Meet the Designer: Blair Borthwick

"I’ve discovered how to be really honest with myself and authentic with my self-expression," says the Shelter Island and NYC-based artist.
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Photograph by Chris Fanning

“My soul was going to die,” says artist Blair Borthwick of the time in her life immediately before she pivoted from a high-powered career on Wall Street to a life spent painting full-time. Borthwick, who earned an MBA in finance and made partner at her firm before turning 30, yearned for work that fed her deeply. And so, in winter, she paints in Chelsea during the week before packing up her car– all available space occupied by her three dogs and various artworks-in-progress– and escaping to Shelter Island. She and her husband bought the place right out of school, scooped up the properties adjacent in the years since, and crafted a creative compound for themselves. An integral part? Blair’s studio, nestled into a wooded hillside. She spends summers there uninterrupted, painting away.  

Fairy Magic

Fairy Magic by Blair Borthwick

How has Shelter Island inspired your art?

We had the gift of being on Shelter Island for two years during COVID.  We were kind of trapped so I spent so much time in my studio. In Manhattan, you don’t even notice the night sky.  In Shelter Island, we live on the water, we have a dock.  Every night we watch the sunset and you see the stars and know when it’s a full moon because you can feel it.  It’s crazy how connected you feel to nature.  I feel like, for an artist, that’s really important.  All that light––all the sunlight bouncing off the water and all the sunsets––that’s kind of infused in my work.  My work is really vibrant, light––and I feel like that’s 1000 percent Shelter Island and the influence of getting to exist in that incredible nature.  

How does your work in New York differ from your work in Shelter Island? 

The New York colors are different.  I tend to do smaller-scale stuff in my studio in New York because it’s a smaller studio.  I love working in New York City also, the energy is so different, but Shelter Island is where I feel like the light explodes into the color.  If I am struggling with a piece in New York City, I will bring it out to Shelter Island and I see it differently. 

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Blair Borthwick, photograph by Chris Fanning.

How do you choose the colors and story?

I am a colorist.  Colors, to me, are actually about emotion and mood––and how you feel in your body and in the moment.   When I start a canvas, the colors are actually spontaneous, believe it or not.  Also, there are seasons for colors.  I got really into neon colors during COVID, and I think it’s because the world was so dark.  I was like ‘oh, hey I need to create some happy vibes over here.’ What was really interesting, was that during the peak of COVID when everyone was afraid to go to the grocery store, I had people on random days like ‘hey, I need to come to your studio and just see your art, and I just want to own something light.’  So, it was resonating.  I think it was actually serving a purpose in that moment of people feeling really connected to the fact that art can change the way you feel.

What is your process like when you start a new project?

I really just try to ground myself, take a few deep breaths, and then I love working with oil sticks.  They are so gorgeous and creamy.  It’s kind of like being a little kid again and just drawing––I allow myself that freedom at the beginning to just make marks.  And they are not intentional.  The color is sort of intentional, I pick whatever I’m feeling deeply, but the marks are just random. Sometimes it’s quite rhythmic and physical.  I’ll step back maybe 20 minutes into it, and I really feel like the oil crayons are the way in, they are the path into the work.  This is my on-ramp to the flow state.  

Is the a spiritual aspect to creating your art?

Yeah, it’s a pretty spiritual practice for me.  Any art requires daily practice.  Whether the muse is pouring through you or not that day, you show up, you do your work.  To me, it’s devotional.  It’s what I do everyday.  I think that discipline makes it deeply meaningful.  Some days you show up and the work is just like mud and you’re like ‘why do I even do this?’.  All the self-doubt rushes in.  But you just keep showing up––and on those days when things are actually going well, you somehow feel so connected to all of humanity.

Dyzigotic

Dizygotic by Blair Borthwick

What is your favorite piece you have done?  

Dizygotic.  There is something about it that is the divine goddess creator energy.  I painted it when my kids were younger, and it has hung above the fireplace in our house in Shelter Island for a good part of their childhoods.  I feel like it’s this companion, that bore witness to my mothering.  That piece is about creating another human and then unconditionally loving it and letting it launch into adulthood.  

How did you get into collage, as a medium?

My daughter really cares about sustainability and she was having a moment not feeling happy about fast fashion and how it’s hurting the planet, so she started taking bags of giveaway clothing and chopping them up and making them into clothing.  I got really inspired by that.  There were a bunch of paintings in my studio that I was going to burn in the fire, frankly.  I was like, I’ll just cut them up and I started doing collage, inspired by my daughter. 

What have you gotten out of your artwork?

I’ve discovered how to be really honest with myself and authentic with my self-expression. I’ve learned patience, perseverance, and humility when it’s not going so well. 

Nekyla

Nekyla by Blair Borthwick

What do you hope others get out of your art?

I hope I inspire others to do what I did––to take some risks.  To figure out what are you here to do, what are you on this planet for?  My deep hope for humanity is that we all find a way to be brave and walk the path we are supposed to be walking––it’s what I talk to my kids about all the time. 

Where can people see your art in person?

I am doing a show in June at Matriark in Sag Harbor. I am the summer kickoff artist who is going to be exhibited.