Thérèse Mulgrew (b. 1991) grew up just outside of Dubuque, Iowa. Influenced by her mother’s surreal oil paintings and her grandmother’s impressionist still life, she began to cultivate her own style which focuses mainly on depicting large-scale portraits and nostalgic still life in oil paint. Her paintings represent an attempt to explore vulnerability and intimacy.
She took a variety of studio art classes at the University of Iowa, where she graduated as an English literature major in 2013. Immediately after, she moved to NYC where she worked in the fashion photo industry and studied at The Art Students League and New York Studio School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. Her first solo exhibition took place in NYC in 2020. She currently resides in Chicago, IL.
Thérèse will be having a solo show at BETTER GO SOUTH, tomorrow, September 13, at Berlin Art Week.
Hi Therese! It’s a pleasure to sit down with you. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in Chicago?
I wake up at around 6am, have a cup of coffee, write for a bit, feed my cats, then I always go on a long walk where I’ll chat on the phone with my mother or my boyfriend or a long distance friend. I start working around 8 or 9am and work consistently (breaking for lunch and sometimes a 20 minute nap in the afternoon) until around 5 or 6pm. Then I’ll make dinner (I’ve been really into cooking these days) and be in bed watching a movie by 9pm. Maybe once or twice in the week, I’ll have dinner with my sister or meet a friend for drinks. I’m a very routine oriented person and a homebody so sometimes it can be hard to get me to leave my apartment or venture outside my routine.
Gotya. Before we start getting in to the serious questions, I was thinking It would be cool to let the viewers know a little bit more about you. Could you tell me a little bit about what kind of kid you were growing up? Like, what did you enjoy doing and how did you spend your time? Stuff like that.
I was kind of a shy kid and I grew up on a farm in Iowa so my sister and I had to be very creative in order to have fun. I liked to perform for guests when they visited – sometimes in an obvious way where we would gather everyone and perform skits or songs or dances and other times, I would dress up like a princess and pretend to read one of my parent’s books beneath a tree in hopes that some one would notice how intellectual I was or I’d wear a basketball jersey and hold a basketball to make people think I was “sporty”. I was embarrassingly performative. I did like to draw a bit but I mostly loved to write. I started a journal when I was 10 and never stopped – I still journal nearly every day.
While we’re on the topic. Both of your parents were artists, and your aunt Kate Mulgrew, is a super renowned actress and author. So my questions are: How was it growing up in a family of artists and creatives? And how have they influenced you?
My father is actually not an artist but he is artist adjacent for sure – he owns a gallery in Iowa and has always produced arts events and collected paintings. He also grew up with a mother who was a painter so he’s always been a great patron of the arts. But yes, there are a lot of artists in my family – writers, actors, musicians, but mainly painters. My cousin, Alec Egan, is also an incredible painter based in LA and he’s been amazing about helping me to navigate the art world. Overall, my family has been a huge influence on me – they kind of drilled it into my head as a kid that finding a purpose/passion in life was the most important thing and have always been both supportive and realistic. While growing up, I witnessed my mother struggle with the ups and downs of being a painter and I could never understand how someone so talented would struggle at all, but I think it helped me to understand once I started painting myself that talent has very little to do with how well you do in the art world – and because of that, I don’t put any of it on a pedestal and I don’t take rejection personally.
So when did you start to paint? And when did you start taking it seriously?
I started to paint and take it seriously at the same time. I took my first painting class at the Art Students League in New York in 2019 and immediately fell in love. Once I picked up the brush, every life decision after that was influenced by whatever would get me back to the canvas the fastest. I was in the midst of a break up and had recently quit my job in the fashion industry so the timing was perfect for me to throw everything I had into this craft. Within a couple months, I left New York and moved back to Iowa for the summer to make my first series of paintings. I ended up moving to Chicago after that because it’s a more affordable city that allowed me to work a part time job at a clothing store and spend all my free time painting until eventually, after about a year, I sold enough work to do it full time.
And that’s a perfect segway to talk about your work. I’ll start by breaking this question into two parts. So the first question is: How do you come up with the various every day scenes in your paintings and what’s the story behind them?
Well the last two series are based on specific narratives that are partly autobiographical but they aren’t plot focused as much as they are theme or emotion focused. “Room 126”, for example, is about grey areas in love and although, I did have to come up with a specific narrative in order to direct the models (which my dear friend, film maker, and collaborator, Austin Vesely, had encouraged me to do when producing the photo shoot) to do certain things or evoke certain emotions, I’m weary of publicly talking about the story behind it as I want the viewers to come up with their own interpretation.
