This week: Todd Cloe, wood sculptor of benches, rings, and large works for galleries. Todd is also the Woodshop Technician at Louisiana Tech. You can explore Todd’s art at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cloe-Studios/116171901774199
This interview has been edited for length.
Could you start by telling me how you decided to become an artist?
I knew from the time I was about a fifth grader that I wanted to really study art. I had always drawn. I made a little soap sculpture of an owl head when I was in third or fourth grade. My dad helped a little bit, but I felt like it was all mine, you know? So I thought, ‘This is something that I can do.’ Didn’t offer art until the sixth grade. And I took an art class and really enjoyed it. Simple stuff, drawing, and little toothpick houses. And then art wasn’t offered again until my freshman year in high school. I took art all through high school and really did well. I won a couple of little competitions for the kids. We’d all travel to one of the local universities, and the art professors would assess everybody’s work. And hand you a little ribbon. Everybody got a ribbon; some just for participating. Mine happened to be blue and red. So I got a little positive feedback. Then I went to Oklahoma State Tech. It was just a two year program in commercial art. I thought that might be where I wanted to go. My granddad said, “Todd, if you’re going to do art, you need to do something people will pay for so you can have a steady job. So commercial art’s the way you need to go.” So I did that, did very well. Of course, there weren’t any computers until my last trimester there. And this was ’82. Hardly anybody knew anything about them, so everybody was learning how to hand-render things. So my drawing skills and my lettering skills got real good. I still use the lettering skills here and there, that I picked up so long ago. I went on interviews, and didn’t get picked up by anybody. And thank God, my aunt asked me if I wanted to go to a four year school and study art. I’m like, “Yes!” So I did that, went to Oklahoma state. And I got my BFA in ’89.
Were you still studying commercial art?
No. I had gone in in commercial art and realized, ‘This is a mistake. There’s no reason to do this.’ So I changed after one semester, and did very well in my drawing classes. I tried to take a drawing class every semester. And eventually I was taking painting classes and doing very poorly. I could not get above a D in my painting classes. And I was there all the time; my stuff was more paint by numbers almost. The drawings were solid underneath, but the actual painting part was very rudimentary. Then I took my first sculpture class. My very first project, he said that it’s open, you can use any material, it’s just got to be an organic form. I saw this stump in this guy’s front yard, and I asked him if I could take his stump away from him. And he said, “Yeah, here let me get the garden hose. And I’ll get the ground nice and wet, and we’ll pull it out.” It was a cedar stump. So I started carving on that. All I had was a chisel and a mallet. And eventually started buying a file here and there and a rasp where I could get into the tight places. It eventually became a very nice piece, and my sculpture teacher said, “Todd, sculpture is your thing. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” He really enjoyed watching me work on that, because I was just all elbows and sawdust, and sweat. It was a very physical, labor intensive piece. My mother’s got that at her house, and she’s very proud of it. I did a few more wood sculptures and realized, you know I do this pretty good. I was working nights at the time. I worked for Safeway. I worked nights for ten years, running the night crew. It was a pretty hard thing to go to school all the time, and my grades suffered a little bit. I think I had a 2.9 average when it was all done. I always wanted to go to grad school, but never got real motivated to do that until I got married in ’97. My mother-in-law, who’s a very generous person, she paid for my graduate program here at Tech. And it was a really good ride. I made a lot of nice big pieces, was really happy about those. And got a lot of positive feedback. I guess that’s it in kind of a long nutshell.
I was thinking about how big a part tools play in your life and your art. Of course, you work as the woodshop technician. And often a big part of the sculptures and benches and rings you make, they almost act as a record of the interaction of the tool with the wood. I was wondering first of all what sort of significance and meaning do you see in that, in the use of tools?
Gosh, man’s been fascinated with tools for thousands of years, and I guess I’m really no different, other than I try to do something aesthetically different with the tools. I like to leave tool marks that, like you said, do give a little bit of a history of what’s happened to the wood. And my large sculptures are inspired by Native American handtools that I’ve picked up over the years. Most of them were broken little curiosities. I would take the broken parts and rearrange different parts of different tools, and then blow the scale up and make them really large. The sculptures were inspired by Native American handtools. I would walk these cotton fields and find these pieces of Native American handtools and my mind would wander, imagining what they were used for. So you’ll see whenever you look at my work, finger divets that might be six or eight inches across, just trying to kind of keep in scale with the size of the tool maybe. Not necessarily that a giant race of people used these tools, but just more of a design element I guess. When they get that large, they really start not to speak so much about handtools anymore, but they take on their own presence. They command a space, you know. You see them upright, and they just scream come here and look at me.
What are some of your favorite tools to work with?
I love working with the chisel and the mallet. That is just about as personal as you can get with extracting the wood. It’s very slow, but the payoff is you can see a mistake before it gets too far along. Whereas if you’re using a chainsaw you can really go too far in a hurry and maybe not be able to save something. Speaking of saving things, I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve never had an accident that I couldn’t make better than it was whenever I originally thought of it. A lot of times the wood will only let you do what it will let you do. If you try to force something, it typically shows, or it just won’t happen. But I have never had nothing but happy accidents. I’ve lost things and really stressed over it, and then come to find out I didn’t need that element of the sculpture anyway. It’s better off without it. Getting back to what you’re saying though, the chisel for me is a great thing. I really like the chainsaw wheel. It’s a little four inch disk with a chainsaw on the outside of it. It grinds a lot of wood in a hurry. I like that. You can’t work too fast with the wood. You kind of have to be a very patient person. You can’t rush it.
