Posts Tagged ‘Artist Interview’


Mark Lewis’s paintings and drawings develop frequently (but not exclusively) out of direct observation of his surroundings. His collaged paintings and drawings, which together comprise a significant and long-running aspect of his studio activities, are simultaneously bold in their composition and intricate in their execution. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute in 1982, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1984. Also he attended the Yale-Norfolk summer program in 1981. He has served as Applied Associate Professor of Art at the University of Tulsa since 1998, and his exhibition record is too long to list here (but easily viewed on his own site: http://www.marklewispaintingstudio.com/about).

Robert Hughes once wrote “drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal.” This reminds me of something you said about painting, more than a decade ago: that it satisfies “visual hunger.” In your own painting, has that hunger evolved? If so, how? If not, would you care to comment on its consistency?

The hunger or desire hasn’t changed—it’s still there but possibly my visual appetite or my visual cravings have changed a bit. Using the words “visual hunger” is my way of being sort of vaguely specific—trying to be particular about my needs for the work, and also satisfying the visual necessity in the work, without illustrating a presumed or measured outcome. I’m not as eloquent as Hughes, but I can tell you I love Ruth Miller’s drawings.


Strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual/tactile. Also: people say observing a process will change it. Perhaps there’s a danger in getting too analytical with some things. I think this was part of why I was so surprised and, ultimately, satisfied by your Street Fiction paintings. They use words paradoxically, to point out how useless words can sometimes be. Can you talk about where those paintings came from?

I’m glad that you say it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual, the tactile. I’ve always felt that way but at times it seems the general art world (whatever that means) seems to be dominated by the literary—conceptual illustration—rather than the visual. At this point in my life, having established a personal studio history, I’m as not personally overly analytical as I was, say, 20 years ago. That could be good or bad.

It seems like I regularly have a studio crisis of some sort or another every few years. At one point I was wondering if it was time to work less directly from observation. But to go back further: every 3 or 4 years I’ve always had a body of work developing in the studio that wasn’t based solely on perception. They were paintings of street scenes and paintings of male and female figures in interiors. I didn’t always exhibit those paintings but now I do—or I have recently, anyway. Working perceptually and from a blank canvas seem to be complimentary studio practices—a nice way to feed the work or stir up the work.


Ten years ago I thought of this body of work as “studio signs.” Riffing on the man-made object found in nature. Lately, I’ve been titling them or thinking of them as “street fiction” paintings: a real-false place that might reveal something truthful.

I’ve enjoyed reading plays lately too. A theatre class on campus invited me to read a play by a visiting playwright, to think about the artists that I’m interested in that relate to the play, and to share those artists’ work with the group in order to create a conversation with the work for the class and the playwright. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity. If you remember my early work, you know that I was a still life painter. I’ve always thought of the tabletops as stage sets (but not in an obvious way) and now I think of the streets as stage sets too—a place where I enjoy observing daily life. I enjoy thinking of plays as fictional truths—not a big stretch, of course, but I like the opportunity they provide. The street fiction paintings provide an opportunity to explore in a different way.

Any occurrence in observation can be used in my studio paintings or street fiction paintings, like words observed in the street scenes that I draw and paint. The story line of the words doesn’t add up in my field of vision either. This realization gave me the freedom to employ words in a different way, possibly in a more abstract or poetic way. When I listen to music—whether it’s Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” or the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine”—I like the presence of the sound of words, the human voice. I don’t listen necessary to the story narrative, but I like their presence and recognition. In the Beatles tune I mentioned above, it’s the rhythmic beat of the words. In the Gorecki composition, I don’t understand the language, but I still understand. I think all paintings should have a face—not a picture of a face, but recognition found in paint from a hand. Philip Guston’s early abstractions, like Dial, and late paintings come to mind.


I feel nostalgia sometimes when I think about my time spent at University of Tulsa. It was before the Internet had ascended so fully as the go-to format for image sharing. I shot real slides of my work, wandered up and down the stacks of McFarlin Library looking at art monographs, and in the painting studio, you shared exhibition catalogs with us. Seeing and handling the catalogs felt special, rare, and also very matter-of-fact: they were objects, and there were only so many of them made. That kind of moment, that feeling, is something I hope to create for my own students, even if the tools have changed. What do you think about the shift in the material culture of being a painter? Maybe not just catalogs—paint, supports, online shopping vs. brick and mortar storefronts…

They are both relevant. I just hope we don’t throw out all of the old, sensory objects and try to replace them with only new opportunities via the internet and assume that is all that has to be done. The library is still best in most situations. I still follow the same practice in the classroom/studio, showing books and catalogues. I buy books for my library and for the university library. I do share a list of blog sites with my students and a list of reviewers or writers that I like to follow too. The tactile is important. I want to share this by saying something to you, by placing a book in your hand.


