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Painting Place: An Interview With Fleurette West

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Fleurette West sits on the patio of the house she lives in. She eats a bowl full of fresh fruit as she casually reads over an issue of Slake that she found while cleaning. She doesn’t live far from Figueroa Street in Highland Park and very much enjoys the part of town that she’s found herself in. The neighborhood and city have had a large influence on her work as a painter, too.

“I feel pushed by the city and I feel like my art, in a sense, is pushing the city back. I’m not sure if that’s okay, though,” she says. “I’ve lived in Highland Park for a few years now and, at this point, I feel engaged enough with this community to make art about it. Whereas, a few years ago when I first moved here I felt like I wasn’t quite in that position. I am saying something about these spaces–and it is critical. It is not necessarily negative–but it is critical. As artists, we have a responsibility to make sure we own what we say.”

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Her paintings are born out of a relationship to place. They literally and non-literally  reflect a history or attitude or environment she feels surrounding her. Even though she can be limited, she uses what this part of Los Angeles gives her as a foundation for her art. “It made the process really interesting, a lot of restrictions can be great for artists,” she explains. “Lately I’ve been getting my supplies from the hardware store down the street.”

She laughs. “I’m excited to be here for a little bit. It’s not an official studio but its good for right now.”

Fleurette is from Los Angeles. She grew up here with her mother and has lived in many parts of the city. “I was born in Lynwood and I lived in South Gate for the very, very early part of my childhood. My mom is from India and she was about seven months pregnant with me when she came to the US. She was a brand new, fresh immigrant.”

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“She’s an amazing woman. She built her whole life up from nothing. It’s kind of crazy because we’re really quite different. She’s this intense alpha female who came from poverty. That’s definitely this other voice in my mind: my mother’s driving, super ambitious words saying you can do anything you want. It’s a no excuses attitude.”

She lived most of her childhood in Reseda, very deep in the Valley. It wasn’t until college at CalState Northridge that she relocated. She also wasn’t focused on art at this time: she majored in Social and Behavioral Sciences.  “I thought maybe I could be a social worker,” she notes. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do–I knew I was interested in people and culture and society and things that examine why we do what we do.”

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“I worked a couple of jobs after school doing behavioral therapy, which I still do. I work with Autistic children and those with special needs. That was fascinating as I was working with a really specific demographic and learning about how environmental factors influence the way that kids grow and how that affects their ability to navigate life–especially if they have special needs.”

Art was always something that had Fleurette’s attention and was certainly a field of interest: she just did not feel like it was something she could pursue. Instead, she tried to marry all her interests together. “I’ve always been somewhat artsy and into creative things but didn’t give myself the freedom to explore that: I felt like there was this really important link to expression and healing. I would incorporate collage exercises and journaling with the kids I was working with and see the ways that they would open up. I started to think that maybe I should go back to school and get a Masters in Art Therapy. I started to do prerequisites for that which is how I ended up in the studio art classes.”

She took community college courses to fulfill her prerequisites for a Masters program. While taking these classes, a change occurred. “Something kind of came alive,” she says, grabbing a piece of fruit. “I realized that I still wanted to engage the world through a social lens but, maybe, it didn’t have to be therapeutic but through my own expression of these ideas and things that I’m seeing on a social level.”

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With a new sense of empowerment, Fleurette quit her job, built up a portfolio, and applied to Art Center, completely overhauling her life to focus on art and getting a BFA. Although the idea of going back to school was slightly ridiculous to her, she knew it was necessary. “Who goes and gets another Bachelors degree??” she jokes. “Because I had no art background at all (other than these few classes), I felt like I had a lot of ideas but I didn’t have the tools to express them and execute them. I wanted to develop my concept a little more because I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I didn’t know if it would be through painting or drawing or what. Because of that, I applied to the illustration department since it was more skills based. Maybe I should have applied to the fine art department since it was more concept driven but, because I was new, it seemed logical to me to develop skills first.”

Fleurette dedicated the last year and a half of her studies to fine art classes. She finished school nearly a year ago and has spent her time art making, which she makes in conceptual groupings. “It all starts with an idea that begins with walking and documenting. All of my work is site specific and I always have to be on foot. I used to take pictures from my car but I felt like that wasn’t engaging enough.”

