worked out.


What do you want viewers to walk away from your work feeling?  If there was a single idea or emotion that you hope viewers to take away, what is it?

I want my viewers to be seduced into looking a lot, and to have a reaction, no matter what they feel about my work. I often hear that people find my work “icky,” which is fine, so long as it is not a one-dimensional experience. I am happiest when I get mixed-feeling reactions, like: “this drawing is so beautiful, but also disturbing or funny/sexy” etc. The older I get, the more conscious I am of individual subjectivity, and how I can’t second-guess what a viewer will think at all (so it is usually best to not dwell on it).


Can you discuss your method, from the start of an idea, until you finally set your pencil down?

I love puns—verbal and visual—and they often are the genesis of my ideas for drawings. Although my drawings appear to be very “realistic,” many of the images don’t really exist, and are cobbled together from several sources (for example, the reflections in some of the spit bubbles I draw). I like working in a series, because I don’t always “get it right” or exhaust an idea immediately. I often need to try to hit the same idea from a slightly different angle.

Colored pencil is rather unforgiving and doesn’t erase completely, so I do all my experimenting with different possibilities in my sketchbook. Also I use Photoshop, but only as a “fast” way to see an idea—like sketching.  I only commit to the labor of fully drawing an idea once I am really convinced that it is going to be compelling; usually manifested by my not being able to stop thinking about it, and my desire to see what the thing will look like.

I work in very fine, translucent layers of colored pencil, very much like the glazing used in old master oil paintings. It is an extremely labor-intensive, slow, technique. My drawings appear very three-dimensional because you are seeing through lots of layers of color, plus the white of the paper shining through in areas. Sharp pencils are a must for the highly detailed areas of my images, and I use a jeweler’s head loupe to magnify what I am seeing.


What is the most delicious thing you’ve eaten this month?

Easy—had an Indian meal last week, which was superlative; I think that the sag paneer was my favorite.

art blog - Julia Randall - Empty Kingdom