I was thinking about how much time and effort goes into making each piece. They’re very heavy pieces of wood oftentimes. It’s also just a feat of strength and endurance. I read on the website that during one piece you had to have back surgery in the middle of it. I was wondering, how do you think that affects the value and the meaning of the piece?
I don’t know, other than whenever someone walks up to it, they can just tell. My God, moving this piece is a feat in and of itself. I’m hoping it will affect the value in a positive way. Haha. I like being able to be seen as somebody who really puts a lot of effort into what I’m calling art. That makes me feel good. Because it does take a lot of effort. I’m not saying it’s not art if it comes easy. It’s just that I can’t go there. I have to, it seems, bleed a little bit, and strain myself, to actually reach an end.
How much of the sculptural pieces you make is planned, and how do you plan? And how much is unplanned?
Really very few of them are actually ever planned out. I did plan one, but only half of it looks the way it did when I did my drawings. Every one of them have always been, ‘Ok, I’ll just start with this blank canvas, being a large stump, and just start making marks on it, and kind of drawingthe in the wood with the chain saw. And constantly walking around the piece. Stepping back and looking at it. And taking off some notches here and there. Every single time, something has come about that’s worthy of finishing. I do have in mind that ‘Ok, this is tool-like. I need to have certain elements in the sculpture.’ Some areas kind of have to be concave, and something else may have to be convex. Or there has to be a point or a serrated edge or something like that. So there is some planning, but nothing is ever drawn, or exactly how I draw it is how I’m going to make it. That’s never happened.
When you take the different kind of woods, and then also consider the Native American tool influence, you can think of it either as a geographical element to the pieces, or maybe an interaction between human history and natural history. You know what I mean?
Right. The bodark tree was revered by the Indians. That’s what they made their bows out of. Bodark translates “arc of a bow.” It has a lot of flexibility to it. It will flex a lot more before it snaps than any other hardwood. And I’m sure they experimented with a lot of different kinds of woods for their bows and realized this is the only one that really works great every time. And it’s absolutely impervious to bugs. If they get into the heartwood, they will back right out. I used a piece of bodark that was at my granddad’s dairy farm. It was a corner post that he and his dad never used. And it laid by the dairy barn for seventy years. You can imagine what’s in a dairy, a lot of cow dung everywhere. And the bugs had gotten into the sapwood, but once they got into the heartwood they backed out. So it was a very structurally sound piece. It was in great shape. I made my wife’s and my wedding rings out of that wood. Whenever we got married. She has metal allergies. I made us that wooden wedding set out of that wood. I think the wood rings really are a better metaphor for a marriage than a diamond is. Because diamonds are absolutely forever, and marriages rarely ever are. And like a marriage, the wood rings need a little bit of attention. They need some maintenance. You’ve got to be careful with them. And that’s exactly like being married. If you want to maintain that, you’ve got to do something to protect it, and seal it against the elements that would otherwise ravage it.
I keep thinking about what it would be like to find one of your sculptural pieces hundreds years from now the way you found the tools that they’re inspired by.
That would be quite a find. I’d like to be there for that. And you know, I’ve thought about how temporary people are on this planet. And avoiding a fire, everything I make will definitely outlive me. Especially if the sculptures are enjoyed by somebody, they’re going to be taken care of. It’s a dream of mine to see one of my pieces on antiques roadshow. Haha.
I like to think about the way it portrays our society. Obviously it signifies an appreciation for tradition and other cultures, and leaves out a lot of that stuff that will fade away because it’s on a disk, on a harddrive or something.
Right. Not that you can’t make art with technology, but to me, if I can’t see that somebody has really put some effort into making something, I struggle with validating that it is truly art. I’m sure that’s just me. There’s a lot of people that can put things together and call it art and sell it for lots of me. But in the end those things fade away, and what stays is something with some permanence. Where there’s some record of somebody’s toil that they’ve gone through to create something. I think that that will ultimately survive and outlive all of these other ephemeral artforms that are everywhere.
What do your sculptures convey to the viewer about you?
I think they can tell that it’s somebody with a strong will to start something of that kind of magnitude. I’m hoping they’re saying to themselves, ‘God, I could never do this. But here’s somebody who can.’ I hope that they see the finesse that I try to give every square inch. I leave very little untouched. You just have to go around the whole piece many times and address it all. They might think, ‘Oh, here’s a guy with a lot of time on his hands,’ maybe. It does take a lot of time.
And you really don’t have a lot of time.
I really don’t. It’s an illusion! Haha.
Thank you for speaking with me.
Oh you’re welcome. I enjoyed it.
NCLAC is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, Funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency.
This week: Ed Pinkston, who has a show opening tonight (Thursday September 22) at Gallery Fine Art Center in Bossier, with an art talk at 5:30.
