I have enormous respect for contemporary artist and former partner in Alvin and Associates with famed cinema artist John Alvin, Andrea Alvin, and so I spoke to her about her great new piece, Samuel’s Candy Canes.
She has been actively working as both a commercial and contemporary artist since the 70s. With her partner John, she was part of creating iconic movie posters like the ones for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and more recently, the advance for Tim Burton’s Batman. All the while, she was honing her style and aesthetic as a contemporary artist focusing on nostalgic imagery. After losing John suddenly to a heart attack in 2008, she wrote a successful book about his career, The Art of John Alvin, and is now slowly getting back to her own work. Andrea Alvin is creating intensely evocative paintings of objects that bring us back to our childhood memories, through visually considering and sharing memories of her own.
Her new image called “Samuel’s Candy Canes”, inspired by candy in Samuel’s Sweet Shop, in Rhinebeck, New York, is both a celebration of the season, and a choice to lean into joy, regardless of the time of year or the darkness of our current circumstances. I spoke to Andrea about this new piece, her career, working with her famous husband John Alvin, and her perspective still creating, 40 years later, while continuing to change as a person and an artist:
LC: You went to school with John, right?
Andrea Alvin: Yes, I went to Art Center College of Design, and actually I was a few years ahead of him.
LC: How did your aesthetic develop for nostalgic realism? Or is that how you’d describe your art?
AA: When I first started coming back to painting, I was stuck. I didn’t know what to paint. A friend of mine said, “Oh my god, your house is so full of stuff! Collectibles, and all kinds of things everywhere…why don’t you just paint your stuff?” That’s how I started just going around with my camera and editing through the camera and taking pictures and painting those scenes. In a lot of them it just was a view of homey-ness and somebody’s things. We had a lot of collectibles and toys around the house, so it started that way. As I started to refine it, I started thinking about what made me happy to look at, and what I wanted to say, I realized having my major in school in advertising design, I’ve always been focused on popular culture as it relates to advertising, and growing up as a kid in the 50s it made a real mark on me. One of the things I realized is there are a lot of iconic things in our everyday lives that were iconic then and are iconic even now. That’s where I started trying to focus on Americana and what was very American. What makes us who we are. What was interesting to me and special to me as a kid and what is also special to my daughter, or a younger generation. Or my grandson.
LC: When you say you were returning to painting, what do you mean?
AA: I graduated from school, and worked in animation up until John’s career started taking off, and then I had my daughter Farah. When she was able to go to school for a couple of hours a day, is when I started painting again. So that was in the late 70s.
LC: What did you see as nostalgic then?
AA: I don’t know about nostalgia then, because the things that were nostalgic to me where going back to the 50s. What happened inadvertently was some of the paintings I painted then are still or maybe even more evocative now. Like “Wow! I remember Peanut Butter Boppers!” Those are gone now. Or “That wallpaper sure is ugly but boy, do I remember it being popular in the 70s”…those things are very nostalgic now.
LC: How did or does being a women in art influence your style or perspective, would you say, or does it?
AA: I never thought about it that there was a limitation for me. The only limitation that I thought of was I didn’t want to be a teacher. That’s what I was told repeatedly as a woman in art. I had to be a teacher. When I was a teenager, and came to New York on a visit, pretty much one of the only artists I remember seeing was Marisol, who you barely hear about any more. There just were very few woman artists around. I still never thought I couldn’t do it because I was a woman.
LC: What about working with or at the same time as John. He was such a well-known artist in his industry. That had to be interesting, or a challenge. There are a lot of elements in the finished posters of his or of Alvin and Associates that are your work.
AA: Right. I’m the “Associates”…It was very difficult. John was the kind of artist as an illustrator, that if you asked him to paint a train in perspective coming over a hill with a haunted house, he’d just sit down and sketch it, and it looked pretty good! I can’t do that, or maybe I could if I concentrated really, really hard, but that’s not how I worked.
I’m have to be more deliberate and know how I’ll proceed. It made me nervous about painting because if I was going to paint, what was it going to be, and if I paint realism with John around, how is that going to work? Am I going to be compared to him? I just had to put blinders on and paint. We had different approaches. He would say to me, “Why don’t you do several sketches and then do them in color and go from there?” and I’d just think I would never get anywhere that way! I’d never get the painting done. So I’d say “Good idea” to him and “No.” to myself and keep my blinders on and go on to how I wanted to do it. Where being around him was super helpful and what I miss horribly every day is having that other set of eyes when I could say “I’m stuck. I know I need something. Something’s wrong and I can’t figure out what it is.” or the other thing was asking “Is this painting finished?” It’s always a tough call for artists and it’s so important to have someone you respect you can ask about that.
