Artist Profile: Diane Santarella

For a couple years now we've wanted to start a project profiling artists. Being photographers, obviously the goal is to take compelling pictures but just as importantly, what we really want to do is have good conversation. We want to talk to artists about their process, what motivates them and what their art means to them. For us, it’s as much about learning as it is about making interesting portraits.  

With that in mind it was obvious for us that our first subject would be our dear friend Diane Santarella. Not only is she an extremely talented painter but she’s also just a pleasure to talk to. Her passion for the arts is infectious; she’s just as quick to talk about another artist who moves her as she is to talk about her own work. Creating art, painting in particular can be such a solitary pursuit so it’s a refreshing quality to have. 

When listening to Diane talk about art one word that looms large is authenticity. It’s something she looks for in the work of others and it’s clearly evident in all of her work as well. Whether her inspiration comes from her life long battles with migraines or her current fascination with the subtle beauty of oyster shells, there is a heart and authenticity unmistakable in each piece. 

Painting can be one of the most personal of art forms, especially with a style that is abstract or expressionist like Diane's. “Once you leave visual representation you lose part of the audience and that’s okay but you have to be willing to put yourself into the work for those that stay.”

And being an artist who puts so much of herself into her work does not come without consequences. Diane went through a period of several years where she had to take a break from painting altogether. She had some family affairs to attend to and she also wanted to go back to school full time. For artists who invest so much of themselves into their work, trying to do too many things at once can be detrimental.  

"I wanted to be in a place where I was fully able to commit the time and emotional attention and energy to the work. It is hard for me to paint in half measures," she says of that time. 

We wondered if it might have been hard to walk away from the some of notoriety and critical praise her work was receiving at the time but for Diane those things were always conflicting anyway.

“Attention and commercial success can change your relationship with your work. It can derail your own intention and if it doesn't work you can feel like you sold yourself… I was tired of competing against work I didn’t feel.”

The time away was good for her. She was able to turn her attention to other passions like jewelry making, floral design and massage therapy. It wasn’t until last summer that she felt inspired to pick up the brush again. She was accompanying her husband as he taught a watercolor workshop in Maine and found herself wanting to paint again.

“There was no deadline. There was no agenda or show to worry about.” She could paint for the sake of painting. She started enjoying the process again. At some point she found herself admiring the subtle waves and colors on the insides of oyster shells and used that as a starting point for the series of paintings she’s been working on since.

She now has a pretty sizable collection of oyster shells which she can’t help laugh about. She jokes that she’s afraid her husband might accidentally throw them out before she’s finished. 

But of course, she’s not sure when that end will be or what exactly she plans to do with the work when she’s done. Which brings us back to the main themes of authenticity and intent… Diane’s return to painting has been on her own terms. She's painting now simply because she has a deep need to create art… and what could be more authentic than that?

The day after our afternoon with Diane she emailed this quote from Seth Godin that sums up not only our conversation but the perspective we took away of Diane and her work:

"Art is a uniquely human endeavor, and act of genius. Art is what we do when we do something for the first time, do it uniquely, and do it to touch someone else. The generosity is built into the act. 

Painting might be art, pottery might be art, customer service might be art--but none of them are art if all you're doing is commerce, or phoning it in, or following a manual or a map.

Art is where we expose ourselves, because in addition to being human, we really have no choice but to accept failure. And it's failure (or the potential for failure) that creates art. 

When we talk about emulating the bodhisattva, we accept the risk that maybe we won't touch anyone, won't shed any light, won't make a difference.

The only way to do art, real art, is to embrace that risk. To do less is to hide."