APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.
Ingrid Dhyl works under the name ArtSten ("sten" meaning "stone" in Danish). Dhyl paints mandalas and other designs on river rock that she collects herself. collected myself. She describes the work as coming from "a quiet place inside me" -- her process is intuitive and responsive to the materials of the natural world.
Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?
I come from a completely non-artistic family--I was the outlier. My mom's side of the family comes from Denmark, and my dad died when I was 6, so I was raised in Chicago as a Dane--speaking Danish, celebrating Danish holidays, but no one in the family was artistic.
Since my mom was an accountant, she needed someone to watch me during tax season. My friends' mother used to watch me on Saturdays. This friend made us sing musicals like "The King and I" and we'd watch Bob Ross. We'd sit on the floor and paint with him. She's a neuroscientist and now is an artist on the side. And two of my other friends are professional artists. I grew up around it, but not in my family.
All throughout high school I used to draw mandalas and patterns and circles and lines. I always drew, and I loved symmetry and patterns and penmanship. Making things match up as much as possible.
Eight or nine years ago I found some stones and I loved the way they felt. The sensory element of solidity and smoothness made me want to draw on the texture. I remember drawing a circle with a chalk pencil and adding more and more. I didn't know what it was. Eventually someone told me that these were mandalas.
I think it was divine intervention, because I didn't really understand what it was, but it came to me when I most needed it. I had always been interested in Buddhism, and so it was serendipitous to find that connection.
Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?
First I decide what I feel like painting on. It's a surface choice and a size choice. Some things are different to paint on, and some of the stones absorb the paint. I start with the middle, which is usually just a circle.
Most people ask if I use a stencil or how I get them balanced. I eyeball everything on the small works. On the larger things I do measure, because it's impossible to make it right once you get a little off. I make more circles and maybe some layers, but then whatever I feel like will come out. Leaf patterns are some of my favorites. It's super satisfying to see the lines come out and meet up perfectly. It's very spontaneous--whatever comes to me--and depends on what I feel and my sensory input and response. The ones that flow out from me and feel very natural are always the best. The ones that I work really hard on are more difficult because they don't seem to come from the same place.
They call this method "growing a mandala" since you work from the center outward. In a way, what I do is the complete opposite of the mandala, because true mandalas are made just for the moment and destroyed immediately.
What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?
In a way the mandala work is the opposite of who I am--I'm not a very orderly person and I'm all over the place. The work is very intuitive and it has everything to do with sensory input.
I go to the river and I find stones and that's what motivates me. I want to see how different stones look with different colors and how the sealer will bring out the vibrancy of the stone. The stones with mica in them get a little bit of sparkle.
Looking through fabrics and designs and colors and textures also inspires me. Especially batik designs and vibrant sari patterns with all the jewel tones--they really are wonderful.
Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.
I haven't painted for a year, but it's really just a short break. Life has been very very intense and I haven't had enough energy to give to painting like I wanted to.
This happened once before. You know when you get into this place where you just want to play--you want to play with colors and designs and you can't get it fast enough. I got stuck for awhile, and then something bad happened and it all had to come out again, like therapy.
I can feel it coming back. I would love to do this all over my environment--the walls of my house, and more. I would love to do nothing but paint and paint on everything.
What is your educational background and how does that influence your art, if at all?
When I was in Denmark I went to school for nature pedagogy -- outdoor school -- there's one here in Johnson City and one in Abingdon. I've always loved nature and the projects that make you use practical outdoor skills. That has everything to do with my choice of materials.
I had driven through East Tennessee and thought it was so beautiful, and so I thought that the worst that could happen if I moved to this area for school was that I'd finish up and not want to stay. And here I am--the cost of living is so much cheaper than where I'm from in Chicago, and we have all this natural beauty around.
So started looking at wilderness counseling -- using nature to heal and do good things -- and then someone came to me and talked about special ed. The program they mentioned was such that my Masters would be paid for if I spent the first three years out of school at a Title 1 school. I had a little nest egg left from earlier in my life and so I used that to go to school and to be a single parent to my daughter during that phase. It was important to me to do that in order to parent the way I wanted to. I paid myself to raise my child during that time, and then got out and got a job that provided for us.
What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?
I've had a bunch of ideas that I want to explore. I want to make things that hang--I haven't decided how to do it, but there's this really smooth wood that I can paint on and then hang nature elements from it. It's a little along the lines of a dreamcatcher, but more like a wall hanging. I can't wait to explore that idea when I get my momentum going again.
I'd also like to figure out my process with canvas and acrylic -- I really do love painting on other surfaces, but nothing is the same as those river stones.
I'm also interested in constructing cairns in the form of milestones -- the bottom stone commemorating something like a marriage, and then smaller stones for other major life events.
Where can we find you on the interwebs?