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A (third) eye for detail

Artist Julie Speed brings her meticulous 'visions' to her paintings and other art pieces. By Antoine Sanfuentes.
/ Source: NBC News producer

High in the sky there was a big meeting. The entomologist J.H Fabre brought his collection of bees, natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, his collection of animal gravures and Johannes Vermeer his latest portrait. They argued for a while and then finally agreed that someone would find a way to combine their lifelong efforts. What they came up with was built for Speed.

Artist Julie Speed relishes the challenge. Speed, 52, wears a green flight suit, long graying braids fall past her shoulders and her deep blue eyes electrify with attitude. She is hysterically funny, irreverent and easy going. She mainly deals in oil, collage and gouache. The finest brush strokes in some cases can only be seen with a magnifying glass. But don’t be fooled, it goes way beyond her ability to capture detail. The humor-filled relationships between man and animal, religion, and most things that cause us to love and hate, fill her canvasses. But ultimately her “ability to just be eyes and hands” is what makes her work so extraordinary and powerful.

Dr. Edmund P. Pillsbury, art historian and director of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum, has been following Speed’s work in Texas for years.

“You are struck with the originality of her vision her humor her breadth of interest,” Pillsbury said. “She’s like a great songwriter and she’s married to a musician and what do songwriters try to do? They try to come with words, and with melodies, they try to come up with something that strikes a universal chord, and with her images and her juxtaposition of images, and with her appropriation of different sources and ideas and mediums into her work.”

Screenwriter Bill Wittliff, whose credits include “Lonesome Dove,” “Legends of the Fall” and “The Perfect Storm,” who also happens to be a master photographer, art collector and co-founder with his wife Sally of the Southwestern Writers Collection, form part of Speed’s inner art circle.

“I think of Julie’s paintings in terms of content and they never really hit you with their full force in the consciousness but rather in the subconsciousness, that’s really where Julie’s pictures have the most impact,” Wittliff said. “Sometimes that’s a problem with Julie’s stuff, it’s only when you start to think about it that it gets dangerous, you know if you just accept with gratitude what it brings to you from an internal standpoint, rather than get it all fussed up trying to intellectualize on symbols and stuff.”

Her studio is strewn with tidbits of thoughts. A torn picture of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon from a news magazine, pictures of various faces in different states of grimace, future paintings scrawled on scraps of paper pierced with razor blades stuck to the wall. There is also an old trunk full of pictures of animals and objects to be matched together in concert someday.

“It's like a big puzzle game and I play it all at once — almost always doing the collages in a series because I change the whole studio over for it — opening up the trunk where I keep all my old paper and the drawers where I keep all the junk and then just cutting, sorting and pasting,” Speed said. “One thing leads to another. I'm not allowed to copy anything, blow it up or down or cut up any good books so if I need an image I don't have then I paint it in with gouache. I use gouache because it's opaque.

“There are a lot of places in the work where I need to blend the old engravings I'm using with the paint that I'm altering them with so I use little tiny brushes dipped in sepia to match up the engraving lines. The collage pieces often spill over into three dimensions. ”

“She is a collector, a gatherer of thoughts and things; material things that will go together,” Pillsbury said. “Things small and large, she salivates at the thought that someday there will be a bond between them, but this is process that comes in time. She will not simply place them, they will each have a role to play, carefully orchestrated and arranged straight from the subconscious, as simple as that.”

In way she has the ultimate lens with the ideal focal length and perfect aperture. Just ask photographer Keith Carter.

“It's just that both her painting and her ideas have evolved as to both stagger you with their charm and craft and at the same time whack you on the head with their weirdly unconscious surrealistic imaginings,” Carter said. “They're supernatural, political, religious and anthropomorphic. At the same time she talks the same way she paints.  I mean, if you have a conversation with her, the same images come out of her mouth. ”

A visit with Speed, her husband Fran Christina and their parrot Vito at their house in Austin is a splendid adventure. It provides the perfect sanctuary behind a giant stonewall. Inside, the walls are adorned with work from her co-conspirators Wittliff, Kate Breakey, Carter and American folk artists, as well as some of her own keepers — collages and oils. A real artist’s bric-a-brac, animal skulls, bird houses and an old guitar body that once belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughan leaning against the wall.   

Speed has steadily built a small group of enthusiastic collectors, including actor Johnny Depp, always eager to acquire the latest “Speed.” But beyond Texas the art world has yet to take notice and for Julie there is no interest on her part to leave her room.

“I don't worry so much about being kept from the outside world as I do about how to keep it out,” Speed said. Except for occasional showings, she is content to do what she does in her studio.

“Work like mine has not been at all acceptable in the ‘art world’ for a really really long time so I'm very lucky to have a group of individual collectors who don't much care. It might be starting to change lately but I'm not sure if it will or not. The status quo seems pretty entrenched.”

Though her work could easily fall into the category of American Surrealism, Speed prefers to think of it as “para”-realism.

“Surrealism comes with baggage — manifestos and proclamations and a bunch of crap,” said Speed. “[Joseph] Cornell wasn't really a part of that and he's my favorite. Usually when people say surrealism they're thinking of Dali's melting watches and he was another font of theories — anyway, it's "sur" realism because that's "over" or "above" realism. I don't think my paintings are "above" realism. I think they could be better described as "para" or "alongside" realism — although they might be unlikely, they're not generally impossible. The collages are another matter entirely and I suppose they can be described as surrealistic but it's a club that I'd really rather not join.”