One of the other abiding influences in my work is man-made versus nature, or freedom versus control. Societal issues that we face, laws and regulations. Where you can ride your bike and where you can’t. Can you ride at night. Versus childlike freedoms that we all enjoy, especially in this country. A lot of my work is about that, so the way my work begins is it starts out very childlike and spontaneous, and I do the large broad issues in literally broad paint applications with brushes or squeegies or scrapers. And I use a lot of combinations. So I start out with this sense of freedom in my pieces, and then as I go on, I start to constrain or confine and refine them somewhat. And they develop more man-made like rectalinear elements like squares or straight line passages. So I like to have a duality between freedom and control. And in some pieces, the fulcrum is more under one end than the other. Some pieces will have a lot more spontaneity in them. Others will be more sober and controlled. Of course, in art publications, one of the main ways they talk about this is Apollo and Dionysius. The idea of the sober good god versus the party Bacchus god. I always try to keep that dichotomy in mind, and I try to juggle those two and make them reconcile. And that’s where my fun comes in is playing off those two extremes against each other and seeing what happens.
Yeah, it seems like the sort of abstract expressionism that you’re working from is a really good way to deal with those questions about freedom and self-determination.
I’ve been greatly influenced by abstract expressionism, but mine are not wholly that. A piece like mine might look a little bit like a Hans Hoffman, but it still has more constraints and more rigidity in it than his pieces did.
It almost seems as if you move through the abstract expressionism in the beginning and start to become more representational with the shapes and lines and things.
That’s fair. And sometimes those rectangular shapes are windows and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they open up a space, and sometimes they’re ‘don’t go there. Stop there.’ And that’s the way Hans Hoffman used them too. Sometimes they would be a window into the depth of the painting, and other times they would be a confrontational thing that said ‘no, you’re not going there. You’re not going back in space. This is not a landscape.’ So sometimes if I see something getting too spatial, I’ll do something like that to bring us back up to the picture plane and say ‘Whoa, this is all illusion. It’s all flat stuff for the most part.’
I read in your statement you used to do figurative and landscape painting. What caused you to move from that to non-representational work?
I don’t know. I have always given myself permission to change my stripes. I’m not one of those artists whose work evolves very little over time, maybe just gets better in quality but they do the same basic painting over and over. Or maybe their work gets more expressive or gets bigger or whatever. But I seem to go through cycles of seven or ten years’ work. In graduate school, I started out doing abstract expressionism, then I went to hard-edge abstraction. And then when I got out of graduate school, I did abstraction again for a while. Then finally I said I need to get back to realism, that’s what I’m teaching in my classes. My drawing classes are all about learning to see. You know, perceptual experiences. Let’s get back to that. So I went back to doing drawings and landscapes with charcoal and pencil. And then I decided I wanted to get back to color again, but I didn’t want to go back to being a full blown abstract expressionist so I went to pastels. I don’t have many pastels to show you. In fact, this one’s sold, but this was one of them. After I went to abstraction and things like that, I wanted to come backt o more realistic experience with color. And I said well, pastel would be a good way to do that. I’d never worked with pastels, and I didn’t realize how tremendous they were. Not for just bringing out a color experience, but also just for markmaking properties. ‘Cause I’ve taught drawing for so many years and taught a lot with charcoal. I was kind of naïve and slow to realize ‘Hey, pastel is just charcoal in color. I can make the same kind of expressive marks. I can break the color surface up into local color. I can break that local color down into broken color. I can do all kinds of things with it. To answer your question, I just don’t ever like to be bored. I like to keep going. There is a common thread to my work, but as I shift experiences, some other people have had difficulty seeing that. And then after I did these for a while, I did pastel landscapes and still-lifes. And even abstract pastels for some time. I did those for about ten or twelve years. I had a retrospective at Tech somewhere around 2000, and looking at that show on a whole, there was so much pastel work in it. I said ‘I want to get back to painting again. I want to get back to that viscosity and that liquid feel.’ And it was just that simple. I just wanted to go back to a more temporal kind of liquid idea, and so I stopped doing the pastels and started doing abstract painting again for the first time in many years. And it was very difficult at first. I don’t know if you’ve done any abstract work yourself. Do you ever do any? But you work without a net, you know. You’ve got no subject matter to refer to. You’ve got nothing to bail you out. It’s just you and what you know about the principles and elements and things you want to express with them. And I had a real tough time for a couple years when I went back to abstract painting. I just said I can’t do this. I’m no good. And I really struggled. But after a while, I slowly started making some gains and feeling like ‘well yeah, ok.’ Part of my problem wasn’t just me, it was my materials. I have never in an enclosed space like this, even using odorless mineral spirits, I’ve never been able to work with oil paints. I’m very hypocritical: I always made my students use oil paints whenever I taught painting at Tech, we always used oil paints because of the slow drying time and the ability to intermix and rework and things like that. Oil painting’s far superior to acrylic. But my head just can’t take it. So I’ve had to use acrylics all these years. And that’s a tremendous limitation because of the fast drying time. You don’t get that opportunity to rework. At first, trying to do abstraction with acrylic paint, it’s tough. But after a time, I started learning how to work with it, and I can use retardants to get a longer drying time where I can go back and rework. But also I just learned how to make my spontaneity work. So the acrylic made me speed up. It made me more spontaneous, because the clock is ticking. And I had to work with it very rapidly. That was part of my struggle. I was part of the problem, but my materials were part of the problem too. But after I got more back into it, both of those sides started to come around, and I started to see results.
I think that’s something about abstract art that people who say they don’t get it aren’t seeing is that rich narrative of the process that’s in there. Oftentimes it conveys at least as much meaning as a representational work if not more.
