Rachel Teannalach: Creators, Makers, and Doers

Posted on 10/17/17 by Brooke Burton

A banner Teannalach

Rachel Teannalach has been living and painting in Boise since 2009, developing her own extensive project called tinyExpanse, a visual journal of sorts. On a daily basis, she completes one small painting as a practice in meditation and mindfulness, usually painting plein air, on the spot with a small kit and tiny oil palette. I caught up with Rachel over the BOSCO open studios weekend. A metaphor comes to mind: if creativity were a river it would flow freely without shape or purpose, needing earth and stone to give it structure and direction.  Rachel speaks reflectively on building her riverbanks; carefully crafting an environment to channel her creative flow into a powerful force.

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When you were a kid what was one of the first things you created?
My mom was just talking about that the other day. My mom was really craft-y and she’s a quilter and a sewer and so we were always making things but, we did craft fairs together when I was in elementary school. She would take us to the ceramic studio and we would paint Christmas ornaments and for years I painted them all pink—just solid pink.

Was pink your signature color?
[Laughs] Yeah. So that was one of the first things I remember making. I have a drawing in my studio, that I did in kindergarten, it says “When I grow up, I want to be an artist.”  I mean, I guess a lot of kids think that, that they want to be an artist.

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Did you ever waver from that or change your mind about doing art?
Let’s see, I’m trying to remember if I ever doubted. At one point, I decided I was going to quit school and go to cooking school, because I really liked making pastries. But I think that was just a little phase. The rest of college I just did art and didn’t think about doing anything else.

Why cooking school?
Yeah, I don’t know what that was about. I think I just couldn’t see any practical application for art, and cooking or being a pastry chef seemed like a creative thing that there was actually a job for.

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I can envision you squeezing icing onto a cake instead of squeezing paint from a tube. It’s practically the same thing. [laughter] How did you go from New Mexico where you grew up to living and working in California?
I went to school in L.A. then moved up to the Bay Area for something different.  I was in the Bay Area for six years. My parents in the meantime had retired in Nampa.

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Was Nampa always their retirement plan?
My dad is from West Virginia and he’s a river-rafter. He would come to Idaho a lot in his twenties, to raft. He worked in Los Alamos at the lab for thirty years and then wanted to move somewhere with more water, which is funny, you wouldn’t think of Idaho as being a place with more water. My dad’s a scientist, so they went through this little checklist and drew a radius around every town west of the Rockies that had Southwest Airlines [laughs] and then they had ten [additional requirements] after that. I think there were only three or four places that made the list. It was Boise, Bend, Spokane maybe? They wanted a little bit more acreage, so they ended up out in Nampa by the Sawtooth Winery. They have this nice view of the Owyhees.

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Oh, I love it out there. I love the big sky.
That’s one thing—I lived with them for a year when I first moved here, and to see the sunset and the sunrise every day! When you’re in Boise all these nice trees block them.

It’s cracking me up, how your parents decided to move to the Treasure Valley. It was a precisely orchestrated decision [laughter.]
Very analytical.

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Do you take after your dad?
I guess in some ways. I think I probably take after my dad in being very focused.

Yes, we’re going to talk about your focus. [Laughter]
I mean, I think I go about my projects in a very analytical way. Sometimes I feel like I’m not very creative because I’m just very, —Ordered; I lay out which paintings I’m going to do what week. There’s not very much spontaneity to it.

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Do you enjoy planning?
Yeah.

I love planning. The planning sometimes is more fun than the doing—
Yeah, totally. [Laughs] But to maintain my sanity as an artist I need to structure my life a lot.

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I have found a lack of structure to be detrimental to my creativity. 
You’re alone with your own thoughts so much when you’re an artist, too. You can have downward spirals in your mind very easily. There is a metaphor, creativity is “like a river,” and a river needs to have river banks. I have a high need for structure in my life. [Laughs]

Did you always know that, or did you figure it out along the way?
I think I’ve always been like that. I’ve needed a daily practice for a long time, that’s  reflected in the daily landscapes that I do. When I was a little kid, I wrote in a journal every day and I would flip out if I forgot one day. Once I lost my journal for maybe three days and I remember crying in my mom’s lap because I wasn’t going to be able to remember what I did. I couldn’t write it on any scrap of paper— it had to go into that journal. [Laughs]

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So, you had a huge meltdown. I think we become more flexible as we grow?
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ve realized that. I think I would still flip out if I forgot to do my tinyExpanse. Once or twice, I’ve woken up at 11:50 [at night] and, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to get [painting]”—and Sean’s like, “Can’t you just do it in the morning? Nobody will know.” Like, “No.” [Laughs]

You make three hundred and sixty-five tinyExpanse paintings a year, and you stick to the rule that it has to be done before 11:59 p.m.? Because, if not, you’re not being truthful to the viewer?
Right. Because it’s supposed to be this mindfulness, a meditative thing where I sit down and appreciate that time. And it does feel [meditative] sometimes at the end of the day when Raidy’s asleep and I get to sit down and work from a photo.

