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Interview with the Artist: On the Hurdy Gurdy Paintings

Stephania: As an artist, you go back and forth between abstract and representational art. Some of your Hurdy Gurdy paintings seem similar to the Haiku paintings. What is the difference between them?

Breck: They’re related. The main difference is the Haiku works were all done with a brush and acrylic or oil. On some of them I used oil stick or pencil, but not many. There’s an element to painting where your brush can only hold so much paint and then you have to go back to the palette and get more paint. So it’s hard to create a continuous line while you’re painting with brush. I like to draw – I’ve always liked to draw, and that aspect of brush has always been frustrating for me. I found that Liquitex Artist Paint Company makes acrylic markers, so I started using those in the Hurdy Gurdy paintings to incorporate continuous line more. As a result of this continuous line, there are elements of the Hurdy Gurdy paintings that were done quickly. Painting is a more deliberate process because of the mixing of the paint, the going back to the palette to get more paint on your brush. By its nature it’s a slower, more deliberate process. Now, there were parts of the Hurdy Gurdy paintings that were deliberate. That is, I would use the paint markers and draw some lines, usually very quickly, and after I did that, I would put the painting up on the wall where I could look at it. A few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months later I would add to it or change it. So there is that deliberate element to the Hurdy Gurdy paintings, plus in some of them I did use brush and paint.

Haiku Painting: Her Hand Dropped

Oil, acrylic, and pencil on canvas

Stephania: Why did you use the name Hurdy Gurdy for the series?

Breck: I began calling them Hurdy Gurdy paintings fairly early after I started making them. I

only realized later there was a subconscious prompt to calling them “hurdy gurdy” paintings because when I was doing the drawing with the acrylic markers I was “hurrying” – which sounds like ”hurdy”. What I was conscious of at the beginning was the hurdy gurdy man. He was a man who came and played a stringed instrument that produces sound by the turning of a crank (a hurdy gurdy). A related image I have is very early memories of a character in the Dagwood comic strip of a man who would be on the street playing an accordion with a little monkey on a leash holding out a cup. This has always struck me as an image in my mind of what an artist is or does in society.

Stephania: That seems pretty negative.

Breck: It does. But it is a person who is outside of society, or on the margins of society.

Stephania: And they’re begging?

Breck: No, I’ve never liked that negative connotation, frankly, but I do have the association. And I also associate that character in the Dagwood strip with the court jesters that royalty in history would keep in their courts. The role of the jester was to speak truth to power. In recent years some scholars have said that jesters didn’t perform this function, but you can look in literature and in history and find examples of jesters who did do so. Jesters (or fools, as they were sometimes called) could speak freely to those in power because they were outside of the social norms for that time. They were entertainers, true, but some were able to criticize powerful public figures and get away with it.

Jesters died out by sometime in the 18th century in most countries, but their tradition was carried on in France and Italy by travelling groups of jesters who performed a form of theater called the commedia dell’arte. Picasso referenced some of these figures when he did artworks of harlequins. Harlequins were comic characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

Hurdy Gurdy No. 2

Acrylic marker on paper

Stephania: So, you see part of the role of an artist as social commentary?

Breck: Part of the role, yes, but jesters were also entertainers. So social commentary would only be part of the role.

Stephania: Do you see yourself doing a lot of social commentary in your work?

Breck: No, I don’t see myself that way. To me, the image of the Dogwood character or the hurdy gurdy man is analogous to being on the edges or outside of society, and that is how I see artists, including myself. But back to your earlier question, titling the paintings “hurdy gurdy” came from two things, one conscious – the image of the court jester, and one subconscious – the word “hurry” being close to “hurdy.”

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