Working in overdriveSpeed’s mind is always working in overdrive as she soaks up all that she reads and sees.

For her there is no escaping today’s violence and turmoil. September 11 had a huge impact.

“When they said the people were holding hands in twos and threes to jump out the window that was when I went out to my room, which was all set up for collage which is the reason 911 is a collage and gouache — it took three days to finish,” Speed said.

More recently she began a series that reflects the violence in the Middle East. “It is horrifying to me that I'm working on a ‘Still Life with Suicide Bomber’ series. I would rather be working on almost anything else,” she said.

A beautifully arranged still life, a vase with three sunflowers, two pears and a bloody ear conspicuously placed on the blue table cloth. She is fascinated with the Zaka of Israel, the ultra-orthodox volunteer force detailed to work with the ambulances that scramble to the aftermaths of suicide bombings. Jewish law requires that every body part be collected for burial, even fruits and vegetables that may have been splashed with blood must be buried as well. There is no shock value here, as it happens often in the Middle East, bystanders living their daily lives while interrupted by horrific violence.

She is also fascinated with cultures that consecrate human corpses to vultures to be transported into the afterlife. There is a fine thread that links Speed’s interest in history to today’s taboos.

And if you find her works to be uncomfortable: “I think, if anything I blunt the edges a bit,” Speed said. “Half of western art history is pictures of Christ nailed to a cross or various saints being martyred in one bloody way or another. I think I'm pretty tame.”

“She is not interested in whimsy, she is not interested in almost poetic things, she is really interested in real issues,” Pillsbury said. “She’s interested in politics, she is interested in the commercial world in which we live, she is interested in social conditions, she is interested in the environment, she is interested in all sorts of ways people interact, she is interested in marriage, she is interested in the problems we face everyday.”

Madness of method
Speed is a stickler about her work, taking up to six weeks at times to complete her paintings. Many magnifying glasses, razor blades and ultra-fine paint brushes adorn her high-ceiling, well-lit studio. She spends hours if not days prepping for her collages; cutting out pictures of fish or military scenes from discarded antique books.

Minute detail is the hallmark of her paintings, such as “The Chalkboard,” “Queen of My Room II” or “The Holy See.” It is how the ideas are manifested, conceived and conveyed that makes Speed so intriguing. The “visions” that ultimately end up in one of her different pieces come to her perhaps during a long distance drive in West Texas or long soak in her bathtub.

The images in her compositions jump out at the viewer. Her ability to use color is what makes these pieces so real. 

“Red, in particular cadmium red, is just a pleasure to paint with so I try to use it as often as possible,” Speed said. “Clerical garments are a great excuse and there aren't many. Who else gets to wear red? Only whores and Santa Claus. However I get crushes on other colors too. Just like the crushes you get on a particular person or song or how sometimes you just want to eat spinach every night for a month and then you don't want it any more for a while. But cadmium red is my longest running crush. It's also poison and the government tried at one time to outlaw its manufacture. Thank God they didn't succeed. They keep trying to outlaw all my favorite poisons.”

One of her signatures is the use of the third “eye.”

“There is a couple of reasons for the extra eye,” Speed explained. “The most obvious is that it's a useful way for me to show more than one expression at a time on a person's face — usually we are thinking more than one thing at a time. ... I may worry about death by mad cow at the same time I am wondering if we are out of peanut butter. The extra eye also gives most people a sort of dislocated headachy feeling.

“My totally unscientific theory is that the reason for the headache is that our brains are heavily invested in the assumption that all humans have two eyes. Because of that assumption, [the brain] is trying like crazy to square what its eyes are seeing (a face with 3 eyes) with what it assumes to be true.”

The human animal
Sometimes it is hard to tell who rules in Speed’s animal kingdom. At times the animals seem wiser, using humans as mere props. “My feeling is that humans are just another species of animal,” Speed said. “You might say that it's the foreknowledge of death that separates us from them but I'm not so sure. We used to think it was the use of tools and we found we were wrong. I have seen horses mourn their dead. I have seen a cat that was burned because she ran into a burning building to save her kittens. Certainly they don't fetishes it the way we do, but I'm not sure if it's true that they have no inkling.”

Photographer Keith Carter shares Speed’s passion for animals. His images give horses, dogs, even elephants mystical qualities.

“My idea of heaven on Earth would be to have been present with a camera when Noah loaded all the animals of the world onto the ark,” Carter said. “I would make a picture of everything and everybody together in a hopeful peaceable kingdom.  Julie would paint the whole thing on fire and Noah would have a third eye and a rat peeking out from under his hat.

“Her early lifestyle of living in the boonies put her in close proximity to animals.  She uses them in her paintings both as symbols and as ‘messengers,’ so to speak, to another world, to another consciousness finished differently from our own.  I know this to be true because I try to do the same thing.  However, with the type of photography I practice, I try to find it in the real world. I get a little jealous that she gets to imagine it. I want to photograph everything she imagines.”