On a sunny Tuesday morning, printmaker Carissa Potter and painter-baker Leah Rosenberg get together in Carissa’s Oakland kitchen and studio to discuss their creative collaboration This, That, & Hours in the Sun. Leah spreads homemade yuzu marmalade from a tiny glass jar on the almond tea cake that she’s brought to share, while Carissa makes the coffee the way she always does—with a chipped blue kettle and her trusty French press.
Tell us about your project This, That, & Hours in the Sun.
Leah Rosenberg: We originally started talking about pairings, and how we could turn that idea into the basis for a collaboration, because we're a pair. We wondered: What would it look like if we created a sort of call-and-response?
We decided to prescribe ourselves a few one-hour sessions in the sun every week—13 sessions, 13 suns, so some work might be made up of 13 layers. The idea is that we’re turning our creative work back onto ourselves. Typically, our goal is to deliver delight or comfort or to give people something they can take with them. Spending an hour in the sun is a way of giving something back to ourselves while we’re making work.
How do you lay the groundwork for a positive and generative collaboration?
Carissa Potter: Both of our practices are pretty different, so the question becomes: How do you come up with a framework for two people who have never worked together? How do you find something you will both be interested in? The pairing was a nice starting point. And I’m so drawn to your work, Leah, that it rooted me—your use of color and your aesthetic sense, but also the heart and generosity that you put into everything you do. In general, though, I think collaboration can be really difficult. I feel like one person is always in the lead in a way. Have you had any other truly collaborative experiences, Leah?
LR: I’m lucky to say quite a few, actually. I think it began at Blue Bottle Coffee with Caitlin Freeman and then later with my friend, the artist Susan O’Malley. I think in a successful collaboration, someone does take on a leading role, but it’s a mutually beneficial thing. You let the person who does one thing really well do it really well, and they let you do your thing, and you come together consistently to maintain the relationship. Both Caitlin and Susan taught me how a collaboration can be fun and actually enhance your work.
Agnes Martin said, “We make what we feel.” I was drawn to Carissa’s work because of how honest and unabashedly emotional it is. I liked the idea that we would put our emotions into the work we were creating together, even if we were miles apart.
Carissa, so much of your work is about creating closeness and comfort. Is it comforting to know that Leah is sharing a solitary moment in the sun at precisely the same time? How has it helped each of you to be alone, together?
CP: It is really comforting to have someone across the Bay, enjoying the same sun. It was the ultimate alone time, in a way, because I knew you were there, Leah, and I knew you were so supportive of everything I did. You were this safety net, and you gave me permission to enjoy the freedom to do what I want.
LR: It’s a really wonderful thing to have in life, in a person, but especially in artmaking: someone who can observe you, and who you can be accountable to. A lot of my work lately has incorporated structure, like 100 days of color, as a measure of time. In this collaboration, I’ve been really assessing this time-keeping in a more journalistic way, using the sun as a way to give shape to the days. It helps to know that Carissa has my back. She asks the best questions and always cheers me on.
During your time in the sun, what are you making?
LR: I’ve been making sun tea. Mostly I’m just taking notes—on the colors I see, on what the day holds, on something I overheard on a run. Sometimes I’ll come back from a run and start to work, and the sun will have come out, and I think, “Am I out finding the sun? Or is the sun finding me?”
CP: I’m making drawings of what I feel in the morning. I’ve set up two large tables in the sun, and I bring my paints and pens out there, and I draw what I’m experiencing that day. Sometimes there’s a direct emotion that I can easily capture, and other times I have to work to find it. In one way or another, it comes out in the drawing.
Can you describe your morning routines outside of this project? What gets you going?
LR: If I don’t get outside for some exercise before the day unravels, I’ll be kind of a lunatic, so I try to make sure that happens. But, really, the first thing I do is to go upside down. I do a headstand against the wall, just to get things going. Then, I usually stand at the window and consciously guzzle two glasses of water and look outside. I always think when I’m doing it: “This is a moment for myself.” Ideas come in the morning for me, so I do a lot of writing and drawing at my desk in my room.
CP: I get up at the last possible minute. I let the dog out, and then I make coffee and eat granola and call my mother. That’s part of the joy of waking up, and I really look forward to my morning coffee. Knowing when you get up that you can have something a little sweet and a cup of coffee—it really motivates me. Then I get to work. I really try to get up early and have time for myself in the morning to do things that are healthy, like sit in the sun or walk or make things that you want to make without a particular agenda. I want to be a morning person, because I don’t have any other time, and yet it’s hard. It’s hard to get out of bed!
Are you a bed-maker or a sheet-tosser?
LR: I do make the bed every morning, yes.
CP: I would not make the bed . . . well, how do I say this. I’m married to someone who prefers the bed be made, so I try my best! If left to my own devices, I would pull the covers up while I’m still under them and make the bed that way.
Leah, you’ve talked about being woken by the sun, and then being immediately overtaken by thoughts of work, lists, things to do. What is the first thing each of you do when you open your eyes? How has this project changed the way you approach those first few half-awake moments? Do you jump for your phone?
LR: I’ve tried a lot not to incorporate screen time from 9:30 at night to 9:30 in the morning. That is a worry—the technology starts buzzing, and there was a time when I admonished myself for devoting time to it, but it was also healthy to stop that attitude. And truthfully, Instagram is a large part of my work and how I connect with people far away. This project helps me allow myself to follow my intuition a bit more in the morning, to notice the weather, start the day by drawing.
This idea of prescribing sunlight makes us think of so many other things that it would be good to prescribe ourselves. What else would you prescribe for yourselves if you had the time? For others?
LR: Smiling at people. Saying hi more. Breathing. Sleep. A preparedness. I feel like I’m never prepared! I get off at the wrong train stop, and it takes up energy to correct those mistakes, and I get frustrated with myself. But I don’t know, I think there’s also a way of being too designed.
CP: I would prescribe not being in a rush. I feel like I’ve listened to so many podcasts now about how you’re not able to make compassionate decisions when you’re in a rush. You’re not able to notice other people.
I want to be able to be cognisant of the needs of the people around me. When I was a little girl, with my grandfather, we would we go around the table at night and wish everybody well, and then we would wish the whole world well. Returning to that positive intention and attention, trying to step back and see the big picture and feel a sense of awe and wonder—that’s something that I would like to prescribe for others.
Leah and Carissa’s show This, That, & Hours in the Sun opens at Legion in San Francisco on May 20. For a steady supply of morning inspiration, and coffee that will be there when you wake up, subscribe to Blue Bottle At Home.