Five Questions: Julia Powell
Julia Powell is a former lawyer with degrees from Yale and Stanford Law, but she recently made a sharp turn in her career by leaping from law to oil painting. Her dynamic, vibrant, nostalgic oil paintings have been shown in galleries throughout Boston and New England, most notably at the MFA, and have been seen on the television program The Mindy Project. We spent some time at her Cambridge-based studio and chatted about wanting children in her late-30s, how to deal with self-doubt, whether or not an artist needs to be miserable to make good work, and perception of reality. And, you guessed it, she also answered Five Questions. Meet Julia.
What’s your greatest fear?
Steve! Digging in! I have a couple of fears. One is irrelevance. In a way, as an artist, you’re creating all of this material to be immortal and so the idea that no one in the future would ever look at it, or be disinterested, scares me. Which is why any sort of publicity, anything, you get excited about. It’s more of a way to imprint on the world. That’s a big one. And another fear is that I really want to have kids. I really want to have biological kids. Right now, in my late-30s, there is that fear of, “What if it doesn’t work out?” I have such a close bond with my parents and my family and my cousins that having kids on my own, and not adopting—even though I’m one hundred percent in support of adoption—is reasonable. But that’s something I think about right now. If you ask me in five years, irrelevance will still be there and the other thing hopefully will have subsided as a fear.
Me: I feel that. We spoke earlier about it, but it’s that feeling of legacy. In both ways. One is a legacy as a person with your family line. The other is a legacy as an artist.
Julia: Right! And when one isn’t assured because of where you are in life, it seems the other takes on an almost mythic proportion.
Me: Which is super easy to deal with!
Julia: Right? [Laughter]
In what ways do you hold yourself back?
My gut reaction is that I think I generally make good decisions. For the most part, there isn’t a lot of self-sabotage. I don't have any addictions or huge distractions that would get in the way, but a big thing that I’m working on is self-doubt. While creating a painting or even if I—rejection, which is such a huge part of being an artist—it’s hard sometimes for me to filter that away and say, “Look. A thousand people applied and twelve got in. It’s almost luck at that point.” It’s crazy odds and that’s how the world is. You can’t focus too much on it. As I get older and more experienced, I’m better with that. But there are still times where it affects me too much and instead of just killing it creatively and making five paintings, I’m sort of sitting in my room being sad and maybe zoning out with a novel. But even that—is that a terrible way to handle things? There could be much worse ways. Like having ten shots of tequila. So there are times when I need to have more faith in myself and try not to get so down, but even in those times I try to have coping mechanisms that are a little bit better and healthier than other coping mechanisms.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know before you die?
Me: They don’t get any easier!
Julia: I thought they were going to be easy! Like what’s your favorite medium or something? [Laughter]
Me: “I like water colors.” “Cool! Next question!”
Julia: Right, right!
Me: No way!
Julia: That’s what I was hoping for.
This might be convoluted. Hopefully I can express this coherently. I often think about one’s life and the idea of happiness versus success. I think so much about these artists that I admire. van Gogh is probably my favorite all-time artist and I also love Matisse. These guys were not happy dudes during their lives. If we all sit back and think about our creative heroes—musically, artistically, painters, sculptors—a lot of them aren’t that happy in their lives and they’re filled with angst and there’s tragedy, and I’m constantly thinking, “Do I need more tragedy in my life to create the kind of brilliance that I want to leave that legacy?” And then you think, “Does it matter to van Gogh, now that he’s dead, that he’s a hero to so many people when he was so miserable in his life?” So the big question I have is: Is it better to be creating things that people eventually think are brilliant, but you personally, during your life, are not that happy? Or is it better to be stoked every day and wake up—I know a lot of people who I would describe as smart, but simple…where they’re interesting, they’re good people, but they don’t think about the world as deeply as I do and because of that, I think they’re happier. I have a tremendous amount of envy for them. Because I am up and down sometimes. When I’m down, it sucks. But do I think that ultimately that might make me a stronger artist? Yes. Do I think it’s fun to go through? No.
Me: That’s super interesting! So what do you do when you feel down? How do you pull yourself out of it? You talked before about diving into doing more paintings or maybe reading a book, but are there any other methods that you fall to?
Julia: I used to be a fairly competitive athlete, so I would say that sports is a great way for me to zone out. I play soccer and tennis. That is great. Some kind of sweaty competition that I’m involved in. My friends and family. Just hanging out with them talking about things that are completely unrelated. Those are two big things. And, um, chocolate. On the negative side. [Laughter]
Me: No tequila! But chocolate all day!
Julia: Yes! I will say that drugs and alcohol have never really been an issue, but chocolate maybe. The high quality stuff though. [Laughter]
Me: Yeah, like Lindt or I don’t even know.
Julia: But that’s what I’m always trying to figure out. I think about Donald Trump sometimes and I think, “This dude is going to die someday.” And there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to have an unbelievably negative legacy. But in his lifetime, things are going pretty well for him in terms of what he experiences. And if you were like, “Do you want to live Trump’s life or van Gogh’s life?” What’s the answer to that? And if you’re not very religious, which I’m not—I’m not sure if I believe in God, I’m not sure if I believe in one god—it’s harder to think about what your legacy is when you die, whether it’s meaningful or not.
Me: So keeping with the easy topics…
How do you define being “in love”?
Oh great! [Laughter] First of all, I have to think about how many times I believe I’ve been in love. And the answer to that is three. Three times. In high school, in college, and in law school.
Me: Very succinct time periods.
Julia: I don’t think you have to be in school, but that’s just how it goes. When I was 16, 20, and 25. Although it’s true, right? Hasn’t happened since then.
I think about what someone else thinks about me and I care much more about what this person thinks about me then I ever have in any other context except for people who are related to me. And I want this person to succeed and kill it in a way that I’ve never felt for someone who I’m not related to. Those two mixed with a strong desire to sleep with them at all times. [Laughter] Because the first, you could probably put five best friends in that category. And I do. But I don’t want to sleep with them. And caring so much about what someone thinks about you, caring how their life goes, and being so physically drawn to them, that doesn’t happen to me a lot, where those things commingle.
Me: One of the guys I interviewed before said it was friendship on fire. And that’s the way you described it.
Julia: Oh, that’s so good!
Me: Right? You have a handful of friends and you root for them so fucking hard, but you don’t want to light a flame with them.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
It’s not what will you miss—which is a seven-week answer—but the most? Because I’m going to miss a shit-ton when I’m dead. Just to be clear. I will miss my family, my friends, and hopefully, my kids. Which is to say, hopefully I’ll have children. I’ll miss them all. Those interactions I have are so powerful to me on a daily basis that that I will miss in a profound manner. If you were like, “Dig deeper?” There would be something about the process of creating something that moves people which is my oil painting. But it’s slightly below people. That’s my personality and sometimes that scares me because I think, “If you’re a true artist, what comes first is the art and there’s something about the way you interact with your friends and family that will always make you a little less true.” Maybe that’s correct, I don’t know. But there’s this sense as an artist that it should be your number one focus at all times. Yet when I think about it, it’s slightly below.