I love to hear you say that. That is exactly right. Abstract painting has its own studio autobiography. It can be just as rich in historical experience or personal experience as any pictoral piece can. Whenever I’ve been in any kind of group and people have asked me ‘what’s the best way to understand or explain abstract expressionism?’ I’ve said part of the trouble is people worry about understanding it. I used the analogy of music. Listening to a melody is abstract. There’s no lyrics there like a country song. It’s like opera, where you don’t understand the language. I could listen to an aria in Italian and probably enjoy it more than if I understood Italian, because they might be saying ‘I went down to the store, bought a loaf of bread.’ Well that’s so pedestrian and everything. So the abstractness of music, it’s the same kind of thing in the visual arts. You have to enjoy it on that level, just for what it is. And you don’t have to read interpretations into it. You can, but you don’t have to. So many people feel like they have to understand abstract painting, and I say you just open your eyes. Just like you open your ears to music. One time, when I was in front of a woman’s group, and they weren’t getting it. I had a real good friend in the audience, and I knew it wouldn’t embarrass her. A very nice looking lady who was very well dressed. I said if you wouldn’t mind come up here and stand for a moment. And she came and stood beside me. And I said now, what did you do this morning when you got dressed? You made the decision to put this skirt with this blouse. To put this piece of jewelry here. These earrings. You were doing abstract art. You were making decisions about color, line, shape, form, texture. All the things an abstract artist does, you do it every morning. And they said “Oh!” That really broke the ice for them.
I guess one thing about abstract art is, in a lot of ways you have to avoid meaning. You have to avoid representation in order to be non-representational. That has a sort of tyranny to itself, you know?
Absolutely. That’s why I fight the spatial issues so hard, because I know any time I do a lot of overlaps, I’m going to start to get a landscape read out of the piece which I probably don’t want. Sometimes I go ahead and give in to it and let it go that way. I give myself permission to let realism creep in or pictorial space creep in sometimes. But for the most part, I try to keep it on an abstract plane because of this very pitfall you mention. And you don’t want it to lapse too easily back into conventional that’s a landscape, that’s a still life, that’s whatever. I do my best work when I really keep my thinking on abstract and don’t let them become to spatial or spatially illusionistic.
Let me ask you about yourself, as an artist who’s worked for multiple decades, how do you keep from becoming stagnant and from imitating yourself? And on the other side of that coin, how do you keep from abandoning all the things that you’ve done before and the progress you’ve made?
Those are good questions. And they’re not easily answered. But I think you know part of the answer is what I do is I change materials and approaches, and that keeps me fresh. On a singular level of individual painting basis, I try to do what Diebenkorn said he used to do. They said how do you begin a new painting? He said ‘I begin a new painting as far away from the last painting as I can, because I know what’s going to happen as I work. I’m going to gravitate back to what I’ve done before, to what I am, what I know and all the experience I have.’ And he said if you don’t you’ll wind up repeating yourself. That’s what would surprise people a lot of times about artists. This is what drives artists crazy about art historians. Art historians will say ‘this must have come from 1892 because it’s painted just like this one over here.’ No. Maybe that’s true, but many times artists will leap back in time as well as leap forward. And a lot of times my paintings are done at the same time and have very little correlation, and that’s deliberate. People say these two magenta paintings down here must have been painted at the same time. No, they were painted several years apart actually. What I try to do is the same thing Diebenkorn did. Whenever I started a new painting, I used different materials, different techniques. If I painted real thickly with brushes on the last one, I’ll start with glazes on the next one. I’ll use scrapers instead of brushes, or something like that. I’ll use a very different palette to begin with. I don’t usually put down a dominant palette colore first. That just happens. So whatever dominant palette color resulted in the last one, by god it’s not going to be in the new one. It’s going to start in some place totally elsewhere. And that’s why my paints are not organized. In some artists’ studios, every paint is perfectly lined up and organized, and they know exactly where everything is. I keep my paints moving around and disorganized to keep me disorganized, to keep me fresh so that I don’t revert back, hopefully, too much too soon to what I already know and the methods and techniques and things I know have worked in the past. This color relationship worked with this color relationship last time, let’s use it again. No, I don’t do that. I try to go to another part of the palette, start with some funky color over here and say what if. So it’s just like a child will. I try to put myself in a childlike mode and say let’s just try. What if. And then you go from there. Waste a lot of paint. Waste a lot of time. But that’s the only way to go. That’s the frustration of working abstractly, but it’s also the joy. It takes you places that you can’t preordain. Some people say do you have any kind of image in your head when you start painting? I hope not! When I’m doing this, absolutely not. Evenwhen I was doing these, I did about forty or fifty of these pastel still lifes. Only two of them were done from life. All the others were made up. You might say well I can tell that from the end result. Haha. But I deliberately tried not to put too much form on my apples or tomatos or whatever I’m using. To stay fresh, I’ve gotta change. I’ve gotta evolve, and I’ve constantly gotta challenge myself and surprise myself to keep from getting into stereotypes.
What happens prior to the beginning of the painting? Is there any sort of planning stage, or do you think there is any subconscious work that goes on?
