It was a Tuesday evening and I headed Northwest of the city over to Sherman Phoenix, a community space in the Sherman Park neighborhood that is dedicated to small businesses-of-color that offer diverse foods, wellness services and cultural activities.
But on this visit I wasn’t there for the food or the shops I was there to spend some time getting to know local Milwaukee artist, Ariana Vaeth. I shot her a text telling her I was in the building, apologizing for over estimating the drive and arriving too early for our meeting. She wasn’t bothered and appeared from down and around the corner quickly to greet me.
In enters Ariana. Green curls. Yellow sweater. Galactic looking leggings. Friendly smile. We share a hug like friends greeting one another. She briefly shows me around the Sherman Phoenix community space before leading us both back down the stairs she had come from to the basement level where all of the artists’ studio spaces live.
As I drop all of my things down onto the couch in her studio, Ariana works on cleaning out her paint brushes. She then moves onto tacking up a bedsheet over the window on the door before we settle into our conversation. The bedsheet secures privacy and pulls her attention into the space so she can work.
Down in her studio space in the basement of Sherman Phoenix, I stand in awe of her life-size paintings. This reaction isn’t new to me. I’ve awed over Ariana’s work for years via Instagram (@arianavaeth) but seeing her work in real life (and in her studio no less) was a total treat.
Ariana prefers to paint on a large scale. Which is evident by her paintings that are literally larger than herself. Each one of her paintings is painted on a 4’x6’ canvas. She admits that painting smaller pieces is much more difficult, which seem backwards to me…but that’s because I fear making a mistake on the canvas. A big mistake. I expressed how for some reason I’ve always viewed paint as a permanent medium. Ariana laughs. She knows better than I do that it is the opposite. Paint is playful.
“I paint better bigger”
Okay, fair enough. I asked if she always wanted to be a painter: “When I first started painting, I was like, this is the best. This is the best kind of making material for me. I liked how with painting you could go back and forth. Make little pieces and big pieces. The freedom to make the color you need to make it was really delicious. When I think of painting, I am like, oh you can make as many mistakes as you want.”
Painting. Delicious. Mistakes. Love that.
I had to dig deeper into understanding just how the hell Ariana creates these incredible paintings. Here’s the process:
First, she takes a couple hundred photos of her and her friends posed in a candid shot. She picks the pieces she likes most and Photoshops them together into a kind of performance scene. In her own words, “it’s a kind of way to play up the drama of it.” Then, she paints.
It’s pretty clear that Ariana loves to explore painting the human body and the human experience. She pulls her inspiration from her closest friends. Each of her paintings feature herself and a friend or lover or both. She’s no stranger to being immersed in her art. Literally. Ariana is often featured in her pieces. In fact, we talked a lot about that.
“You’re just your most reliable model,” she told me.
She’s right. You’re supposed to know you best.
Ariana realized at an early age how relationships affected her life and her art.. That is why, other than herself, her best friends are her greatest models in her large-scale paintings today. She makes it clear in our conversation that they are what makes these pieces happen.
“I am very lucky to have these people in my life."
Ariana’s paintings take her about two months or so to complete. Each painting is like a little snippet from the diary of Ariana and her friends’ lives. They truly are theatrical and like real-life all at once. They’re expressive.
“I always try to include all of the hands and feet, because that’s an additional avenue of expression.”
As we chatted, we sat on the floor, casually, like friends. It was the perfect setting to parallel her pieces. I wondered what a painting of our conversation might look like. I glance over at her latest piece. She’s sprawled out in a bath tub. We are sprawled out on the floor. Paralleled.
We talked about her history with her art, her story and what brought her to Milwaukee in the first place.
For a young artist, Ariana has been around the art block. She is originally from Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended art schools growing up.
She found her way to Milwaukee in 2013 when she started attending MIAD. But her education took her back to Maryland for an exchange program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). She ended up graduating from MIAD in 2017, teaching her first course at MIAD in Spring 2018, and continues to stay present as much as she can within the walls of MIAD today.
“Leaving Milwaukee and being spit into another place gave me the critiques I needed. It was great going to another school because no one knew me. I had to think of new ways to communicate and present myself.”
Constant growth. That seemed to be a theme throughout our conversation. It was refreshing to get perspective by someone younger than myself and someone that, quite frankly, I admire a lot as an artist.
After graduation, she had some shows lined up and had some internships under her belt. She also was in a position for a job, which didn’t end up working out. As sometimes they do.
“That was the best summer of my life,” she says about not getting that job.
She’s since stayed in Milwaukee. Her recent adventures included applying for fellowships.
In 2017 she received the Mary L. Nohl: Emerging Artist award which helped propel her art career and helped her meet new people and connect.
Also, in 2017, Ariana was a finalist for the Pfister Hotel’s Artist-in-Residence. She admits that at first this was a blow that she didn’t get it. But she is practiced in seeing the brighter side of things and finding new perspectives.
“I am really grateful that I didn’t get it and I think it’s all supposed to be kind of like this. That’s how I think about situations: When I don’t get something, it’s okay, it’s okay. It wasn’t supposed to happen and that means something else is supposed to happen.”
I have no doubt something else will happen for Ariana.