Most of your painting develops from direct observation of your surroundings. How has living and working in Tulsa affected your work?

I remember when I first moved to Tulsa—back to Oklahoma—I thought I would start by working in the landscape. I had been working with the landscape on the east coast. I grew up in McAlester, which is located in southeast Oklahoma. It is known for the state prison and was a former coal mining community. But even though I grew up in Oklahoma, my way of seeing had evolved. So the landscape seemed very foreign to me when I first returned. Within a couple of years I started to make new discoveries in the Tulsa landscape, not relying on the type of choices that I was making when I was painting in DC or Charlottesville, for example. There I was working with landscape more as interior space. In Tulsa, I became attracted to open and public spaces.

Does “landscape as interior space” mean unpeopled space, an effect of architectural surroundings, or something else?

Unpeopled and architectural surroundings both, but mainly as private space or a room, like space in the landscape; also, like a studio space claimed in the landscape with a particular view to work with.

Do you think place changes the work in other ways? I’m thinking of practical issues, like scale and cost of rent; also, of artists per capita in a city like Tulsa vs. New York or Los Angeles.

I moved back to Oklahoma after a one-year sabbatical replacement position at the University of Virginia. I had been living in the DC area and had lived on the east coast for approximately 9 years. I would like to think that there would not be that much difference in choice other than the different opportunities that the landscape might provide. Moving to Tulsa was a practical choice, initially. I thought it would provide a greater opportunity to spend time in the studio (lower cost of living, etc.) which I think has been true.

I like to discover places to paint. I like to be stimulated by something that I have seen as a starting point for a work. It’s not practical to make the large graphite drawings/collages outdoors but I prefer the experience of being on site and I suppose I would find a way to continue this practice if I were located in NY or in LA.


I’m usually working on site or starting a painting with a blank canvas in the studio. I’ve worked large in small studios and worked on a smaller scale in bigger studios. I simply try to find a way to support the work when necessary.

I’m not sure how my work would be different if I had moved to a larger or coastal city. I’m sure there would be some external influences but I’m generally a very private person and the studio dialogue is more internal for me. I’ve found that I don’t need the energy of an art scene or a current trend to respond to—to work—I just need more time in the studio. New ideas come from working, and there is never enough time to explore those ideas.

Thank you Mark!


From top: An untitled graphite and paper collage from 2016; detail of same collage; Why?, oil on canvas 2011-12, 91 x 66″; Boston Avenue Looking South, graphite and paper collage, 2014, 75 x 50″; Studio, 2007, oil on linen, 72 x 64″‘ video tour of ML’s 2012 exhibition at Bowery Gallery, New York. All images courtesy of the artist; video courtesy of Ty Smith.

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Neil Callander is a painter and Assistant Professor of Art at Mississippi State University. He was born in Louisville, KY, and attended Indiana University (BFA, 2003) and Rutgers University (MFA, 2006). Additionally, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2005. He worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons, LLC, 2006-7. Recently, Neil was selected by William Bailey for inclusion in Made Realities/Real Situations: Recent Paintings by Neil Callander, Russell Horton and Marc Roder, on view at the Washington Art Association in Washington CT, April 9 – May 7, 2016.

I want to start with something obvious: your paintings reward the viewer who really likes to look at stuff. One would assume that this issues at least in part from your own enjoyment in long engagements with particular corners of this world. I’m curious: are there any significant non-visual motivators in your paintings? Is there a pattern or overarching strategy in your selection of content?

Oh shit Sam – so much here to untangle.

Maybe the first thing to say is also one of the first things I realized about myself as a painter. I have a real aversion to the frivolity that can surround fine art painting. A formative process for me was learning how to navigate around that ethos. Painting is honest, hard work; I fashion myself a craftsman of objects that have images painted on one side – a builder of cultural artifacts.

To the extent I have a strategy for selecting content it’s driven by impulse not intellect. Painting as a proof of concept seems a limiting endeavor. Although sometimes I wish I did, I don’t have a tidy concept to prove. In fact, I have no concept at all – only intent.

