At home with artist Claire Oswalt

Claire Oswalt
In the time since we first spoke with artist Claire Oswalt nearly two years ago, she’s had a tide of change: moving from Los Angeles back to her hometown in Austin, TX. Both a start and a return, we were intrigued by a conversation about spaciousness. What does it mean to create space in your life, be it the literality of an expansive landscape or slower pace…or just making the decision to move toward what fills you up? Instead of falling into the next chapter, what does it mean to turn the page yourself? Below, an afternoon with Claire at home, and a discussion on individual journeys, defining your own authentic, forging a new path.  
Interview by Leigh Patterson, photos by Kate LeSueur 

One thing you and I have talked a bit about is the decision to live in “other” cities, an intentional opting out of some things to opt in to others. Can we start here?
My need to leave LA was so personal in that I needed more time and more space to be both a mom and an artist. But both time and space seemed only to dwindle with each passing year. I alone needed to slow down the other parts of my life, find a little ease here and there in order to commit wholly to making art. My head was too clouded, and the overbearing, guilty feeling of always playing “catch up” is a horrible way to start a day in the studio. I was figuratively struggling for breath in a city where the air is notoriously bad, and seeking space in a town where parking and housing are hard to come by. In essence, the move was truly about finding space to reclaim myself - my memories, my interests, my values - in order to make better work. 
I kept repeating to my husband that I was no longer forming memories, and that was really freaking me out. I felt that every day was just running into the next, and I thought, how terrible would it be if I died with this feeling? 

What does it mean to return to someplace familiar? What freedoms come from this? What is surrendered? 
Dorothy Hood, a great Texan painter of the 1960’s, left Texas as a young girl and spent her young adult years in Mexico. Upon return to Texas in the late 60’s, she said she was following the Taoist advice to “live in the fruit, not the flower.” My younger self was dying to see the view from the top, to live in the flower. Getting out of the “Tex-centric” space where I was raised offered unprecedented ways of going about things, new ideas. Exposure to the grit and the glamor, relationships with people that would have raised my mother’s eyebrows, financial struggle, moments of depression, wonderfully wild nights…I am so incredibly grateful for these memories and influence. But I view life like a video game of my youth – it’s a sequence of stages. You go about your way, collecting tools, weapons, and food for your knapsack, all in anticipation to defeat the large monster at the end of that level. Once you have defeated it, you begin again at the next stage, searching for the tools, weapons, and food that will get you to next monster. 
I had simply defeated that particular monster, and it was time for the next stage. I was married with two little boys. My interests shifted to my home space, being comfortable, finding ease, time, and room for my work that no longer needed a constant feedback from its external community. So I returned to the fruit that bore me, to where the work needed to be done. Perhaps a little less allure and sex appeal compared to Los Angeles and New York, but Texas had a longstanding unrefined energy that encouraged taking chances in a different sort of way. I had missed the rashness of Texans, but more so, the refreshing authenticity of Texans, despite their politics, social status, or career. Falling in step with the people around me was no longer an interest, but surrounding myself with interesting people open to a conversation about their differences was. I had missed the idealism of an age-old identity, the uneven, thorny land that demands presence, and quite simply, the ambling speed of Texas life.

How has your work changed this year?
There is less distraction, less noise in between myself and the paper. The work is taking on a purer, more confident quality that I had been seeking for some time. 
I’m curious if there has been a “come down,” so to speak, of imagining starting anew to be one thing, when really a new place has a whole other (or perhaps the same) set of challenges… 
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss aspects of LA and New York.  I miss the incredible style of the women, and I miss the space-specific mood of a New York restaurant. But at this stage in life, those are part of the superfluous flower. I’m interested in the core of things. If you have ever lived in New York, or LA, you’ve probably engaged in a debate – New York vs. LA? – as I have numerous times. But much like political party lines, there are reasons a city or space or platform resonates with an individual. Given that the debaters are self-reliant and educated in the topic, I see little use for argument. We are all collections of cells harboring different DNA, different experiences, different challenges. I have learned that adopting views of a system is really doing yourself a disservice as it handicaps our brains' incredible capabilities to make complex decisions and to be curious. All of that being said, Austin is the perfect fit for me at this time. I hope it’s not the last stop, but I’m trying not to look ahead because the view pretty nice here, right now.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned this year?
Man, it’s really tough to qualify all that I have ingested this past year, but I like the challenge of the question…It was a crazy year all over the world, but if I answer that in reference to my own very insignificant journey, what currently stands out is a stronger trust in my instinct, but more importantly the ruthlessness to follow it. 
And may I add a very powerful interest in that inner voice and where the hell it comes from. Nietzsche and feminism been the subject of podcasts and South African 60’s pop has been playing on repeat. 
What keeps you up at night?
The romantic answer is a thunderstorm, but the unsexy reality is that it’s more likely my kid screaming for a blue light or whether or not I paid the tuition check on time.