There must be. You know, you can’t ever relax the subconscious. There must be something going on. But I try to avoid that. Sometimes I will have a strong idea I want to try, but who knows where it comes from. It might be just an abstract pattern I saw on a wall in downtown Ruston or something. Or sometimes I say what if I try that color with that color? What will happen? But of course it never turns out that way. Matisse had a good way of expressing that, and you may have heard this story before. They asked him the same question you asked me. When you begin a painting, how does it begin? He says let’s just say sometimes I have a real strong idea what I want a painting to be, but it’s like I’ve got a train ticket from Paris to Marseilles. And he says sometimes you get on that train, painting, and sometimes you make it to marseilles just fine and it’s turned out just the way you planned it. But more often, before I get to Marseilles, I find I want to take another train. I divert off. Or sometimes, I get to Marseilles, and I realize I don’t want to go to Marseilles and I keep going past. That’s the way I think about it too. Okay, I may start out with a strong idea that’s going to take me to Marseilles. I may get there. I may get there and not like it. Or I may never get there. And all of those are fine.
I think one thing that most people and probably a lot of artists don’t realize too is so often the meaning comes after the work. After you finish making the work, you then think okay, what does this piece mean? What was I actually thinking and trying to do?
That happens all the time. I think it’s very common. Art is usually poorly served if you start out with too much meaning. Occasionally we’ll get a painting where an artist is really passionate about an idea. Like, say Picasso’s Guernica after the bombing in Spain. It turned out to be a good painting. It was a dramatic, forceful editorial, but it was also a dramatic, forceful piece of artwork. A lot of times, when you take that on your shoulders at the very beginning, a load of meaning, it can weigh you down and overrule you. We see that a lot with some of the muralists. The idea would get in the way of a good paintings. Deigo Rivera, people like that were great painters, but their painting would be so weighted down with the monumentality. I’m going to express this about the world’s state of affairs. You lose your sense of optics. I don’t worry too much about meaning. I know what they mean to me, and what I see in them. But I love it when other people have alternate interpretations of what they mean. And that’s where they should be I think. And that should be true of realistic painting as well as abstract painting, whether you use recognizable imagery or not. I like the idea of meaning coming after the fact. People worry, especially in today’s culture. You’ve run into this in school I’m sure. Now it’s become very prevalent and very important for an artist to find his voice. For him to be able to articulate verbally what his work is about. Well that, just between you and me, that’s all well and good. It’s nice if an artist is verbally articulate. What I want is a visually articulate artist. If an artist is articulate enough visually, he doesn’t have to open his mouth. I don’t need for Cezanne to tell me one thing verbally. Or Matisse. Or Diebenkorn. It’s all there. It’s visual, not verbal art. We’re getting a lot more blurring of that and overlapping in art, with video and god knows what else going on. So many cross-disciplined kinds of art made now. But just talking about a one on one kind of experience of you with the painting or piece of sculpture. If the artist is visually articulate, that’s all I need. The meaning will come through from that.
Could you tell me about your process of making a work? When do you like to work? Do you like to listen to music?
I always listen to music. I’ve gotta have music going. Sometimes the music is a direct influence and many times a subconscious influence as well. So I’m always listening to music. Just like changing my approach and my palette, whenever I start a new painting, I go to a different music. Just to see where that takes me, how it influences me. When do I work? I work best early. I don’t work well at night at all. When I was younger I could. But I’m an old man now. And I can’t do that. What I do is I have a daily routine. I get up and I go for a two and a half mile walk around the neighborhood. I come back and eat breakfast and I come down here. And that’s where I do my best work when my mind and body are really fresh. I literally can’t wait to get down here in the morning because I know that’s when I’ll do my best work. And then as the day goes on, it’ll tend to be diminishing returns, or it’ll go in waves like that. If you charted it, I’d say in the AM hours I do my best work. But I take breaks too. That’s the great thing about having my studio at home. I used to have my studio at Tech. I found out after my teaching duties and administrative duties and committee work and all that was out of the way, I would have to have a big chunk of time before I would go to my studio. Here I don’t have to have those big chunks of time. When I moved my studio here, I was amazed how much more work I got done. Because, you know sometimes I could just come down and work for ten minutes. But a lot of times what you’d do is you’d come down and just look for ten minutes. And that’s just invaluable. And then you’d go out and do something else. A lot of times I go out and walk in the yard. Especially when I’m struggling with a painting. I always work on that wall, and I can go walk around the yard and eventually I’ll wander over to this window and look at the painting from out in the yard out there. And by diminishing it not only in size but also it diminishes it psychologically. I look in the window at that little painting over there from the difference and I say ‘what’s your problem? Why can’t you fix that? What are you afraid of?’ I love the in-between times, the broken times, the casual times, that you get when you have your studio at home. My productivity when I’m in my studio at home, boy did it go through the roof. I didn’t realize how important those little snippets of time were. One of my favorite stories. Diebenkorn always had his studio separate from his house. He got off in the morning, and he’d come home in the evening. And his wife would say how’d it go dear? He never talked much. He came home one day in abject depression, and she said what is it? And he says I can’t paint. It’s the worst painting I’ve ever done. It’s terrible. Just terrible. He had a drink, and she commiserated him. And then the next day he gets up and goes back to the studio. And then in the evening he comes back home, and she says ‘how’d it go today dear?’ He says well, I just sat and looked at it all day, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Hahaha. Sometimes it’s a little something about perspectives. That’s what I like about having my studio at home. I can walk away and give my mind and spirit time to refocus and regain my objectivity, whatever that is. So that’s what the little journeys I take are meant for, getting away from it, and coming back and seeing it afresh and deciding it’s the best thing I’ve ever done or the worst thing I’ve ever done. The hardest thing about coming in first thing in the morning is that you have to guage your objectivity. You’ve been away for many hours. So when I come back in the morning, I can always look at what I’m working on and know whether it’s any good or not. So I come down with great anticipation but also a feeling of dread because I know that my objectivity is returned and I’m going to be very critical. And I’m going to say, what were you thinking? That’s a piece of crap! I can’t believe you liked that yesterday at five o’clock. Or what’s really nice but maybe doesn’t happen as often is oh! I still like it. If I like it when I come down the next day, that’s a good sign.