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“There’s something really vulnerable about being on foot and taking photos and having to deal with people looking at you and asking you why you are taking photos. That interaction is really interesting to me because I don’t like it and it takes me out of the process–but it’s necessary because the work is about community and it is about understanding the areas and the spaces I want to document in my paintings. Those interactions inform how I make the work as well: they are as much about the people as they are about the actual structures.”

After photographing and exploring a place, she then processes this visual information of neighborhoods and buildings and uses them for paintings. There are a few ways she does this. “There can be a very literal translation as far as the way that the layers are physically built up for a piece,” she says. “For example, the project I’m about to start, I’m looking at surfaces and walls and looking at all the levels of information that give the history of the surface. It starts with the person who covered the graffiti with paint to the spray paint to the intended painted layer and then the wall and then the beams: all those layers build up to the surface. I’m going to make my paintings in the same way and maybe even with the same materials, which is an almost literal translation.”

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“In other ways its more abstract. For example, the last body of work I did on Downtown: there’s a lot of color in those pieces. It’s abrasive and loud and aggressive and that is directly related to being in my [old] studio in Downtown. The area was intense, visually and audibly. Everything was active and aggressive. So the color is assaulting the viewer the same way the that I felt the senses were assaulting me. This might also be literal but it’s a bit more abstract.”

“Downtown is really interesting, though. I love the energy of it–but its also overstimulating. You’re just bombarded with so much.”

In many ways, Fleurette finds that what she is doing now is a response to being from Los Angeles and having worked in a very socially aware world: everything is connected. “History propels my work because that is the lens I look at the world through. I wouldn’t know what to paint if I didn’t have that other, social background. I kind of approach my practice from a sociological standpoint. I look at all the different factors involved and the system I’m seeing and the art is just a translation of that. The art is a byproduct of what I’m experiencing and I don’t think I would be able to create without that background.”

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“It’s a way for me to grow and make sense of things,” she clarifies.

Even though Fleurette has been in Los Angeles her whole life, she feels that this city is a place that still needs so much exploration because it is so big. It’s also pretty perfect, in her opinion. “I love experiencing other cultures and other cities and I feel like I would be fine picking up and moving somewhere but I just haven’t. I can’t think of a better city, which I know is a very LA egocentric thing to say. This is just such a fascinating place to me—and there is so much that is constantly unraveling and revealing itself. I’ve lived here my whole life and I still don’t get it. I don’t know why I would leave and try to figure out another city. There’s so much to this town! It’s complicated and there are a lot of things going on here that I’m really interested in.”

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“The weather’s nice, too–but it’s not that,” she adds. “There are a lot of problems: there are issues with this city that I don’t like. They’re interesting issues and worth looking at: why not look at them?”

Fleurette is hoping to attend graduate school next year and has been applying to various local programs. “I’m applying for my MFA now! I can’t get enough of school, apparently,” she jokes. “I don’t know if I’m going to get in: they’re all really good, competitive schools with great programs. I definitely want to stay in LA.”

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She’s also beginning work on a new project that is pushing her in a different direction. She’s even toying with branching out into different mediums, too. “I love painting and I feel at home painting but I would love to do something more dimensional–maybe even video based. I take a lot of photographs and videos but I don’t feel comfortable accessing that since I don’t feel trained in it: I would love to make a video, time based installation. I need to take some type of editing class first, though. It makes sense because so much of my work is about photography and photo transfers and film. Instead of it being a part of the process, it should have a more present role. I’m not sure how to make that happen just yet.”

“Things are going to a more abstract place, too,” she says. “The explosion of color is going to go way. I’m trying to focus on the subtly of color by being more selective and intentional with how the color is used, how it functions.”

For more on Fleurette, be sure to check out her website. She also has an upcoming show on May 11 in Eagle Rock titled A Window Between Worlds, a group show benefiting art therapy. It will be at Curve Line Space and there will be a reception on the 11th from 4PM to 9PM. Oh! Fleurette also got into USC’s art MFA program, too: congratulations!

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