LENA GUSTAFSON is an artist from San Francisco, California, who’s living and working in the East Bay. Between her multidisciplinary art practice and Night Diver, the collaborative press she runs with her partner, Peter Calderwood, Lena keeps pumping out incredible work that touches upon transformation, the body, the environment, and connects herself to her community. She’s an avid cold-water bay swimmer and has also been a swim instructor for over 15 years. Lena has also been producing a series of artist interviews in a volume of books called Practice that she publishes under Night Diver; she photographs artists in the Bay Area and they answer her questions about what it’s like to pursue a creative path here. The series was one of the biggest inspirations for bringing Plunge to life – it so simply and beautifully elevates the work and voices of emerging artists (vol. 3 is coming soon!).
PLUNGE met with Lena at her new-ish garage studio in Albany, a space she has recently settled into after moving from a shared live/work situation in Oakland. It’s dangerously close to Bartavelle Cafe and right behind a sweet little adobe house where she lives with Peter. They also have a shared print studio in Oakland where the two of them operate their press.
PLUNGE: Did you go to art school?
LENA: Yes, I went to the Art Institute of Boston, which is part of Lesley University; it’s really small. Most of my friends were at Mass Art and the Museum School at the time. I lived in Cambridge for four years and then worked seasonally on Martha’s Vineyard for a few years after graduating.
PLUNGE: What did you study?
LENA: I went for Art Therapy and Illustration. I had a teacher recommend printmaking and became really interested in intaglio and relief printing. During my third year of school I met my partner Pete through some mutual friends and we started collaborating on a lot of screenprinting projects together.
PLUNGE: That’s obviously carried through to your practice now.
LENA: Totally. That’s how I learned how to paint - by creating images for screenprint. It takes me a long time to feel like I totally understand new techniques in image making. So about four years into screenprinting artwork regularly I was like, “ohh, I think I finally get this” and now it informs the way I approach painting.
PLUNGE: And have you worked in art therapy at all?
LENA: Not really, I’m still really interested in it though. I did a couple internships and jobs in Boston working at places that are similar to Creative Growth in Oakland. But no, I haven’t really done anything with it. During college I started teaching swimming at the Cambridge YMCA and have continued that work alongside my art practice ever since. I worked at the Oakland YMCA pool as well as a few private residential buildings for the past 8 years or so.
PLUNGE: You said that you couldn’t really teach swim lessons during the pandemic. Have you started that up again?
LENA: I have been really hesitant to start that work back up again.
PLUNGE: Why do you think that is?
LENA: Even though I really enjoy the work itself, it wasn’t until everything shut down that I realized it was the cause of some health issues.
PLUNGE: Just from being in the pool and being around other people?
LENA: I don’t know exactly, maybe the damp chlorinated environment, working with sick kids in cold water, germs in the hot tubs. All I know is that I used to have a lot of respiratory issues and a low immune system until everything shut down with the pandemic. I am so grateful to not feel sick all the time and don’t want to risk it by going back.
PLUNGE: Are you doing art full-time at the moment?
LENA: I work at a farmers market on Tuesdays, freelance doing graphic design, sometimes I take on floral design work or assist other artists with their murals but other than that, yes! Honestly my ideal would be to have two or three days of work, working with people. Definitely for the financial security but also when I was teaching swimming it was such a great balance. With teaching, I would get out of my head and forget anything I was thinking about and get really into being with other people and thinking about ways they could improve. When I would come back to the studio I would feel totally reset. So ideally I’d have two or three days a week of just being around people, working with people.
PLUNGE: I was gonna ask how the pandemic has changed your practice, but it seems like all these things you’re talking about have shifted things.
LENA: Yeah. A lot has changed and things still feel in flux. Something that has been so incredibly helpful at the beginning of the pandemic was joining this crit group with a few other artists. We would meet once a week on zoom and just talk about what was going on, share work, share resources, etc. It was so crucial at the time, and it has helped form some really strong bonds. With no deadlines in sight I basically stopped painting for a year. Instead, I was making a ton of small drawings and storing them in a 3 ring binder. I realized later I could use all these little sketches for large scale paintings by projecting them with my overhead projector.
PLUNGE: Was that something you stumbled upon or did you seek it out?
LENA: I guess I sought it out. I had been using a projector to get a gesture or composition onto a large canvas before. But now I like the idea of projecting a finished tiny drawing onto a large piece of paper or canvas. Some kind of magic happens with enlarging a small loose little sketch. It’s still intimidating to just start a large painting without any plan, so the projector helps break the ice for me.
PLUNGE: How do you structure your time with Night Diver and your own painting?
LENA: It fluctuates. Unfortunately having deadlines really just runs the schedule. So if I have a show coming up, I’ll do nothing but paint. Right now I’m in-between things so I’m going to Night Diver more often. I think ideally I would have more of a structure. My partner Pete used to do most of the work with Night Diver Press. Recently he’s been more busy with his job so I’ve been taking over some of the responsibilities.
