Artist Profile

I recently caught up with Grace Adler, a friend whom I met through another good friend, who is an accomplished artist and writer studying at Visual and Literary Arts at Brown University.  Grace's art has always fascinated me, even as I saw it remotely over the internet in middle and high school, and so it was pleasure to be able to pick her brain about her changing style and approach over e-mail.  Grace's art takes visual cues from graphic novels and comics and she injects a keen social consciousness into her works. Her art is concerned both with storytelling and with giving representation to marginalized demographics, tackling concepts like sexuality, feminism, and justice in her fluid, dramatic style.  

Artist Interview

I On the Arts: How did you get started making art?  

Grace Adler: Creative writing was what really got me into it young. Around mid-elementary school I used to write these long fantasy stories in lined notebooks, around fifty or seventy pages. I read about six or seven chapter books a week and so I was well aware that many stories with beautiful elves and magic wolves and the like had cover art and illustrations and detailed maps of all the places the characters went. I tried to all that myself. After starting with just a cover page, I moved on to adding little illustrations at the end of every chapter. Soon enough I realized I was writing my chapters shorter and shorter so I’d have more chances to draw. It somehow felt like a big revelation to me that I could just draw for the sake of it, and I couldn’t get enough. I used to invite friends over and spend whole sleepovers just drawing pretty girls for hours. 
Untitled, 2013-14.

Middle school was when the factors really came together for me to take art seriously. The friends and adults around me at the time inspired me to push myself and improve very rapidly. Art became something I did not just in the crammed corners of geometry notes or in hidden sketchbooks, and I started entering a few low risk contests.

IOtA: What artists, teachers or subjects have particularly inspired you?  How has this changed over the years? I’ve noticed a certain graphic comic books aesthetic in your new pieces; can you talk about that?

GA: It’s almost impossible to talk about the rest of it without mentioning that. Graphic novels were an incredible gift for me as a young artist and still are today. Now that I am twenty I would say it’s been a few months over a decade since I began collecting and borrowing graphic novels. About two years ago I owned around 780 comic books and I’ve collected maybe a 120 more since. After reading that much of it it’s easy to see how it would affect my work.

The core of why I came to like reading them so much was that it was a really direct way for art and stories to interact. The thought that these amazing artists had to be incredibly gifted at both their drawings and their narratives was incredibly inspiring to me. I love authors like Naoki Urasawa who have a complete mastery on where to be realistic and detailed and where to simplify with flat colors and bold lines. I try to be conscious of that in my own work.  

I was unbelievably fortunate to have the high school art department that I did. The three teachers that covered the visual art and art history classes were experts at helping you excel and building their classes into a community without letting either of those tasks step on the toes of your personal drive and vision. I haven’t spent as much time with the art professors at Brown, and have had to rely more on my own guidance and goals, but high school art gave me the backbone for it.

Nowadays I spend an unbelievable amount of time online so the amount of contemporary artists I happen to see is a little mind boggling. Because I’m still fixated on stories, artists like Kyle Fewell and artist/blogger jaymamon who focus heavily on developing the depictions of characters and setting really make me feel motivated to grow. In particular their use of sometimes almost garishly bright colors has really mad a mark on the kind of confidence I want to develop in my own work.

IOtA: What media do you use?

GA: Currently I work fairly traditionally. Acrylic and oil are my current favorites. I love the freedom of being able to layer over your mistakes or keep them as you choose, and a lot of anxiety about school work eases up when I can make huge streaks of vibrant color on a canvas. Equally it is important to me how much paint can add texture. I never pay attention to how long I should wait for a layer of paint to dry and usually have to apply the next layer thick so that the wet paint will seemingly cooperate with me.

In my sketches, I like pen ink for very opposite reasons. It’s a rewarding challenge to know that any mark you put down on the page is staying there. Sometimes I’ll put down a mark I really hate and then have fun playing problem solver to work around it, rebirth my mistake as a strength. When I was younger I liked to do those fifty hour colored pencil pieces but I no longer have the patience, I prefer my fifty hour pieces to be more of an accident due to a kind of low key obsession than something I deliberately set myself up for. 

IOtA: How has your artistic style or choice of subject matter changed over the years?

GA: As I’ve gotten more socially conscious, so has my art. As a young artist I read volume after volume of graphic novels about people who were decidedly not straight or gender normative, but I didn’t know how to get it out of my hobbies and onto the canvas without outing myself or just being overly clichéd. I knew by the time I graduated high school that I loved painting portraits of people but was unsure how portraits could send a message or have more of a cultural significance. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized how much the people I know and sometimes love have identities and bodies that the larger media culture tends to discriminate or even commit violence against. That has added a certain tension and significance to my art. I want to make these hugely ignored parts of the population more visible, hang them up in a gallery so they cannot be swept under the rug.
Untitled, 2013-14.