Objects come and go in a painting, in the studio, as I search for the right ones that support my intentions. I enjoy old objects imbued with human contact because their meanings are multifarious. The repurposing of mundane objects also intrigue me – like a coffee can holding paint brushes or a TV screen as a mirror. The big paintings can take more than a year to complete and the whole process is organic (objects moving around, being painted out/painted in). I have to stay excited about the damn things so I’ll toss in whatever I’m into at the moment or even what I just got finished eating. Too often still life painting feels like an assemblage of knick-knacks – lifeless and trite.

A realist painter must contend with the fact that narrative is unavoidable. The viewer will always manifest some sort of narrative meaning, and since the viewer is who brings absolution to a painting I fully support their interpretations over my own.

There are instances where you impose a bit of fiction, too. I’m thinking of Dusty’s Table, Dusty’s Stacks, etc. Care to talk some about the moments of more deliberate narrative invention? 


I do enjoy creating set-ups that conjure characters. Dusty is a character defined through still life paintings. The still lives exist naturally and are extracted from his life. I made an effort not to write about him or think about him outside of a painting context. He came into existence from a need to get out of my own way. It’s not good to take one’s self too seriously – and I’ve definitely been guilty of that. Dusty’s only purpose in life was to fuel new painting ideas. He allowed me to follow whimsy. I painted Dwight Shrute from The Office adjacent to Julie Andrews on the cover of The Sound of Music – what a match made in heaven!

Let me quote you to you: Experiencing dense paintings that slowly reveal their nature can help us cope with the pervasiveness of fast-talking, slick images. In a media-riddled world, painting is a stabilizing force. You’ve been in Mississippi for the last several years. This gets me thinking about cadence—the pace and rhythm of Southern-inflected speech, of the studio, of paint. Is there any kind of useful intertangling for you between cadences? I’m thinking of place in the geographic sense, of painting as a discipline and a dialogue, of the sense of a precise moment, of the more intimate cycles of home and studio.

I’m convinced that if painting is to have a place in our future it is not through copying the modes and manners of popular culture. There is no way painting could stay relevant. Cinema is the king of narrative. Photography is a much more efficient form of documentation. Music is superior at catharsis. Television and the Internet own propaganda. That leaves painting the domains of materiality and ambiguity.

For those readers who haven’t moved around the country and may not know through comparison, the rural South is a kind of paradise. I’m a lowly Professor of Art and living in a mansion (by international standards) on three acres of woods. My wife and I made a decision to sacrifice a degree of cultural complexity for quality of life. My studio is in the basement of my house along with my lawn equipment. Using the leaf blower is a helpful break from painting.


I’m not a certain-minded or directed painter but I am a confident painter. In other words, I never really know what I’m doing but am confident I’ll be able to find my way in the end. This kind of uncertainty allows for richly painted surfaces. I scrape, sand, wipe, scratch my paintings – subtracting paint happens about as often as adding paint. In moments of frustration I also spit on them, step on them or smear food into them so that they don’t shut me out. That sounds weird but there’s a strange control dynamic that painters know about and deal with in different ways. There comes a point when the painting starts talking back and telling you what it needs to be finished. That’s a dangerous time because doors start closing, avenues of discovery and spontaneity disappear. And one can just proceed on the easiest path towards completion – the one they have trod before. I detest that feeling and so fight to be open to a painting flipping to completion in an instant.

That is a pretty spot-on take of what painting still offers best in the midst of so many options. What drew you into painting in the beginning? When did you know that you had to be a painter?

I think about that a lot actually. I’m a regretful person and can’t help dwelling on past decisions. If not a painter I could have been an arborist or some sort of plant biologist.

But(!) painting does allow the unique experience of making something that is entirely one’s own creation. You’re responsible for every mark, every millimeter of the picture plane. As an entire world is created the painter feels what it must be to be a god.

Having that kind of raw manifestation of one’s abilities and frame of mind has just become a part of how I live life.

Following up on cadence, perhaps: are there artists (or writers, musicians) to whom you regularly return—whose work continues to unfold? If so, who are they?

Without exaggerating, I have watched the American tv series The Office all the way through at least 15 times. The same for The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek The Next Generation. All three are hopeful shows that balance crassness with kindness in a way that I enjoy getting to know well. It’s like the company of a reassuring friend; that sounds sad but the studio can be a necessarily lonely place. I also reread John Steinbeck and will for the rest of my life. My favorite is The Winter of Our Discontent.

