“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” – Jacques Cousteau
Brianna Reagan’s work often represents the cyclic nature of the world. Skulls and decaying life forms share the canvas with plants and new growth, animals burst from the page in motion, birds in flight and serene foxes with geometric shapes are all part of the work she creates. Brianna channels the environment through her work, as the world is given over to or shared with creatures from land and sea.
Her deep respect for the natural world was formed very early in life as she explains, “My adoptive Dad loved Monte Dolack, a Montana-based artist, and I think his work influenced my work immensely. I grew up copying the prints we had on the walls, or the catalogs on the coffee table, training myself to blend mythology, natural elements, and our modern living”.
Having all these resources at her fingertips, Brianna had a constant supply of references to draw from and the coffee table was always loaded with National Geographic magazines, images that infused themselves into her work. Her connection to the ocean is also prevalent in her pieces, tentacles wrap themselves around the human form and glass buoys entangle themselves in net and hair. Underwater treasures gifted to her by her late biological father, who was a deep-sea diver for the US Navy, perhaps embedded this love of nature and the sea… and then it was nurtured further by her adoptive father who would take her tide pooling on the coast of California. I had the pleasure of discussing Brianna’s work and the stories behind them and her life in Alaska in the following interview.
Animals feature predominantly in your art, are the animals symbolic for you? What would you say is the main message in your work?
I find animals are an ambiguous motif, which allows me to apply a meaning or story to them, or can readily accept layers of other elements to create my multi-faceted characters. I try to infuse a story, or myth, or even irony into my pieces within the clues of the various layers. But what a piece means to me will rarely find the same meaning for the viewer; I fully believe that every encounter or experience in life affects our perception of every next encounter or experience, and thus our decisions and actions. We carry our whole life in our experiences and our actions, and I guess I find that animals are an ambiguous, yet familiar, vessel in order to share this philosophy.
I know you said you have a love/hate relationship with Alaska; it must be an incredible place to live! Do you find your environment affects your work in anyway?
Alaska is stunning. But my love/hate relationship stems from my desire to be a professional artist. In the beginning of my art “career”, I actually left the state when I was 17 to pursue graphic design in Portland, Oregon. It was my first experience of leaving and realizing how amazing something is when you no longer have it, (it was also where I realized that I hated making art on computers and instead need to feel the sensation of pen on paper and brush in the paint). I returned to AK, but still young and restless, left. This time I spent a summer in Coeur d’Alene, ID. I actually loved it there, but returned to Alaska to finish school with in-state tuition.
Still, I refused to let the Alaskan landscape permeate my art; I purposely did not derive ideas from my environment, as I wanted to be an “Alaskan Artist” without painting or drawing anything “Alaskana.” Slowly, however, the vast environment began to take form in my art, mostly in the shape of animals. I’ve lived here since I was 10 years old, and painted my first moose at age 28 (two/three years ago). I like to think it just took a while for the Alaska landscape to understand how to speak to me; it’s not just me painting a moose (like every other Alaskan artist), it’s me painting a moose where his antlers are formed by constellations and together they contain a galaxy within. It just took me 18 years to figure out how to make Alaska work with my creative processes.
You work with many different mediums and I know wood gives you the flexibility to work this way. Can you tell us something about your process and your favourite medium to work with?
Ink is my absolute favorite medium. Over the past few years, I would do a body of work that was solely pen & ink, and then a body of work that was acrylic paint on canvas. And while I created both of them, each body of work looked and felt different, and it caused me to struggle to develop a cohesive body of work. It was always drawing vs. painting. I began to search for a way to combine the two sides of me (which makes me sound just crazy), and that is where I landed on the wood. I could paint and then draw on top of it to satiate all my needs. I actually feel I’m not that strong of a painter, but when I can draw on top of my paintings I feel it then strengthens the work. It also comes down to being efficient; I can ink out some lace with a dip pen in a single sitting, whereas it may take long struggling hours to paint that out with a liner detail brush…
About my process: I rarely pre-sketch or develop my ideas. I feel I lose the spontaneity of the idea when I do this, so most often the idea takes a tangible form as a sketch on the wood “canvas.” Sometimes I’ll then outline the concept with a paint pen, but not always. I then apply layers of paint to give the form shape and dimension. I use Liquitex Acrylics and lots of water. I like my paint really soupy, which I find is easier to blend and move around the surface. Once I’m satisfied with the layers of paint, I then apply layers and details of colored pencils, usually to outline and enhance some highlights. I then varnish the piece, and still exploring what product is most suitable for my preferences. After I varnish, I then ink my final details, like strands of hair, eyelashes, and lace. I have found I need to seal the wood; otherwise, my ink will bleed into the wood grain of any exposed raw wood. I choose not to seal the wood in the beginning, as then my paint sits on the surface and acts differently with blending and brush strokes. The wrong sealant will remove the colored pencil (I’ve ruined a piece this way), or it won’t accept the ink as I lay it. Exploring new products and techniques keeps it exciting.
What obstacles do you face as an artist and how do you navigate around any issues that may arise from working in this industry full time?
My main obstacle is actually pursuing art full time. I still hold down a full-time adult job since it provides my family our health insurance. I also have a 3-year-old daughter, so I’d say my other obstacle is finding time. Currently, I wake up at 3am to paint in a quiet house for a few hours before I have to get ready for work. I live on coffee, and go to bed at 8-9pm.
Living in Alaska has its own obstacles as well; Fairbanks doesn’t have any Fine Art stores, so everything is ordered online, and sometimes we have to wait 9 months to place an order to ensure product doesn’t freeze in transit. Hilarious, but I’m not kidding. And since we have such great seclusion from the rest of the world, I kind of feel I have to work a bit harder to be noticed by anyone outside of the state. I’m super thankful for the internet and social media, which allows me to share my art with a much broader audience than just Alaska, but, also like any artist these days, I then am trying to be seen in a sea saturated with other artists.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the studio creating?
I enjoy spending time with my family and since I’ve adopted the 3am schedule, we now get to devote most weekends together. I also love reading, whether that’s a hardcover book all to myself, or a silly children’s book with my daughter in my lap. And I enjoy running or going for walks, which is really my “thoughtful” time, no interruptions, just me and my thoughts.
Can you tell us what you have on the horizon and what you’re looking forward to most over the next year?
My horizon is open and promising, and I’d like to think the best is yet to come. I’ve just booked a solo show in October at a local gallery, which I’ll begin to work on ideas and pieces in the coming months. Mostly, I’m a dreamer, and I’m looking forward to the moment when elements align and I get to make the big step to becoming a full-time artist. It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but I’ll continue to work hard to achieve that goal…and then I’ll continue to work hard to maintain it.