Credits: interview by Christina Elia for Thirdrail Art - Images by: John Domine and @walkinggirlnyc
All-powerful demons, goblins, and warrior women command Grooseling’s body of work. After admiring her illustrations from afar in New York, we had the opportunity to meet in Mexico while she completed a mural for the Akumal Arts Festival. Our interview soon became muffled by the chatter of local children in awe of her adorable monkeys. As she finished the final layer, I asked the artist for context on her new Frida Kahlo portrait. Grooseling put down her can to tell me more about her artistic practice.
When did you start painting?
I’ve been painting with brushes since I was very little, but with spray paint for four years. I studied illustration at Parsons and graduated in 2013. Then I worked part-time in a gallery for a while, while pursuing art on the side. I’ve been pursuing art full-time since 2016.
Are you from New York? How did you get involved with the street art scene there?
I am from New York State. I grew up in Westchester, about an hour outside the city. When I worked at the gallery, we had a couple of spaces around Williamsburg for artists to paint, so my boss gave me a spot on this little door. I painted with brushes. That was the first time I created something on the street and I liked the experience. I really enjoyed having people stop to talk to me, having something that lived somewhere else. I continued messing around a bit with some other walls. In 2016, Ramiro Davaro-Comas invited me to be an artist on the first-ever Dripped on The Road trip. That was the first time I had ever done multiple murals, really pursued it, and spent time with other muralists watching them paint. That really helped me learn how to use the medium.
How did you get involved with Dripped on The Road?
When I worked at the Cotton Candy Machine Gallery in Williamsburg, Ramiro showed art with us. We became friends and started following each other’s work. After I left that job, I did two artist residencies, so Ramiro knew it was something I’d be into. I’m used to sharing space with people - I have three older siblings and grew up going to camp.
Was your style the same then?
Yes, I was painting a lot of “women warriors,” which I still do. Beasts too…pretty much the same subject matter. Because it’s a medium I’m not as comfortable with as brush painting, I like to find ways to plan murals that include elements of something I’ve done before, so I can stay in my comfort zone, but also add something that will also make it a challenge. For me doing anything big is a challenge, because I still paint murals somewhat rarely. I do more studio work - on canvas, panel, drawings.
Which do you prefer?
I really like doing both. I love being alone and having a lot of time to work on something in the studio. I actually like people not seeing work in progress until I want them too. But that’s something I think is really good about working on the streets. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s nice for people to see it as it’s happening. I think anything that takes you out of your comfort zone is positive. Murals are physically demanding in a way that painting in my studio isn’t, which feels really good. At the end of the day, you really feel like you did something.
What are some themes you incorporate into your work?
It’s pretty much always women with demons, which tends to mean a manifestation of inner demons and inner anxieties. I tried to create powerful women at a time where I wasn’t feeling very powerful myself. I was basically creating role models for myself, creating women that were tough in ways I felt like I wasn’t. That really helped build up my confidence and I started to feel tougher.
How does illustration inspire your work?
I like illustration because it’s narrative-based. It tells stories and helps you imagine worlds that don’t exist. A lot of people my age grew up watching cartoons, and I’m really inspired by the things I watched or read as a child. So yes, I’m influenced by illustration, but I also like a lot of work that isn’t like mine. I’ve always loved Medieval and religious art, even though I’m not religious at all. Like illuminated manuscripts. I love that stuff. Even though it is fine art, it’s also illustration because there is a narrative there. Some of that art was created for people who couldn’t read, so it was meant to tell stories. Communication is the whole point. And I love art that shows things that don’t exist. I admire a lot of hyper-realism and things I can’t do too. I think it’s really impressive. But in terms of what I like to create, I like depicting things that don’t exist in the real world. I play to my strengths. I’m not a hyper-realist painter.
Where do the concepts come from?
In my head. I’ve been keeping sketchbooks since I was really young, and I really just do them for fun to explore things. I write quotes and collect scrapbook material. Every so often, I go through sketchbooks and make mental notes of what kind of things I seem preoccupied with image-wise, and I try to find ways of including that in my work outside of the sketchbook. I paint creatures, demons, and some monsters. I’d like to work more on just plain patterns too. I’d like to try to create very different work. But because I do murals so rarely, when I get the chance to do one, always want to continue exploring the concepts that I’m focused on with my studio work instead of trying something totally new. Compared to a lot of people, I guess I paint a lot. But when you come to a mural festival like Akumal Arts Festival and meet people that paint a mural every week, I paint rarely comparatively. I paint one like every three or four months.
Why did you decide to paint Frida Kahlo for this mural?
Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite artists of all time and has been for much of my life. She’s had a lot of spine problems, I’ve had spine problems. She wore a back brace, I also wore one. When I was younger, I felt a big connection with her work. And her art is so illustrative as well - it tells stories, it’s funky and weird. She uses costume. That’s something I really like about painting women, having fun with jewelry and hair and that kind of stuff. This mural is riffing off her Self-Portrait With Monkeys, but it’s referencing a few different images. The hand earrings aren’t from that one, I kind of mix and match. Her shirt isn’t in any of them, but something I wanted to paint that felt in line with the costumes she wears. The exhibit of her work at the Brooklyn Museum had clothing and some of her back braces, which she used to paint on.
How do the monkeys fit in with Akumal’s conservationist theme?
There’s actually a monkey sanctuary here. I think there is the spirit of general conservation here. They’re taking care of the monkeys. My partner Ramiro and I are always looking for open calls, so that’s how we got involved with Akumal. He saw it online and applied. And we got in. It was such an awesome experience last year. The way they treated us was wonderful, the other artists were lovely - supportive, hard-working, and fun. I haven’t painted many festivals. Akumal is the only one I’ve done outside of the United States. I grew up going to summer camp, so it kind of felt like a grown-up art summer camp. It’s nice that some of the same people are here, but there are also new people. Last year, I painted a woman wearing a wolf headdress on the bridge. It was awesome, but a very demanding spot since it was so hot. That was the biggest thing I’ve ever painted.
Do you see a shift in your work from last year to now?
I think I get better every time I paint, especially in terms of my process. I get less frustrated now because I understand the medium more. I don’t mess up or get annoyed because I have to go over things, which makes the process easier. I also planned my colors this year. I did a sketch, and incorporated colors from the charts that the organizers sent us. I labeled them clearly on my sketch. Last year, I saw a lot of artists on their iPads planning their colors very specifically, and that inspired me. I didn’t plan that much last year.
How is this mural different from your other ones?
I actually never use human skin tones, but I decided to this time. Most of my characters seem like they’re not from this earth, so this is definitely a change. I also rarely paint someone that doesn’t have pointed ears. I like to do these elf fairy ears. But since it’s supposed to be a likeness, I’m doing something different. I’ve also never done a mural of a woman with creatures before. I think it’s a more dynamic composition than anything I’ve done before. I thought about it more. It’s so fun, I’m really happy with it. I’ve never painted monkeys or flowers like that. There are a couple of things I haven’t done that I wanted to try here.
Is there something specific about Akumal that inspires you?
There’s so much vegetation, which is not explicitly inspiring to my art, but just good for the soul, which is good for the art. There are so many animals around and I also really like that. I love being near the beach and hearing the ocean when I’m going to sleep, especially after a long day of painting. It just feels so nice to come back to that.