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When it’s peaceful and quiet—
I think having a kid has—my reality is just different, you know. I can’t always be in control of the day.

How was your first year as a parent when Mairead (rhymes with parade, Raidy for short) was a newborn? It’s a big transition.
The first six months was really easy actually. She was born in February and I had a show in April at Gallery 518,—I think it was really good for me, to not feel like my life was put on hold. And she just hung out in her little bouncy chair next to me in the studio.

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My babies had no patience for the bouncy chair.
Yes and she slept. I’d say it got really hard when she started to crawl and there was this in-between time when we didn’t have very much childcare—Sean was home in the mornings so he would take her and I’d paint. But that transition phase where she needed so much attention and she knew if I was ignoring her. [Laughs] And she could smear paint and stuff. That was probably the hardest.

Does she watch you paint a lot?
Yeah. Actually, one important motive for my current 365 project is that I realized pretty quickly that I wanted Raidy to see me with a paintbrush in my hand more often than a cell phone. Handwork is so precious these days because we are preoccupied with passive technology. I want her to have the valuation of the handmade and art as a memory foundation.

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That sounds wonderful, she is so lucky to have you! And of course she probably loves to help too?
Yes, she loves to draw. [Laughs] She comes in the morning to the studio—because I get up at about five to try to paint for three hours before she wakes up, she’ll come in and want to draw right away, so she spends twenty minutes drawing in her little chair.

That is so cute. And for a toddler that is a long time.
It’s fun. Sometimes she will draw on her own. Usually she’s, “Mama, Mama,” and she makes me draw with her on her paper. I can’t keep working on my painting; I have to come draw with her. It’s the best twenty minutes of the day, really; it’s fun that she likes to do it.

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I wonder if your daughter will be as self motivated as you are? On a scale from one to ten, you’re like a ten on self-motivation!
[Laughs] Um, yeah, I think— I put a lot of pressure on myself, I think. To be productive, that’s just my family culture, productivity. [Laughs] My mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she doesn’t really sit and, you know, relax. She’s always knitting or working on her quilts; she’s very busy, especially, with her hands, so I guess that comes from her.

What does your relaxation look like? If productivity makes you feel good, does too much relaxation make you feel bad?
Yeah, I mean, I like to organize things. I’ll organize my recipes or—I like to get rid of things. I like to go through clothes and purge. [Laughs] Organizing is like a mental exercise to calm my mind.

Well, the busyness energizes you, so it feeds itself. 
My work itself is stress-relieving for me and enjoyable. I feel like creative output is tiring in some ways but energizing in some ways, too. It’s like good-tired. It’s like digging-in-the-dirt kind of tired by the end of a good painting session.

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At what point did you start working as an artist full time?
I graduated in 2003 in L.A. then moved up to the Bay Area, I was painting the whole time that I lived in Marin, north of San Francisco, but it’s a really expensive place to live and I definitely wasn’t selling enough work to be a full-time painter. I was coaching gymnastics, that was my first thing that I started doing after college. You know, one of those things you do with an art degree. [Laughs] And then I taught plein air painting classes, and I taught yoga, and I did some substitute teaching. I think that’s it. But, yeah, all those things at once. It was pretty tiring. That was one of the reasons I moved to Boise, I was just exhausted.

Really? You? Were you commuting all over town to coach and teach?
I would drive for hours. But it is interesting to think about painting then, because it was such a treat to have time to paint, well, I think now, since having a child, I appreciate it again because [being a parent is] kind of like having all those jobs again.

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Yes. You are Mairead’s gymnastics coach, yoga teacher, art instructor. Oh, and pastry chef! You said you moved to Boise because you were exhausted, and because you thought it would help you to support yourself as an artist? 
I think I was just coming home to my parents’ house to regenerate. I had gotten a divorce earlier, a year before, so it was sort of a soft place to land. I moved all my stuff out in a U-Haul, but remember thinking I was only coming for a month. I guess I had some competing ideas going on in my mind. [Laughs]

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So, you had a moving truck packed with all your belongings and you were driving along thinking “this is just temporary.”
I went back and forth—I went to California [about] six times that year trying to figure out what I was doing and thinking I was going to move back but then I started to explore Boise more. I’d really only seen Nampa until that point, because my parents had lived there for about five years. I’d been here for Thanksgiving and Christmas and stuff, but I knew nothing about Boise. I knew the airport and the Cottonwood Grille where we would stop on the way home. So I started to explore Boise and I had a chance to house-sit here and shortly after that I bought a house and realized it was a better way to go.

Wow that happened quickly! Do you miss New Mexico where you and your sister were raised?
I was missing it today when I was smelling wood smoke [in the air] and that smell always reminds me of New Mexico, except there would be chili with it—roasting chilis. It’s funny because I haven’t lived there since I was eighteen. And I thought I missed it but we went back a couple years ago, I still love it—it’s really beautiful—but it wasn’t home. Idaho is my home more than anywhere else I’ve lived.