Of course there are painters too, but with painting I am a voracious consumer and learn just as much from what I dislike. To just plug a few that have affected me and whom I feel I share some territory with: De Kooning and Rembrandt, Peter Blume, Catherine Murphy, Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd, Frans Snyders and Philip Guston.

Please share a piece of good advice you were taught or told, and something useful you had to learn for yourself.

I’m an observer by nature and often fail to realize what’s going on because I’m engrossed in noticing details and thinking in image not words (some people mislabel this as “daydreaming”). I had a professor in college, Barry Gealt, who taught me so much because he is a very different type of person than I am. One thing he said, “I have opinions and you should too!” I thought, “Of course! That’s what I’ve been doing all along – forming opinions.” I needed someone saying the words to realize.

Thank you Neil!

Images included (all courtesy of Neil): Sleeping Porch, 2015, oil on muslin on panel, 48 x 48″; Dusty’s Workspace, 2012, oil on muslin on panel, 38 x 38″; Lindytron 1978 (off), 2015, oil on panel, 25 x 20″. View more at neilcallander.com

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Suzanne Dittenber, “Untitled”, 2015, oil on canvas, 60″ x 96″

We began this interview with Suzanne Dittenber over a year ago.  Shortly after agreeing to participate, Dittenber’s work started to change.  We decided to put off finishing the interview while she focused on her studio.  Once Dittenber felt ready, she came back to the original questions, though a few didn’t really apply to the new work.  In responding to the out-0f-date questions by addressing the changes that had taken place in the work, the focus of the interview becomes assessing change, the effect of place, and the core concerns rooted in an artist’s work that might grow in any number of directions over the course of a life and career.

Visit Dittenber’s website to see more of her work.

Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):


I grew up in Columbus, Ohio where I received my BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design, and spent a semester studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After graduating from CCAD, I moved to southeast Utah where I spent a summer working for the National Park Service as a park ranger – a great experience and visual feast.


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Damon Freed What Babies Art Made Of

Damon Freed, “What Babies Are Made Of”, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″


Today’s installment of “On Finishing” comes from painter Damon Freed.  Freed’s production is varied–painting, drawing, poetry, art writing–and this short interview  touches on most of those.   Freed has recently exhibited at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis and Sherry Leedy Gallery in Kansas City.


Are you a good closer?

I am sometimes. With the nonobjective work it’s often about two things. How empty can I get the painting to be while working it enough to feel finished, and on the other hand, how packed full of stuff can I get the painting to be without it feeling forced or labored. It’s different with the representational work. I work from a source when working representationally. I have a charcoal study that serves as the structure for the painting, and the marks in the drawings provide energy and inspiration for color. So, I’m trying to not lose what the drawing has and at the same time I try to let the painting be autonomous. But yes, I am often sure when it’s finished.

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

I try to make a clean break, and often do. But, I must say, it’s rarely easy. You work and you work until the piece can hold no more, and that’s when I stop. Or else I work it just a little past that point, and then have to edit a bit. Or, I work it way past that point, and lose the painting entirely. The funny thing about painting is that it is an additive process, you know, there’s no erasing. Although, some marks you lay down can negate others you’ve already applied, others that you perhaps don’t want anymore. So, you work with every attempt to hide the previous marks without the painting feeling labored.

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

I’m smiling on the good ones but the good ones, I mean, the ones that really fill you up inside are far and few between. A gentle, quiet smile is more often the case with the smaller works, but when you nail a big one, you know you’ve done some real good. And you feel as though the stars have aligned for you and that all will be well for a time and it is.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?  How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

I feel as though it must be every bit as difficult for my peers to finish as it is for me, unless of course they are much younger, and in that case, it must be more difficult. The thing with art making, it seems to me, is that you get closer to your successes and failures the longer you’ve been working, which means you know better when you have succeeded, and you know better when you have failed. You know more about what you want and how to achieve what you want. It’s very hard to do so at a young age; what’s in your mind and on the canvas can be quite disparate things.