PLUNGE: Something that I’m really interested in is how to be an artist out in the world and I’m interested in how you got to the stage where you are now. Did you get what you wanted out of art school? Did you create your own path that to followed?
LENA: I was pretty deflated about continuing to pursue art in any real way about 5 years ago. I feel like I wasn’t getting something that other people were getting. I didn’t understand how people got shows or were able to afford studio space on top of rent. Around that same time I started the first issue of Practice magazine. I started by reaching out to artist friends or people who I admired online and asked if I could photograph them in their studios and have a mini interview. I think subconsciously the project came from wanting to show other people that I’m excited and inspired by what they’re doing and in the process it became encouraging to myself to continue pursuing painting. Relationships with people and building community has been the most important thing.
PLUNGE: Kind of creating a support system and connecting to other people who are trying to do the same thing so you can learn how?
LENA: Exactly. Before I thought that there was some handbook that I was missing. But after visiting a handful of some of my favorite artists I realized everyone is figuring it out and piecing things together. I realize now how important artists supporting other artists is because there isn’t really anyone else who is going to do it. By creating spaces for each other to show/sell work, or talk about work it can begin to restructure the art world ecosystem as we know it. Social media can really skew perceptions of success when the reality is usually quite different and always more nuanced.
PLUNGE: It’s interesting to hear you say that you were waffling about whether you wanted to pursue this or not because we view you as someone who’s becoming very successful. It’s helpful to know that people who look like they’re doing all the right things have those internal struggles too and that inner monologue of “I don’t know if I can do this”.
LENA: Oh ya. I thought a lot of people were making art full time and I was like, HOW do you do that? I don’t understand. And then after doing those Practice magazine visits I realized that almost everyone was working other jobs.
PLUNGE: It’s normal because you have to be able to support yourself and also like you alluded to, having a break from your own thoughts is good.
LENA: I think being a full time artist is glorified, maybe too much. For some people that’s the goal and that’s ideal, that’s the dream. And then I think for most people it’s actually not and it’s good to figure out what the other thing is that you need to make a practice work.
PLUNGE: Is it your dream?
LENA: Mmm that’s hard. I mean yes. I’d love to make a living off of my art. But even if that were the case, I’d still want to spend two/three days a week working directly with people in some form.
PLUNGE: Do you feel like you get re-energized being around people?
LENA: Big time. Especially in a physical way. Like that swim team teaching job, I taught a few eighty plus year olds and it was so therapeutic. We’d meet and water-walk together, then we would do back floats together. There was something really rewarding about intently observing the way someone else moves their body. That observation of motion is a major inspo for painting and a lot of imagery. I feel healthiest when I have those two worlds working together. Not to say that I don’t want to really grow with painting. I want to have a big sexy studio someday and be busy with shows. But I would like to have something else too.
PLUNGE: When have you felt the most successful?
LENA: I think when I’ve felt best about things is when there is a combination of having my private painting practice going as well as bringing people together in some way. I curated that show at ParkLife [gallery] with Floss Editions, Sunnight Editions, and Tiny Splendor and that felt like the most natural thing in the world. I feel fulfilled and full of purpose when I am working with other artists who I’m in community with in some way. I like to talk up my creative friends and connect people.
PLUNGE: It seems like your connection to your community is a big part of your practice. Do you feel like you need that in order to do what you do?
LENA: Yeah, I think just in the practical sense, it doesn’t really make sense to me to be painting in isolation. I feel lucky to have my entry into the creative/art world through printmaking. When I was in my early twenties, the people I met through zine or print fairs, like Max and Sanaa of Tiny Splendor, were all so supportive and incredibly generous. It felt inclusive and made me want to act the same towards other people.
PLUNGE: What about art and making and your process makes you feel good?
LENA: I get most excited by what happens when I let drawing lead me into new directions or concepts. I try to now get too fixated on one style or way of making -I get excited by the act of drawing and how it can lead to new ways of thinking. I feel like it mirrors my personal life and how I am developing as a person in the world. Drawing and experiencing life are kind of like two parallel tracks that are influenced by each other, and that’s what I get most excited about, the evolution of those two things feels like a lifelong endeavor. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense to me why I still want to make images, but I think of it as mirroring inner and personal worlds.
PLUNGE: Do you use sketchbooks?
LENA: Yes. They usually get used for many different things like shopping lists and budgeting. At the end of the year I like to go through them and cut the sketches that I like out and put them in here [she shows us a binder full of small drawings (left) that she’s compiled into transparent sleeves]. This is what happened during the pandemic… Trying to make little finished pieces from sketches and photos.
PLUNGE: Do you have any shows coming up?
LENA: I just finished up a solo show at China Heights in Sydney, Australia. The next one I’m working towards is at Pt. 2 Gallery in the Summer of 2022.
The interview is an excerpt from Plunge Rag: Volume 1 and was first published in January 2022. Reproduction on the withitgirl platforms courtesy of Plunge.
All photos by Macayli Hausmann
Link to purchase Plunge Rag Vol. 1
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