How often do you work?
Everyday. I was administrator for twenty years, graduate coordinator for twenty years. I always taught a full teaching load. I always taught freshmen. I always taught drawing. Teaching freshman drawing is one of the most demanding courses on the curriculum. It never kept me out of the studio. I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted artist. I’m a hard-working, consistent artist. I’m a bulldog. And I still enjoy it immensely, I don’t know what I’d do without it.
I know that interpretation is a tenuous and subjective topic, but what advice might you have for how someone should approach your paintings if they want to get a deeper understanding of them?
Just stand back and look. And then look some more. You don’t have to ask any deep, penetrating questions. Just look really, really hard. And do what I do sometimes, use a mirror. I’ve walked many a mile in this studio. The main thing is to get back far enough. Even my smaller work, I judge them from back here. And then I use a mirror all the time to see them backwards, upside down, diagonal on this edge. Anything that helps me see it afresh. For an audience, someone looking at my work, I would just say walk a lot. Stand back a lot. If you don’t see anything there, move on to something else. Come back again later. You have to be tenacious and be a bulldog as a viewer to get it too. I would just tell people stand back and do a lot of looking. You don’t have to ask a lot of questions. You can if you want to. Just look. People don’t have enough confidence in their eyes. Like I said before, it’s no different than music. If you enjoy a melody, you know you enjoy it. If you enjoy something visual, you know it. I can try to figure out why I like Mozart, but I don’t have to.
I think that’s all the questions I have. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
I’m glad you came over. I’m glad to get to know you better.
New paintings by Edwin Pinkston, Ruston artist and former Tech Art Professor, will be featured in a solo exhibition at Gallery Fine Art Center in Bossier, Louisiana, September 20 through October 28.
An opening reception will be held on Thursday, September 22, from 6:00-8:00 pm. Edwin will give an artist talk about his work at 5:30.
Gallery Fine Art Center is located at 2151 Airline Drive, Suite 200, Bossier City, LA 71111, and can be reached by phone at 318-741-9192. The gallery is open Tuesday – Friday, 11:00am – 5:00pm and by appointment.
I am very excited about the direction of my new paintings. Over the years I have done figure and landscape drawings in charcoal, semi-abstract collages, wall constructions of painted wood with earth and sky themes, pastels of still lives or landscapes, and abstracted mixed media pieces inspired by jazz music. But lately I’m enjoying a very challenging return to abstract painting.
In this latest exhibition, I’m working primarily on Gessoboard mounted on a 2” deep maple frame. These hard surfaces can take a lot of physical paint application (or removal) and are used in a square format, thus providing a neutral dynamic, which leaves me free to generate my own visual velocities. These paintings investigate non-representational issues where color, texture, paint handling and spatial fields are explored.Extensively reworked, they feature layers that are sometimes translucent, sometimes opaque, and are filled with marks, lines, textures and scumblings. This concentrated strata of energy and pigmenets, which eventually unite to include a predominant color, hopefully suggests depths both literal and emotional.
Tensions and counter forces are strongly cultivated, using a non-objective approach that is inspired by Paul Cezanne’s still lives and landscapes. I try to set a stage where forms aren’t fully reconciled to their positions, where color and mark-making struggle for dominance, and where surface and spatial considerations jockey for position. I try to give each section a role to play, composing holistically, and avoid centering any one element, to neutralize any dominating tendencies.
I see these paintings as reactions to conflicting issues of human existence that we all face, such as personal freedoms versus societal regulations. Energetic brush action and strong colors depict a sense of abandonment and are juxtaposed against straight lines and geometric shapes representing life’s constraints. Further, elements suggestive of being man-made, such as straight lines or geometric shapes, are contrasted with freely brushed, spontaneous and color dominated passages, which I see as emblematic of nature’s embrace of growth, change and the unexpected.
This week: Nicole Duet, the new professor of painting at Louisiana Tech University. You can view Professor Duet’s art at nicoleduet.com
This interview has been edited for length.
So where did you get your BA?
I got it from Cal State North Ridge. I’m from New Orleans originally. And I went to a few different universities in Louisiana. I went to LSU for a little while. I went to University of New Orleans. And then I did some theatre work in Tulane. And then that summer I made a decision to move out to California to get my Bachelors degree there. And I went to a theatre training program there for a little while, and finished up at Cal State North Ridge.
When did you decide to do art?
In my last year at North Ridge. I had electives, liberal arts electives that we could take. And one of them was life drawing. And I had always been interested in drawing as a kid, but never really pursued it. And when I took that class, I just fell in love with life drawing. And I was fortunate enough to have a really good teacher. So it all came down to this one elective that changed my idea about what I wanted to do. So I finished up my theatre degree. But by the time I finished, I had a few more art classes under my built, and I knew what I wanted to do was be a painter, and particularly a figurative painter.