But even as I am moving towards portraits that include more socially radical narratives, it is important to me to depict people in their usual settings since that is where the real life narratives I’m so fascinated with take place for them, on a daily basis. To put it simply fat people, queer people, and so on don’t just sit around in a blank vacuum thinking only of social issues.

IOtA: How have you continued making art while at Brown?  What’s the artistic community like?

GA: I spent my first semester at Brown producing nothing but sketchbook pages, allowing myself a breath of air after the intensity of a senior year of high school. By the spring I was in a foundations course and was developing my skills on a larger, more frequent scale again and have kept that going. Besides my work in class, I have taken positions as a literary editor for feminist magazines and I am even currently working as a hair and makeup artist for Fashion@Brown. Makeup and editing has allowed me to explore skills critical in the art community in new settings, the fashion experience helping with me get a grasp on color and emphasis as well as team work and the literary position pushing me to give and take essential feedback. I have also produced two murals over six feet tall on campus and done graphic design for posters and advertisements.

The artistic community at Brown is diverse and alive in that many of the people who do art at Brown chose Brown for its lack of core curriculum. This allows artists to be chemists and engineers and history majors while having enough left over credits to pursue whatever art they desire. There are a lot of publications to submit to on campus and there is a strong emphasis on highlighting the voices and work of artists who are a part of identity or cultural based groups on campus, and I have really found that meaningful. The Rhode Island School of Design is just blocks away and both schools allow artists to take a few classes at either institution. We often collaborate with RISD students to run independent art shows or host artistic guest speakers.
Untitled, 2013-14.

Visual Art at Brown is typically less oriented for a specific career as many RISD majors are, and that is one thing potential students should be aware of. Additionally some artists who primarily take academic classes are not always accustomed to make sure their feedback in critiques is critical in helpful ways, but the critiques become more beneficial as the class continues to learn.

IOtA: What has been your proudest moment as an artist?

GA: When I got a painting into the Young Masters Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, I felt very validated in the work I had done. It also helped me realize that not all great paintings require meticulous detail and countless work hours—that one only took me about three.

What has had the most impact on me truly is just the almost forgettable moments when a peer or teacher I had been trying to impress all semester gets me excited about a piece I finished. Compliments from people you trust and look up are always nice but that feeling in your gut when you know you tried your hardest and it paid off so well that your mentors can see it is incredibly gratifying.

IOtA: What has been most challenging for you in your practice?

GA: Because I have so many influences, it’s hard to combine what I want to improve on a technical level with the jumble of concepts rumbling around in my head. I often worry that I’m not saying what I want to say directly enough, and a lot of my work this past semester has had a low emphasis on outside comprehension. I’m fairly comfortable with that but I’d rather push my narratives further so that the viewer cannot deny the content or story I am working with even if they interpret it entirely differently.

IOtA: What are your other academic interests?  Do they intersect with your art practice?  If so, how?

GA: Because stories are important to me, I am pursuing a degree in both Visual Art and Literary Art, which is creative writing. For my writing courses I write heavily on themes of magical realism and enjoy the delicate balance of the heavy history of clichés behind every story of aliens or witches you could try to write.
Untitled, 2013-14.

The desire to give ignored groups of people more visibility has not been isolated in just my art. Many of those I have spoken to who face discrimination also enjoy fantastical elements like monsters and outer space when they watch movies or even just dress up for Halloween. I haven taken classes and written a lot of academic essays that explore the many reasons why this might be so, but regardless it can’t be denied that fictions where people are alienated from their peers because of reasons like secretly being a robot are fun and significantly, a much more frequent way that television and book writers have engaged with discrimination narratives.

By engaging and learning about this, I have been able to both write and draw oppressed groups in worlds with magical realism and I have found that tremendously rewarding. It’s all the fun of vampires and body horror and Star Trek references without pretending that real life bigotries like racism or transphobia are only useful as narrative metaphors and heavy handed allegories.

IOtA: Do you hope to pursue art after you graduate?

GA: I do! I absolutely love literary editing and working with artistic visions so my ideal job would be any position that combines stories and design like graphic novel publishers, TV writers, and even freelance illustrators often do. I am currently beginning to save money so that after a few years of deeper on-the-job experience I can attend graduate school to develop these passions even further.

IOtA: What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

GA: If a viewer takes my work on face value and just looks at the colors and line work, that makes me happy. If a viewer reads a lot of deeper meanings into a piece, I’m happy with that too. I don’t expect people to be able to look at my work and understand why I find the sheer existence of fat bodies or brightly colored hair and skies significant. My real hope that even people who have dealt with very different life experiences and problems can still find something meaningful to them in my work, even if they don’t know what to make of it or it’s something as straightforward as them also loving oranges and yellows and blues.
Detail of first Untitled.


  1. This is a great interview and I LOVE the artwork. Grace produces some astounding images which, as she suggests in her last answer, give pause for thought on many levels...the aesthetic or surface type of reaction as well as thinking about what the images really mean. LOVE LOVE LOVE!


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