The same thing goes for the every day objects you paint. What’s the story behind them? And what makes something like ashtrays, champagne bottles, grapes or alarm clocks, worthy of gracing one of your canvases?
I’m very nostalgic and I get a lot of my inspiration from old films or photos. My apartment is full of thrifted items from vintage stores that also help to trigger these ideas. There’s obviously a nod to classical still life paintings from the 1800s that often incorporated wine and fruit but also, in my head, these items are connected to intimacy. I grew up in a family that was constantly hosting these very romantic dinner parties – beautiful food and wine and cigarettes and candle light, piles of books on the floor, never a television in sight or an overhead light turned on. But I noticed even when I was young that this was the place where things were shared and some of the deepest moments could happen and, even though a couple glasses of wine will obviously do that, the intimacy of the atmosphere played an even bigger part.
Can you tell me a little bit about your use of warm hues In your work?
Warm hues are a big part of my work for the same reason as above – I’m a bit of a lighting snob because I think people, although they aren’t always aware of it, feel more comfortable and safe in warm lighting which, again, evokes intimacy and connection.
With that in mind. Vulnerability and intimacy. What is it about these topics that makes you want to document them?
I think that’s what life is all about! Whether it be vulnerability and intimacy within relationships to others or to yourself – these are the things that make for a rich life. You have to be really vulnerable to create and put your work out there, to take risks, to engage with the world around you. It’s all so scary. But the moments in between are what I try to capture with my work.
Working in the fashion photo industry. What was that experience like? And how important is fashion to you in your daily life?
It was a really interesting experience and I have a lot of wild stories from that time in my life so I’m grateful for it but it was ultimately not the right fit. I love clothes but I mostly appreciate fashion from afar now (especially being in Berlin currently – the fashion is constantly inspiring me). I do feel like I have my own specific style which in many ways has stayed consistent throughout the years but I do try to incorporate current trends into my wardrobe once in awhile if I feel like I can pull them off. I’m definitely not as cool as I once was (or thought I was haha).
Can you walk me through your creative process. From beginning, to end result?
About twice a year I produce a big photo shoot which usually gives me enough content to make 20-30 paintings. The photoshoot is by far the hardest and most exhausting part of the process for me. It usually takes months for me to come up with a concept and then bring it to life. But once it’s over, I’m in heaven because I just get to paint. I spend a few days combing through the thousands of photos and deciding which images I’ll eventually paint. Sometimes I’ll edit the color a bit but I mostly paint from the raw image. I usually project the image onto the canvas, especially if it’s a larger painting to figure out exactly how I want it cropped. From there, I paint in layers which usually means I’ll work on 2-3 paintings at once because each layer takes a day or two to dry. I usually throw the first layer on quickly – it’s just about getting the colors in the right places and covering the canvas – then the second layer usually takes longer because that’s when I really go in with the detail and make sure everything comes out looking clean.
How do you approach to color?
I don’t think about color a ton although I’m trying to be more mindful of it. I do consistently go back to red – it’s the hardest color to work with but my favorite color to see. I usually mix right on the palette so there’s no pre planning beforehand.
You’re currently at residency at BETTER GO SOUTH’s Berlin department. Which will lead up to a solo show at BETTER GO SOUTH, at Berlin Art Week, tomorrow, on September 13. My questions are: How did that come about? And what’s the story behind the title “In a Moment”?
BGS, found me on Instagram and asked me to be part of a group show at their Stuttgart gallery last year – which was actually my first time showing my work abroad. Then when they offered me this residency, I knew I couldn’t say no to such a unique opportunity. “In A Moment” is largely inspired by my experience here as I’ve had to be very present in my solitude and throughout the ups and downs. It’s about attempting to move slowly.
What motivates you?
I hate to admit this but for the sake of being real, being underestimated has been one of the biggest motivations for me. But also, freedom. Painting and the lifestyle that goes along with it has offered me a type of freedom that I always craved and never thought I would actually achieve.
How would you describe a perfect day?
The morning would be a long, aimless walk and a few hours of painting then the afternoon/evening would be spent with a big group of people I love – maybe a rooftop or beach house dinner party, cooking and drinking wine together, then staying up late (and by late, I mean maybe midnight because I am to the core an early to bed, early to rise girly) talking over candle light or a fire, falling asleep to a comforting film.
Alright Therese. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?
This is really an impossible question for me to answer but I will name a few movies I love: Frances Ha, Call Me By Your Name, The Big Chill, Melancholia, Worst Person in the World
The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?
This is always changing but to reference my current “On Repeat” Spotify playlist, here are some songs I’ve been listening to: My Cherie Amour – Stevie Wonder, Mama’s Eyes – METTE, What Was I Made For – Billie Eilish, Mirage – Orion Sun