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Wisdom of the Wild: Christina Ridgeway’s Surrealistic Meditations on the Human Condition

It takes guts to be Christina Ridgeway, and – interestingly enough – that statement is partially backed by…a gut feeling. Truth be told, we’re not entirely certain if the self-taught artist morphs into a human shield when she witnesses kamikaze bees terrorizing senior citizens and/or small children. Similarly, we don’t have concrete proof that she lunges into rush hour traffic when directionally challenged schitzo-squirrels attempt to play out their roadkill death wishes. Gazing at the North Potomac, Maryland-born creative’s art offers us firm confirmation of one undeniable fact, however. She has been plucky enough to spend the past 11 years painting seductively surrealistic, visually lush odes to the wilds of Sweden that ask just a little bit more of the beholder.

Some may question why that is a daring act. For many of us, recognizing that Mother Nature bestows upon us the essential nutrients that we need to thrive – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually! – seems somewhat esoteric. Or not ‘sexy enough’. Perhaps it makes us think, ‘Blahhh-yeah-whatever…I have more important things to focus on right now.’ Thinking beyond the scope of our immediate lives isn’t nearly as appealing as throwing our hands in the air and YOLO-ing like we just don’t care.

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Bound together by pigment and linseed oil, the feathery canopies, misty riversides, and verdant winding paths of Christina Ridgeway’s philosophically painterly soul songs address the vital, interconnected life force that courses through our veins. Rather than asking what more we can take from Mother Earth, the 34-year-old imagines that her feminine muses – each one a metaphorical force of nature – may inspire thoughtful introspection regarding our role in the grand scheme of things.

Indeed, Christina’s subject matter is artistically heroic because she chooses to deliver so much more to the beholder than merely just a feast for the eyes. By delving into emotionally and ethically substantive territory, we are engaged on a far deeper level. Among the many questions that may come to mind while gazing at her work, one can’t help but wonder: Will we continue turning a blind eye to the ecological tipping point or will we finally wake up and smell the terpenes?

In Västra Götaland where I currently live, the scenery – including mountains, boulders, pine forests, moss, and mushrooms – is incredibly inspiring. The woods here are very often my muse before any model is.

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Interview With Christina Ridgeway

Since 2012, you’ve primarily been a self-taught oil painter. Did you ever fancy the idea of receiving a formal art education?

When I was a teenager, I was accepted into every art university that I applied to. At the time, however, it wasn’t economically feasible. Several years later, I attended one semester at The Swedish Academy of Realist Art. Remarkably, none of us were even allowed to pick up a paint brush.

Has flying solo enabled you to take your creative skills to more of an outside-of-the-box level?

While academic art is very pretty, it influences an artist’s style so heavily. I am quite content expanding on my own style for now. With respect to my artistic skills, I am not yet where I want to be. Learning and trying new techniques, however, plays into my belief that you have to mix it up now and again!

My figures are just as much a personification of mother nature as they are emblematic of the natural world representing human nature. We often forget that we are a part of this planet even if – at times – we feel above it and its laws.

Do you knowingly break all the oil painting rules? Are you highly experimental?

I am pretty obsessive when it comes to painting. Nothing ever seems to come out exactly right the first time around. That’s why I use a lot of trial, error, and I definitely don’t mind breaking my own rules.

Why is working in oils – rather than other artistic mediums – so consistently satisfying to you?

I love the luminescence of oil paints, the richness of the colors, and how alive a painting can feel once it is completed. In many ways, oils are forgiving, too. You can keep adding layers until you’ve gotten something right.

The act of creation – not just daydreaming – is quite magical. I feel lucky I have this passion that I get to share with others.

Swedenwhere you’ve lived for the past 11 years is known for its particularly magical landscape. Is it your intention to make the natural elements that you include in your paintings possess as much of a muse-like essence as your female figures?

Yes, very much so. I used to live down south in Skåne where there are mostly flat farmlands. In Västra Götaland where I currently live, the scenery – including mountains, boulders, pine forests, moss, and mushrooms – is incredibly inspiring. The woods here are very often my muse before any model is.

Are mother nature and the female muse non-negotiable compositional elements that your paintings consistently need in order to succeed?

I have explored the idea of using animals as the main figure or having the landscape play a larger role than the figure. Right now, however, nature is the main muse in my paintings and the female figure enables my narrative to emerge. I often use female models to depict what’s going on from my point of view. Who knows what changes I might incorporate in the future!

My intention is to always inspire contemplation; it is very hard for me to work any other way.

Are the female figures in your paintings a dark, moody personification of mother nature?

My figures are just as much a personification of mother nature as they are emblematic of the natural world representing human nature. We often forget that we are a part of this planet even if – at times – we feel above it and its laws.