As far as the finish affecting the type of painting I do – it makes all the difference. I used to work very tight, and the finish was seductive–the final appearance that is. I would hide the pencil lines, the history of mark making, and everything I thought would lend a painting to a fresh and easy read. Well, in the end, to me that kind of painting was not only stressful to do, but stressful to look at because as a painter when looking for the painting’s history I was held out from the process, how it came into being. For me, and for some others, I know that there is some pleasure derived from the transparency of a painting’s process. And now my work is looser, the marks are more fancy-free. So it’s all right there on the surface; how it’s made and how it came into being.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

Just this one thing – I wrote this brief notation on finishing not too terribly long ago. It still serves as a good analogy, I think, for the way I work. Here it is…

I think making a painting is like packing a suitcase for a long sustained journey. How do I fit everything I need into this rectangular or irregular bulging bag and still zip the zipper? Finishing a painting is this way. How do I carefully cram everything I want inside without the zipper breaking! You try to zip it once or twice before everything is in just to see where you’re at and once it starts to get snug and a little harder to zip you know it’s getting close and the decision making gets real important. That’s when you have to really start to negotiate the necessities for your trip, what is sustainable and needed, what can go, and what have I forgotten? It gets even tighter! Finally, you make a last attempt to zip that zipper and it either closes or it breaks. If it breaks, unfortunately, you have to buy a new suitcase. It sucks, you’re anxiety ridden, pissed off, and you might miss your flight. But damn if it doesn’t make you a better packer!

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Anne Harris, “Portrait (Snake Eyes)”, 2002, oil on canvas, 14″ x 12″

Susan Sontag highlights a certain part of artist’s experience, “Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is.  And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise.  The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”

Anyone who’s ever been responsible for making anything more ambitious and personal than an out-of-the-box Ikea bookshelf probably agrees, and probably has doubts about how absolute that “whole” really is.   When it comes to painting, the canon is full of folks who had a hard time calling works really, truly finished–from Michelangelo and Leonardo (“Tell me if anything was ever done.”), to Ingres and Degas (who famously asked a collector to return a particular painting, “Dancers at the Barre” 1877, so the dissatisfied artist could rework it; the collector refused).  And artists today deal with the same uncertainties.

That scariness of calling something finished can be a driving force, or it can drive a person crazy.  An artist has to learn to let his or work go out into the world–contingent as the idea that it is really and truly finished may be–or else devise elaborate strategies to avoid the whole question.

I decided it would be elucidating to ask some artists–painters mostly–about their personal experiences finishing artworks.  I sent a few questions to the artists who responded via email.  The first response came from Anne Harris who re-states the question with more clarity and makes a strong case for the idea that an artist just keeps working until it feels right, risky as that might be.  

Harris currently lives and works in Chicago.  Her most recent gallery show was Phantasmatical: Self Portraits in 2013 at Alexandre Gallery in New York.  A collaborative/curatorial project, titled The Mind’s I, was presented in Chicago in 2012, will be re-staged at Memphis College of Art this fall, and is, I believe, looking for other venues.  See her website for more of her work.

Are you a good closer?

No idea! You tell me. Using your sports metaphor: if you strike out that final batter, or make that winning basket (home run, goal, etc.), you’re a good closer. Everyone sees it and agrees. You see it too. But in painting there’s no winning shot. There isn’t even an agreed upon game. Each painting is a brand new playing field with its own rules, laws, its own mysterious conclusion. You’re inventing and discovering the game as you play it. How do you close? Who knows?  

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

Depends on the piece. A few seem to paint themselves. Others are a real struggle. I have paintings I spend years on, working them off and on, thinking they’re dead, then seeing hope again. Sometimes they come together. Some I’m never satisfied with. Some I throw away. I should probably do that more often.

When you call it done are you smiling?

Sometimes, if I think I’ve really pulled something off, I get excited. I have all kinds of fantasies about my greatness. Often, the next morning, I realize it’s awful. Every now and then, I make a painting that I’m certain is good, and it stays good, each time I see it.

Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

I have problems with the word “finish.” It implies that there’s a foregone conclusion—something polished off. I prefer the word “resolved” or just “done.” For me a painting’s done when it exists as a living fact, like the nose on my face. This is it—my nose. Whether or not I like it, my face is done. Change my nose and I am undone.

There’s the Nelson Algren quote: “…like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”  

Basically, every part of the painting has to be essential, to contribute to the meaning and experience of the painting. Anything added or subtracted lessens the painting.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?

I take a lot longer to finish paintings than most people I know. It’s really impractical.