And then you entered an MFA program?
Yeah. I took a period of time off in between getting my bachelors degree. I lived in New Mexico for a while. And I studied painting, mostly just by painting everyday on my own. And that allowed me to get experience and practice, and build a body of work. And after that I moved back to California. And at that time I started to apply for graduate programs. That was when I got into the MFA program at Cal State Long Beach, and got my MFA degree there.
Is that where Bustamante went?
Yes, exactly. And we met actually, but once. He had already graduated when I started, and I remember crossing paths with him in the hall once as I was moving into my MFA studio. And I think he said something to me like ‘well you’re coming into the program at a really good time, because there’s lots of young people coming in and it’s really competitive.’ And he was teaching a beginning level class there, and I never saw him again, but I do remember hearing that he got hired at tech. So that was kind of an interesting coincidence.
Tell me about your experience in between getting your bachelors and getting your masters, so far as trying to be successful in the arts or trying to do something related to the arts as a career or to support yourself.
The one thing I knew in between finishing my bachelors degree was that I had a whole lot more to learn. So most of that time that I spent not in school was spent painting everyday on my own in my studio. Literally just painting still lifes, getting into the habit of working everyday. And taking that opportunity to practice the things that I felt like I needed to learn in order to be able to make the kind of art that I wanted to make. So that was really my work. I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I could just do a little bit of part time work on the side, and spend the rest of the time painting in the studio. So when I moved out to California, I started working as an art model in various art classes. And I got to meet a lot of great teachers that way, and I got to see a lot of great art programs that way, some of the big art schools on the west coast, like art center and Pen Otis College. I worked there quite a bit and saw what people were teaching and what students were doing, so most of my work at that time was jobs that would allow me to continue to paint. I did do some gallery work for a while. And it was connected to those early still lifes. I showed my work in Santa Fe for quite a few years, in a gallery off the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And that was a great experience, gave me a taste of the professional side of making paintings. But somewhere in that time, my ideas about the kind of work that I wanted to make were changing. And so that’s what let me gradually transition out of that gallery work into the MFA program, which I took as an opportunity to set aside time to paint and develop a new body of work, which was totally different from the still life paintings I was making. So to support myself while I was a grad student, I started teaching, almost right away. Two careers, one love was teaching, and one love was making paintings.
You were teaching at what level?
Well I started teaching a painting class at a school where I studied. It wasn’t a school; it was kind of like an adult extension program connected to the animation guild in Los Angeles. This was a place where animators could go and take classes outside of work so that they could build their skills, especially in life drawing and in representational painting. And because that had been my focus for a long time, I went there to study life painting, with some really great teachers who were also really great animators. Once I started going to grad school, I proposed a class to the animation union. I wanted to teach a basic intro painting class. Something that would allow people to learn to use paint without worrying about painting the model, which is very difficult. So I proposed a still life painting class, and that was my first painting class. I had been doing that for about two years when I got into the grad program at Long Beach, and within my second semester of being in the MFA program at long beach, they offered me a life drawing class. So I really did start teaching right away. Sometimes teaching adults, like in that program at the animation union, sometimes teaching foundation level classes to freshmen, which is mostly what they give grad students, which I enjoy too.
What influence do you think your background in theatre has had on your art?
I think a couple things pretty directly. My painting is narrative painting, so I’m interested in stories. I’m interested in circumstances, moments that happen between people that are undefinable in words. In theatre, some of the most profound things happen when actors aren’t speaking to each other, when there’s just an exchange that creates a certain tension or a certain poignance to a moment. And that’s the same thing I’m interested in in my own painting. Literally though, like I was telling you I loved building sets, and I love the things that happens when the lights come on in the first dress rehearsal. That crosses literally over into my paintings. A lot of the composition, a lot of the color is based on staging characters within a space. And a lot of the colors are determined by the color of the light that is connected to a mood or a story. And so some of those early things like the transformative quality that light can have on a composition come directly from theatre. Also, theatre oftentimes is about the circumstances and problems that we have in life, big and small, and my painting revolves around those questions too.
Switching gears entirely, How does it feel to move from a big city, and sort of like the nexus of the Western world like Los Angeles, to Ruston, Louisiana?
Haha. That is switching gears a lot I think, for me too. Actually it’s like switching gears. I’m from New Orleans originally, but I’ve been in Los Angeles for over half my life. So, in some sense, my primary feeling about it so far is that it’s giving me a chance to come home, which I’ve been actually looking for for a long time. And I think I go through different phases as a painter, different needs, different sides of myself. In Los Angeles, there’s obviously all kinds of input, all kinds of art forms and all kinds of influence that a person has that affect the way I make art, and my ideas about art. That can be a good thing, depending on whatever phase I’m in with my work, and it can be an overwhelming and distracting thing. So I think that this move came right at a time when two things were happening. Personally, I was looking for a way to do something from my home state, and professionally, I’m in a phase now where I need less distraction, and more of, I think one of my colleagues here described it as laid back or relaxed in a way, I think I need more of that, haha, to get to the next stage of my work. So it’s a change that feels big, but it also feels right at the same time. And my work is becoming much more about growing up here, too, so that’s an interesting coincidence as well.
What are your impressions so far of Ruston and the art scene here?