Your muses are easy on the eyes, so in a way that disarms the viewer, but it’s hard to get past the sense that many of them seem capable of less than angelic things. Is that duality intentional?

Yes, the darkness cannot exist without the light. The most interesting people I’ve ever met are those who have depth, history, and haven’t we all been up to no good at some point in our life? I never get tired of exploring polarities because it results in interesting paintings!

I think we all need that thing that makes getting up in the morning exciting and new. For me, nothing else but working on a painting can create that sense of, “Ah-ha, this is why I am here. I am supposed to be doing this!”

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Do you need to be physically immersed in nature for ideas to manifest or does that process happen freely, no matter what environment you’re in?

I live in a place surrounded by nature, so it’s not hard to get inspired. When I daydream about new paintings though, my mind doesn’t wander to the city. Nature is so symbolic – it is a part of humanity’s story. Ancient cultures were so immeasurably influenced by the natural world around them. They found meaning in everything! When I am in nature, I feel balanced, quiet, and at peace. I can’t say the same of concrete and traffic.

If you took Beautiful Bizarre on a tour of Sweden, would we be able to see the exact landscapes that you’ve committed to canvas?

It is always my goal to try to capture the very magical feeling of Sweden’s forests in my paintings. There is an old execution spot up on a mountain near my house where I took many of my reference photos. The forest there is very ethereal and quiet. You would likely recognize the trees along that pathway.

Blood, Ash & Bone emerged after a 2-year break, so it was like training a muscle that had atrophied. I definitely wrestled with the muse, but it was a joy to do.

Why does producing work with substantive themes click with you more than simply just offering the beholder a light, aesthetically pleasing romp on canvas?

My intention is to always inspire contemplation. It is very hard for me to work any other way. My interpretation of a narrative isn’t necessarily the same as yours, though. There were many people who thought my painting Hunger was about domestic abuse. Even though it wasn’t, their perception of that piece helped them to connect to it on a very personal level. That’s what makes art therapeutic. It is powerful and meaningful. It helps us to process the world and it even enables us to heal.

Your painterly narratives seem to be peppered with old world myth and magic as well as metaphysical/spiritual subtext. Has being immersed in Scandinavian culture and life brought those elements to the forefront, or were they always present?

They were always present. I think I was born wishing that I lived in a fairytale instead of the real world. Learning about Scandinavian culture has definitely influenced me, though. Even their old nursery rhymes have a deep, dark, and beautiful essence to them. Listen to the Troll Mother’s Lullaby and you’ll immediately understand what I mean.

I never get tired of exploring polarities because it results in interesting paintings!

What additional inspirations impart your paintings with their distinctive vibe?

My narratives are reflective of the spiritual journey that I’ve been on for quite some time. Occasionally, I’ve incorporated astrological references and tarot symbolism in my paintings. Researching the historical meanings of certain animals and plants has also been a great source of creative inspiration for me.

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One of the recurring muses in your paintings is your long-term friend, Ulrika. She seems to possess a certain je ne sais quoi that would make any artist giddy. Has she ever told you what it feels like to be immortalized on canvas?

I asked her! Here is her answer: “It’s quite an abstract concept for my mind to comprehend. When I look at each painting, it’s like exploring a library of Christina’s art and narratives. They also take me back to the different phases and feelings I experienced as a teenager. Compared to photographs, paintings have a deeper dimension. I imagine looking at My Heart is a Myth and Hunger in 10, 20 or 40 years and remembering everything that I felt at that moment in time.”

My narratives are reflective of the spiritual journey that I’ve been on for quite some time. Occasionally, I’ve incorporated astrological references and tarot symbolism in my paintings.

When you’re engaged in a photo shoot with Ulrika, how much of what happens is coached by you and how much is intuitive?

Oh, it’s definitely a mix of both. She is an amazing natural model and knows the feeling that I want to convey in my artwork. The emotion truly manifests on her face. I just putter around her moving hands, flinging hair, etc…. haha.

What is it like to create paintings that contain Ulrika’s spirit, yet – through creative alchemy – they sail off to an entirely otherworldly plane?

It feels natural now. Ulrika has a very naturally beautiful look which translates into oil paints very well. She enables me to perfectly convey my narratives through her image and body language. Painting concepts tend to be blurry – like half-remembered dreams – at the very beginning. Her face and spirit easily bring blocks of colors and feelings to life.

I think I was born wishing that I lived in a fairytale instead of the real world. Learning about Scandinavian culture has definitely influenced me, though. Even their old nursery rhymes have a deep, dark, and beautiful essence to them.