How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

I am romantic about painting. I believe painting can be felt, can hold emotion and contain presence, can function as a transformative experience. The length of time I spend is part of that. And the fact that the ending of a painting is unknown to me until I’m there—well, there’s no hiding it—I believe in that mystery. Painting is magic.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

My husband teases me, saying, if I were a better painter I’d finish faster. I actually think he’s right. My slowness compensates for a lack of true facility. That is, I can quickly arrive at something that looks slick and detailed, that is superficially facile, but it takes me a long time to get to a place that resonates. I get there awkwardly.

Thank you, Anne Harris!

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“Borderlands/Summer Home”, 66″x 48″, oil on canvas, 2015

Adrian Cox is a painter based in St. Louis, making large scale landscape-based work that references both the grotesque and the bucolic.  The paintings appear lush and carefully crafted in a way that seems to be defiantly unfashionable in this decade of the squeegee and exposed stretcher bars.  Cox has a show up at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati titled Border Creatures and is giving a public talk at the gallery tonight (Friday, May 15).  Border Creatures closes tomorrow but I am sure that Adrian’s work will be on view again, hopefully soon.  See more of his work at his website.

We’ve been wanting to try out some new prompts here on the blog, looking for new and less than obvious ways to get painters to talk about the motivations and the goals, values and standards that drive their practice.  So, we are trying one today that I pretty blatantly ripped-off from a radio report about financial planning:  interview your future self, asking her/him three questions about your work as an artist.  If you wish to, provide some reasoning for the importance of these questions to you now.  (Ripped off and paraphrased a bit, the radio report had nothing to do with artists.)

What follows is Adrian Cox’s response to this challenge.   We want to thank Adrian for responding to this experiment and taking time to provide these words for us.  You will enjoy what he has to say.

What aspects of your work were you initially dishonest about? That is to say, what important parts of your art making experience did you try to compromise or hide as an emerging artist?

This is as much a question that I would like to ask myself in the future as one that I consider now. I’m fully aware of the compromises caused by the functional limitations of being an emerging artist (who doesn’t want a bigger studio?), but I’ve only recently begun questioning other self-imposed limitations. There are certain aspects of my practice that never seem to make their way into exhibitions. My studio is filled with sculpted maquettes that I use as studies for paintings, and while I’ve been using such devices for years, I still find myself uncertain of my relationship to these objects. Right now they’re a means to an end, but I increasingly find this excuse to be an easy way to separate the illusionistic world of representational painting from the weighty objecthood of sculpture. I’m unsure of whether these studies will remain a tangential aspect of my studio work, or transform into something else entirely.

Which painters have remained important to you over the years? Why have you cast aside those that no longer play such a central role in your practice?

I’ve always held that you can get an sense of an painter’s practice from the artists they love; more so from those they hate. When I think about the reasons that I’ve turned away from certain artists that were once central to me, I find myself considering weaknesses in my older work. Likewise, the painters that have grown on me over time reflect moments in which I’ve set forth in new (hopefully better) artistic paths. It’s in the space between these artists that I’m able to measure my growth as a painter. My studio is littered with printed reproductions and dogeared monographs; I can’t help but wonder which of these will stand the test of time.

Do you still feel a need to justify painting?

People constantly remind me of the weighty bulk of my chosen medium’s history, and challenge the artistic and cultural viability of painting. Publicly, I always offer my best conceptual defense for what I do, but in the privacy of my studio I find myself viewing the vastness of painting’s history as more fecund than burdened. Every time I pick up a brush, it’s as if I’m having a séance with my artistic heroes. The discourse surrounding painting is constantly shifting between more or less critical positions, but the intimacy of the medium persists. I can’t guess what position toward painting will become fashionable years from now, but I have to wonder if I’ll still feel the need to leap to its defense at every opportunity. Perhaps my words aren’t needed. The smeared, scrubbed, glazed, and scumbled surfaces that I see in galleries and museums probably offer a more eloquent argument for their own existence than I ever could.