LC: I do remember John speaking of your talent often with respect and appreciation. He was, as many artists are, a bundle of neuroses, but always very clear about his belief in you.
AA: I think the big difference in our approaches is that John always wanted to be an illustrator. He wanted to tell stories. That’s why he was so well-suited for the movies. I don’t have a problem coming up with and painting things I wanted to paint, whereas when he was left completely open like that, I think he struggled.
LC: You’ve had some success creating official images for Disney and Warner Brothers, but you have found so much more freedom in creating your own work with imagery that sings to you and speaks to your own memories. Can you talk a bit about the new painting “Samuel’s Candy Canes” and how that came together?
AA: What’s so interesting is that is was just last night that there was a festival in Rhinebeck called Sinterklaas where there are thousands of people coming into our little town and there are activities for children and carolers and it turns the town into a Norman Rockwell Christmas and it’s really beautiful and then there’s a parade. It’s like a Mardi Gras parade, with giant puppets done by Sinterklaas creator Jeanne Fleming, the same woman that does them for the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. One of the first years I went to Sinterklaas was shortly after John had died. I brought my 35mm camera and I was taking a lot of pictures. It was just kind of a magical night. One friend I went with earlier in the evening and then she had to go, and I found other friends who walked with me for a while, and just when I was about to go home, another friend asked me to go to dinner. It was one of those incredible nights where I was worried about being alone and people just showed up for me. I took some great pictures that night. I dug them back up. I was trying to figure out where to go next in terms of subject, because I was tired of coming in really close like the cupcake or the cookie, so I went back to those old photos. There was this great quality of light in them. The candy canes were inside a store called Samuel’s, which was owned by a guy names Ira. We were just visiting with Ira and went in and took pictures in the candy store and Ira then passed away a few years ago in a very similar way that John had. He was close to the same age, had a heart attack, he was getting his life together…so it was a perfect thing to create art from being with him that night and those beautiful candies.
The store was bought by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Paul Rudd. They own the candy store now. They wanted to keep the store as Samuels, keep it the same and they figured if they didn’t buy it, someone else would buy it and turn it into something else and it would be gone forever. So I think that, by them, was motivated by nostalgia and just loving what the store stood for and what it meant to the town. That’s kind of the story. I went in there last night, and the bucket that they were in was still there. It’s different, but it’s still there.
LC: One of the great aspects of the art is it doesn’t just speak of the holidays. There’s an element of speaking to holding on to joy and of optimism. I also see an interesting connection to the time you were still in the midst of grief and found kindness.
AA: I realize inadvertently looking back at my work that lighting, especially since I moved to New York, lighting is very important in the paintings. Most of the photo-realism, and it’s difficult to call my work photo-realism, but most of the realists I know aren’t concerned with that, they’re concerned with the surface quality. I always have some background light that’s enveloping the subject. Yes, it’s happy, because you see that it’s candy canes and holiday, but the lighting is warm. It’s like fireside lighting. There’s a warmth to the lighting that’s different than if I were saying, “Look! This is a happy, happy candy cane painting.” It’s warm. Most things I see around the holidays with that subject matter would be in bright light, very Christmas-y kind of colors. This is darker than that. It’s almost like we’re sitting by the fireside, not at Christmas, but rather, reminiscing about holidays gone by, and holding on to those memories.
LC: Was that a conscious thing, to create an image that is about moving forward in the face of loss?
AA: Honestly, I don’t know.
LC: I think as artists, you guys sometimes get to a place with a piece, not knowing when you start, where you meant to go, but having gotten there, you realize that was the intention all along. Like the idea of knowing when it’s done, somewhat comes from having gotten the message into the art, and seeing it fully formed. I know you have a deluxe giclee that is hand-embellished, and you’re doing it, when often artists farm out embellishments. Why is it important to you to do it yourself? I know John was the same way about doing his own.
AA: It’s my work and I really wouldn’t want someone else going in and doing some kind of odd interpretation on it. John and I were both very hands-on. It’s why we wanted to be the people who created the art instead of the art director who guided someone else doing the art. We’ve both been art directors. I think that I look at it from the beginning from that point of view. On compositions, I have a tendency to push the boundaries of the canvas. There’s almost a tangency to the sides. I think my compositions can be unusual. It comes from my design background.
LC: In “Samuel’s Candy Canes”, you get two different feelings visually, one up close and one a bit further away. That’s cool, and that’s part of your style.
AA: Right. Great! I want people to see the brushstrokes. I don’t want to have it look like a photograph when you see the art in person. It looks like a photograph online. It looks very photographic, and they resolve photographically when you stand back from my work. When you go up close, you see all the brushwork, I’m not trying to hide it, I want it to be part of the image.