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After that trip did you feel like “I don’t need to go back now. I’m done”?
Yeah. I found Boise to be a great place to be an artist. I think there’s so much growth in creativity and there’s space for it. People have time to enjoy others’ creativity and they’re not caught up in their own busyness. There’s an appreciation and there’s a lot of creative people here to inspire each other. I think it’s really great.

Currently you are living in the Boise architect Charles Hummel’s house, renting from friends of yours who are doing medical work in Africa. How do you like living in an architectural treasure?
I’ve had a lot more space to exhibit finished works, which has given me a sense of what it is like for a collector to live with my paintings. My studio here is actually smaller, so that’s been a bit of a challenge. We’re renting it out for two years. In July we’re actually going to go live, like, off-the-grid.

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What! Off-the-grid!?
We have a property up on the Lost River and Sean’s going to make some shipping containers into a cabin; one’s a studio and one’s a house.

Where’s the Lost River?
Think of Challis, Mackay, and Ketchum in a triangle—It’s sort of right in the middle of that. It’s a high desert and sagebrush flat piece of land on the river with a full view of Mount Borah and the Lost River Range.

Those shipping containers, are they pretty big?
Yes, one’s sitting on our basketball court. And the other one’s out at my parents’ house. For now we’re just starting with one as a studio and one with a bed and a wood-burning stove and a little kitchenette.

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Where’s the bathroom?
Outhouse.

What about winter?
Wood-burning stove, and they’ll be up on pillars but they’ll have either spray foam or some other sort of insulation underneath.

I’m so excited for you! Are you leaving this journey a little open-ended?
Yeah, the goal right now is just to get our situation set up there and spend as much time as possible. We kind of hope to make it through a winter and spring.

How far is it going to be to get supplies?
Challis is thirty-five minutes away. We’ll do our weekly grocery, vegetables and do our laundry and check the Internet. Yeah, it’s going to be awesome.

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How do you feel about being so isolated?
When I was at the Glasgow School of Art, it was in this really cool building. It was designed by Rennie Mackintosh, so it’s art nouveau. But there were forty painters working in one big open room with free-standing walls in between. You shared one of those little walls with your neighbor. I hated having people behind me and all around me [laughs] while I worked.

Was it hard for you to focus or do you just feel like it sucked your energy away? Are you an introvert?
Yes.

How did you figure that out?
I don’t like to talk very much. [Laughs]

Do you feel tired after you talk to people?
Yes. Openings just exhaust me.

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Art openings are exhausting! Why can’t they be in the morning with coffee? While you are in the Lost River area without cell service, how will I get to see your daily tinyExpanse paintings? 
Well, I’m not going to be doing daily paintings anymore.

Oh! Is it time to close that chapter?
I think so. I’ve probably done over four thousand of them at this point, according to my computer’s library. It’s my third year of doing it and I think it’s out of my system for now.

Wow! That’s an expansive body of itty-bitty paintings! So, December 31st you will paint your very last tinyExpanse, then you will pack up your home in preparation to move to the Lost River. Do you have your next project in mind?
I haven’t thought that far ahead. [Laughs] I might just even take a little bit of a break, which, for me, would probably be a week. I’d like to not plan and get up there and see what I feel inspired to do. Right now, I’m just up to my ears—I’m finishing paintings for the show I have at NNU in December. I have six more to do. I’ve done eight. They are large, four by eight feet. I’m on a schedule, for sure. And then—you’re going to laugh—I’m running the New York Marathon on November 5th.

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I can’t keep up with you!
So, I’ve been busy training.

Yes, you have. That’s a big turn-around from when you originally came to Idaho to live with your parents after your divorce.
I don’t think I knew how exhausted I was until I got here.  Once I had moved out [on my own] I had this burst of energy.  I had a studio in Sausalito that I really loved and I was spending as much time doing my own thing as I wanted. I just drained my battery and when I arrived, my mom can attest to this, I had no energy for anybody. I went out to my studio that my dad had set up in his shop and I did my art and I did my yoga and that was pretty much it. I didn’t even leave their house for a month. My parents were so patient because I’m sure I didn’t help with anywhere near close to my share of housework.

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Painting, yoga, eating, sleeping. Did you feel like you had purged a bad relationship?
Yeah, my husband was very depressed. To have the weight of somebody else’s happiness resting on me was a heavy burden to bear.  I think I felt guilty because I used [painting] as an escape mechanism. It was my refuge for sure.

After the purge, did you feel as light as a feather?
I did! Yeah, it was great.

Oh I love that feeling. And painting doesn’t have to be an escape anymore?
Right, its my job now. But I think it made me realize how therapeutic art is and I realized [painting] is what I needed to be doing.  And I’m sure it gave me some confidence, to be able to turn something I love to do into my way of supporting myself and take that leap; to make my own decisions and take my own risks.

Have you ever been told you have a zest for life?
No, but I’ve been told I don’t do anything half-heartedly!

I heart that.

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