I’ve only had a couple days. I don’t know if I can really answer that fully. I’m excited by some new things, Nick was just telling me about the Black Box, and I love the fact that there’s the old theatre right across the way. And I saw that there’s live music and all that available here. All of those things are things that I would look for back in Los Angeles. And however big or small they are, they’re present here too. And that’s all really exciting. It seems like, just talking with the people that I’m making friends with here now, it’s a pretty vibrant artistic community. And I’m really excited to get to know it more, to see more of what’s going on around here and in the outlying areas too.
In a traditional medium such as painting, and also considering the post-modern climate of theory in which there’s no trajectory or continuum of progress, what does innovation in painting look like?
That’s a great question. I think I’m constantly asking that of myself. And I’m constantly asking that of the painting that I see. I might be able to answer that in part by saying what it doesn’t look like. There’s a lot of work out there that seems to be focused exclusively on a genre or a style, and when you look at it, you get a feeling that it’s basically a representation of that look. So that to me easily becomes fixed in a way. So it’s not really letting one painting or one idea bump into the next idea and influence the next painting. Innovation is a really difficult thing to define. It can’t ever seem like innovation for it’s on sake. If you’re just taking risks and slapping paint around without a connection to an intention, then that’s not innovation. What I like to see, in my own work and in an artist’s history, is transformation. Being able to see a through-line is part of it, but finding problems and asking questions that take the style in one direction and then that influences the next style and that influences the next. So I’m not giving you a concrete look or anything. I’m just giving you my ideas about innovation and what I look for, what I hope to see.
Could you tell me a little bit about your teaching philosophy, or what you’ve found that works?
My teaching philosophy is really influenced by those early experiences I was telling you about at the animation union. In different art forms, I’ve had many teachers in my life, some of whom were the kind of teacher who were all about ‘let yourself do whatever you want to do and let’s see where it goes from there.’ And then I’ve had other teachers who were very much ‘this is step one, step two, step three, step four,’ and then you do all those things and you’ll get to this point. And those are radically different philosophies. The ones that work for me were the ones that made me feel like I was getting concrete, tangible information that helped me to get to the next level, helped me to have the skills and abilities to do what it was that I wanted to do. When I found that, I realized I had found teachers who were not only teaching me how to be an artist, but they were teaching me how to teach. So my philosophy is influenced by that. It’s really hands on. I believe in showing a ton of different kinds of work related to an idea from all different kinds of eras of drawing, painting, and photography. I believe strongly in being able to demonstrate as well as being able to talk your way through an idea with students. And so I work one on one with everyone in my class everyday. That’s really important to me. It’s a visual world, and so it needs to be dealt with visually in the classroom, whether that’s through showing a lot of examples or showing by example, by doing. It’s both of those things. And then I also feel that most of what I have been teaching, it’s classes at the foundation level. So it’s really about skill building and increasing awareness and understanding of what’s possible. Another dimension of that level of foundation class that I think is important is creating an awareness in the student of their own ideas. What is your answer to this age old problem? So, fostering, doing whatever I can to engage in a dialogue with students about their ideas, and helping to form those ideas in relationship to the projects. All that’s interconnected, all that makes for a well-rounded classroom experience.
Could you describe for me your ideal student, or what qualities someone needs to be successful as an art student?
That also goes back to my own early experiences as an art student. I know what worked for me, and I know where I fell short of trying hard enough to achieve what I wanted to achieve. So my ideal student is a person who asks questions a lot. The worst thing, the most uncomfortable thing anyway, is to look out across a sea of empty faces. So if there’s a student or two or three or four who ask questions whenever they come to mind, and freely without being self-conscious, that’s an ideal situation for me. You have students who come to class already with a little skill, but that isn’t even necessarily the ideal circumstance. You can come to class as a student with a willingness to learn and not much else. And I think that’s a part of my ideal student. In addition to those personal qualities, the ideal student is someone who’s willing to work, someone who’s willing to keep their goals in sight, and to suit their choices to their goals. So I really do want to see someone giving everything they have to a class and to a project, personally and in terms of how they handle projects. So if I can see that development from the beginning to the end of a quarter, where something has changed in terms of the way you’ve handled the materials because you’ve applied yourself, then that’s really exciting to me, no matter what the starting point is. That’s someone who’s a pleasure to work with. Because they’re engaged. They’re engaged at the level of ideas and asking questions. And they’re engaged with the wonder side of making art, which is the question like what happens when I do this? And how does the amount of time and effort a energy that I put into it physically affect that? It’s all this kind of personality that’s open on one level to new information, and also willing to try and apply themselves on another level.
Do you have any thoughts about the role of art in society?
Yeah. I do. And those thoughts are, just like everything else I’ve said, are constantly formulating and reformulating in my mind. But I believe that one of the primary roles of art is to keep us connected with what’s invisible. It’s to make visible what’s invisible. It’s the deeper questions of life that have been ongoing for as long as there’s been records about the questions that we ask as people. Art takes us out of our normal selves and gives us an extraordinary experience, the best art does. Even the art that is not the best does that, because it keeps us thinking in extra-normal ways, beyond ‘what do I need to get at the grocery store,’ into questions about what it means to be a human in the world. So whether or not you’re a person whose art is political or a person whose art is fanciful, or a person whose art is ironic, those art just avenues into the same basic world, which is to teach us about what it means to be human, in this world.
I think that all the questions I have.
Thanks so much.
Sure. You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.