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“Talking to Afghanistan”, 2013, oil, 30″ x 30″

Ashley Norwood Cooper is an artist I’ve known as a maker of painterly, domestic narratives.  Typically her painting mash up mundane and unsettling imagery using cutaways, shifting perspectives and an enviable bagful of painter’s tricks.  The other day, I saw an announcement for a new body of work, based on her experiences during the time her husband Shelby was deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Navy surgeon.  Most of the paintings show Cooper’s own hands, holding an iPad and a few choice glimpses of objects and spaces beyond.  The paintings, in her words, ” are about this correspondence which consumed me for nine months. The contrast between the thick tactility of the oil paintings and slick, temporal nature of digital media, points out how different these two forms of expression actually are. Digital images, with their speed of light convenience, are no replacement for the expressiveness of paint. Likewise, my ‘virtual husband’ was no replacement for the real thing.”  The resulting paintings are an amazing combination of thoughtful, heartfelt and original, with a little of-the-moment cultural relevance thrown in to boot (though I think “thoughtful, heartfelt and original” is the true strength of the series).

I asked Ashley about her work, her family and the resonance between the idea that painter is to her painting as spouse of deployed surgeon is to her iPad.

See the full series of “Deployment” paintings at her website.

Tell us a little about yourself (background, education, etc.):

I grew up in Greenville, SC and attended the University of Georgia. Though I was very involved with art in high school and college, I graduate with a major in Latin. I was a Latin teacher for a little while before attending graduate school at Indiana University, where I got an M.F.A. in painting.  Now I live in a very small town in central New York with my husband, three kids, and too many pets. I paint in a studio behind my house. My paintings are almost always fairly autobiographical.
I have always been interested in drawing, painting and story-telling, these elemental ways that human beings create meaning. I believe that these activities are basic to humanity and that they cannot become outmoded or be replaced by technology.


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The Next Step_72x48_oil on canvas_2013
“The Next Step”, 2013, oil on canvas, 72″x 48″

Kathy Liao is an artist recently extracted from Seattle to life of teaching and painting in St. Joseph, MO, a small town about an hour north of Kansas City.  She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work for us, and tells us about her recent experiences living and looking at her new home.  Kathy makes the kind of paintings, prints and drawings where generosity, curiosity and her own painterly energy are the big statement the work makes.  The kind of work where the artist is being true to something–something she or he maybe can’t quite name exactly, all of the time–and that in the end articulates a thoughtful but idiosyncratic way of being-in-the-world.  The kind of work that reminds us that deciding what to paint and how to paint is always a statement of priorities–or really values–and when the work reveals a struggle to make those decisions, we’re privy to the artist’s internal struggles, not just her technical ones.  More of her work can be seen on her website.

First question: Many of us don’t grow up with art as part of our daily life, especially many of us away from the coasts and our routes into the fine arts are circuitous.  Was that your experience?  How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this?’

I grew up in a family of doctors. I was not exposed to much art as a child. Both of my parents were dentists – The most artistic objects my parents presented to me were dentures, wax, and mold of strangers’ teeth. (more…)

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In January, Kansas City-based painter Tom Gregg held an open studio.  A group of new still life paintings hung salon-style on one white wall.  The wall glowed.  Tom Gregg has always been an impressive  colorist.  The color in these recent paintings has become impossibly vibrant.  The color seems to want to tell a story, reflected light has a personality.  Making the inanimate and inarticulate come to life seems to be a central part of his project, starting with the color and going on to include the objects he chooses to paint, the paint he works with and the very act of perception itself.  In the interview that follows Tom talks about the work that goes into arranging and observing colors, about taking color out of the paintings for a few years and more about his practice in general.

Please tell our readers a little bit about your background.  How did you end up becoming a painter?

I lived in Southern California until I was 7, but then moved to Butler, a small steel mill town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was always drawing and making images and I can’t remember not wanting to be an artist, or ever really wanting to be anything else. Of course I had no idea what that was, I just knew I got a particular (more…)

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Rock Wall, 2009, 9′ x 7′, oil on canvas

Claire Sherman, it seems, has finally got some free time.  Since I got in touch with Sherman about doing a Q&A for us, she’s come off a solo show at DCKT Gallery, moved to Brooklyn for a residency at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation, opened another solo show at Pippy Houldsworth in London and taught an intensive painting course at Oxbow.  And what’s she going to do with that time?  She says she is “looking forward to making some big bad mistakes in the studio, and having time to clean up my own mess,”—which I think needs to be one of the 10 Commandments of painting for all of us from here on out. Read on to see what else she’s thinking about.

Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.

I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and it was a wonderful place to grow up – there are always concerts and plays at the college, and the Allen Art Museum is a gem.  I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my BA, and I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005.  I teach painting and drawing at Knox College in Illinois, and am currently on junior leave to be a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation’s Space Program in DUMBO, Brooklyn. (more…)

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