Beyond Paint

How do these artists use unexpected materials to express their ideas?

Mary Weatherford (b. 1963), double wave at Windansea, 2015. Flashe and neon on linen. 

©Mary Weatherford/Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

How does Weatherford capture the feeling of being at the beach?


The hardware store. The thrift store. The salon. Where do you shop for art supplies? And do you think about what meaning the materials you select can add to your work? Materials carry meaning and can often help viewers understand the ideas an artist is exploring. 

The three contemporary artists featured on these pages work with unconventional materials. What messages do the artists convey, and how do the materials they use support or emphasize their ideas?

Think about something you’d like to draw. Now consider whether you’d rather draw it in chalk, crayon, or colored pencil. Do any of these materials mean something to you? How might each one make viewers see your drawing differently?

Materials are often meaningful to people. They can help viewers understand the ideas an artist is exploring. The three artists featured here work with unusual materials such as hair, light bulbs, and fabric scraps. What messages do they convey? 

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir/Shoplifter (b. 1969), Hair sculpture, 2004. 

©Björk/Inez van Lamsweerde and Vindoodh Matadin.

What does Shoplifter do to ask questions about beauty?

Light Bulb Moment

How do you convey the mood of a place in an abstract painting? At first, California artist Mary Weatherford used layers of color and texture to achieve that goal. But she sometimes felt that she hadn’t quite captured the essence of the places that inspired her works.

One night, after noticing how a glowing neon sign gave depth to the natural light and colors of the surrounding area, she began adding neon bulbs to her paintings to achieve the same effect. Depending on the painting, Weatherford uses pink, yellow, orange, blue, or other neon bulbs.

In her 2015 double wave at Windansea, top image, which was inspired by the ocean waves near Windansea Beach in California, Weatherford uses a blue neon bulb. The artificial light bounces off the layers of paint to help create the feeling of the state’s unique coastal light.

California artist Mary Weatherford makes abstract paintings inspired by places she has visited. But how do you capture the mood of a place without showing it realistically? At first, Weatherford tried layering color and texture. But she didn’t always feel like she had truly portrayed a place’s mood. 

One night, Weatherford noticed a glowing neon sign. She liked how it enhanced the natural light and colors of the surrounding area. She began adding neon bulbs to her paintings to achieve the same effect. Weatherford has used pink, yellow, orange, blue, or other neon bulbs. 

The ocean waves near Windansea Beach in California inspired her 2015 double wave at Windansea, top image. Weatherford uses a blue neon bulb. The artificial light reflects off the layers of paint. This helps to recreate the feeling of the light along the California coast. 

Sonia Gomes (b. 1948), Gaiola, 2016. Sewing, binding, fabrics and lace over cage, wire and wood. ©Sonia Gomes/Courtesy of Sonia Gomes and Mendes Wood DM São Paulo, Brussels, New York.

How does Gomes reflect the past in a contemporary way?

New Life for Found Objects

In school, Sonia Gomes learned that “not everything is art, but art can be anything.” She applies this to her own art. Gomes creates work from fabrics she finds or that people give her. She also uses wire, driftwood, old birdcages, and other found objects. 

Gomes was born in the Brazilian town of Caetanópolis. She ties, twists, stuffs, and sews her sculptures into organic, or curved, shapes. They reflect Afro-Brazilian culture and history. Caetanópolis was once an important textile manufacturing center. 

The artist made Gaiola, above, in 2016. Gomes stitches a sculpture and places it inside a birdcage. She wants viewers to think about the meaning of freedom and racism in Brazil. The country didn’t abolish slavery until 1888.

Gomes creates art by upcycling, or reusing materials to make something new. The materials honor local traditions. They “bring the history of the people that they belonged to and I give a new significance to them,” Gomes says.

In school, Sonia Gomes learned that “not everything is art, but art can be anything.” She applies this to her own art. Gomes creates work from fabrics she finds or that people give her. She also uses wire, driftwood, old birdcages, and other found objects. 

Gomes was born in the Brazilian town of Caetanópolis. She ties, twists, stuffs, and sews her sculptures into organic, or curved, shapes. They reflect Afro-Brazilian culture and history. Caetanópolis was once an important textile manufacturing center. 

The artist made Gaiola, above, in 2016. Gomes stitches a sculpture and places it inside a birdcage. She wants viewers to think about the meaning of freedom and racism in Brazil. The country didn’t abolish slavery until 1888.

Gomes creates art by upcycling, or reusing materials to make something new. The materials honor local traditions. They “bring the history of the people that they belonged to and I give a new significance to them,” Gomes says.

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