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Which Ulrika-inspired portrait is your finest moment?

Hunger is definitely my favorite painting of her so far. Her expression…the symbolism…from start to finish, it is a painting that just clicked. I am sure there will be many more!

You shared the various steps in your creative process during your 2014 interview with us. Now that 8 years have passed, is there a particularly nail-biting aspect of your creative process…or a step that feels especially triumphant?

The sketch transfer is the most nail-biting and probably the most tedious part, haha! Adding the final details and embellishments – plus glazing – is the most satisfying and triumphant part. It brings everything to life on a whole other level!

You have repeatedly commented that you hope the beholder forms their own opinions of the events unfolding upon your canvases. Still, you seem somewhat deflated by humanity’s tendency to wreak havoc upon the earth. Are your paintings an extension of eco-artivism or are they just the love letters of an unabashed tree hugger?

I suppose they have been both. I curated the Mission Blue show for charity at Haven Gallery back in 2016, which was my moment of eco-activism. A lot of my paintings are of course just me being a tree hugger and loving the green, living parts of this world which humans have neglected. If my paintings help a single viewer to appreciate the natural world just a little bit more – and even want to protect it – that makes me happy.

There were many people who thought my painting ‘Hunger‘ was about domestic abuse. Even though it wasn’t, their perception of that piece helped them to connect to it on a very personal level. That’s what makes art therapeutic. It is powerful and meaningful. It helps us to process the world and it even enables us to heal.

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There is a dark veil of tranquil, gothic comfort that cascades over your work, but it makes the beholder feel uneasy, as well. What does it take to manifest that intriguing dichotomy on canvas?

I think that part is easy, and I suppose it’s reflective of what my mental insides look like. I love both beautiful and melancholic things, so painting enables me to balance the odd with the lovely.

Was your series Blood, Ash & Bone written in your creative destiny? Did you wrestle with the muse to fully realize your concepts or did everything flow?

Blood, Ash & Bone emerged after a 2-year break, so it was like training a muscle that had atrophied. I was caring for a newborn at the time so I definitely wrestled with the muse, but it was a joy to do. Working on that series challenged me creatively and enabled me to cultivate my skills. I’m really glad that I pushed myself.

Of all the painting series that you’ve brought to life, is that the one that you are most proud of?

In the past, I would ship a painting off to a gallery as soon as I completed it. When I worked on Blood, Ash & Bone, however, I didn’t rush my creative process. I carefully considered all the details for 9 months – refining certain areas – and each painting was only done when I was truly happy with it. That series is exactly as I wanted it to be in terms of my artistic growth.

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It is always my goal to try to capture the very magical feeling of Sweden’s forests in my paintings.

Which painting in your portfolio sums up the creative headspace that you want to embrace moving forward?

My Blood, Ash and Bone painting (from the same titled series) is representative of striving to accomplish goals that previously may have been somewhat uncomfortable. It projects the “stand together” attitude that I wish we would all embrace during this difficult time when we need unity rather than division.  

Have you given thought to what artistic fork in the road you may be ready to traverse in the year ahead?

I would love to branch out and try a lot of new things. More pieces that convey the colors and feeling of The Communion would be nice, but perhaps mixed in with Spirit Guides-type dreamscapes.

Although I have explored the idea of using animals as the main figure – or having the landscape play a larger role than the figure – right now, nature is the main muse in my paintings and the female figure enables my narrative to emerge.

What aspect of being an artist fills you with the greatest sense of alchemic marvel?

It is a strange thing to try and put into words but life without painting and art is really quite dull. The act of creation – not just daydreaming – is quite magical. I feel lucky I have this passion that I get to share with others.

Why is painting the ‘thing’ that makes your soul feel alive? Is there any other pursuit in life that could even come close?

No, there isn’t. I stepped away from the easel for several years. Nothing filled the void of art and I started to look at life much differently. I think we all need that thing that makes getting up in the morning exciting and new. For me, nothing else but working on a painting can create that sense of, “Ah-ha, this is why I am here. I am supposed to be doing this!” It’s a bit like an addiction, rinse and repeat with each painting. It can potentially drive people in my household crazy. When inspiration strikes, there is not much else I talk about!

If my paintings help a single viewer to appreciate the natural world just a little bit more – and even want to protect it – that makes me happy.

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Christina Ridgeway Social Media Accounts

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About Author

Longtime eco-journalist, art wordsmith and creativity connoisseur. Anything that hovers in the right-brained spectrum or is born out of unbridled imagination elevates my spirit. I probably revere mother nature's ever-changing shazaamy brush strokes more than the average humanoid. Technicolor art supplies make me weak in the knees, as do wet-nosed luvvies.

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