The San Francisco-based Watercolor Artist Tells Secrets Over Tea
When I arrive at her San Francisco home, Alice Koswara greets me barefoot in a sundress, her hair loose. “Would you like some tea?” Her voice is soft. I accept. She hands me a steaming mug and I sit down in her living room. Over the next hour, her own tea goes cold on the side table as she talks. She’s very open, but I find myself waiting to ask only one question. Because Koswara keeps painting the same thing: a beautiful woman looking out at us from a canvas. Why? Why would an artist be driven to paint bust portraits of beautiful women, over and over and over… and over? I needed to know how someone’s head could become so crowded with these images.
Growing up in Indonesia, Koswara was the youngest of three sisters. “A lot of female energy,” she laughs, and her laugh is like a lullaby.
She found herself drawing on any surface she could find, even her school textbooks. Each image had a story. Over time, she found herself captivated by one particular painting that her parents had hung up. It was a reproduction print of a painting by a Western artist, and she found herself staring at it, trying to figure out the story of the image. I ask what it was. “The Mona Lisa,” she says, smiling. I begin piecing it together. What else? I ask. As a child, she watched a lot of American movies made in the 40s and 50s. The women in those movies, she says, “were so classically beautiful and glamorous. The pointy nose, the high-arch Joan Crawford eyebrow.” And, she adds, “a lot of them had big wavy hair.” At this, I glance up to two of her paintings on the far wall of the living room – the heads of statuesque women and their manes of sculpted hair. She goes on. “When you grow up watching those movies, with all those beautiful girls… that’s what’s embedded in my head. The dark hair, really strong eyebrows, the very strong look. I grew up far away from the United States… I think it was a fantasy thing.”
At 18, Koswara came to the United States with her sister, and eventually enrolled in the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. It was the first time she’d had formal training, and she loved it. “Growing up, it was just me. I liked to have someone to tell me: here is the way to do, say, perspective. Especially at the time – there was no Internet. It was 1996. We were still going to libraries. You couldn’t just Google Rembrandt.” She pauses. “I guess I just have a way of obsessing over ladies and I have to paint them. I’m not trying to perfect them. If you look at a face, left and right are not the same. I think it’s more of their essence, their personality–their story.” She talks softly, as though she is trying not to wake up the painted ladies on the wall.
“And I don’t paint whole bodies,” she adds. “I’m not as interested in the body.” When she does end up painting bodies, the women end up looking “soft and rubbery. Not limpy,” she says, “but no edges. Women are soft.” She points to a painting on the wall behind her. Two young girls pose next to each other wearing bike helmets. Their bodies flow out of their necks, Gumby-style.
As far as influences, Koswara admires portrait painters with totally different styles than her own: Berlin-based Tina Berning, whose paintings of women look like half-finished high-fashion drawings; and Stockholm-based Stina Persson, whose portraits resemble Etch-a-Sketch, jutting and fierce. “I wish I could be more daring, do them more sketchy or abstract,” she says. She smiles. “But I can’t. I need my ladies to be more refined.”
by Jena Binderup